AFA graduation

Air Force Academy graduation may be out of reach for cadets who have refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify statements on approval of Air Force Academy religious accommodation requests and senior cadets' ability to meet vaccination requirements and still graduate and receive their commissions.

After their requests for religion-based exemptions to a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate were denied by the U.S. Air Force Academy, more than a dozen of the school’s cadets remain in limbo and face “administrative separation,” an action that could effectively “fire” them from the military, add a letter of reprimand to their files, and — for some — mean they’re on the hook to repay almost $200,000 in government tuition.

Four of those cadets — “firsties,” or seniors — won't be able to be join their classmates for the May 25 graduation ceremony at the academy’s campus north of Colorado Springs, the lawyer representing three of them said Friday.

“I believe that if somebody changed their mind (about receiving the vaccine), they could wind up being commissioned, graduating late, and not being separated from the Air Force … however, they’ve got a limited amount of time to make that decision, and we’re running out of time,” said Mike Rose, the South Carolina attorney and 1969 AFA graduate representing three of the seniors.

The Air Force Academy requires all cadets to have received a full course of the two-dose vaccine by Aug. 2. There’s a required eight-week gap between each shot. That, Rose said, means they’re technically already “out of time.”

On Saturday, however, academy Chief of Media Relations Dean J. Miller said that the seniors "are not out of time. If they start a vaccine regimen and commit to finishing it according to the FDA schedule, they can graduate and commission." He also said that the cadets were informed they could do so a week ago.

“If cadets choose to remain unvaccinated, they could be dismissed from the Academy,” said Director of Public Affairs Lt. Col. Brian Maguire. Consequences, including tuition reimbursement, are a “decision (that) will be made after a disenrollment decision has been made.”

Of the 13 AFA cadets who sought waivers and have not received the COVID-19 vaccination, he said four are seniors, two are juniors, one is a sophomore and six are freshmen. All applied for a religious exemption, which was denied. Their appeals also were denied.

“As each religious exemption is handled on a case-by-case basis, I can’t speculate as to what would result in an approval for a religious exemption,” Maguire said. “We continue to ensure the religious accommodation waiver process adheres to Department of Defense and Department of the Air Force guidance and respects the religious rights of each cadet.”

In August of last year, the Pentagon made vaccines mandatory for all service members, including cadets and those in ROTC programs. It also said waivers would be granted for those with a good reason, medical or faith. So far, few religion-based exemptions have been approved, throughout all branches of the military.

In January, the Air Force approved its first vaccine exemptions on religious grounds, granting nine waivers.

Vaccinations are par for the course in the military and at the Air Force Academy, where, in addition to the basic inoculations, cadets are required to get an annual flu shot.

Those few who’ve chosen not to get the COVID-19 vaccine say it’s the nature of the serum’s creation that sits ill with their faith.

“As a chaplain, I defend people’s religious freedom,” said former Colorado state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, who graduated from the academy in 1991 and now leads an evangelical ministry in the Springs. “These are evangelical Christian cadets, who are pro-life, and they object to the fact that the vaccines were tested on aborted fetal stem cell lines. Because of their objection to abortion, their conscience will not let them … inject this particular drug into their own bodies.

“That’s why they won’t take the vaccine,” he said. “It’s not because they hate all vaccines.”

Klingenschmitt said the “retaliation” against cadets who’ve sought religious waivers runs counter to a promise AFA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark made, soon after the policy went into effect in September 2021, at an academy reunion gathering, before a crowd of hundreds.

“I took a public microphone and said, ‘Will you advocate for religious cadets who refuse the vaccine? He said ‘Absolutely, chaplain,’” Klingenschmitt said. “In December, he did the opposite."

Attorney Mike Rose said all of his clients submitted exemption requests that first were approved by the AFA chaplain.

“That’s another question: Why aren’t the chaplains, the religious leaders making that decision, rather than the superintendent?” Rose said.

However, Miller on Saturday denied that the academy chaplain approved religious accommodation requests, explaining that only the superintendent has approval authority at the academy, with the authority for appeals held by the Air Force surgeon general.

The academy said that the consequences of cadets' decisions to eschew the vaccine isn't punishment for their beliefs. It's the outcome of defying an order.

Lawsuits, including a class-action suit on behalf of Navy SEALs led by the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, are ongoing nation- and military-wide. A number of lawmakers also have taken up the fight, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas; and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who has introduced a bill that would reinstate any service member dismissed because of vaccine status.

"Just spoke with a firstie's grandfather, who said 'If my grandson will not be allowed to graduate but is still in Air Force limbo until 2 August, sadly he must cancel his wedding on 11 June because cadets may not be married until they graduate,'" Klingenschmitt said. "Can you imagine how heartbroken his bride is?"

Gazette reporter Hugh Johnson contributed to this story.

Reporter

Stephanie Earls is a news reporter and columnist at The Gazette. Before moving to Colorado Springs in 2012, she worked for newspapers in upstate NY, WA, OR and at her hometown weekly in Berkeley Springs, WV, where she got her start in journalism.

Load comments