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7 ideas for the Air Force Academy

Guest Blogger

Diana Jean Schemo spent a year observing cadets up close at the United States Air Force Academy. In "Skies to Conquer," she follows the Fighting Bulldawgs of Squadron 13, closely chronicling the journey of four initiates, two men and two women. Their stories reveal the struggles of an institution coming to grips with a changing culture. Schemo is a longtime journalist who has worked for the Baltimore Sun and the New York Times. Here, she offers seven recommendations for improving the Air Force Academy.

By Diana Jean Schemo

More than 1,000 cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., graduated last week, joining the ranks of the Air Force’s newest officers as second lieutenants. They tossed high their caps -- with $20.10 tucked inside to commemorate their class year -- as F-15 Thunderbirds streaked across an overcast sky.

But as they celebrated, others, like Annapolis professor Bruce Fleming, were deriding service academies as factories for mediocrity and cynicism, saying they had lost their direction, and were not worth the nearly $500,000 it costs taxpayers to educate each cadet.

In a year following cadets at the Air Force Academy, I discovered an institution steeped in tradition and yet struggling to adapt. Fresh from scandals over the academy’s handling of sexual assaults, and over religious proselytizing on base, officials were redrawing training exercises to deter abuse, and intensifying their watch over upperclassmen, who quietly seethed when reproached in front of incoming cadets.

Here are some suggestions to help the Colorado Springs academy thrive in a changing world:

1. Uphold honor, and mean it: The honor code -- in which cadets pledge “not to lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does” -- must be extended to cover sexual assaults, which are a theft of the victim’s dignity. Those guilty of violating the code on any score should be held accountable, regardless of how well-connected they might be, or how politically sensitive the incident.

2. End the double standard for athletes: While Division I football is great for filling stadiums, building revenues and class spirit, the cost to the academy’s integrity of lowering standards when it comes to athletes is too high. During the year I observed, athletes were at the heart of a cheating ring that snared dozens of cadets, and it was an open secret among cadets that they kept an apartment off base -- a violation of the rules everyone else must live by.

3. Come clean with cadets and the public: Tell the truth about how the academy is doing. In 2005, Congress ordered the academy to periodically survey cadet attitudes, as a measure of progress in remedying its earlier problems. The academy has yet to publicly release those surveys. The academy should set the standard for transparency, releasing the surveys unprompted as a way of owning up to its performance and building trust.

4. Foster a spirit of inquiry, encouraging tough questions: The year I covered the academy for my book, the 2006-2007 academic year, U.S. military and intelligence agencies were neck-deep in vexing moral and legal issues: Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the secret rendition of suspected terrorists, and killing civilians as “collateral damage” in the pursuit of suspected terrorists. And yet a discussion of collective punishment in a philosophy class prompted only one question, involving basic training of new cadets. Cadets, on track to become our nation’s next generation of leaders, must learn to question, and to avoid group-think, from the earliest days of their training.

5. Tough questions, on all levels: Earlier this year, when vandals desecrated a new worship site for Pagans, the academy announced an investigation. But two weeks into the inquiry, investigators had yet to question the sergeant who discovered the vandalism. The investigation was quietly shut down in early April, with nobody held accountable. These kinds of moves -- talking tough and going soft after the news cycle moves on -- fosters cynicism among cadets.

6. Don’t use Jesus as Crazy Glue: Each cadet’s spiritual life is too personal and precious to become fodder for unit cohesion. If cadets on their own want to study the Bible or attend services, that is their choice. But there is no earthly reason for the academy to host weekly Bible study classes by outside groups, some of whose philosophies dangerously blur the distinction between military service and missionary fervor.

7. Keep politics out of it: Time and again at the academy, liberals are cast as enemies of cadets or the military. As with Christianity, cadets who do not fit the mold feel compelled to keep quiet about their political beliefs. But there is much else -- a sense of history and identity, ideals of freedom, equality and justice -- that binds us as Americans.

Many of these changes involve shifts in perspective and culture, which come only slowly. As the academy tried to professionalize its initiation of new cadets in the summer of 2006, using the training of enlisted airmen at Lackland Air Force Base as a template, upperclassmen argued that leaders were on the wrong track.

Lackland trains people to take a job and do it well, said cadet flight commander Lance Watson. But cadets see the academy as the place they forge lifelong bonds. To them, in the words of Watson, “The academy is like a brotherhood.”

By Steven E. Levingston  |  June 1, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: liberals at air force academy, religion at air force academy, training at U.S. air force academy  
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It costs what, upwards of $300,000 for the US Government to produce one US Air Force Academy graduate?

I find it impossible to believe that we're getting good value for that money.

The military academies are an artifact of the 19th century, when there were too few institutions of higher learning to meet the young Republic's need for skilled and disciplined officers. In the 21st century, we have, if anything, a glut of college graduates.

Time to shut the academies down.

Posted by: kcx7 | June 1, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

1. Hopefully your research is more detailed than your inaccurate desciption of the 'F-15 Thunderbirds'...the Thunderbirds have never flown the F-15. The F-16 is significantly different even to a casual observer.

2. I whole heartedly agree with delinking religion at not only the Air Force Academy but in operational units too. There are simply too many opportunities for the embedded Chaplins to cite prayers and invoke spirituality across the board. If it is a personal choice, then leave it within personal space. As a former AF enlisted and a long time AF civilian I was amazed at how often Chaplins opened monthly luncheons and other gatherings.

Posted by: MI-Sooner | June 1, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

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