Cadets conquering COVID
Christian cadets at military academies have found new opportunities to serve amid pandemic restrictions
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While quarantining after a COVID-19 exposure in late January, U.S. Coast Guard Academy (USCGA) junior Devin McClure followed a simple routine. He woke up, read his Bible—“I find if I don’t do that, then Satan eats my lunch”—and attended online classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. After a workout, he did homework, went to bed, and started again the next day. On Fridays, he attended an online Bible study discussing patience.
McClure found the topic applicable to his situation. Once his 14 days of quarantine were up, “I was definitely grateful to come back to the real world as we know it.”
Yet for service academy cadets training during the COVID-19 pandemic, the real world is still far from normal. Usually cadets can escape the high-stress environment of campus—designed to prepare students for military leadership—by leaving on the weekends, including to attend church or other religious gatherings. This school year, restrictions intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus among cadets have added to the monotony of academy life and at times prevented them from leaving campus, taking a toll on students’ mental health. Still, some Christian cadets have found new opportunities to serve their peers.
Academy leaders have kept a tight leash on students’ behavior to avoid outbreaks sparked by parties or travel. At USCGA’s New London, Conn., campus, each semester started with a two-week quarantine. In February, safety restrictions changed weekly: During tighter restrictions, cadets were allowed off campus only for outdoor dining or hikes. They wear masks everywhere except in their bedrooms and the dining hall and to exercise. Assistant Superintendent Capt. Richard Wester said the number of students quarantining or isolating peaked at 115 in early February before dropping down to just a few.
The number of Coast Guard Academy students quarantining or isolating peaked at 115 in early February.
Isolation can affect mental health. Last spring, the Air Force Academy sent everyone home except the seniors, aiming to graduate them on time to help fill a pilot shortfall. The academy moved them into individual rooms, and within days two seniors died of suicide. In December, the Naval Academy’s football coach told The New York Times he’d asked sports psychologists and chaplains to address anxiety and depression on the team for the first time in 22 years.
To boost morale, Wester said, the USCGA hosted outdoor movies and talent shows. Campus chaplains offered encouragement. But the pressure and monotony still affected students: “You have little sleep, and there’s all these expectations, and there’s kind of manufactured stress,” said senior Samantha Koval. “And then on top of that not being able to leave base for weeks on end. … It gets honestly kind of miserable here.”
Cadets can still attend religious services, but the pandemic has altered those, too. Carl Crabtree runs the USCGA branch of Officers Christian Fellowship (OCF), a military Bible study network. Typically, he spends summer Sunday mornings with new cadets attending basic training. OCF holds a Bible study before the cadets’ chapel service. Even nonreligious new cadets take the opportunity to escape their training instructors’ screaming orders. They hear a message and sing together, often hoarse from chanting during training. This year COVID-19 restrictions canceled the pre-chapel Bible study, and Crabtree couldn’t hand out cough drops and shake every cadet’s hand as he normally would.
Other OCF activities have continued with modifications. Pre-pandemic, up to 100 cadets would descend on Crabtree’s house and 16-acre property for retreat weekends, sleeping in rows of bunk beds in the basement. The retreats attract cadets usually uninterested in Bible study, with free food as a draw.
This year, safety restrictions limited the retreats to smaller, largely outdoor groups. They gathered wood for bonfires and played Frisbee and football, and most returned to campus at night. Eventually, snow and tighter restrictions ended the retreats altogether.
But Christian cadets have found ways to reach struggling peers. They still hold Bible studies either online or spread out in an auditorium. Senior and OCF leader Isaac LaLonde ordered food from Chick-fil-A to lure more cadets to some in-person meetings. Koval said her friends visit struggling cadets in their dorm rooms to talk: “Cadets really value time because that’s the thing that we have the least of.”
McClure noted the cadets’ discouragement over changing safety rules has opened opportunities for him to hint at the unchanging hope Christ offers. Koval agreed. “The Church is supposed to shine brightest when everything else around them is darkest,” she said. “We do have a very perfect time for us to really be the light.”
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