Then came an apparent suicide Thursday, followed by another Friday — both male cadets found dead in their rooms, Stars and Stripes reported. The incidents alarmed officials and spurred changes to the lockdown, which was out of step with what has been done at the Army and Navy service academies.
Details about the suicides were not immediately available, with officials saying only that an investigation is underway and that the deaths were not related to the coronavirus. The Air Force Academy did not immediately return a request for comment.
The academy’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, described one key change: allowing two cadets to share a room. That decision was made after hearing from cadets and a having a discussion on “how to balance cadet safety during a pandemic with providing the same sense of family and teamwork cadets are used to,” the letter said.
“Our leadership team and mental health professionals are available 24 hours a day,” Silveria wrote.
Casual Fridays in civilian clothes are also permitted, along with some alcohol consumption outside dorms. The superintendent also allowed small groups to barbecue at his on-campus residence.
Another intended morale booster: Dogs can roam on campus, Silveria wrote in a separate message obtained by the Gazette.
“Dogs are mission-essential and allowed any time,” the superintendent wrote.
The Air Force Academy appears to be unique among the service academies in keeping students on campus amid the pandemic. Most of the midshipmen at the Naval Academy at Annapolis stayed home after spring break, opting for online learning. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point also sent its cadets home.
Seniors at the Air Force Academy were apparently held on campus because of impending graduation, which was moved up six weeks to April 18, although family cannot attend.
Silveria defended his decision in his letter, saying the campus is “a more contained and safe environment with our leadership and healthcare professionals” than the homes of cadets.
He also said the policy of making cadets march after they were found to violate the six-feet distance policy would no longer be used as a punishment.
“No one is being punished for social distancing violations. Be smart!” he wrote, according to the Gazette.
But the two deaths seem to have rattled top Air Force leadership. Secretary Barbara Barrett and Gen. David Goldfein, the service’s chief of staff, arrived at the campus Monday to consult with Silveria and listen to the concerns of cadets left to manage the pandemic, Stars and Stripes reported.
Meanwhile, the Navy is struggling with a growing crisis aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, where at least dozens of sailors are infected. The ship was diverted to Guam.
Capt. Brett Crozier, the commanding officer, pleaded with the Pentagon to execute measures to ensure the ship is staffed for essential duty but not so crowded that the virus exacts a more brutal toll on the more than 4,000 sailors assigned to it.
“Decisive action is required. Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure,” he wrote. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors.”
The Pentagon reported 1,405 infection cases Wednesday across uniformed, civilian and contractor personnel, which includes five deaths. Two of the infections were at the Air Force Academy after the lockdown.