He’s flown bombing missions through Iraqi anti-aircraft fire and planned America’s air war against the Islamic State.

But nothing prepared Air Force Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria for coronavirus, suicides and a struggle to bring online learning and social distancing to what could be the nation’s most close-knit college campus.

"It's so different and it's because we're fighting a pandemic and fighting on our home turf," Silveria said. "We're not just dealing with taking care of our force and our cadets. we're taking care of our families and our communities and the economy."

Silveria is a wire-haired terrier of a man. Compact and tough, airmen and cadets say his bite is far worse than his bark.

He's famously told bigots at the school to "get out," fired a brigadier general accused of misconduct, and brought a new standard of discipline to the 66-year-old school that he graduated from in 1985.

But even tough men struggle with what happened last week at the academy. On Thursday, then Saturday, cadets died on the campus in suspected suicides.

Two men just a few weeks from being lieutenants after fighting through four hard years gone within 48 hours.

"The cadets are grieving and we're all grieving," Silveria said. "We're all trying to understand."

Now, the general is rapidly arranging the first early graduation at an American service academy since the height of World War II, with an April 18 ceremony to send 936 seniors into the ranks of the Air Force and Space Force. He's relieved that they're all getting to the finish line with no seniors suffering coronavirus, and a single confirmed case among the school's 4,000 cadets.

"They're here, they're all together and they are still healthy," he said.

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Silveria came back to the academy in 2017. He'd been back for reunions, but hadn't spent much time at the place since he graduated with 944 classmates after a speech from then-Air Force Secretary Verne Orr that Silveria barely recalls.

"I remember that sense of accomplishment and that smile of achievement," he said."I remember standing there holding onto a diploma and talking to a couple of friends."

Silveria's graduation had all the pomp and ceremony the academy traditionally offers those who survive its notoriously grueling military and academic curriculum. An estimated 30,000 family members, friends and well-wishers packed Falcon Stadium.

Now, the general is planning a Spartan ceremony. No cheering crowds, and even the celebration among classmates will have to comply with rules that keep cadets six feet apart these days.

"It totally represents the severity of the fight we are in," Silveria said.

The plans are still on the drawing board.

Silveria wants it to be a special day for the cadets, but one that's muted by the recent tragedies on campus and the tragedies going on around the globe.

"I can't tell you how disappointing it is for me that people of Colorado Springs will not see this," he said of the graduation amid a statewide lockdown. "The city of Colorado Springs to some degree sets its calendar by that event."

For Silveria, the last day the calendar made sense was March 12.

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The academy runs like a 12-month clock that starts with basic training and ends with graduation.

March 12 was the day "Recognition" was supposed to start, an annual rite of passage for the freshman class.

Instead it became the day everything changed.

"It was a lifetime ago," Silveria said.

The general and other military leaders had been watching the spread of coronavirus with increasing levels of alarm.

Military bases have always been petri dishes for infectious disease. A stomach ailment called norovirus put nearly a quarter of the academy's cadets on bedrest last fall.

With a far more deadly infection aimed at the school, Silveria had a difficult, if mathematical decision to make.

"I knew if I kept 1,000 here I could guarantee their health  and guarantee their care," Silveria said.

The general called on his staff officers, but the bulk of the work he laid on the school's senior class.

"We need 3,000 people to leave and they need to do it tonight and tomorrow," he told them.

The seniors went to work on the school's most Herculean effort. The lower three classes would be sent away, but not scattered to the winds. Each plane flight was arranged, emergency contacts established and laptop computers issued by the school checked for function.

The 3,000 were equipped for a distance learning program that was being designed by the school's professors while the cadets packed their bags.

Silveria credits the seniors for pulling off what seems to be a miracle.

"They got them bedded down around the country and were up and communicating with them in hours or days," he said.

Silveria gets more emotional talking about the achievements of his senior class than he does talking about his time in Afghanistan.

“I get choked up,” he admits.

The seniors stayed at the school, spread through the now-empty dormitories in isolation. It was unprecedented. But that's become a cliche at the academy.

"You almost have to pay a fine for using unprecedented now," he said.

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Unprecedented things are far from the norm for service academies.

They are places that are built to instill timeless values in future officers. In the Academy’s hallways live lessons from the battles of Carthage and an honor code that forbids lying, cheating and stealing.

