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An Air Force Academy tradition in which underclassmen capture their wing’s first sergeant and dump him into the snow on the night of the first snowfall took a violent turn last week when a brawl erupted leaving 23 cadets with bruises, concussions and, in one case, a bite.
The tradition, dubbed “First Shirt/First Snow,” dates back a number of years, according to the academy, but has gone from being harmless theater to a human capture-the-flag with upperclassmen defending the first sergeant.
“This ritual has devolved to become increasingly violent, with significant numbers of cadets requiring medical care over the past two years,” Brig. Gen. Dana Born, the academy’s dean of faculty, wrote in an Oct. 28 memo to department heads. “What used to be 4 degrees [cadets] throwing the first shirt into the snow has turned into a brawl between upperclassmen defending the first sergeant and the 4 degrees trying to capture the first sergeant.”
On Oct. 25, a number of cadet squadrons lost control of their people, “which resulted in 23 cadets needing medical care, from stitches to concussions to treatment of a human bite on the arm,” Born said.
“Obviously, this has gotten out of hand and cannot be repeated. There is no way we can condone or defend this,” Born said in her memo.
Born’s memo noted that Air Force Academy Commandant Brig. Gen. Greg Lengyel held two Commander’s Call meetings over the weekend to send that message to the cadets.
Academy officials did not respond to Military.com’s request for additional information, including whether there would be disciplinary action taken against anyone involved.
Some websites discussing the practice, including one called talk.collegeconfidential.com , indicate “hall brawls” go back several years.
One online commenter described going up to the cadet NCO’s room to find him guarded by 15 upper classmen, and having to jump over stacked footlockers to get into the room to reach him. After a long battle, he said, they wrestled him out, into an elevator and finally outside.
“Once we were on ground level, he took off running,” he wrote. “But one of the females in my squad jumped on to his back, and went for the ride of her life. It was a great time! There (sic) were many battle wounds but no one got seriously injured (amazingly!).”
Born, in her memo to faculty, reiterated several of the points Lengyel made during his meetings. These included reinforcing that good military units set and enforce high standards and maintain good order and discipline.
“Hall brawls are not [in accordance with] good order and discipline and they don’t happen in the USAF,’ the talking points noted. “The Airmen don’t attack the NCOs and the Officers don’t brawl with each other.”
The Air Force also teaches and practices risk management – analyzing risk versus gain for a given operation, it said, and pointed out that the “gain of keeping a ‘tradition’ and having fun is not worth the risk of seriously injuring a cadet.”
Lengyel said the violence is not acceptable and must not happen again, but he invited cadets to come up with a proposal for how the tradition might be honored in the future. Those proposals must fall “within boundaries of good order and discipline and proper risk management,” Born wrote in the memo.