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Some Air Force Academy cadets never have a chance — and they leave feeling defeated

Washed out


Jonathan Kwateng couldn't stay awake on the day he left the Academy. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Jonathan Kwateng couldn't stay awake on the day he left the Academy.

Jonathan Kwateng had high hopes when he arrived at the U.S. Air Force Academy last year.

He'd scored in the 95th percentile on the ACT test, and in the 99th percentile on its mathematics portion. He captained his high school track team, ran on a Junior Olympics relay team and belonged to the National Honor Society and Mu Alpha Theta, a mathematics honor group.

Kwateng knew about the Academy from his brother, Andrew, who'd been recruited while attending high school in Georgia by AFA head football coach Troy Calhoun.

"Your heart is racing," Jonathan says of his arrival on campus in June 2015, "because it's the first time in the military."

But that exhilaration soon collapsed into a struggle to survive. After a barrage of criticism during and after basic training, Academy leaders accused him of being mentally ill and twice incarcerated him at Evans Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson. There, he was labeled depressed and schizophrenic and forced to take anti-psychotic drugs.

After missing weeks of classes during his hospitalizations, Kwateng was ousted from the Academy last November due to his mental condition — psychosis, according to the Academy, despite little evidence. Moreover, the Academy alleged his condition predated his arrival there — a contention Kwateng says is a lie.

"They forced me into this mental institution really on no grounds at all to try and get me to say I was schizophrenic and leave the Academy," he says. "When I told them I didn't want to stay there [mental ward], they forced me to stay there. They just wanted to find an easier way to kick me out, to say, 'Oh, he's a mental case.'"

Despite Kwateng signing a release giving the Academy permission to discuss his case with the Independent, the Academy refused to answer questions. It also refused to release any of his records, despite his authorized release.

Nor would the Academy discuss its apparently routine practice of sending cadets to Evans' in-patient mental health ward, as witnessed by Kwateng, who reports seeing cadets admitted for depression after being sexually assaulted, as well as other alleged mental disorders.

All of which raises questions about admissions screening procedures — another thing the Academy wouldn't discuss beyond a checklist of admissions requirements.

The U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, does screen for mental defects and bars admission of anyone showing signs of a mental disorder. The Naval Academy does the same.

Kwateng has appealed his dismissal, but it's a long shot. Meantime, he enrolled at Georgia State University last semester and earned a straight-A average in courses toward his degree in biochemistry.

Kwateng says he wasn't familiar with the military world before coming to the Academy, so he admits he didn't understand how to salute properly, and acknowledges the Academy's regimented atmosphere was foreign to him.

Within weeks of entering basic training, he found himself being criticized for everything, it seemed, including how he chewed his food.

"You learn to march. They stand you out in the hallway. You learn to stand at attention," he says. "It was tense. You don't know any of these people. They are expecting a bunch of things from you, and you don't know all the stuff to do yet."

Simply put, Kwateng found he couldn't do anything right in the eyes of AFA staff and his squadron leaders. It didn't help that while running on the terrazzo, a doolie in front of him tripped and his rifle jammed into Kwateng's knee. "I went and got it checked out — not that day, but later," he says. He was then accused of not really being injured, because he waited a few days. "They said, 'If you were hurt, why wouldn't you go immediately and not later?'"

At Jack's Valley, a wilderness training ground where cadets finish basic training, Kwateng and his roommate were late for formations one morning. Little things piled up. "When we would eat, I would be chewing, and I wouldn't put my hands fully down, and they would yell at me," he says. "I would pick up something to drink and get yelled at because I had food in my mouth."

During a meal, he was sent to the commander's table where he was harshly criticized.

"They were saying, 'You haven't been following instructions,'" he says. When he disagreed, "They said, 'Are you calling your cadre a liar?' I said, 'Yes, ma'am, I am.'"

Things got worse. A cadet leader told his squadron, "You guys aren't even slaves yet. You're less than slaves. Don't expect anything better for the year."

Kwateng told his fellow doolies he was offended by the word slave, because he's black.

"They [Academy leadership] asked me if I wanted to file a grievance because of the slave comment," he says. "I told them I was the only black person in my squadron. I told them there weren't enough black people. I didn't feel comfortable. They didn't care about my issue." He didn't file a formal complaint.

