Coast Guard Cadet Discharged over Vaccine Refusal Says She Has No Regrets

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United States Coast Guard Academy
FILE - This photo shows the United States Coast Guard Academy, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in New London, Conn. Coast Guard Academy officials and a lawyer for several cadets are disputing each other's accounts of what happened to seven students before and after they were forced to leave the Connecticut campus by Aug. 19, 2022, because they refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

NEW LONDON — Alexis Colasurdo said she wouldn't wish the experience on anyone, but she's grateful for it.

Because of it, she said, she'll be a better leader.

Colasurdo, 18, is one of seven former Coast Guard Academy cadets who ran afoul of the school's COVID-19 vaccination mandate. The seven, whose requests for religious exemptions had been denied for the last time in August, were discharged from the academy last week.

In a phone interview, Colasurdo, now living with her family in Milford, N.J., said she got the word Friday in a call from academy brass.

Cmdr. Krystyn Pecora, the academy's external affairs officer, confirmed that the academy's assistant superintendent, Capt. Michael Turdo; the assistant commandant of cadets, Cmdr. Aaron Casavant; and the staff judge advocate, Cmdr. Jeff Janaro, were on calls to the seven cadets Friday and Saturday.

Colasurdo said Casavant did all the talking.

She was told, she said, that Coast Guard headquarters had ruled on her discharge, which was effective Friday. It was an honorable discharge. She would get the documentation by email and then, once she had confirmed it, by mail.

For more than a month, Colasurdo and the six other disenrollees existed in a state of limbo, classified as active duty members of the Coast Guard assigned to temporary duty stations ― their homes. Without a home to go to, one of the former cadets stayed and continues to stay with the Colasurdo family. Another lived in his truck for several days before lodging with a friend.

Up until their discharges, the former cadets continued to receive military pay.

If not for the separations, Colasurdo would be a sophomore at the academy, where she was majoring in operations research. Three other sophomores, two juniors and a senior also are among the discharged, she said. Except for one of the seniors and the junior, all are women. The academy has not released their names.

All of the former cadets are involved in federal lawsuits challenging the legality and constitutionality of the academy's COVID-19 vaccination mandate. Colasurdo and the cadet staying with her are intervenors in a class action complaint filed in Texas on behalf of active and reserve members of the Coast Guard whose "sincerely held religious beliefs" prohibited them from getting the vaccine and whose religious accommodation requests were denied.

The five other discharged cadets are among dozens of plaintiffs suing in South Carolina over the military's vaccination mandate. The plaintiffs also include active and reserve members of the Air Force as well as cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Colasurdo said that in addition to working full time, she's started online classes at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., from which she hopes to earn an associate's degree in accounting before pursuing a bachelor's in engineering. In shifting gears, she said, the biggest hardship was suddenly having to pay for college.

"None of us was prepared to do that," she said.

Enrolling at the academy had caused Colasurdo to consider her Christian beliefs and her family's faith-based objections to vaccinations. Her mother had successfully sought religious exemptions from childhood vaccinations for her and her brother.

"The Bible says your body is a temple," Colasurdo said.

Nevertheless, when she secured an appointment to the academy, she relented, submitting to an array of vaccinations required as a condition of admission. She said she never was informed that religious exemptions in the military were possible. Otherwise, she would have sought exemptions from all the vaccines she received.

She said she got about nine "very generic" shots, including vaccinations for chicken pox and the hepatitis B virus.

"I sat in the doctor's office and my mother bawled her eyes out," Colasurdo said. "I sacrificed my religious beliefs I wanted to serve my country so bad."

The academy's COVID-19 vaccination mandate came down soon after the start of Colasurdo's freshman year. Colasurdo and her family agreed she had to request an exemption on religious grounds. After the initial denial of her request, she said she and the other cadets who refused to get vaccinated were subjected to "pressures and disrespect," treatment she said could be considered harassment. It got so bad, she said her mother told her she would support her if she decided to get vaccinated.

Colasurdo appealed the academy's denial of her religious accommodation request, which she said strengthened her faith.

The former cadets learned Aug. 15 that their final appeals had been denied and that they would be sent home, Colasurdo said. They assumed they'd have at least a couple of weeks to prepare.

On the 18th, she said, they were told they would have to leave campus by 4 p.m. the next day.

"Definitely, I don't have regrets," Colasurdo said. "All the Coast Guard and the academy did by not accepting my religious beliefs is make my faith even stronger, and that's probably the case for all of us. I won't be a leader in the Coast Guard but when I'm a leader in some other capacity, I'll know how to treat others.

"I'll be a better leader because of this experience. I'll know what to do and what not to do," she said.

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