- The Coast Guard Academy has not reinstated seven Coast Guard cadets discharged for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine after the academy denied religious exemption requests, representatives of the cadets told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
- The cadets hoped a new law nixing the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate would allow them to re-join.
- “They are the only cadets that are getting screwed,” retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. William Dean Lee told the DCNF.
Seven Coast Guard cadets booted in September after commanders denied their vaccine exemption appeals were not reinstated after a last ditch effort to allow them to start the new semester, which began Wednesday, representatives of the cadets told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The cadets hoped that law overturning the Department of Defense (DOD) COVID-19 vaccine mandate would persuade the Academy to permit the cadets, already behind by one semester, to re-join with their cohort, one of the cadets involved and advocates for the group told the DCNF. Among the military schools, the Coast Guard Academy, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in peacetime, is the only one to have officially dismissed unvaccinated cadets, the advocates said.
“I sent a letter to the Coast Guard Academy superintendent asking him to use his administrative powers to have us go back in since the [National Defense Authorization Act] was signed by the president and the mandate should be lifted soon,” Sophia Galdamez, one of the seven discharged, told the DCNF.
“However, all he responded with is that it’s out of his control, and you don’t have authority over that decision. And for me and my family to have a happy holidays,” she added.
Although operating under DHS authority, the Coast Guard went along with the mandate after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced it in August 2021 as the FDA officially approved the first COVID-19 vaccines for use. Congress’ defense bill for 2023, signed into law on Dec. 23, overturned the service-wide vaccine mandate.
Despite being a semester behind the other cadets in their cohort, the seven could still achieve their commissions if the Coast Guard allowed them to rejoin, retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. William Dean Lee, who, along with retired Rear Adm. Peter J. Brown, is lobbying to have the cadets reinstated, told the DCNF. Cadet processing began Wednesday, while classes are slated to begin on Jan. 9.
After initially refusing the vaccine on the grounds of religious belief in the fall of 2021, “I was immediately treated differently than all my other classmates that were vaccinated,” Galdamez told the DCNF. “I was bullied by my command and administrators, faculty at the academy.”
Administrators confined her behind a plexiglass barrier at the back of the classroom, she told the DCNF. One teacher pulled her aside to commend her performance as a student, but said her unvaccinated status would impede academic progress, Galdamez said.
She and her fellow unvaccinated cadets submitted requests for religious exemptions, which authorities are required to review on an individual basis.
Citing the government’s “compelling interest in mission accomplishment,” the force’s time sensitive role in emergency response and high rate of interaction with the general public, Coast Guard adjudicator Capt. Eugenio S. Anzano shot down Galdamez’s exemption request in a letter, dated March 4, 2022, that was shared with the DCNF.
“I do not question the sincerity of your religious belief or whether vaccine requirements substantially burden your religious practice. The Coast Guard reserves the opportunity to make these determinations, but I do not need to address them here to resolve your request,” Anzano wrote.
When the Coast Guard denied Galdamez’s request, she appealed, but the answer remained firm. The Coast Guard struck down Galdamez’ appeal on May 2, according to a copy of the response letter shared with the DCNF.
Days after reporting to campus for the fall semester on Aug. 15, the cadets were called into the office and told they had 24 hours to pack and leave campus, Galdamez said, a statement echoed by Michael Rose, a pro-bono legal counsel for several of the cadets, according to The Day newspaper. Two of the cadets did not have homes to which to return.
The cadets were formally discharged on Sept. 23, according to Stand Together Against Racism and Radicalism in the Services, where Rose serves as general counsel.
“I sent letters to the academy, senators have written letters on [sic] the cadets’ behalf. And so far we have heard nothing regarding our reinstatement or if I’d be able to finish my degree and commissions,” Galdamez told the DCNF Wednesday.
Academy superintendent Rear Adm. William Kelley acknowledged receipt of Galdamez’ letter and wished her a “good holiday season” but did not indicate future action in an email dated Dec. 22 that was shared with the DCNF.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wrote to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan pressing for the servicemembers’ reinstatement, according to a Dec. 22 letter the senator’s office shared with the DCNF.
Galdamez is one of thousands of servicemembers who remain in limbo as the DOD develops new guidance on COVID-19 vaccination, while lawsuits challenging the legality of the mandate and whether military leaders appropriately considered exemption requests continue to make their way through court.
“They are the only cadets that are getting screwed,” Lee told the DCNF.
The National Defense Authorization Act gave DOD a 30 day period to develop new COVID-19 guidance but stopped short of calling for reinstatement or restitution to the roughly 8,400 already discharged for refusing to receive the vaccine.
“The Coast Guard, in coordination with the Department of Defense, is evaluating policies with respect to previously separated members, including cadets,” a spokesperson for the Coast Guard told the DCNF.
“I think it’s important to let the service members back in, and for the service members to accept going back in, because this mandate and then the subsequent denial and basically excommunication of all these service members was getting rid of a good group of people … enlisted and officers alike that display true leadership qualities that are needed in our military at the moment,” Galdamez said to the DCNF.
The Coast Guard Academy did not return a phone call from the DCNF.
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