After that, he was constantly hounded with remarks such as, "You don't want to be part of this squadron," "You won't make it through the school year," and "You're always screwing up."

An undated synopsis sheet regarding Kwateng's basic training performance shows that four commanders and leaders recommended dismissal, citing his disrespect of the cadre and attitude. "Has absolutely no pride in himself," one wrote. Another said he believed Kwateng was "an achilles heel for the flight and that he is detrimental to their goal of trying to be a family." Another noted his "pushback to team efforts" and that he "always has excuses" for not being part of the team.

At the parade to end basic training, Kwateng wasn't allowed to participate because the Academy said he hadn't completed the training satisfactorily. After the parade, cadets had two hours to spend with their families.

Kwateng wanted to be with his brother, Andrew, a sophomore cadet, but wasn't allowed. When his brother tried to intervene so the two could be together, Andrew suffered retribution, Jonathan says, and was disenrolled shortly after. More on this later.

But Jonathan wasn't disenrolled. Rather, as the fall 2015 semester began, he underwent a series of evaluations in which Academy officials considered him for disenrollment but decided to place him on probation. This status brought new requirements — meetings with his air officer commanding and other mentors, as well as keeping a journal.

Then, last Sept. 16, he was accused of contemplating suicide and placed at Evans' mental department, where he saw other cadets.

"One girl was there who had been raped," Kwateng says. "She was going through nightmares. She had a friend who manipulated her and forced sex on her. She told the Air Force, and the Academy put her into the psychiatric ward."

The psych unit, Kwateng says, seemed to serve as a way station for cadets deemed unfit for duty for one reason or another, or a punishment for women who reported being sexually assaulted.

"A lot of them go there after basic training and before they leave the Academy," he says.

After Kwateng returned to the Academy a week later, he had a lot of catching up to do. Missing classes had put him behind in classwork, though by October his grade-point average was 3.75 on a 4.0 scale.

Then, on Oct. 28, the Academy again sent him to Evans after he allegedly displayed symptoms of psychosis, according to medical discharge papers supplied to the Indy by Kwateng. He says he was forcibly removed from his dorm room. That time, he was forced to stay two weeks.

During his stay, he was prescribed fluoxetine and olanzapine. The first is an antidepressant used to treat major depression, panic, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, according to Side effects can include insomnia, strange dreams, panic attacks, anxiety, weakness, mood and behavior changes, and suicidal thoughts.

Olanzapine, used to treat psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, can cause dizziness, light-headedness or fainting. Hot weather and exercise can increase these effects.

While taking the drugs and trapped in Evans' psych ward, Kwateng says he had to respond without legal counsel to the Academy Physical Evaluation Board's findings that he suffered from mental defects. An attorney assigned to him was on vacation and no substitute was provided, he says.

Meantime, two doctors at Evans found no evidence of mental defect and wanted to return him to the Academy in late October, but the Academy wouldn't allow it, Kwateng says.

Only when the Academy had his discharge papers prepared did Kwateng return to the Academy — just as a civilian lawyer hired by his father was heading for Fort Carson to visit him. Kwateng was discharged but today says he never has suffered from a mental illness, although the Academy contended there were signs of his defect prior to admission.

During an interview with the Indy last Nov. 13, Kwateng rested his head on a table in a local coffee shop. Still groggy from medication, he was nonresponsive and barely could keep his eyes open.

So his father, Kwaku, who had come to visit him at Evans but ended up taking him home to Georgia, did most of the talking.

"I don't mind if they don't want him there," his father said. "But they don't need to mess him up with all those drugs. In the morning he's sleeping. In the afternoon he's sleeping. I could tell on the phone he wasn't OK."

He says the Academy didn't notify him or Jonathan's mother, Carla, of his first hospitalization. Rather, Jonathan called his brother, who then called their parents. The second time, the Academy notified Jonathan's mom as he was being taken to Evans.

The Academy's version is contained in several documents provided to the Indy by the Kwateng family.

An Oct. 21, 2015, Medical Evaluation Board Narrative Summary — signed by a psychologist, a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner — states that Kwateng was first diagnosed with depression at Evans in September.

