It's not easy being a cadet at the Air Force Academy, and it's even harder to make it to graduation, according to data for the last five graduating classes obtained by the Independent through a Freedom of Information Act request.
To begin with, first-year doolies must get through grueling basic training, which includes a stretch in the Jack's Valley wilderness area adjacent to the Academy where they learn survival skills and teamwork. Then, cadets must make the grade in rigorous academics while meeting expectations in military training and abiding by the Academy's strict code of honor that requires cadets to not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate others who do. Through all that, they must remain healthy.
Up to one in four cadets never makes it to commencement.
Meanwhile, graduating classes are shrinking following a 2010 Air Force order to limit the cadet wing to 4,000 due to budget considerations and a diminishing number of pilot slots. While graduating classes used to total 1,000 or more, the last two classes ended with just 852 and 814 and averaged a cumulative attrition rate of one in four cadets.
The Academy declined to answer specific questions about attrition, saying that would require "an in-depth analysis of the data."
But attrition reports for the five most recent AFA classes show that women, admitted since 1976, washed out during basic training at a higher rate than men in four of the past five graduating classes. Still, women represented about the same percentage of their graduating class as they did when they entered. For example, women comprised 22.8 percent of the entering class of 2016 and 22.5 percent upon graduation.
Moreover, women left the Academy at rates below their percentage representation in the class as a result of honor violations, academic failure or aptitude/conduct issues; though they were forced out for medical reasons at a dramatically higher rate.
Specifically, the data show that for the classes that finished in 2012 through 2016:
• Honor — 81 cadets left voluntarily due to honor cases. Of those, 84 percent were men. Another 25 were kicked out for honor code violations, 72 percent of whom were men.
• Academic failure — A total of 309 didn't make the grade. Of those, 115 left of their own accord, 83 percent of whom were men. Another 194 were booted, 86 percent of them men.
• "Career goals" — 306 cadets left citing this reason, and 243 of them, or 79 percent, were men. (It's worth noting that the number leaving for this reason declined from 73 in the class of 2012 to 43 in the class of 2016.)
• Aptitude/conduct — 112 were expelled, 87 percent of whom were men.
• Medical: 52 were pushed out due to medical issues, 56 percent of them men. That means that women, who comprise up to 23 percent of a class, represented 44 percent of those pushed out due to medical concerns.
• "Other" — 250 left voluntarily for "other" reasons not explained in the attrition data; 84 percent were men.
The Academy does give second chances, under certain circumstances. "If a cadet has a temporary medical hardship that doesn't trigger a Medical Evaluation Board, or a temporary personal hardship which cannot be resolved if the cadet remains in attendance at USAFA, the cadet can be placed in turnback status," a statement from the Academy says, adding that after a leave without pay, the cadet can return. "If this happens during basic training, the cadet would be allowed to join the next year's class without having to reapply."
Given that the Academy's cost per graduate was $534,206 in 2015, the most recent data available, it would stand to reason the Academy would take steps to help cadets succeed.
"If a cadet is struggling but wants to be here," the Academy says via email, "our job is to give them every opportunity to remain and ultimately graduate and become leaders for our Air Force."
Programs that foster improvement academically, physically or personally include:
• The Student Academic Services Center, which offers courses and individualized instruction designed to increase cadet academic performance. Help is offered with time management, general study skills, reading rate and comprehension and writing skills, besides tutoring in a specific core course.
• Squadron faculty officers, who provide assistance to those with academic deficiency and those on probation.
• Instructors, who provide reconditioning programs for cadets struggling with fitness requirements.
• The Peak Performance Center, which offers services to enhance cadets' well-being and personal effectiveness. The center has four divisions — general counseling, human relations, sexual assault services and substance abuse prevention education. Counseling services address issues ranging from stress and self-esteem to resolving childhood abuse.
• Cadet PEERs (Personal Ethics and Education Representatives), who direct cadets to professional guidance on stress, relationships, eating disorders, equal opportunity and treatment.
• The Academy chaplain corps, which provides spiritual care.
Even that extra help can't rescue everyone in an institution run by a military branch that's guided by the motto, "Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do."
So, 221 members who entered four years ago as the class of 2016 weren't at Falcon Stadium on June 2 to toss their hats into the air upon receiving their second lieutenant commissions.
Four weeks later, the 1,168-member class of 2020 arrived on June 30. As of Dec. 9, it had lost 73.