The U.S. Air Force Academy is grooming members of President Donald Trump’s Space Force and is graduating them early, in mid-April, after deciding to keep them on campus in Colorado Springs amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The Air Force Academy stands out among the other military service academies because it kept the class of 2020—the next round of lieutenants—at school in the face of increasing Covid-19 infections across the country.
“We made the decision to keep First-Class cadets here because our Air and Space Forces have deemed us 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,” academy Superintendent Jay Silveria said in a letter this week to cadets and their families.
The Naval Academy and West Point have moved to remote instruction after asking students to stay home following their spring breaks. The Air Force Academy was still weeks out from spring break when the pandemic hit, however, and kept seniors on campus under strict guidelines.
During this time two cadets took their lives in less than one week, rattling others already dealing with drastic restrictions amid the pandemic. In his letter, Silveria said the two suicides did not result from the virus, but did not provide any other details about the circumstances.
Directly Into Space Force
About 64 of the approximately 1,000 graduating cadets will be directly commissioned into the Space Force, constituting its first crop of troops since the service was created in December, Gen. John Raymond said last week.
“We’re on track for that,” he assured reporters during a Pentagon briefing.
The creation of the new service has been a top priority of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. For now, Raymond is the only official member of the sixth service branch, though thousands of troops are planned to be added in the coming months, beginning with the academy graduates.
The Air Force pinpointed 23 space-related organizations this week that will be transferred into the Space Force, which is now staffed by about 16,000 airmen who were formerly part of the renamed Air Force Space Command.
After high-profile visits from Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and the commander of the Space Force Raymond on Monday, the academy relaxed some of its restrictions, allowing once again two cadets per room.
“They will also be allowed to go off base for drive thru or takeout. We are also working several morale events, while keeping CDC guidelines in mind,” the academy’s media relations office said in an email, without giving detail.
Those activities could include limited barbecues in the superintendent’s front yard, an outdoor blowup movie screen, golf, and some bowling, according to information reviewed by Bloomberg Government.
Late Tuesday, the superintendent announced graduation would take place April 18—six weeks ahead of schedule.
Barrett, Goldfein, and Raymond flew to the academy on Monday and had listening sessions with the cadets, said Lt. Col. Sheryll Klinkel, the secretary’s spokeswoman. They decided along with the academy superintendent that early graduation was best for cadets under the circumstances, Klinkel wrote in an email. “Then they move as lieutenants and contribute to the mission,” she wrote. “In this environment, business as usual just doesn’t make sense.”
“Our intent is to use the best data we have to strike a wise balance between military readiness and protection of all our people—service members, families, our communities, while we support the national effort,” Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas, an Air Force spokesman, said in a statement. “These are exceptionally difficult decisions that we are making with the greatest care.”
In a separate news release, the academy said that family, friends and the public can stream the graduation event live but would not be able to attend in person.