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Air Force Lt. Gen. talks unvaccinated cadets unable to participate in USAFA 2022 graduation ceremony

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (KRDO) -- Hundreds of U.S. Air Force Academy cadets graduated Wednesday and were commissioned into the force in service. However, three senior cadets were unable to participate in the festivities due to their vaccination status.

Last week, 13 Investigates first reported on four cadets who were denied their chance to graduate unless they agreed to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Department of Defense has mandated the COVID vaccine for military members since August 2021.

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

In a statement to 13 Investigates, a spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force Academy said the four cadets had no other option but to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or resign.

"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

On May 18, one of the senior cadets voluntarily resigned, one cadet got vaccinated, and the other two maintained their decision to not get vaccinated.

The Saturday ahead of the graduation, the USAFA announced the two unvaccinated cadets and one who resigned would still receive their college degrees, but they would not be commissioned into the United States Air Force.

Dean Miller, a spokesperson for the USAFA, said:

"On May 20, the U.S. Air Force Academy Board conducted their standard review of whether the Class of 2022 has met all graduation requirements. For the three cadets refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, the Academy Board recommended approval of a Bachelor of Science degree. While they will receive a degree, they will not be commissioned into the United States Air Force as long as they remain unvaccinated. A decision to reimburse the United States for education costs in lieu of service will be made by the Secretary of the Air Force."

Dean Miller
U. S. Air Force Academy

Despite being able to get a degree, the father of one of the senior cadets was still upset over his son's inability to formally graduate.

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

After initially speaking, Suess provided 13 Investigates with the following statement:

I just want to say that I really want to serve my country in the military. However all military members swear an oath to support and defend the  Constitution. We do not swear an oath to obey our commanders no matter how unlawful their orders may be. This has been the toughest decision of my life but I will always choose to keep a clean conscience before my career.

Nathan Suess, parent of an unvaccinated USAFA cadet

13 Investigates also spoke with Lt. Gen. Rod Bishop who served in the United States Air Force for 34 years. He said he disagrees with the DoD's ruling regarding the vaccine, comparing the mandate to the anthrax vaccine requirement during his time in the Air Force.

According to Bishop, he was told there was a "90% chance" of dying if he got anthrax, a serious infectious disease that occurs naturally in soil, and at the time was "the first in line to get the shot."

"This is totally different from the COVID vaccine," Bishop said when comparing the two. He went on to say he was given dozens of vaccines during his service tenure.

Bishop said he's spoken to the cadets over Zoom, where they sought advice on the situation.

"You are a pin cushion, but when it makes sense when it is for the protection of the force," Bishop said. "Somebody please convince me that this is for the protection of the force."

The Suess family tells 13 Investigates that Nathan has been given until August to get vaccinated, but until then, he will be given his diploma from a supervisor during Wednesday's graduation ceremony.

13 Investigates has been told that litigation on behalf on the unvaccinated cadets is in the works. Bishop says his organization STARRS is leading the charge in advocating for the withholding senior cadets.

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Sean Rice

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

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