Posted by: annemartinfletcher | September 19, 2010

Empathy for Why a Senior Cadet Might Take His Own Life

Yesterday I jauntily created a post, wondering if I should fictionalize my memoir about being a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in order to make it more emotionally compelling.  Unfortunately, recent news reminds me that “real life” is compelling enough, without embellishment.

Cadet 1st Class Marc Henning, a native of Crossville, IL, died in the hospital, after being found unconscious in his CS 20 dorm room, according to official Academy news.

Television media speculated that he committed suicide.  Certainly, whenever a fit, young person dies, people’s thoughts jump to lurid possibilities: drug abuse, the strangle game, suicide.  Sometimes, it might have just been congenital heart failure, although by the time one is a senior, a cadet has had at least two ECGs.

Do not be quick to judge Marc Henning. Medical and law enforcement personnel accused one of my own classmates of faking his own rape and assault during Under Graduate Pilot Training.  A year or two later, after a murder investigation, they discovered the actual perpetrator–another of my classmates. Everyone needs to be very careful about leaping to obvious conclusions in this case, as well.

I also remember that the most depressing part of my four years at the Academy was not during the “hard times,” but occurred during the “easy part” of my senior year, after my class had passed most of our military duties on to the Class of 1981. My classmates were busily preparing to go their separate ways, through assignments and wedding plans.  It seemed like every one had an apartment down town except for me. We no longer needed to pull together as a team to graduate; except for a few people struggling academically, graduation “was in the bag.”  I missed the camaraderie of  my earlier years.  Free of crushing time commitments, I felt directionless, without a mission.  No one ever asked how I was doing; instead they kidded me about having life “made.”  I had already “changed the world”–women would graduate. The vacuum created by empty weekend hallways, no way left to prove myself, my future already determined without anything I could do to change it (short of “screwing it up”) sucked all joy from me.  Every moment of the past, tumultuous years had been spent learning to revel in shared hardships and exploring my own limits.

Then, suddenly, it was as if the Academy said, “Okay, these ARE your limits.  Now go enjoy the secular, non-Spartan world.”  My adrenaline levels plummeted and so did my spirits.

If Cadet First Class Henning did commit suicide, he owes me no explanation.  I looked down that tunnel that is supposed to be filled with the light of impending graduation, and also saw only the darkness.  God bless your soul.

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Responses

  1. The poem by EA Robinson about Richard Cory comes to mind.This story brings fear. I have a son at one of the service academies. I understand so little of his life; would I know it if he needed help ? Could I hear it if he asked ? I reassured myself that he went to a place with 4000 bodyguards. There’s a lot of drinking where he’s at. Hope he stays away from the worst of it.
    Unforgiving Momemnt is great. Craig Mullaney is destined to be a national leader soon.

  2. Dear Tim,
    Your short comment brings up so many issues. “Richard Cory” is an apt comparison, but of course there is also the biochemical let-down that follows a prolonged, intense experience. It seemed like 4000 bodyguards, but when I read my diary, I am astonished at the lack of awareness I had as an 18 year-old cadet. Tomorrow I will post some thoughts on what to listen for. I am most disheartened by the drinking you mention. Is it in the dorms, or binge drinking on the weekend? Of course I agree with you on Mullaney. Best wishes to you and your cadet.

  3. I have a sophmore at the air force academy who wants to leave but feels the presure of letting “everyone ” down. He is very capable and made the sup’s list as a first year cadet, but he has a hard time seeing the point of the academy. when I go to see him on the weekends the place is a sprawling ghost town full of concrete and aluminum. Everyone that can take a weekend leaves the academy on Friday and comes back Sunday. There’s no life or spirit, and my son gets very lonely.I graduated from VMI and we hardly ever left and we were always in uniform. This was actually good for us. I saw cadets walking around in civilian clothes at USAFA. I guess I am saying is that by loosending the standards and expections you can actually create more problems than you solve. My heart goes out to Marc and his family, it is tragic that a young man who outwardly is accomplishing something decides that it is not worth it to continue. What went wrong? It’s all too complicated to answer with a blog.