Placed on aptitude probation and facing potential disenrollment for having a bad attitude during basic training, Kwateng was taken to Evans "for suicidal ideation after reports of problems focusing in school and increased withdrawal and depression. [Kwateng] reported he had considered ways to kill himself including using his roommate's knife or razor blades," the report says, noting he "reported testing cutting his fingers to see how much it might hurt."

He was admitted for five days. After that, he had five encounters at the Academy clinic "where he has demonstrated bizarre thought content and delusional thinking."

The report cites a journal entry entitled "duality" that supports a theory he's mentally unstable. An analysis, though not completed, showed he had "elevated schizohrenia scores."

"Patient previously reported that he has felt that something was 'wrong' over two years ago, but that these symptoms have progressively worsened over time," the report says.

The report cited a diagnosis of schizophrenia, noting the condition has "persisted or been in the prodromal [early] stage for greater than one year ... predating his initial encounter with USAFA Mental Health," which makes him "not compatible with rigors of military service."

Seven days after the date of the report, Kwateng was readmitted to Evans' mental ward.

The Air Force Physical Evaluation Board report dated Nov. 12, 2015, recommended discharge. It also notes Kwateng didn't report a previous history of depression on his medical history and that his noncompliance with medication causes a "risk for recurrence and symptom worsening."

Later, an Air Force Medical Review Board concluded Kwateng's mental problems were pre-existing and he was not eligible for disability for incurring the condition during active duty. In support of that finding, the review, dated May 2, 2016, cited an Academy commander's letter stating Kwateng's medical condition began in Basic Cadet Training and that "a pre-existing condition demonstrated itself within a short time after the member arrived for duty."

Kwateng disputes most of that, saying he didn't threaten suicide. As for his "duality" journal entry, that was a recycled essay he wrote in high school for a creative writing assignment keying off his astrological birth sign of Gemini.

He explained the razor incident this way: "I had accidentally cut my fingers when trying to close my razor. They thought I did it intentionally."

Andrew Kwateng came to the Air Force Academy as a football player. - COURTESY ANDREW KWATENG
  • Courtesy Andrew Kwateng
  • Andrew Kwateng came to the Air Force Academy as a football player.

Jonathan's brother, Andrew, entered the Academy first. In 2013, he arrived at the AFA Preparatory School as a football player, after being a gridiron standout at Roswell High School in Georgia, serving as team captain and appearing on many scouting films busting through defensive lines to score touchdowns. Andrew says he was visited twice at his home by Academy recruiters, including coach Calhoun.

"I made the grade, and football went pretty well," Andrew says in an interview of his prep school year. "I enjoyed my time at the prep school and they made me better. The permanent party [faculty] helped me get to know the military and helped me as a person."

But after he became a cadet, things changed. Although he says he was voted by players and coaches as player of the week, he never played in a Falcon football game due to a groin injury and a bout of strep throat. He also admits to posting poor grades and, like his brother, was accused of having a bad attitude.

Andrew says he felt picked on by upperclassmen and punished for protocols he didn't understand or found odd, such as when the Academy held a fire drill one winter night and he threw on a ski jacket before going outside. "They wrote me up for that," he says. "They tell you not to disrespect the uniform. Other cadets were wearing their uniforms."

During the spring semester of his freshman year, Andrew testified on behalf of a friend accused of sexually assaulting another cadet in a dorm. Andrew testified he didn't think his friend assaulted the woman. The friend later left the Academy before court-martial, Andrew says.

After struggling to maintain a D average his first year, which he says stemmed from sleep deprivation, he suffered a knee injury early in his sophomore year during football practice and was cut from the team. He was then disenrolled, which he says didn't help his brother's situation.

But Andrew Kwateng says his brother was railroaded by officers who lied and treated him differently. "Race was definitely a factor," he says.

When he tried to intervene on his brother's behalf with officers, he says he was told, "He just doesn't fit here."

Calling the Academy atmosphere "negative, degrading and demeaning," he adds of his brother's diagnosis of mental problems, "It's probably the most disgusting, the most messed up thing I've ever witnessed in my life. There's nothing that would warrant them to do that. If they didn't want him there, they could have told him flat out."

