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Air Force Academy cadets eye May graduation after second cadet death in 3 days

A cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy was found dead Saturday afternoon on the academy’s campus in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Air Force officials confirmed.

The cadet’s death is the second on the campus in the last three days — another individual was found unresponsive at approximately 11 a.m. Thursday. Both were cadets first-class, academy officials confirmed.

“These tragedies have caused incredible shock and pain throughout our USAFA family,” Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, said in an official statement.

“Right now we are all focused on taking care of the cadet’s families and each other — our cadets, our faculty, our staff — as we grieve this loss. We ask for everyone’s patience and respect for the families’ privacy at this time.”

No foul play is suspected in either incident, and academy officials confirmed neither death was caused by COVID-19. Circumstances surrounding both of the deaths are under investigation.

Next-of-kin notifications have been completed, Silveria said, and the academy is withholding their names “out of respect for the privacy of these cadets’ families.”

“In nearly four decades in uniform, I can tell you that this week has been one of my most difficult, and I know that sentiment is shared across our team. I readily admit that I do not have all the solutions to the challenges we face, but the solution lies in the USAFA family.”

While neither death was the result of contracting COVID-19, academy officials and students alike have acknowledged the mental toll taken in the wake of implementing measures to prevent the virus’ proliferation.

One such measure was to keep cadets slated to graduate in the Class of 2020 on campus — with social distancing guidelines in place — while the lower three classes were released “to their home or an alternate location of their choosing,” the academy announced on March 13.

“We are being asked to adopt a deployment-like intensity with our school work and personal development during what was supposed to be the most enjoyable and exciting time of our cadet careers,” a cadet wrote Friday on his Grind to Fly blog.

“Are our country’s smartest, most mature, most well-rounded young adults being asked to sustain excellence in toxic conditions? Or, are our nation’s future leaders being exposed to crucial leadership and teamwork experiences necessary for us to overcome future battles of even greater magnitudes? Observing my class and the way events have unfolded over the past two and a half weeks justifies the need to ask these difficult and uncomfortable questions.”

Air Force Academy officials opted to keep first-class cadets on campus “because our Air and Space Forces have deemed [them] essential to their missions and while they are here I can guarantee access to COVID testing and world class medical care with our 10th Medical Group,” Lt. Gen. Silveria said.

Now, in the wake of two on-campus deaths, Silveria said academy officials have been in discussion “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.”

One outcome of those deliberations has been the academy’s decision to alleviate the full isolation of first-class cadets by allowing two to share a room “if they so choose,” Silveria said.

As of now, the academy intends to graduate the class of 2020 in May as scheduled, though the circumstances surrounding “what that graduation looks like is still being determined,” academy officials said.

“We will make it to the finish line,” the cadet wrote on the Friday blog post.

“It is ok to feel stuck during this grieving process, but we have to keep pressing with Operation Graduation. It is the ultimate measure of a leader to transform the negatives they’ve been dealt into advantages and valuable lessons.”

Note: Air Force Academy mental health specialists and chaplain’s office are available 24 hours a day to provide support and counseling to cadets and faculty.

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