This Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will preside over the debut at the Air Force Academy knowing full well that his actions have jeopardized the futures of four first-class cadets. Graduation Day is normally a revered occasion for our community, and each year we look forward to supporting our cadets and celebrating their accomplishments. This year’s celebrations will be overshadowed by the grim reality imposed on these cadets by the very person who will deliver their commencement speech: violate your religious beliefs or resign.
Following orders conveyed to him by Secretary Austin, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark denied religious exemptions to the 13 cadets who requested reasonable accommodations. Four of these cadets are seniors who were ready to graduate and excited to receive their first assignments. These cadets were faced with an impossible choice they could never have imagined five years ago when they decided to apply to the Air Force Academy: violate their conscience or be punished.
Although the final decision is unclear at this time, the penalties these cadets have been threatened with are severe. Not only would they not graduate and be denied the opportunity to continue their military service, but they might also have to recoup their tuition, a sum of approximately $200,000. As it stands, one of the seniors has quit, another has bowed to immense pressure to get vaccinated, and two more are hoping their cases will be re-examined.
I strongly suspect that this rigid position originated in the White House. The majority of Americans agree that Dr. Anthony Fauci and some states and school boards across the country have gone too far.
We can agree that our military must take the necessary precautions to ensure that, on the whole, they are ready and able to defend our nation against attack, and that discipline and obedience to orders are vital to a force. effective military. However, the question begs to be asked: how can we expect Americans to serve and risk their lives to protect the God-given freedoms that we hold dear as Americans if we do not fight to protect their right to enjoy the same freedoms? While needing to obey orders, what if the order is fatally flawed?
Protecting the constitutional rights of our military can be done while protecting the well-being and readiness of our military as a whole. As Army Chief of Staff General James McConville recently told me in a House Armed Services hearing, 98 percent of soldiers have been vaccinated. They are therefore protected. If the remaining 2% are willing to assume the risk of infection themselves and are young and healthy, the effectiveness of the military (and other services) would not seem seriously threatened.
Unfortunately, the Air Force Academy stands alone in its strict interpretation of the COVID-19 vaccination requirement. Neither West Point nor the US Naval Academy plans to prevent seniors from graduating, and only the academy talks about 11th-hour tuition recoupment from prospective seniors. For those cadets and servicemen across the military who are involuntarily separated, there is no sense of justice as their future is taken away from them. This is particularly ironic given that every branch of the military is preoccupied with recruiting issues.
In the coming weeks, I plan to introduce legislation in the United States House of Representatives that would ensure that the religious beliefs of our military service members are given due process in making decisions about vaccine exemptions against COVID-19. The first step is to ensure that religious exemptions must be considered in making these decisions, followed by actions to reinstate service members who choose to do so.
At an unprecedented time in history, when our military faces serious recruiting and retention challenges, the Department of Defense as a whole should not be laying off highly qualified and motivated individuals. Those who are hunted are among our best. I hope Air Force Academy leaders will reconsider the application of this deeply flawed mandate and allow reasonable accommodations to be provided to their cadets. In Congress, I work to ensure that constitutional protections are rightfully upheld in all armed forces. I will never give up fighting for those who selflessly fight for us.
Doug Lamborn is the U.S. Representative for Colorado’s 5th congressional district.
Doug Lamborn is currently the United States Representative for Colorado’s 5th congressional district.