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Two Air Force Academy cadets die by suicide amid COVID-19 precautions


  • Courtesy of U.S. Air Force Academy
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the Air Force Academy upside down in how it oversees cadets and delivers instruction, and how it will graduate second lieutenants.

Adding to the turmoil, two seniors died by suicide, sending shockwaves through the Academy and the wider Air Force community.

Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Chief of Staff David Goldfein and other senior leaders descended on the Academy on March 30 to address cadets and leadership in the wake of the March 26 and March 28 suicides.

Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria then announced radical changes to cadet life, including permission to golf, consume alcohol, leave base to fetch take-home meals and other measures that previously weren’t allowed amid the pandemic.

Both cadets, whom the Indy is not naming out of consideration for their families, had distinguished themselves by being named on multiple academic lists leading up to their deaths.
For some, their deaths signaled the Academy’s bungled response to COVID-19. According to several people close to the Academy who aren’t authorized to comment and spoke on condition of anonymity, the Academy’s handling of cadets as the pandemic revved up was placing them at risk, rather than protecting them.

But while the Academy acknowledged investigations of the deaths are pending, officials didn’t elaborate on the scope and, in response to the Indy’s questions, defended its decision to isolate senior cadets by restricting them to one cadet per dormitory room.

The Academy also said in a statement via email that those cadets had access to a variety of counseling services, as well as the cadet dormitory grills and workout gym. Now, however, their options have expanded significantly.

  • Courtesy of Air Force Academy
  • Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria
Gov. Jared Polis issued a state of emergency order on March 10. On March 13, 10 days before spring break was due to begin on March 23, the Academy dismissed freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Those cadets are remotely provided support and “mentorship” by staff, the Academy said. While the Air Force doesn’t provide housing allowances while cadets are away, the Academy funds their meals and medical care. No cost estimate was available.

After underclassmen left campus, senior cadets, also called First Class Cadets, were placed in dorm rooms by themselves to achieve social distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

The Academy tells the Indy that cadets had access to spiritual counseling, mental health services, Military One Source (a Department of Defense-funded online program), and counseling services through the Airmen and Family Readiness Center. Cadets also could seek help at the Peak Performance Center, a peer-to-peer crisis hotline, and through their chain of command.

Silveria declared a public health emergency March 23 for 30 days, which allowed him to take certain protective measures, such as restricting base movement.

On March 25, 12 days after underclassmen left the base, online classes began. The next day, March 26, a cadet died by suicide. A member of the cheer squad, he came to the Academy via the Preparatory School and had been listed on both the Dean’s List (3.0 Grade Point Average) and Athletic Director’s List (3.0 GPA in physical fitness tests in the two prior years).

On March 27, Silveria issued a letter to the “USAFA Community” disclosing the death as not COVID-19 related and cited “helping agencies” that included counseling and faith leaders. He also said five people on base had tested positive for the virus: two senior cadets, two civilian employees and one active duty member, and reminded personnel of the governor’s March 26 shelter-in-place order.

But the next day, March 28, another cadet died by suicide. He had been named to the Dean’s and Athletic Director’s lists, as well as the Commandant’s (top third of class) and Superintendent’s lists (granted to those who make all three lists in one semester).

On March 30, Silveria again wrote to USAFA personnel, saying the second death was not linked to COVID-19 and outlining far-reaching changes in cadets’ restrictions. More on that later.

Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams - COURTESY OF WEST POINT
  • Courtesy of West Point
  • Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams
The circumstances at other academies differed, because both the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, saw spring break begin March 7. Before it ended March 15, superintendents at both schools told cadets and midshipmen not to return but rather to attend classes remotely.

Notably, Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams said in a March 19 message that cadets were to strictly observe social distancing. “This is not the time to socialize with friends and neighbors. It is not the time for backyard barbeques...,” Williams wrote.