  4. Bill, I feel for your son and I agree with you–sometimes “easier” really isn’t (it can be demotivating, especially compared to someone’s VMI experience), and that finding the answer is too complicated for a blog. I just hope to open the conversation.
    USAFA is always swinging on the discipline pendulum, trying to be “relevant” to the actual service. Are we creating leaders, politicians, or technocrats? My great Air Force commanders were all 3, while my worst commanders were politicians or technocrats only. The ones who were “leaders only” did not advance very high.
    Next week, I will be in CSprings, reading from my experiences as a cadet 34 years ago, if your son is interested. I doubt he can get away to listen, but maybe I can post a YouTube version.
    Finally, a few of my thoughts on who graduates: people who truly want to be in the Air Force, either to fly (but realize that fighters are being replaced by drones–nonetheless, cargo and pax can be very exciting–really), or to work on Space related assignments, or be in a cutting-edge laboratory.

  5. I was thinking of your son again as I edited my manuscript and came across this in my diary, number 2 in a list of 13 reasons to quit:

    “I have no class unity and spirit. Does anyone anymore, or is it just a mandatory show for everyone? & the upperclassmen certainly don’t accept the women here–I just don’t feel a part of the wonderful spirit of belonging around here, which is the thing that made it so worthwhile.”

    I did go on to list 10 reasons to stay, which, obviously, I did.

    • Just curious what your 10 reasons were for staying. I’m a USAFA grad, too. Today I retire after more than 23 years of active duty and I’m spending some time thinking back on my career. Hope it was worthwhile for you. I don’t regret my times at the zoo although it was no cake walk at times.

  6. Mike, congratulations on your retirement, with wishes that you have new goals in sight. I think I will write a new post with my ten reasons–but probably not tonight.

  7. Dear Anne,

    I was a cadet at USAFA in CS-11 when Marc committed suicide. I vividly remember my friend’s faces from CS-20, as well as Marc’s vigil and a resulting hospital visit myself. I remember being pulled into Mitches when the comm told the wing to stay quiet about what happened. These particular moments continue to haunt me to this day but i pray for him and his family. I just wanted to express my gratitude for your blog and the comfort that you seem to provide for the people that read it.

    Sincerely,

  8. Thank you so much for your kind words. I am sorry for your loss. You reminded me how difficult it is to absorb a loss and be instructed not to talk about it. Ironic, given the DOD emphasis on preventing PTSD.

    This past winter, two people died while skiing at the resort I work at. We, also, were instructed not to discuss their deaths–bad for business, perhaps? One, I saw the body, and the other happened to a child about the same age as my own. I did not know either of them, as you knew Cadet Henning’s friends, yet, if I allow myself to remember them, I feel the air sucked out of my chest. Their deaths were not “supposed” to happen while on a fun vacation. All ready, I feel better by just posting this small comment about them. Tragedies occur every day, but each person deserves acknowledgment.

    Thank you for acknowledging the tragedy for Cadet Henning’s friends and family.

  9. […] If not, I don’t think there’s enough here to draw conclusions. On my article about depression in senior cadets, Mike […]

  10. In 12 days it will be two years that Marc died. Tonight I had enough courage to google Marc’s name and found your blog. Thank you. Marc’s Mom.

    • Dear Linda, I am so sorry for Marc’s loss, which is so raw this month. Even though we do not know you, just reading your comment brought tears to both my husband and I. It took me three weeks to try and say something in reply. If this post brought any solace to you, I am grateful. Blow your son a kiss from the AFA community.

  11. […] is the link to a story I wrote about Marc Henning two years […]

  12. […] among college students. Even one cadet suicide per year is a higher rate than the national average. Marc Henning died in 2010. Another cadet, exhibiting self-destructive behavior, died in an on-campus auto […]


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