The Air Force Academy is redoubling efforts to offer mental health care to students after the deaths of two senior cadets on the campus in less than a week.
The deaths, in incidents on Thursday and Saturday, are thought to be suicides, several people familiar with them told The Gazette, asking that their names not be used because they were not authorized to reveal that information. The academy confirmed the seniors died weeks before graduation amid a campus-wide lockdown, and neither was caused by coronavirus or foul play.
“These tragedies have caused incredible shock and pain throughout our USAFA family,” academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria said in a 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.”
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The academy sent its freshmen, sophomores and juniors home earlier this month and spread the school's nearly 1,000 seniors through the resulting empty dormitory rooms. The move was intended to get the seniors pushed through to graduation while keeping them apart to slow the spread of the virus.
The seniors have been living on take-out food from the school's dining hall and participating in classes online. The academy is closed to visitors and students aren't allowed to leave the campus. It's the first lockdown of the campus since 9/11.
School leaders have struggled to keep students apart on one of America's most close-knit campuses. Punishments have been promised for seniors who don't follow social-distancing guidelines, including marching practice. The academy has been a hotbed for the spread of other viruses, including a norovirus that caused nausea and intestinal trouble for hundreds of cadets last fall. The spread of earlier viruses led to the decision to send all but seniors home to limit the coronavirus spread.
"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," Silveria wrote in a weekend letter to parents of cadets. "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."
After the second death, Silveria held an online meeting with the seniors on the campus. He also had squadron commanders and enlisted leaders meet with small groups of seniors.
The academy has added reinforcements to help.
"We will continue to coordinate with our own mental health professionals, and have called in those along the Front Range and from the Pentagon for guidance and assistance," Silveria wrote.
The military traditionally has had a higher suicide rate than civilian society, with 24.8 deaths by suicide for every 100,000 troops, according to a 2019 Pentagon study. The bulk of the military suicides have occurred among its youngest troops, the study found.
Most of those who took their own lives hadn't seen combat and weren't previously diagnosed with mental illness, the Pentagon found.
Suicide has been rare at the Air Force Academy, with only a handful in recent years. But the deaths of the two seniors would drive a suicide rate nearly 10 times the military's average.