EXCLUSIVE: The Air Force is still grounding pilots who sought a religious accommodation to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but is allowing other unvaccinated service members to resume regular flying duties.
Active-duty instructor pilot Air Force Capt. Alan Sosebee told Fox News Digital Wednesday that he has been grounded for almost a year, even though the Air Force recently allowed some unvaccinated pilots to fly again.
Last week, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction from October that protects unvaccinated Air Force service members from being punished or involuntarily terminated from the military due to religious objections to the vaccine.
The 19th Air Force commander previously had a policy in place that any unvaccinated service members would be grounded. Once that policy was rescinded in October after the first court injunction was issued, other unvaccinated pilots were allowed to resume flying duties. However, because he already had involuntary discharge paperwork pending, Sosebee has still been barred from flying.
‘I am still grounded, and I have not had any type of disciplinary action taken against me whatsoever except what they have done over this COVID-19 mandate,’ Sosebee, who has served for nearly 10 years, told Fox News Digital.
‘They were the ones that started all of this. And they have the ability to make all that paperwork go away… apparently they’re refusing to let that go, and that’s why I’m still grounded, and they won’t let me fly,’ the captain said.
Sosebee told Fox News Digital that due his infant son’s severe medical issues requiring extensive care and multiple surgeries, he was planning to stay in the Air Force for 20 or 30 years. Now, he is facing an imminent discharge against his will.
‘And because of his medical issues, we were actually planning on doing 20 or 30 years in the Air Force, and we would like to do that if they will let us. But they’re bound and determined to take as many actions against me as they can, it seems,’ he said.
Lt. Col. Tyler Stef told Fox News Digital that he was pulled out of training to be a T-38 instructor in October 2021 and has not been able to fly since, which has been extremely hard on his family since he is the sole provider and cannot rack up the flight hours needed to transition out of the military and work as a pilot for a major airline.
In addition, if he is eventually discharged from the Air Force, he will lose access to GI Bill education benefits, which he was planning on using to send his daughter to college.
‘So I’m kind of losing out on one of my children’s college tuition, which is obviously a financial strain, but a stress for her as well,’ he said.
‘My goal was to serve honorably as I have and then retire when it was appropriate, whether that was 20 years or after that. But then counting on those financial provision to help, you know, set up our family for success. But that is obviously being threatened,’ Stef said.
Stef, who has served in the military since 2006 and has four children, said he feels like he is in limbo while he waits for his termination from the Air Force.
‘It has put our family in complete limbo,’ said Stef, whose children ask him every day if they will have to move. ‘They ask me every day where we’re going to live and I can’t give that answer. So it’s a very, very trying from a family stability standpoint. And obviously, the financial aspects of it as well.’
He said he is extremely frustrated that because he could not go through the training, he was unable to start flying again when the policy was lifted in October for unvaccinated pilots.
‘It was very frustrating the entire time when I was trying to go through training, when there were still unvaccinated guys in the squadron flying the jets, sitting in classrooms, sitting in meetings, doing all the things that I would do if I was in training in the exact same spaces, around the exact same people. But I wasn’t allowed to go through training, but they were allowed to fly the jets, because I was told I was dangerous,’ he said.
‘The treatment received by Lt. Col. Stef and Capt. Sosebee is retaliatory and exemplifies the very reason why our litigation is so important,’ said Danielle Runyon, who is representing Sosebee and Stef in a class action lawsuit conducted by First Liberty Institute, along with Schaerr Jaffe LLP and Hacker Stephens LLP.
The Air Force did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story. An Air Force spokesperson previously told Fox News Digital, ‘The Department of the Air Force is complying with the court order to pause all disciplinary and adverse actions for those refusing the COVID-19 vaccine who submitted a timely religious accommodation request and fall within the definition of the court’s certified class.’
Runyon said that while Congress is currently poised to terminate the vaccine mandate in the fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), service members seeking religious exemptions can still be fired by the military.
‘While Section 525 of the proposed NDAA for fiscal year 2023 appropriately rescinds the COVID-19 mandate and eliminates the need for service members to be vaccinated, Section 524 makes clear that Section 736 of the 2022 NDAA still applies,’ she said.
‘Section 736 pertains to the service characterization servicemembers can receive for failure to obey an order to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. So, service members who are part of the Navy SEALs and Doster [Air Force] classes who have been discharged or had discharge proceedings initiated for not being vaccinated, will not be protected by this round of legislation,’ Runyon told Fox News Digital.