The place and the people in it combine to challenge and change cadets over a four-year span. Graduates and cadets alike call it the “aluminum womb.”

That’s what made sending those 3,000 cadets home almost unthinkable.

Silveria said he made the call based on the nation’s needs. The lieutenants who will graduate from the academy in under two weeks are needed in the military right now.

They’re desperately needed in cockpits and satellite control facilities and all the other critical missions the Air Force and Space Force fulfill for a nation that remains at war in Afghanistan.

The younger cadets are needed too, but they have the gift of time on their side.

“I knew no matter what happened to them academically, I would have one, two and three years to clean that up,” Silveria said. “For the class of ‘20, this is about national security.”

But it was a hard road for the class of 2020. The found themselves locked into the cadet area, and separated from friends, family, the amenities of Tejon Street and almost everything else that makes getting through a fourth year at the school tolerable for a 21-year-old.

Silveria admits it was harsh.

But turning the school into something like a monastery for the seniors paid dividends.

“We all have to be so proud of them for keeping themselves healthy in a situation where they are living in dorms," he said. “As I talk to you today, they are COVID-free from their own actions.”

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Silveria has caught criticism for almost everything he’s done since March 12.

Locking down the seniors was unpopular with some. Sending the underclassmen home brought cries from others.

The two deaths from suicide brought critics, too.

Silveria is used to it.

“I’d have to say that any commander that can’t handle criticism is probably in the wrong business and needs to find a different profession,” Silveria said.

But he’s not made of stone. He’s hurt that some have taken to criticizing the cadets after the deaths on campus.

“Criticism of me goes with the territory,” he said. “The criticism of the class of ’20, I find that to be difficult. I think there should be nothing but praise and support and compassion.”

Silveria is teaching those seniors one of the hardest lessons troops face: How to mourn.

An F-15E pilot earlier in his career, Silveria has seen too many comrades fall in training accidents and combat.

“I think the most important thing is that everybody grieves in a different way and everybody should be allowed to grieve in a different way,” he said.

He pulled the seniors together, as together as it gets at the school these days, and talked with them for three hours last Sunday as they wrestled with the deaths of their classmates.

“They are young, this is a horrible tragic event and they are trying to understand it,” Silveria said. “They want to know why it happened … what could we have done differently to help these young men.”

Silveria knows his cadets need to grieve and cry.

But he can’t let them stay there.

That’s why he brought the top generals of the Air Force and Space Force to the school last week to talk with cadets.

“I wanted it made clear to them how valuable they are, and to help them see the future,” he said.

The class includes more than 60 of the first lieutenants to join the Space Force, the nation's newest service that was formed in December.

Seeing the future is even difficult for Silveria these days. He’s managing changes minute-by-minute.

“We have to learn to make the decisions that are right in front of us,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean that the academy is suddenly untethered from planning.

Teams now are trying to figure out what will happen at the school next year.

Medical experts at the academy are planning ways to keep the cadets and staff safe as long as the virus remains a threat.

Professors are planning how they can better use online tools they hastily adopted in March as the campus switched overnight from in-person to online learning.

Silveria said it is not that different from war.

“It reminded me greatly that what people really want is certainty, and the uncertain nature of this is what people find so hard to take,” he said.

Amid the uncertainty, Silveria last week eased some restrictions on his seniors. They're allowed to gather in small groups.

They can drive off campus for take-out food.

Silveria has heard from critics who worry he's exposing the cadets and the campus to coronavirus.

But the general said he had to make a rapid decision.

"it's always a tough balance in this situation, we're dealing with mental health struggles and public health struggles," he said.

The campus, where a public health emergency was declared March 23rd remains closed to visitors, and its cadets still remain in isolation. The dormitories and other areas cadets frequent are closed to even most of the staff at the school.

To a great degree, Silveria is relying on the judgement of his seniors to ensure their safety.

"These young men and women are now two weeks from becoming 2nd lieutenants," he said.

As he sends cadets out as officers into the new, uncertain world, the general says they’re ready.

“They have done everything we have asked them to do,” he said.

And Silveria has something he’d like Colorado Springs to do on April 18 to honor the class that will graduate in quarantine.

“I’d appreciate it if people can throw out a flag or a banner for the class of ’20 – the class of ‘20 that's been up on this hill since early March.”

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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