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'First line of defense': cadets promote resiliency

Personal Ethics and Education Representatives, or PEERs, stand ready to help cadets with stressors and lead them to helping agencies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo.

Personal Ethics and Education Representatives, or PEERs, stand ready to help cadets with stressors and lead them to helping agencies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo. PEERs attend 16-hours of specialized training and earn a blue rope upon completion. (Courtesy Photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --

The Air Force Academy presents many challenges to the more than 4,000 students who attend the institution each year. One group of cadets stand ready to help them through those tough times.

“We have a team here that understands the physical, academic and emotional strain of attending a service academy,” said Maj. Kristene Harris, Personal Ethics and Education Representative program manager. “We all work together to provide a broad spectrum of services to address whatever life throws in the way.”

The Academy trained 167 cadets as PEERs to assist cadets with a wide-range of stressors.

“We provide intermediate level counseling for cadets who are struggling with issues ranging from academic stressors, family or relationship problems, depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal ideation,” said Cadet 1st Class Ryan Pfaffenbichler, a cadet wing PEER who majors in systems engineering. “We also offer outreach programs and briefings to our cadet squadrons.”   

The PEERs complete 16 hours of initial training before earning a handmade blue rope, which qualified cadets began wearing Sept. 22.

“It’s a tough job,” Harris said. “These men and women have big hearts and dedicate a good amount of time to support and encourage their fellow cadets.”

Harris, a clinical social worker, said due to their proximity within squadrons, PEERs are uniquely poised to notice behavioral changes.

“They’re the first line of defense,” Harris said. “They have rapport to share burdens, commiserate about cadet life and are able to provide reliable information about mental health support.”

Pfaffenbichler says the blue rope is a visual indicator for cadets and shows a “ready force” of individuals standing by to support them at a moment’s notice.

“The feedback has been great,” Pfaffenbichler said. “We’ve felt for a long time that a mental health advocacy and support group should be readily identifiable and [the blue rope] allows us to do that.”