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Air Force Academy: No vaccine, no graduation

Graduating cadets threatened with expulsion and repayment of tuition over vaccine objections

The United States Air Force Academy’s Class of 2021 graduation ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colo. Associated Press/The Gazette/Photo by Chancey Bush, file

Air Force Academy: No vaccine, no graduation

Cadet Nathan Suess was looking forward to graduating from the Air Force Academy. After four years of intense academics, physical fitness, and military training, he would be a commissioned officer able to serve his country — just like his parents, Matt and Dana Suess. On May 11, that dream was put in jeopardy, as he and several other senior cadets were issued letters of reprimand over their refusal to obey an order directing them to take a COVID-19 vaccine.

Like all airmen, cadets are subject to an Air Force vaccine mandate issued last year. Nathan and the other cadets objected to the vaccines for religious reasons. In his request filed in November 2021, the first class cadet listed two religious objections: the use of aborted fetal cell lines in the development of the vaccines, and his unwillingness to participate in what he regarded as deceptions and untruths associated with the efficacy of the vaccine.

Three days before Christmas, Nathan’s request was denied. His superior officer cited the “compelling governmental interest of mission accomplishment, including military readiness, unit cohesion, good order and discipline, and the health and safety of all cadets.” A similar fate met his appeal, denied in a Feb. 23 memorandum. It asked Nathan to check one of two boxes: one indicating he would begin a vaccine regimen, the other indicating he would resign.

“He’s a very, very big rule follower,” said Dana Suess, describing her son’s anguish in not checking one of the two boxes, as required. “But it was even harder for him to go back on his convictions.” Dana Suess is a retired lieutenant in the Navy Nurse Corps, and Matt Suess is a retired commander in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps.

More than 200 of the 4,000 Air Force Academy cadets submitted requests for religious accommodation, according to Dana Suess. No religious accommodations were granted. Ultimately, facing pressure, virtually all cadets agreed to accept the vaccine. Of the four remaining, one resigned to attend another graduate program, Dana Suess said. Another cadet being treated for cancer agreed to accept the vaccine in order to retain military healthcare benefits, The (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Gazette reported. That left Nathan and one other cadet as the holdouts.

Mike Rose, an attorney in Summerville, S.C., representing Nathan Suess and cadets from lower classes said the controversy came to a head last week. Cadets were called to a meeting with the academy’s superintendent and told they would not graduate if they did not take the vaccine. They were also told they would be thrown out of the military and have to repay approximately $165,000 in tuition costs. Nathan would also be required to stay in the military until Aug. 1, forcing him to reschedule a planned June wedding.

Rose said that given the impending May 25 graduation date, he anticipates filing a lawsuit challenging the Air Force’s actions within days. He said the challenge would be rooted in the discriminatory treatment of religious objectors in the military, where officials have routinely denied religious claims but granted thousands of medical and administrative exemptions.

An Air Force spokesperson told The Gazette that the cadets were offered an opportunity to fly overseas to obtain a vaccine that was not developed using cell lines from aborted fetuses, yet all rejected it. According to Rose, they did not do so because the vaccine, Novavax, is not yet FDA approved, and he added that it was not even clear that it was legally available to them.

Two federal judges have already issued orders temporarily putting a hold on the disciplining of service members who have declined vaccines on religious grounds. In Ohio, U.S. District Judge Matthew McFarland sided with 18 airmen in a preliminary ruling at the end of March. “In this Court’s opinion, assuming the Constitution has taken a holiday, the holiday is long over, and it needs to get back to work, NOW,” McFarland wrote in an order protecting the airmen from being fired while litigation continues. “The Air Force has put these Airmen in the unconscionable position of choosing between their faith in an eternal God and their career in the United States military.”

In a May 3 filing, challengers also claim “whistleblowers” reported that at an October 2021 gathering of Air Force and Space Force senior leaders, a senior Air Force officer told attendees they were expected to reject COVID-19 religious exemption applications from any airmen “who would be remaining in the Department of the Air Force.” Over 200 additional airmen are seeking to join the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday in Florida criticized the Navy’s “rubber-stamp” denial of religious accommodation requests and entered an order temporarily barring the Navy from disciplining the service members.

Yet just last week, a Nebraska federal judge, in a 61-page opinion, sided with the military, refusing to exempt 36 members of the Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard who have religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. U.S. District Judge Brian Buescher found the airmen were unlikely to succeed on their claim under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or First Amendment. Those service members have filed an appeal.

In a statement Wednesday obtained by KKTV-11, the academy stood by its denial of the religious exemptions, noting that the two remaining cadet holdouts have until Aug. 1 to complete their vaccinations. The statement came one day after a letter from Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., who criticized the academy superintendent for penalizing cadets for vaccine refusal when neither West Point nor the U.S. Naval Academy had done so.

For Nathan, who has lived with the threat of being kicked out of the military for months, relief cannot come too soon. “All he ever wanted was to go to the Air Force Academy and serve his country,” said Dana Suess. “Now, he’s not even going to have a civil engineering degree … at least that’s at risk.”

—WORLD has corrected this story to reflect that Brian Buescher is a U.S. District Judge in Nebraska.

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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