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, after they refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, Air Force officials said.
The Air Force Academy is the only military academy so far to announce penalties for a failure to get vaccinated. The Army and Navy said their seniors are not being barred from this month's graduation over their vaccination status.
Air Force Academy spokesman Lt. Col. Brian Maguire said the graduation is two weeks away and that the cadets still have time to "weigh their options." There are also two juniors, one sophomore and six freshmen at the academy to have refused the COVID vaccine.
Last year, the Pentagon announced a vaccine mandate for service members, including for those at military academies. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the vaccine is crucial to the military's health and readiness.
"To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force," Austin wrote in an August memo. "After careful consultation with medical experts and military leadership, 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 American people."
Military leaders have said service members have long been required to get a number of other vaccines to ensure the health of the force. Students at the military academies who are not already vaccinated receive several shots on their first day, including shots for measles, mumps and Rubella, and they get annual flu shots in the fall.
The military's vaccine exemption reviews have been questioned by members of Congress, the military and the public regarding the fairness of the reviews.
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 had been granted.
The military academies have required students to repay tuition costs under certain circumstances in the past if they leave during their junior or senior year. Those instances often involve students with disciplinary issues. A final decision on repayment is made by the service secretary.
The Marine Corps, Navy, Army and Air Force have discharged nearly 4,000 active duty service members over their refusal to get vaccinated. Recent data released by the services shows that more than 2,100 Marines, 900 sailors, 500 Army soldiers and 360 airmen have been discharged. At least 50 service members were discharged during entry level training.
Service members who have refused the vaccine without seeking an exemption are still being discharged while the discharges of those involved in lawsuits are held up amid the legal battles.
The military has said that as many as 20,000 service members have requested a religious exemption, and that thousands of such applications have been denied.
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.