After two cadet suicides in less than a week, Air Force Academy leaders are easing social distancing policies that some complained had made the school prison-like for the nearly 1,000 seniors who remain on campus, emails obtained by The Gazette show.
Cadets will be able to venture off campus for drive-thru food, get a casual Friday where civilian clothing can be worn and can congregate in small groups compliant with state guidelines, the school's leadership said in an email to students and staff.
Also gone are long "tours" of marching practice for cadets who don't stay six feet from their classmates.
"No one is being punished for social distancing violations. Be smart!" Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the school's superintendent said in an email.
The academy confirmed the email, and noted it also encourages cadets to help out Colorado Springs school children with online tutoring and that Silveria offered up the yard at his on-campus residence for small-group barbecues to boost morale.
The changes come after a series of unprecedented moves to slow the spread of coronavirus on the campus. The lower three classes at the school were sent home to finish the year with online classes, while seniors were kept on campus and spread through the resulting empty dorm rooms in solitary isolation.
Seniors were ordered to stay apart and stay on campus, with online classes and take-out meals from the school's Mitchell Hall dining facility.
Those policies had triggered a series of complaints, but the big shift came the evening of March 30 as the school reeled from suicides on the campus March 26 and 27.
Silveria met with the school's seniors over the weekend and consulted with top Pentagon brass before announcing the changes. Gen. Dave Goldfein, the Air Force's chief of staff, flew to Colorado Springs March 30 to meet with leaders and cadets at the academy is the service figured out a way forward after the suicides.
The email announcing the changes was sent to seniors after 9 p.m. March 30.
"After last night and today, thank you for all the conversations and direct engagement with me and (Air Force) senior leaders," Silveria wrote. "I asked them to come out and talk to you and I am grateful that despite the travel restrictions, they wanted to talk to you."
The policy changes will also slake the thirst of seniors who have gone weeks without beer.
Alcohol, while still not allowed in dormitories or cars, will be allowed elsewhere on the 18,500-acre campus at the northwestern edge of Colorado Springs. The email also encouraged academy staff to bring their dogs to work.
"Dogs are mission-essential and allowed any time," the general wrote.
The policy shift drew sharp criticism from some who worry the changes could subject the academy to a coronavirus outbreak that the stricter rules sought to prevent.
While the policy may seem liberal, it's similar to how airmen and soldiers are being treated at other military bases in Colorado Springs. While large formations have been cancelled and steps are in place to keep distance between the mission-essential troops on the job, what troops do in their off-time is largely unregulated.
A former F-15E pilot who ran the air war against Islamic State and Taliban insurgents before becoming superintendent, Silveria has shown himself to be a no-nonsense leader at the academy.
Amid concerns of racism and sexual assault on campus, the general convened all of the school's cadets and staff in cavernous Mitchell Hall for a tongue-lashing that became a national sensation after a video of the talk was posted on YouTube.
"If you can't treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out," the general said.
Some worried that Silveria, after virtually imprisoning the senior class, was being too soft on soon-to-be graduates who will be commissioned as lieutenants in less than two months.
"How does any of this help build resilient warriors?" asked one retired Air Force officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Puppies in the dorms, four-stars flying out to coddle you. And then, isn't releasing them as described somewhat in violation of Colorado's executive order?
"Had we provided them with support and something productive to do once they were locked down, that would've been nice. Instead, there was the threat of tours. Now, that's rescinded without acknowledging these were bad decisions in the first place."
While hinting at changes in a March 29 email to parents of cadets, Silveria said he's keeping safety as his top priority.
"Our goal in weighing each option continues to be both mental and physical health, along with turning our nearly 1000 (senior) cadets into lieutenants in 59 days," the general wrote.
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