The Academy refused to discuss Jonathan Kwateng's case, citing its "respect for his medical privacy" and noting "Cadet Kwateng's health and wellbeing are our primary concern."

But considering the Academy's high washout rate, one might ask if admissions screening is an issue. The Air Force Academy loses a higher percentage of cadets to attrition than do the other two academies.

At the Naval Academy, the washout rate has steadily declined from 15.1 percent for the Class of 2013 to just 11 percent for this year's graduating class.

West Point reports a steady attrition rate of about 22 percent the past five years.

But the Air Force Academy's attrition spiked as high as 27 percent for the Class of 2015, dropping to 23 percent for the Class of 2016. The lowest rate in the last five years was 21 percent for the Class of 2012.

To be admitted to the Academy, a student must score at certain levels on the SAT or ACT college entrance exams. On ACTs, the requirement is 24 in English/reading and 25 on math/science. (Kwateng's scores were better: 29 on English, 27 on reading, 36 on math, and 28 on science.)

Other requirements include solid high school grades, recommendations from former teachers, a required essay, documentation of participation in activities and special accomplishments, statements concerning disciplinary infractions and drug and alcohol abuse, an interview with an admissions officer, a fitness assessment and timed physical activities.

After that, two Academy officials review the application and make a recommendation. Then, a cadet candidate undergoes a medical exam that includes hearing and vision, and general fitness for duty.

Based on test scores and past academic performance, the Academy assigns incoming cadets what's called an academic composite score, or ACCOMP, a proven predictor of success at the Academy. Those entering with a score lower than 2,800 don't do well.

The Academy refused to release Kwateng's ACCOMP score. It noted in an email that no leeway is given to applicants based on race and gender.

Kwateng says he followed the admissions procedure as prescribed.

Jonathan's father says via email, "So if Jonathan was sick, then the Academy's own doctor would have disqualified him from coming to the Academy or give him a medical waiver. Jonathan did not get a waiver."

The Academy told the Indy to resubmit questions via the Freedom of Information Act regarding the number of cadets referred for mental health treatment to an outside facility, who determines when a cadet will be referred for mental health treatment, and whether parents are notified of referrals. The Indy did submit those questions via FOIA but with no response by press time.

West Point cited a Defense Department requirement for admissions that includes determination of medical fitness for all service academies and for ROTC scholarship programs. The regulation requires a decision be made that a candidate does not have a physical or mental condition precluding participation in academic and military duties encountered during training or would be an impediment to field duty after graduation.

Use of stimulant medication within the previous year, such as Ritalin or Adderall, is disqualifying, as are stuttering, eating disorders and sleepwalking. A history of attempted suicide or other suicide behavior; psychoneurosis; personality disorders; emotional disorders, behaviors, thought or mood; or substance misuse may be cause for disqualification, the DoD guidance states.

If a candidate provides information of past mental issues, further evaluation and testing may be sought prior to basic training and another screening conducted, says West Point spokeswoman Theresa Brinkerhoff in an email.

She also said, in response to questions, cadet hospitalizations are voluntary with few exceptions and Army cadets are encouraged, though not mandated, to contact their parents.

West Point also disclosed that 52 cadets have received inpatient psychiatric services in the past three years, noting, "Most of these hospitalizations result from a cadet reporting suicidal ideation concerns including suicidal intent and plan. Other reasons for hospitalization include suicide attempts, manic episode or psychosis."

A hospitalization takes place only after a recommendation from a licensed Army psychologist or psychiatrist. Of 52 cadets admitted, about 40 percent received a medical leave, 40 percent returned to duty and 20 percent resigned from West Point, she says. Even when placed on medical leave, cadets are followed by providers and the cadet's chain of command. If they return to duty, they must obtain a waiver for commissioning under Army regulations.

  • Courtesy Andrew Kwateng

The Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, also cited the Defense Department rule regarding candidates' pre-admission physical and mental screening. "Upon arrival at the Naval Academy," spokeswoman Jennifer Erickson says via email, "each midshipman undergoes an extensive series of evaluation and screenings conducted by a Naval Health Clinic (NHC) Annapolis medical team to determine if anything was missed or a condition changed since the initial process."

