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Four U.S. Air Force Academy cadets denied graduation for refusing COVID-19 vaccine

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (KRDO) -- The United State Air Force Academy (USAFA) Class of 2022 Graduation Ceremony is a little over a week away on May 25. However, four senior cadets will not be graduating due to their vaccination status.

According to the USAFA, 13 students have not received the COVID-19 vaccine, four of those are seniors, two are juniors, one is a sophomore, and six are freshmen. 

According to Dean Miller with the USAFA, the only option graduating seniors have is, "to obey the lawful order and receive the vaccine. Another option is they can elect to voluntarily resign. Otherwise, they will face consequences for disobeying a lawful order."

All 13 cadets applied for a religious accommodation, and all were denied. Including the application of Senior Air Force Cadet Nathan Suess, a civil engineering major.

Tuesday, 13 Investigates spoke with Nathan's father, Matt about his vaccine refusal.

Nathan Suess


"He said 'no this is wrong and unlawful,'" Suess said. "Nathan heard nothing from them for months."

Suess said his son's religious accommodation was denied in late December. Then, his son applied for an appeal and did not hear back from the Air Force Academy until late March, when it was then denied as well.

"He was told he won't graduate. He won't be commissioned and he's been served the first step in disciplinary paperwork, a letter of reprimand," Suess told 13 Investigates.

Suess said his son's future has been turned upside down. According to Seuss, Nathan had a wedding planned for two weeks post-graduation and a deployment plan near where his future bride resides.

"He's under tremendous pressure and lots of people just say give in, but he wrestling with it," Suess said. "He knows this is wrong, it's immoral, it's illegal but the Academy is not letting up."

The USAFA did tell 13 Investigates that cadets have known since November about the requirements.

In a statement to 13 Investigates, a spokesperson for the Air Force Academy said the four cadets have no other options but to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

"To obey the lawful order and receive the vaccine. Another option is they can elect to voluntarily resign. Otherwise, they will face consequences for disobeying a lawful order.

U.S. Air Force Academy Spokesperson

According to Suess, his son has also been told he has to pay back around $160,000 in education costs if he refuses the vaccine.

"We are looking into legal recourse to fight this because it is an injustice," Suess said.

Suess is a 21-year Navy veteran himself. His wife and bother in-laws are also veterans.

"We are a military family through and through and I am so profoundly disappointed in our military, with how they have handled this," Suess said.

The USAFA told 13 Investigates each religious exemption is handled on a case-by-case basis and the accommodation waiver process adheres to the Department of Defense and Department of the Air Force guidance and "respects the religious rights of each cadet."

The USAFA's medical exemption guidance is provided by the Defense Health Agency, which oversees medical requirements for the DoD.

According to the Air Force Academy, all cadets agree to these enrollment agreements: 

4.3.1. Upon entry to the Academy, basic cadets must sign an agreement stating if they are subsequently disenrolled or resign during their second- or first-class year, they may be required to either: Serve on active duty as an enlisted member in the Regular Air Force, Space Force, or Air Force Reserve for a period of time not to exceed 4 years, or Reimburse the United States for education costs when it is determined that fulfillment of the active duty service obligation by the cadet would not be in the best interest of the DAF.  

4.3.2. Upon entry to the Academy, the agreement the basic cadets must sign must also state if they are subsequently discharged, resign for the good of the service, or are not ordered to active duty due to their serious misconduct, they may be required to reimburse the United States for education costs commensurate with their time spent at the Academy. 

In November 2021, a federal vaccine mandate for all military members was issued. Since then, the USAFA says they have not dismissed any cadets for refusing the get the vaccine. However, at this point, USAFA tells 13 Investigates consequences will be coming for those who continue their refusal.

If cadets choose to remain unvaccinated, they could be dismissed from the Academy. Depending on their year at the Academy, they could be required to reimburse the government for the costs of their education.

U.S. Air Force Academy Spokesperson

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Sean Rice

Sean is reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.


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