A Military Academy spokesperson tells the Indy via email the school “is going through a deliberate and methodical planning process to best determine the criteria for future decisions about the return of the Corp of Cadets, Graduation, Summer Training and more.” Online classes will continue through final exams.

Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Sean Buck wrote in a March 27 memo to the brigade, “You may return to the Academy or you may voluntarily elect to stay in place.” On March 30, officials advised personnel to avoid isolating mentally or socially and to reach out for help if needed, saying, “Seeking help is a strength, not a weakness.”

Jennifer Erickson, director of media relations at the Naval Academy, tells the Indy in an email that 31 midshipmen were living in the school’s single dormitory as of April 2. But she declined to publicly disclose the number of positive COVID-19 cases, saying the numbers are reported to the Navy.

In Silveria’s March 30 message, he said he decided to keep seniors on campus at the Air Force Academy “because our Air and Space Forces have deemed us essential to their missions and while they [cadets] are here I can guarantee access to COVID testing and world class medical care with our 10th Medical Group.”

  • Courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy
  • Vice Admiral Sean Buck
Silveria also called the Academy “a more contained and safe environment” as compared to cadets’ homes, which he described as “varying situations” that could lead to illness, which would prevent their graduation in late May. (That’s since been moved to April 18 without the elaborate ceremony of a traditional graduation.)

It’s not clear why the Academy didn’t view the other classes as essential and due such protection. The Academy didn’t respond to a question about that by the Indy’s deadline.

Seniors retained at the base were housed one per room, rather than the normal two. Sources tell the Indy they were threatened with punishment if they violated social distancing and isolation rules.

The Academy says seniors were allowed to take part in outdoor activities and socialize with fellow cadets within the confines of social distancing rules.

Now, however, Silveria has adopted new concessions for seniors, with approval of senior Air Force leaders, due to “changing conditions (two suicides and mounting mental health challenges),” according to a March 30 email to faculty from the Dean of Faculty Brig. Gen. Linell Letendre. The dean noted the changes, including “potentially letting some go home,” are directed at cadets’ “mental health.”

Based on cadet and leadership feedback, the changes allow:

• Two cadets per dorm room, if they choose.
• Greater and more frequent access to recreational facilities in Arnold Hall.
• “Cadets only” use of the base golf course and bowling alley, and cadet use of the base stables.
• Cadets to leave the base “to get drive through and carry out only” food.
• Delivery and installation of $70,000 worth of new gym equipment at the residence halls.
• Access to online meeting software. “You will get unrestricted access,” Silveria wrote. “Talk to anyone and set up [as] many groups as you choose.”
• Alcohol is not allowed in the dorms or buildings in the cadet area but “if you want to drink somewhere, anywhere, on the USAFA reservation it is approved, you just have to tell your [commanding officer] prior.” The Dean says those consuming must be of legal age and not in a vehicle.
• Interfacing with dogs brought to cadet areas by staff.
• Watching a movie on “an outdoor blowup-movie screen” on the Terrazzo, the cadet marching area.
• Cadets to “Plan bbqs, use quads, fam camp, my front yard, the Comm’s [commandant’s] yard (she has a zipline) or the Deans yard,” Silveria wrote.
• Cadets to organize to become mentors and tutors to local school district through video-chat with kids.
• Cadets’ development of “usable” suicide awareness training. In addition, Silveria noted that cadets would not be punished for social distancing violations.

All those directives, he said, stem from his desire “to balance social distancing with the needs for social contact and support.”

“We are having discussions with our healthcare professionals about how to balance cadet safety during a pandemic with providing the same sense of family and teamwork cadets are used to,” he wrote.

In response to the Indy’s query about looser rules and increased entertainment options, the Academy said in a statement, “The easing of restrictions for cadets still at the Academy are being done within CDC and DoD [Department of Defense] social distancing guidelines while allowing for some sense of connectedness among the cadets.”

The Academy also didn’t respond by the Indy’s deadline to questions about numbers of personnel testing positive for the virus, where they’re being housed and what type of treatment they’re receiving.

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