In addition, Erickson notes the Naval Academy employs standardized, evidence-based assessment tools in some circumstances. Midshipmen who have mental care needs that exceed USNA capabilities are transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, for assessment and treatment.

Of the Naval Academy's 4,500-member brigade, Erickson reports 72 admissions to psychiatric facilities in a three-year period — 24 in 2015; 29 in 2014 and 19 in 2013.

According to the Midshipman Development Center, the number of psychiatric hospitalizations that result in disenrollment is not tracked. But Erickson adds, "There are many cases where midshipmen undergo inpatient treatment, are transferred to outpatient care when it is safe to do so, complete successful outpatient care, and go on to successful careers at the Naval Academy."

Without more information from the Air Force Academy, it's impossible to know exactly what happened in Jonathan Kwateng's case and whether sending cadets to mental wards is warranted. But Academy critics suspect the worst.

"This is clearly a pattern," says David Mullin, a former AFA economics professor and longtime critic who's spent years investigating Academy practices and won a federal settlement against the Academy years ago alleging discrimination based on disability.

"It's really not much of a choice," says Mullin, who's interviewed dozens of ex-cadets who were victims of sexual assault. "They're often told their refusal to receive medical care is an infraction, so they are under duress to take medications. It becomes a downward spiral for these women.

"They're already in bad shape because of the incident that occurred to them, and then at times they're given inappropriate medical care, yet expected to operate under the normal, stressful cadet environment. It's a setup for failure," he says. "Several sexual assault victims have told me that they have regretted reporting the attacks and wished that they had pursued private medical care instead."

Mullin's research has overlapped with that of Frederick Malmstrom, a licensed psychologist and AFA graduate who's tracked honor-code data of Academy cadets for decades. He also worked at the Academy. He notes that the side effects of antidepressants aren't well-known and could have significant impact on cadets, who are expected to perform at the top of their game mentally and physically.

"Antidepressants will probably not impair one's ability to load bricks or vacuum the rugs," he said in response to the Indy's questions, "but they are quite likely to drastically impair one's ability to do taxes or solve differential equations."

In one case 10 years ago, suggesting the Academy's dispensing of psychotropic drugs to cadets is long-standing, Malmstrom said a female cadet kept falling asleep at inappropriate times and couldn't recall fine points of an issue involving an alleged honor code violation. Though he testified on her behalf about her drug-induced impaired functioning, she left the Academy, resigning while under the influence of heavy psychotropic drugs.

"Cadets have no choice but to take these medications," he says. "Intentionally or not, the system set her up to fail."

Malmstrom also notes any finding that a mental disorder was pre-existing requires scientific data. Without that, he says, it's just an opinion.

Jonathan Kwateng running drills on the Air Force Academy grounds. - COURTESY FORT CARSON
  • Courtesy Fort Carson
  • Jonathan Kwateng running drills on the Air Force Academy grounds.

For all their troubles, both Kwateng brothers are bouncing back.

Andrew is playing football at Georgia Military College, a two-year school in Milledgeville, Georgia, where he says he achieved a B average last semester and hopes to catch the eye of a major-college football program.

"I'm doing fantastic," he reports. "I'm one of the leaders in the cadet leadership. I do want to serve my country, but there are a lot of ways to serve your country, and military isn't the only way."

Jonathan posted a GPA of 4.0 at Georgia State University for the recent spring semester, declared a major in biochemistry and hopes to become a physician. He carried 18 hours of course work in biology, English composition, multivariate calculus, principles of physics and American government. This summer, he's studying organic chemistry.

Looking back, Jonathan says what he considers abusive treatment at the Air Force Academy drove him into a shell of isolation, and psychotropic drugs forced on him rendered him incapable of performing in physical training or academics, although before his last hospitalization at Evans, his GPA stood at 3.75.

He emphasizes that he had no history of depression or mental illness before entering the Academy, and has had none since he left. He's appealed the Air Force's disenrollment decision in a complaint filed some months ago with the Department of Justice Inspector General's Office, but there's no indication he'll win. Even if he did, he's lost his enthusiasm about attending the Academy.

"The expectations I had going in, I would have wanted to graduate from there," he says. "But having been there, I wouldn't say the same."

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