Guest post by
Marty France, PhD
Brigadier General, USAF (Retired)
MRFF Advisory Board Member
“If you can't get them to salute when they should salute and wear the clothes you tell them to wear [and take the FDA-approved vaccines that their leaders mandate], how are you going to get them to die for their country?” —George S. Patton
Upon arrival for in-processing and Basic Cadet Training (aka “Beast”) every late June, new cadets at the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) are issued a small book called “Contrails.” Every graduate of THE Academy knows about Contrails. It contains the fundamental knowledge, heritage, and inspiration that dominates the indoctrination into the US military and defines a cadet’s first year. Probably the best known of the Contrails chapters is Quotations. These quotations are memorized from the beginning. All freshmen (known also over the years as four-degrees, doolies, or smacks—akin to the “plebes” of West Point and Annapolis) are required to know these quotes by heart and to recite them upon command. The quote above isn’t the longest, but it may be the one retained best, years and decades after graduation—it was for me. And the bracketed phrase that I added above may not fit the style, but it certainly does the spirit.
This quote embodies the spirit of both service and leadership within the lethal military world. All members of the military voluntarily give up some of their rights and individual freedoms for the honor, privilege, and responsibility of serving their nation (except in times of draft when non-volunteers can still seek conscientious objector status). In return, they are educated, paid, occasionally promoted, boarded early on airlines, even given 10% discounts at numerous businesses, and (if honorably discharged) granted monetary, healthcare, and educational benefits by the federal government and many states.
For me, I thought that was a very fair exchange. It served me well during my 41-plus years that I wore an Air Force uniform. I not only wore what they told me to wear and saluted when I should, I tried my very best to lead those in my charge to do the same with integrity and courage. That ethic applied to all with whom I served, regardless of race, religion, gender, or (much later) sexual preference and identity. We had standards for haircuts, wear of jewelry, tattoos, and even off-duty behavior (including some political and religious activity). Though changed in some ways, those standards still exist and are codified in each service in the Department of Defense (DoD). Some of these behavioral restrictions stem directly from the Constitution—like restrictions on religious activity while on-duty that are based on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and backed by legal precedent such as Parker v Levy. In this Air Force, much of this regulation is contained in the appropriately numbered Air Force Instruction 1-1, “Air Force Standards.” If you violate these standards, you are subject to disciplinary action ranging from the mildest of counseling to imprisonment following conviction by a court-martial. We are all trained, though, that you cannot just blithely disobey rules, regulations, and lawful orders.
The four USAFA cadets who are now just one week away from graduation and commissioning as officers in the US Air Force or (possibly) the US Space Force, but may not graduate due to their refusal to get the COVID vaccine, clearly did not learn or internalize their Contrails’ doolie knowledge, nor did they learn their obligations while in the mandatory “Law for Commanders” semester-long course that all cadets must pass to graduate. Their behavior (disobeying a direct verbal order to be vaccinated), if extrapolated across the force, leaves our military at the mercy of whatever whim may strike a service member, especially since their supposed “religious exemption” request did not seem to apply to their earlier, numerous vaccines or medical care. Moreover, the vaccine has been approved and endorsed by every major Christian denomination in America as well as internationally (including the Pope, who declared it a “moral obligation”).
Do you have a fringe belief that, after four years at a taxpayer-funded service academy, you now want to exercise contrary to military regulations? Maybe you find it intolerable to get a haircut? Wear pants? Go to work without a nose ring? Maybe you can’t wake up before dawn or must only work at night due to your religion? If that’s your belief, I’m all for it—but then you don’t belong in the military and you should simply resign and pay any debts owed. You are free to practice as you’d like in the civilian world and look for a job that will accommodate your proclivities. (Note: cadets who resign or are dismissed after the start of their junior year at the service academies are generally obligated to pay back tuition, up to and over $200,000 in some cases, as determined by the Secretary of the Air Force—or other service secretary. This is only a dent in the approximately $500K taxpayer cost to produce one USAFA graduate)
But this situation goes far beyond merely resigning. These four USAFA cadets (and other underclass cadets who have also refused to be vaccinated) are visibly, vocally, and illegally defying a lawful order put in place by legitimate military authority. They should be prosecuted for this offense under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (“Failure to obey order or regulation”)—for which they are subject to punishment up to and including dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for two years.
During my time in the Air Force, I faced mandatory flu shots every year, mandatory semi-annual dental checkups, many other routine vaccinations and others that were required for travel, mandatory removal of my wisdom teeth before graduation from USAFA, and innumerable safety briefings that made clear what I could and could not do during my free time and while on leave—the military has a vested in interest in protecting a national asset on whom they have already spent millions of dollars to train and educate. My wife and sons even had restrictions (albeit at a much lower level) placed on them, especially during overseas assignments. Millions like me have faced the same with honor. And, while we may have grumbled and complained, and even asked questions, we saluted smartly and complied. For me, the deal was worth it and I served 37 years after graduating from USAFA.
I have faced the COVID vaccination situation directly, too. About three months ago, I was contacted via back channels at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), where I serve as an active member of the MRFF Advisory Board and am also the designated MRFF Rep to USAFA, by a current cadet’s family who was concerned that their cadet was under the sway of a friend and had avoided vaccination. I spoke to the cadet twice, respectful of their beliefs, while emphasizing the importance of duty, their obligation, the consequences they might face (even after disenrollment) should they continue to hold out, and their role as a model to younger cadets. Two days later, that cadet was vaccinated and a month later got the second shot.
A pilot doesn’t get to pick and choose their “method of training” or course content or requirements to be deemed operational ready, nor does an ICBM missileer, space operator, or logistician—the military makes those decisions independent of the member’s religious beliefs or background. The military is not Burger King where you can “have it your way,” and that’s been something that the law-and-order conservative movement, that crows loudly about their love of the military, has supported since their grandfathers lined up for issued uniforms and shots at induction facilities in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and other conflicts since. George Washington ordered smallpox inoculations for the Continental Army for the same reason—it was an operational necessity for his Continental Army.
The current situation at USAFA would make George Patton spin in his grave. Not only are cadets who were ordered to get shots eight months ago still unvaccinated, but their leadership—at USAFA, the Air Force Headquarters, and the DoD—have tolerated their insubordination and even normalized it by allowing it to fester. Instead of making examples of the dishonorable and teaching Patton’s lesson in the most practical sense, the defiant cadets now become heroes of the rapidly expanding throngs of the radical right that refused masks, stormed the Capitol on January 6 (including at least one USAFA grad, now under indictment), and continue to spread wild conspiracy theories about COVID, vaccines, and hundreds of other whack-a-doodle ruminations. These leaders have again failed to meet Patton’s exhortation to lead, just as their subordinates have refused to follow. That’s a recipe for disaster.
The US Air Force Academy has lost its way. The cynicism will only grow as more cadets see that the Academy publishes one set of rules, but lives by another—granting exemptions and public martyr status to the worst among them. The Academy’s own core values, displayed in huge aluminum letters at the base of the parade ramp leading from the cadet dormitory area, are “Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence In All We Do.” In taking any other course but swift and severe military action against the disobedient, the Academy fails in its mission profoundly. It’s as if those letters were really made of iron instead, and are now dripping orange tears of rust onto the Terrazzo marble trodden by scores of thousands before—who can still give you Patton’s quote like they were 18 years old again.