Posted by: annemartinfletcher | December 13, 2011

Tragic Death Requires Investigation

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.


  1. Unless you have inside information you’re not sharing here, it seems like you are really grasping at straws trying to tie this to something deeper, even in speculation. Why do you not think it might not be just a young man driving too fast for the conditions? Thinking this kid was troubled by the child abuse scandal at Penn State seems like a stretch. And the fact that he was in CS-20 and a football manager like Henning doesn’t seem damning. I’d like to hear the results of the investigation to see if alcohol was involved, but even then, college-aged kids drink, troubled or not. Is there something else you know that you’re not divulging? If not, I don’t think there’s enough here to draw conclusions.

  2. Mike, I’m definitely not drawing any conclusions. But if the investigation automatically assumes this is another young man who was just driving too fast for the conditions, or drinking early on a Saturday morning with finals looming and then driving on base, then that in itself is drawing conclusions without looking at all possibilities. I do not want to slander anyone; I just want to make sure that this case is not “rubber-stamped.”

  3. It seems to me that you are drawing conclusions without hearing any details, other than he was a 20-21 year old with a car, something that scares any parent of someone this age. This could have happened anywhere else. If it did, would you be talking about it? Probably not, seems like you are just trying to cause trouble!!

  4. Dear Ms. Nelson,
    Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my article. You are certainly correct that all parents are concerned about young people with cars, especially on icy roads.

    I am not trying to draw conclusions, I just would like to ensure, for the sake of all cadets, that the investigation is thorough. I look forward to learning that my concerns are unfounded.

  5. […] my speculative article, “Tragic Death Requires Investigation,” Mike Joyal […]

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