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'We can't telecommute to combat": Army defends decision to bring back 1,000 West Point cadets for graduation

As universities around the country postpone their graduation ceremonies or make plans to hold them digitally instead, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point has come under some scrutiny for its decision to bring 1,000 cadets back to its New York campus for an in-person graduation ceremony, with President Trump as the commencement speaker.

New York has been the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, and critics argue that making 1,000 cadets from around the country to travel to the campus, about an hour's drive north of New York City, could put their health at risk for what some consider to be a political display by the president.

On Wednesday, Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat who is both a combat veteran of the Iraq war and a member of West Point's Board of Visitors, released a statement saying, "Trump's reckless decision to gather 1,000 Cadets at West Point for a speech puts our future military leaders at increased risk — all to stroke his own ego. Our troops need stable, consistent leadership during volatile times like these, not a Commander-in-Chief who values his own photo ops and TV ratings over their health and safety."

On Thursday, however, the Army's top leaders defended their decision to hold an in-person graduation ceremony at West Point on the grounds that students would have had to return to campus anyway for medical and other tasks necessary to prepare for their next duty assignment.

"We can't telecommute to combat," Gen. James McConville, the chief of staff of the Army, told reporters at the Pentagon when asked about the decision.

All West Point students have been home since spring break in March, and only graduating seniors are expected to return for the graduation ceremony on June 13. 

Vice President Pence Speaks At Air Force Academy Graduation In Colorado
Air Force Academy cadets help each other put on masks after their graduation ceremony on April 18, 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images

Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point, told the Associated Press that the school will create a "safety bubble" around the class of 2020 and build a staging base where all 1,000 cadets will be screened and tested for COVID-19 upon arrival. The cadets will then be separated into five groups that will eat and live separately and remain in quarantine for 14 days.

When asked whether cadets could face discipline if they don't feel comfortable traveling due to the coronavirus, Williams told the AP that commanders will assess on a case-by-case basis.

On April 18, The U.S. Air Force Academy held a scaled-down graduation ceremony with cadets spaced eight feet apart. Over 50,000 people watched as the event streamed live online.

Vice President Pence Speaks At Air Force Academy Graduation In Colorado
Air Force Academy cadets, spaced eight feet apart, listen to a commencement address during their graduation ceremony on April 18, 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images

On April 10, The U.S. Naval Academy formally announced that it was canceling all Commissioning Week 2020 public events due to the coronavirus pandemic. They have since announced that midshipmen in the class of 2020 will be permitted to return to campus to graduation in five separate groups over a 10-day period.

During a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing in mid-April, President Trump alluded to the fact that West Point might institute similar social distancing measures.

"I think, making the commencement speech — I'm doing it at West Point, which I look forward to. I did it last year at Air Force, I did it at Annapolis, I did it at the Coast Guard Academy, and I'm doing it at West Point," he said. "And I assume they're — they've got it, and I understand they'll have distancing. They'll have some big distance, and so it'll be very different than it ever looked."

"Do I like the look? No, I don't. And eventually, next year, they'll have a commencement which will be like it's been, like when people like this — our great Admiral, who has done such a great job. When he graduated from where he graduated — me too — we were nice and tight. And that's going to happen again."

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