How AFROTC Is Adapting to COVID-19’s New Normal

When Rutgers University graduate April Patko was sworn into the Air Force as a second lieutenant on May 20, having Air Force Association President and retired USAF Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright do the honors might’ve felt particularly momentous for the former Arnold Air Society national commander.

But it was also a notable break from the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps’ standard operating procedure, since, at the time, the two were states apart, and the ceremony was conducted via a Zoom call. 

Video: Air Force Association on YouTube;
Footage via AFROTC Detachment 485/courtesy of 2nd Lt. April Patko

Patko and her Detachment 485 colleagues had a virtual opening ceremony earlier the same day during which each soon-to-be service member had their ranks pinned on at home by their families. Each cadet later traveled, in-person, to the Rutgers University-New Brunswick-based detachment to individually take their oaths and get their first salutes.

“I think at the end of the day, you know, we all joined ROTC to become second lieutenants in the Air Force or Space Force, and we’re still going to be able to do that,” Patko said. “And even though it’s not as planned, and you might not be able to have everyone in a room together, you’re able to connect more than you would before.”

But 2nd Lt. John Dickey, another member of what AFROTC boss Col. Christopher Bennett referred to as “the FY20 Cohort,” conceded that not having his grandmother or wingmen present at his commissioning was a letdown.

“You know, it was kind of rough, but I think we were able to come across and really make it through the adversity of the situation,” Dickey said.

Remote commissioning ceremonies like these have become part of AFROTC’s new—or, at least temporary—normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bennett said the decision about whether to hold a commissioning ceremony in person or online is “almost exclusively made at the detachment-commander level,” but the corps has issued guidance about how the events should be conducted in either case. However, Air University spokesperson Phil Berube noted that commissionings aren’t official until the requisite paperwork is signed.

In-person ceremonies may only be conducted if they comply with policies implemented by schools, municipalities, and states, as well as “all the guidance about group gatherings and COVID-19,” he added. An example of a permissibly safe scenario would be if a cadet was sworn in at their house by a parent who also happens to be an Active or retired commissioned USAF officer, he explained.

But according to Bennett, at least one detachment—Detachment 880 at the Virginia Military Institute—has gone fully virtual. 

“I gave them a lot of discretion,” he said. “I gave them kind of left and right boundaries of ‘here’s what is legally acceptable,’ because they had to make sure that everything was done in accordance with all the laws, and policies, and guidance to make it a valid commission in the United States Air Force, but outside of that, we let the detachment commanders and the cadets be very creative to make it a special and memorable ceremony for each and every one of those men and women joining our Air Force.”

But Bennett said COVID-19 threw a wrench in the works for some cadets who were slated to commission into certain Air Force Specialty Codes after they graduated this year.

“We had some that were selected fairly recently for rated opportunities or upgraded to a more stringent medical requirement, and commensurate with COVID-19 coming upon the nation, our ability to get them through the initial flying class physical, which is done only at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, [Ohio], that shut down for a while,” he explained.

As a result, he said, cadets who couldn’t get a physical completed in time entered a proverbial “holding pattern.” However, those physicals are slated to resume on June 1, and Bennett says AFROTC is closely monitoring impacted cadets and scheduling those appointments “as quickly as possible to get them over that final hurdle.” 

“The good news is that, once they’re commissioned, they’re gonna have some time to wait before they come on Active duty—EAD is what we call extended Active duty—so it’s not like there’s an urgency that they’re the next guy or gal waiting to go to pilot training,” he said. “There’s a little bit of a backlog and a queue for that, so we have time, and we’re watching their follow-on training for each and every one of those cadets to make sure that there’s no impact to them and their future in the United States Air Force.”

Making It Work

For the handful of newly and soon-to-be christened second lieutenants Air Force Magazine talked to, their final few months as AFROTC cadets also looked different than what they were used to.

Once colleges and universities started making decisions about temporarily shuttering or taking coursework online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic around March, AFROTC had to speedily decide how it could finish up the current semester and transition the remainder of its academic classes, physical fitness training, and leadership laboratories to an online format. For context, the corps has 145 detachments spread out across the United States and Puerto Rico, composed of around 15,000 cadets who study at approximately 1,200 different schools.

As colleges across the country started sending students home in the spring, and offering courses only online, “we had to react,” he said. “Detachment commanders and the cadre out there quickly adjusted and found ways to wrap up the semester, deliver the rest of the academic content via the many virtual capabilities that are out there.”

The corps also started distributing workouts to cadets, along with advice on how to stay fit, so they could keep training and preparing for their PT tests.

Lt. Col. Kyle Smet, a professor of aerospace studies at Rutgers University and commander of AFROTC Detachment 485—which covers 10 additional “cross-town” schools in addition to its host institution—said his cadets were empowered to carve out how they’d adapt to this new normal.

