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Four Air Force Academy cadets may not graduate or be commissioned as military officers this month, and could be forced to pay back thousands in tuition fees, after refusing to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, said Air Force officials.
The Air Force Academy is the only military academy to date to announce penalties for non-vaccination. The Army and Navy said their seniors are not excluded from graduation this month because of their vaccination status.
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Air Force Academy spokesman Lt. Col. Brian Maguire said graduation is two weeks away and cadets still have time to “weigh their options.” There are also two juniors, a sophomore and six freshmen at the academy for refusing the COVID vaccine.
Last year, the Pentagon announced a vaccination mandate for service members, including those at military academies. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the vaccine is crucial to the health and readiness of the military.
“To defend this nation, we need a healthy and ready force,” Austin wrote in an August memo. “After extensive consultation with medical experts and military leaders, and with the support of the President, I have determined that mandatory vaccination against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is necessary to protect the Force and defend the people. American.”
Military leaders have said service members have long been required to receive a number of other vaccines to ensure the health of the force. Military academy students who are not already vaccinated receive multiple shots on their first day, including measles, mumps and rubella shots, and they receive annual flu shots in the fall.
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The Army’s vaccine exemption exams have been questioned by members of Congress, the Army, and the public regarding the fairness of the exams.
There have also been multiple lawsuits filed over opposition to the vaccine mandate, with the main focus being the fact that very few religious exemptions were granted.
Military academies have required students to reimburse tuition under certain circumstances in the past if they leave during their junior or senior year. These cases often involve students with discipline issues. The final reimbursement decision is made by the service secretariat.
The Marine Corps, Navy, Army and Air Force have fired nearly 4,000 active duty members for refusing to be vaccinated. Recent data released by the services shows that more than 2,100 marines, 900 sailors, 500 army soldiers and 360 airmen have been dismissed. At least 50 service members were released during entry level training.
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Service members who refused the vaccine without asking for an exemption are still being fired while removals of those involved in lawsuits are on hold amid legal battles.
The military said as many as 20,000 service members have requested religious exemption and thousands of those requests have been denied.
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About 99% of the active duty Navy and 98% of the Air Force, Marine Corps and Army have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.