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Recall of West Point cadets before Trump address creates logistics hurdles — and health concerns

In a May 26, 2018 photo, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point holds its graduation and commissioning ceremony for the Class of 2018 at Michie Stadium in West Point, N.Y..

BRYAN ILYANKOFF/U.S. ARMY

By MISSY RYAN, ALEX HORTON AND ROBERT COSTA | The Washington Post | Published: April 29, 2020

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The day before the U.S. Military Academy announced it would proceed with plans for President Donald Trump to deliver the commencement address, cadets joined a video call to learn about their return to the school's campus outside New York, the American city hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision to hold an in-person graduation June 13 meant that nearly 1,000 graduating cadets would travel back to West Point from their homes, where they have been distance-learning since spring break, and undergo up to three weeks of quarantine at campus barracks and a nearby training site. But uncertainties remained, including how to ensure that the cadets wouldn't sicken one another and how to account for sometimes unreliable test results.

"Because all 1,000 of you are going to be coming back, you're probably going to be about 60 percent who have coronavirus, so we're going to likely test all of you," a West Point instructor told one group of about 25 cadets during the April 21 video call, a partial audio recording of which was obtained by The Washington Post. He compared the West Point plans with coronavirus testing of the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier sidelined by a major outbreak.

The decision to hold a commencement ceremony has generated concerns among families of cadets and graduates of the prestigious military academy that the move could jeopardize the health of future Army leaders. It has also raised questions among public health experts who caution that measures to detect and isolate sick students may not be fail-safe.

The scrutiny is intensified by the possibility that the event will give the president, who has been largely confined to the White House since the pandemic forced much of the country to shut down, a highly visible platform to assert that American life is slowly returning to normal.

Speaking on April 17, the president said the future Army leaders would probably be seated at a distance from each other during his address. "Do I like the look? No, I don't," he said, adding that he expected ceremonies to eventually resume where troops were "nice and tight."

The decision also provides a window into the Army's attempts to balance the need to take steps to blunt the virus' destructive effect and the desire to continue with regular military activities.

Even as tens of thousands of military personnel take part in virus relief efforts across the country, helping to staff overwhelmed civilian hospitals and building overflow medical sites, the Pentagon has faced criticism for its handling of outbreaks on naval vessels and on smaller issues, like continuing to require haircuts for Marines.

Critics have also faulted the Pentagon for going ahead with activities that do not obviously fall among core military activities, including the in-person graduation and flyovers this week by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, because of the virus risk.

"There is no military need to do this," said Jason Fritz, a 2002 West Point graduate and former armor officer who served three tours in Iraq. "This is a logistics nightmare, all just so the president has an audience to give a speech he wants to give."

Fritz said many of his fellow alums were astounded at the decision.

But Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said the cadets' health remained the Army's "number one priority." He said he proposed the blueprint for a modified commencement several weeks later than the originally scheduled date to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in part because the graduation was a "critical milestone" for Army officers. He said cadets would also need to return anyway to retrieve their belongings and complete administrative tasks, which officials said would include medical visits and picking up uniforms and personal items, before going to basic officer training in July.

"We wanted to do a graduation ceremony because in many ways it's a message to not only the force but the nation that we're working our way through this," McCarthy said in an interview. "And we're going to fight our way through this and continue to do what we need to grow the force, train the force and to be ready to meet any national objective."

McCarthy said he was not pressured or directed by the White House to proceed with the ceremony. He cited the Air Force's decision to proceed with a scaled-back graduation at the Air Force Academy in Colorado on April 18, in which cadets sat eight feet apart while Vice President Mike Pence spoke. McCarthy said he could not speak to why the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, opted for a "virtual" graduation.

Lt. Col. Christopher Ophardt, a West Point spokesman, said the academy's modeling suggested it is likely that 1 percent of returning seniors, known as "Firsties," will have contracted the virus but remain asymptomatic when they arrive back on campus. Before returning, the cadets will be asked to monitor their health for 14 days and will undergo medical screenings by phone.

After their arrivals, which will be staggered between two and three weeks before commencement, they will be tested for the coronavirus at a training site, Ophardt said. Those who test negative will be moved into campus barracks, where they will be broken into groups and screened daily. Those who test positive will be isolated on campus.

Officials said the commencement decision was in part based on data showing an improving coronavirus situation in New York, which they hope will be even better by late May. It was not clear how the instructor, an Army major, determined that 60 percent might be infected.

But the cadets will also need to get to West Point, some traveling by air, at a time when many Americans are expected to still be under virus restrictions and a Defense Department global "stop movement" order remains in place for most military personnel.

The Pentagon, like other institutions across the country, also is facing shortages of testing supplies, forcing it to prioritize testing nuclear forces and combat troops.

Health experts cautioned that the decision could contribute to the public health crisis in New York, an epicenter for covid-19 deaths.

"It is absurd to me," said Tara Smith, an epidemiology professor at Kent State University. "It seems to be increasing the risk for everyone."

Authorities across the country also continue to grapple with the limitations of coronavirus testing. While the segregation period would theoretically catch any infected cadets, Smith said, there is anecdotal data that shows negative test results have provided false confidence before infected patients were hospitalized and retested with positive results.

"You could miss people who could be ill," she said.

Traveling through airports and on planes will produce an elevated risk of infection from other passengers, Smith said, with evidence pointing to confined spaces for prolonged time as efficient transmission grounds for the virus.

While the cadets will quarantines, support staff are likely to remain in and around campus, which she cited as another concerning factor given evidence the crew of the Diamond Princess cruise liner acted as unknowing vectors aboard the ship as they moved from cabin to cabin.

Joseph D'Onofrio, the mayor of Highland Falls, the town adjacent to West Point, said the garrison commander has alleviated some of his worries in conversations over the past two weeks.

About a third of the town, population 3,600, works at the academy, and D'Onofrio has marshaled county health and sheriff's support ahead of the ceremony.

But one issue still hasn't been resolved by officials at the academy: whether families and friends will be allowed to attend.

"It's still a little fluid how West Point is handling this," D'Onofrio said.