USAFA, 20 years later

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Scott Reed
  • 71st Operations Support Squadron
Two weekends ago, I made my first reunion pilgrimage back to the U.S. Air Force Academy to get together with a lot of my classmates from the Class of 1984. I had missed the class 10-year reunion because of a change of station from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, to Tyndall AFB, Fla., so I was looking forward to seeing old friends that I had lost contact with more than 20 years. I also wanted to see how cadet life had changed since I went to school and what the Academy was doing in the wake of the scandals that have made the news in the past couple of years. I was not disappointed in either respect.
More than 400 classmates and their families made it back for this year's reunion. Many of these were my closest friends in a world that did not have Internet, personal computers, DVDs, MP3 players, cell phones, unmanned aerial vehicles, Air Expeditionary Forces or operations support squadrons. The academy was the best road to pilot training and many hoped to fly an F-15, F-16, A-10, B-1, KC-10, C-21, C-5 ... OK so some things haven't changed all that much. In any case, although we were all older, grayer, heavier and "wiser" than when we left, the ties that had bonded us together as a class 20 years prior were still strong. It didn't matter if the individual was still in the service, had recently retired or had separated years earlier. We could strike up a conversation like we had seen each other yesterday. It was a great reminder of one of the best intangible benefits of military service -- the camaraderie that develops between military and civilian members as they accomplish the mission and take care of their people. It is especially strong for an academy class that stays basically intact over a 4-year timeframe.
From a briefing with the superintendent as well as time spent with current cadets, it was easy to see the academy has strongly reaffirmed its vision of building leaders of character. This reaffirmation has fundamentally changed how this "leadership laboratory" operates at the tactical, operational and strategic level. At the tactical level inside the cadet squadron, cadets are getting better instruction and more practice on how to lead and motivate followers. These leadership applications are less sophomoric and will hopefully translate into the leadership skills cadets will need as young officers. At the operational level within the cadet wing, the academy is morphing from a "Fourth Class" system to a "Four Class" system. This change is all under an umbrella moniker called the Officer Development System. For years, the Fourth Class (freshmen), known as Doolies, were at the receiving end of most of the "training" while the upper three classes received less emphasis. Now, the academy is broadening the distinctions between classes to ensure leadership training is more relevant and within the framework of a building block approach. Finally, the strategic direction of the academy institution itself is changing to ensure the school remains connected to the needs of the Air Force and is not simply an institution of higher learning with a military slant. One representation of this change is cadets will have a dramatic increase in the amount of time they spend outside the academy walls and inside an operational Air Force base.
The reinvigoration of the academy's primary role of developing tomorrow's Air Force leaders shows how important it is for every military organization to periodically examine its leadership roots to make sure it has not gone astray. At the tactical level here in the squadrons at Vance AFB, this means instructors and trainers upholding the standards in their jet, on the scope, in their position and in the workplace. It means being professional within your own peer groups on duty if you are on a T-3 cross-country with another instructor pilot or off duty when you need a designated driver downtown. At the operational level, it means Team Vance (military, enlisted and civilian) working together to ensure Vance AFB produces the best pilots in the Air Force. This commitment requires leaders ... leaders who will take smart risks, share "rice bowls" and keep their eye on the mission versus pure parochial concerns. At the strategic level, it means ensuring your unit mission is meeting Air Force needs. For example, as our aircraft increase their avionics capabilities, how much do we emphasize time-proven manual techniques versus the automatic capabilities these avionics provide? How do we adjust our home station training to meet AEF mission priorities? What is the right mix of civilian, military and reservist personnel in the unit to maintain a sufficient level of experience and continuity yet still be able to generate military expertise for contingency deployments?
The Air Force Academy is recovering from tough times but will be a stronger institution in the long run. However, one academy tradition that never changes is our longstanding record of whipping Navy in football. Next Thursday night on national television (ESPN), this tradition will tally one more Air Force win to its long list of previous victories after a hard fought contest. We'll say the final score will be Air Force 31, Navy 27. Go Air Force! Beat Navy!