Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told students at the Air Force Academy graduation Wednesday to serve their community and be honorable, a message that comes as the service academy deals with the aftermath of a widespread cheating scandal and vaccine refusals among cadets.
During his speech in Colorado Springs, Austin said the country will expect a lot of the new airmen and Guardians.
"We're here to defend America's security and win America's wars," Austin said. "But we're also here to safeguard America's values. So that means a love of service to your classmates, to your community and to your country. It means that you will never lie, cheat or steal."
Austin's advice to not "lie, cheat or steal" comes after it was revealed last month that 22 students were expelled or chose to resign from the academy after widespread cheating in 2020, when the school transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic.
In total, 245 students were suspected of cheating, and 231 of them admitted they had violated the school's honor code.
Of those, 210 cadets were put on six-month probation and could not represent the academy at any sporting events or competitions nor participate in any school clubs. They also were required to undergo additional ethics training and instruction.
Every student who was placed on probation has since completed it.
Austin also mentioned how the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on the world, as well as the aspiring military officers at the academy.
"Graduating from this academy is hard enough without a global pandemic," he said. "And graduating after years of being clouded by COVID shows serious courage and character, and I know it's been a time of challenge and loss for many of you. ... What counts is how you respond to hard times."
Late last week, the Air Force Academy announced that three cadets who had refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 would be allowed to graduate from the service academy but would not join the ranks.
"While they will receive a degree, they will not be commissioned into the United States Air Force as long as they remain unvaccinated," a press release from the academy said.
A four-year education at the Air Force Academy is valued at $416,000, according to the school's website. In the past, the academy has had cadets repay their tuition if they leave by their junior or senior year or under some disciplinary circumstances.
It's not yet clear whether the three cadets who are refusing to get vaccinated will have to reimburse the academy.
"A decision to reimburse the United States for education costs in lieu of service will be made by the Secretary of the Air Force," the Air Force Academy said in a press release last week.
On Wednesday, 957 cadets graduated from the service academy -- 863 were commissioned into the Air Force, and 94 were commissioned into the Space Force.
"You have answered our country's call, with courage and commitment, with tenacity and teamwork, with strength and sacrifice," Austin said. "With outstanding leaders like the class of 2022, the future of our country is bright."
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.