“This is a cadet-run wing,” he noted. “We provided the cadets with a couple of overarching guidelines, and they took that ball and they ran with it.”

While he acknowledged their execution wasn’t flawless, he credited the cadets with finding a way to unite 80 geographically separated cadets to “go over drill and ceremonies, leadership lessons,” and more, as well as with developing “trackers” and other strategies to stay on top of PT. Patko said this included cadet-devised PT challenges that they shared on their own and the detachment’s social media channels, which were completed on top of their preexisting AFROTC fitness requirements.

Social-media PT challenges also caught on at the University of South Carolina’s Detachment 775, according to Dickey.

“I think we used Instagram mostly because we were doing like PT challenges on stories, and we were tagging, like the high leadership first, and then they would tag like their mentees, their flight commanders, and it kind of trickled down,” Dickey said.

At the University of Missouri’s Detachment 440, social media was also useful for boosting morale by spotlighting cadet successes, Second Lt. Matt Davis said.

And according to 2nd Lt. Danielle Barth, an alumni of North Carolina State University’s Detachment 595 and an Arnold Air Society national advisory consultant, moral support and accountability provided by her wing’s preexisting mentorship program was also a great resiliency resource during the pandemic.

“They call it a four year job interview, and they’ve been kind of preparing us, so it’s not fun to lose your last month or two, but I do feel like we’re also ready, especially this group here,” Barth said.

The format of college life may be changing in response to the pandemic, but the expectation for the corps to bring forth “a couple thousand lieutenants every year” isn’t slated to let up any time soon, Bennett said. For this reason, he said, AFROTC must “adapt and prepare” to sustain officer production for the Air and Space Forces no matter what tomorrow brings.

Impact on Field Training

However, before cadets can graduate, they must complete a rigorous boot camp-style program called field training between their sophomore and junior years. The first half of 2020 AFROTC field training, which is generally held at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., between May and August of each year, has been cancelled due to the pandemic, Bennett said.

“That was driven by obvious necessity that at the time we had to make [a] decision, and across the nation, we weren’t ready to even consider bringing that many cadets here to Montgomery, to Maxwell Air Force Base, to conduct field training,” he said.

Following that decision, he explained, AFROTC hit reset and brainstormed a tentative game plan for conducting the second half of field training. Bennett said the corps will decide whether to stick with that plan “as the next month or so unfolds.” 

He said AFROTC looked to the examples of Basic Military Training and Officer Training School for inspiration when it came to maintaining training environments and ensuring the health and safety of instructors and trainees alike.

“We watched them, and we’ve taken all those lessons learned in partnership with the medical community, AETC SG [Air Education and Training Command Surgeon General], and really the totality of Air University and AETC, and built a plan with multiple screening measures, quarantine measures, or restriction of movement measures to ensure that when we do field training, we have a … safe, and healthy, and COVID-19-free training environment for our cadre, our instructors, and our cadets, as well,” he said.

If field training proceeds later in the summer, most of the experience—including its duration, environment, scenarios, and training objectives—will be essentially identical to those of pre-pandemic days, Bennett said.

“That’s part of the process we’ve had over the past couple [of] years, to have a repeatable, sustainable, standardized, consistent field-training environment for … every ROTC cadet year after year after year,” he said, noting that small, incremental improvements are an exception to this policy.

Differences will include an expectaton that cadres and cadets will monitor their health and self-quarantine as needed before their arrival at Maxwell. Once field training resumes, Bennett said cadets will be put in “very small groups” of individuals, known as “pods,” so social distancing expectations can be relaxed and “those cadets can get the full experience” to minimize coronavirus exposure risk. The corps also adapted “some of the training scenarios and environments and … venues” to mitigate exposure risk, he said.

“Obviously, we’re gonna use masks as much as feasibly possible, but not every part of field training will allow that just because it’s a physically exertive training environment,” he said.

The corps is also being strategic about keeping pods separated when possible to avoid clusters of instructors or cadets “in a small enclosed area,” he said.

“We’re spreading them out, we’re building more or creating more facilities so we can keep people at a safer distance, and we’re building in appropriate times for personal hygiene, for sanitization of our facilities, [and] for proper cleansing throughout field training,” he said.

And in between field training classes—also known as MAXes—the corps plans “to clean and sanitize all the common areas, the rooms, the facilities, etc.” to prevent the virus’ spread in case it still found a way to surface on-site.

AFROTC also plans to let cadets who can’t complete field training this summer do so at a later date, Bennett said.

“We’re postured and leaning forward to continue to meet that requirement [to produce new second lieutenants] for the Air Force,” he said. “It won’t be without challenge. It won’t be without difficulty. But with the benefit of innovation and some really motivated folks at the various levels of the enterprise, I think we’re gonna have a good solution going forward.”