Unvaccinated Air Force Academy seniors watch from bleachers during commencement ceremony but still receive degree

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The United States Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds” fly over the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado, May 25, 2022. The flyover marks the culmination of the Academy’s Class of 2022 graduation ceremony where 973 cadets commissioned to be the Air Force and Space Force’s newest second lieutenants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Laurel Richards)


Stephanie Earls

The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

The U.S. Air Force Academy commencement ceremony was a bittersweet event for three senior cadets who had met academic requirements but refused to comply with a military mandate requiring the COVID-19 vaccine after their requests for religious waivers were denied.

In a statement last week, the academy said its board recommended all three cadets receive their bachelor’s degrees, but “while they will receive a degree, they will not be commissioned into the United States Air Force as long as they remain unvaccinated.”

The statement did not make clear whether cadets would be allowed to attend commencement and receive their degrees with their classmates Wednesday.

Commissioning ceremonies into the Air Force and Space Force are separate from the graduation at Falcon Stadium, said 1991 AFA graduate Gordon Klingenschmitt, an evangelical activist and former Navy chaplain who has championed the cadets’ plight since the military vaccine requirement went into place last year.

After the Wednesday ceremony, Klingenschmitt said he spoke with one of the cadets and was told that the three seniors — evangelical Christians who refused vaccinations on ethical grounds because of objections about how some the vaccines are tested — were told that they were not allowed to participate or be “on the ground where people were throwing their hats and high-fiving and saluting.”

Instead, they were allowed to watch from the bleachers.

“They were just spectators like their parents were,” said Klingenschmitt.

Two cadets chose to attend the ceremony, he said. One did not.

“His heart was so broken. He told me it would have been depressing to even be there to watch, so he stayed out,” said Klingenschmitt.

Whether senior cadets who refused the vaccine will be on the hook to repay almost $200,000 in tuition each remains to be seen, according to the Air Force Academy.

“A decision to reimburse the United States for education costs in lieu of service will be made by the secretary of the Air Force,” the academy said.

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