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Senior leaders visit Air Force Academy after two cadets die in suspected suicides

U.S. Air Force Academy cadets march into the Academy's Falcon Stadium for graduation in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 29, 2013.

MIKE KAPLAN/U.S. AIR FORCE

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 31, 2020

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WASHINGTON — Investigators believe two Air Force Academy seniors found dead in their dorm rooms in recent days died by suicide, prompting top Air Force leaders to travel Monday to the Colorado institution amid the coronavirus outbreak, service officials said.

The back-to-back deaths of the male cadets, who were set to graduate in May and commission as second lieutenants, forced Air Force officials to look at stringent measures that they had taken in an effort to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus among their roughly 1,000 seniors, several Air Force officials said Tuesday.

Among the changes that academy officials acknowledged was the decision to allow cadets to have a roommate, if they want. Seniors have been largely isolated to single-person rooms while taking online classes since the academy’s roughly 3,000 underclassmen were sent home about two weeks ago.

The decision to allow roommates again was announced in an email Monday from Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the school’s superintendent, to academy family members. It came as Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Gen. David Goldfein, the service chief of staff, and Gen. John Raymond, the chief of space operations, rushed to the academy. The leaders spent Monday visiting with the cadets in an effort to work through some of the issues that students have faced during the pandemic, Air Force Academy officials said in a statement.

The trip came amid a Pentagon-mandated halt to all but essential military travel in an effort to curb the growing coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened more than 700 U.S. service members worldwide, including one senior cadet at the Air Force Academy. An Air Force official said Tuesday that the leaders’ decision to travel showed “just how important” that they take “caring for our soon-to-be Air Force and Space Force officers.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said service personnel were investigating both deaths as suicides, which worried service leaders who have been looking for answers after the Air Force recorded a record number of suicide deaths in 2019.

The Air Force Academy declined to provide details officially about the investigation or confirm the suicide investigations. In a statement, an Air Force spokesman said the deaths were not coronavirus-related and foul play was not suspected. The official said the students’ families had been notified, but the academy would not immediately release their names.

In his email to the Air Force Academy community, Silveria defended the decision to keep the seniors on campus in “a more contained and safe environment with our leadership and health care professionals” than they would find at their homes. The other two military service academies, the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York elected to send all of their cadets home about two weeks ago.

“We made the decision to keep First-Class cadets here because our Air and Space Forces have deemed us essential to their missions and while they are here I can guarantee access to [coronavirus] testing and world-class medical care with our 10th Medical Group,” Silveria wrote. “Across our Air Force, airmen are restricted to their rooms, and in less than 90 days we will expect the Class of 2020 to lead those airmen.”

Silveria also stressed cadets have access to mental health care 24 hours per day on campus, and he said he was consulting with Pentagon and local mental health professionals to improve such care.

“As an academy community we are navigating uncharted territory, and I ask for your continued support as we grieve while continuing to face the challenges that lay ahead,” he wrote. “While each cadet will require different, individualized care, and decisions we make will not be applied broadly across the cadet population, the health, safety and well-being of our cadets remains our top priority.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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