Final service academy lifts COVID-19 vaccine mandate after congressional, media pressure

"I'm glad that the [U.S. Merchant Marine Academy} and West Point ended their COVID mandates, but they should've done away with it a long time ago," Rep. Jim Banks said.

Published: March 13, 2023 6:55pm

Updated: March 14, 2023 12:37am

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) has rescinded its COVID-19 vaccine mandate after receiving pressure from Congress and the media for not allowing exemptions.

On Friday, the USMMA announced that it would allow class of 2027 applicants to "be admitted without regard to their COVID-19 vaccination status."

The mandate was rescinded after Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) sent a letter last Tuesday to the superintendent of USMMA regarding the "blanket denial of religious exemptions to its COVID vaccine mandate" in violation of federal law.

"As of today, the USMMA's website says that 'neither medical nor religious exemption requests will be accepted or processed for vaccination requirements,'" Banks' letter reads.

The statement on the website appeared to violate the superintendent's oath of office to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States," Banks added, calling it "an illegal attack on the constitutional rights of current and potential Midshipmen."

The New York Post broke the story the next day.

The USMMA "is a federal service academy that educates and graduates leaders of exemplary character who are committed to serve the national security, marine transportation, and economic needs of the United States as licensed Merchant Marine Officers and commissioned officers in the Armed Forces," according to the academy's website.

The academy offers bachelor degrees and "Sea Year," which augments the curriculum and "affords midshipmen the opportunity to acquire hands-on, real-world experiences aboard working commercial or military vessels sailing to ports around the world."

The Department of Defense rescinded the COVID vaccine mandate in December after President Biden signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the $858 billion defense spending bill that included language repealing the mandate. However, USMMA doesn't fall under the DOD. It is overseen, instead, by the U.S. Maritime Administration under the Department of Transportation.

The USMMA issued a statement on Friday rescinding the mandate, announcing: "On October 20, 2021, USMMA implemented the COVID-19 vaccine requirement as a measure to help protect the health and safety of our midshipmen on campus and while at sea. In light of the Department of Defense's vaccine mandate recission, and the availability of Sea Year training billets for unvaccinated Midshipmen on vessels, we reevaluated the need for the COVID vaccination.

"Commercial carriers' COVID-19 vaccination policies vary, and their policies may impact a midshipman's ability to train on a vessel if a COVID vaccine is required. The Academy will continually monitor carrier policies and alert a midshipman if their COVID-19 vaccination status will impact whether they can embark on a commercial vessel."

Banks, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel and an Afghanistan veteran, released a statement on Monday in response to the USMMA's announcement.

"I'm glad that the USMMA and West Point ended their COVID mandates, but they should've done away with it a long time ago," he said. "Tens of thousands of servicemembers have been fired or disciplined because of the Biden administration's COVID-19 mandate. It has been a disaster for our military's morale, recruitment and readiness. I will continue to use my oversight authority to fight against any federal institution that's still clinging to this outdated, harmful and divisive policy."

The USMMA was the last military academy to end its vaccine mandate, according to attorney R. Davis Younts, who represents several unvaccinated military members who fought the mandate.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point rescinded its mandate last month, after the Daily Caller News Foundation reported on the mandate still remaining in effect and Banks and Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) sent a letter to the under secretary of the Army regarding the mandate.

On Feb. 24, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks told senior Pentagon leadership to eliminate all COVID vaccine requirements for military members by March 17, the Daily Caller News Foundation reported. The same day Hicks issued the memo the Army became the last military branch to completely end its mandate.

The USMMA didn not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Younts told Just the News that the Defense Department is "still trying to find a way to kick people out who didn't get" the COVID vaccine.

"Regardless of the science, possible adverse affects" of the vaccine and the impact of the mandate on recruiting and morale, he said, there's "still the push" from the White House and DOD regarding the vaccine, with the Department of Transportation "in lockstep."

On Thursday, Banks released a Feb. 27 letter from Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros saying that about 16,000 unvaccinated military members who did not apply for an exemption to the mandate could still be discharged from the Armed Forces.

During the vaccine mandate, many unvaccinated students at service academies left if they were in their first two years of school, before they have to make a commitment to the military in their junior year, Younts noted, explaining that those former students "would have to reapply" to reenter the service academies.

Unvaccinated academy students who stayed were still working through the disenrollment process and had yet to be removed, he said. While West Point cadets were allowed to remain at the academy and take classes, however, the Coast Guard Academy forced cadets to leave campus, which would make it difficult for them to return after falling behind.

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