My sympathy to the family of Stephen E. Williams. I have a vague uneasiness that we, meaning everyone who considers themselves part of the USAFA family, did your son a disservice by not stopping his accident. There is nothing I can say to ease your pain. For your sake, I considered not writing this post. You need not read it, because I offer no comfort, only speculation. For the sake of other cadets, however, I feel compelled to write it. I hope that Cadet Williams’ death will prevent any more tragedies.
Last September I wrote about clues that a cadet needs help. The most obvious clue is self-destructive behavior, which takes strange forms inside a Service Academy. Self-destructive behavior might include drastic changes in appearance, it might include changes in spending, it might include changes in drinking habits — or it might include foolish driving. Clues might have appeared long before Cadet Williams got into that car. It might be that he felt the need to send a message, but did not think anyone wanted to hear him.
Don’t blame the cadets–they live in an environment where strength and courage is glorified and cultivated. Too often, cadets are given a model for courage and strength based on the movie Patton. Such a model needs to balanced with an ideal that recognizes the courage it takes to stand up to one’s peers and superiors to right a wrong and protect others, such as is depicted in the movie Silkwood or the upcoming movie The Whistleblower. Right now, USAFA cadets need to let officials know what is happening–and Academy “brass,” from the football coach to the Superintendent, need to listen and help, not just try to salvage a season or a career.
Operations Officers know to watch for coincidences and listen for gripes, innuendos, and rumors if the officer wants to stop trouble. There are enough coincidences surrounding Cadet William’s death that I cannot shrug it off as another tragic accident involving a young man and a hot car, without further investigation.
Cadet Williams, like Lt (posthumous) Marc Henning, lived in Cadet Squadron 20. Like Henning, Williams was a manager for the football team. Williams took his last drive after weeks of news stories covering sexual assault accusations, not of Williams or anyone at USAFA, but of people on football teams at other institutions. The Academy has not disclosed the location of the accident, although the Colorado Springs Gazette reports it occurred on North Gate Boulevard. Another rumor is that it happened near the athletic fields, which is not inconsistent with North Gate Blvd–if you take the mile long dirt road connecting the two. No football game was scheduled for the Saturday morning of the crash. I do not know if a football practice, in preparation for an upcoming bowl game, was scheduled.
Hopefully, my suggestion that something significant can be discovered by stringing these coincidences together will prove to be utterly mistaken. William’s death, however, deserves a thorough investigation, more than just mechanically recreating the event. The Air Force is investigating the accident; they would investigate any death on Academy grounds. If there is more to this event than coincidence, then another cadet, somewhere, suspects something. I hope every person reveals to the investigators what their gut tells them to.