Panel prepares cadets for ROTC exchange

The Pathways to Excellence is an initiative from Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson designed to integrate various mission elements' efforts to improve the Academy experience. (Original U.S. Air Force photo/Bill Evans)

The Pathways to Excellence is an initiative from Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson designed to integrate various mission elements' efforts to improve the Academy experience. (Original U.S. Air Force photo/Bill Evans)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Three cadets who will take part in a first-of-its-kind Air Force ROTC exchange program next semester sat down Dec. 4 with cadets who came to the Air Force Academy with ROTC experience to discuss what they could expect when they arrive.

Cadets 2nd Class Ben Goirigolzarri, Caitlon Faimon and Matt Sprague will attend Arizona State University in Tempe, the University of Texas-San Antonio and the University of South Florida in Tampa, respectively.

Cadet 1st Class Dylan Bush, who attended USF before coming to the Academy, discussed how the atmosphere at an ROTC detachment differs from the Academy.

"There's going to be a clear separation between work time and your free time," Bush said. "It's two completely different sides of a coin. Here, everybody lives in the squadron. Everybody always has your squadron rank, your job. That's always part of life here, whereas there you'll be a flight commander, but when you're not in ROTC, you're just a student who's trying to pass their classes."

One key difference between the commissioning routes is the number of officer positions available. Entering the Air Force Academy is difficult, but a cadet is virtually guaranteed a commission upon graduation. In contrast, entering ROTC is easy, but cadets face stiff competition for a limited number of positions. Because of that, Bush said, small details receive greater scrutiny.

"Once you're in the Academy, once you graduate, you commission," Bush said. "As long as you check all the boxes, you're going to make it through. I'm not saying that takes away from our officer experiences and leadership experiences, but at the same time, in ROTC, it's not a checkbox. It's, 'I need to perform as well as I can to be (stratified) higher.'

"There's no guaranteed anything in ROTC," he added. "Everybody's got to fight for something, so applying yourself as hard as you can ... really does matter to them."

Because ROTC cadets compete so fiercely, they're quick to volunteer for tasks, said Cadet 1st Class Winston Sanks, who attended the University of Miami before coming to the Academy.

"The number one cadet in ROTC will be nice. He or she will be a genuine person; he or she will care," Sanks said. "But you will see him or her performing. You will see him or her being part of every volunteer event the detachment has. You will see him or her ... being part of the honor guard."

Another difference is that ROTC accepts applicants who have families or jobs, Bush said. Academy cadets have to be aware of that when trying to schedule events.

"Let's say you have to prepare a briefing with two other people," Bush said. "One of them lives at the other campus that's 45 minutes away, and they have to stop at their job first. That's a very real thing when you're trying to coordinate activities with people. It's not their job to go to ROTC. Here, that's all we get paid to do: Just go to class, do well, become officers. There, it's more like an extra duty they're taking upon themselves."

Academy cadets may have to dispel a few preconceptions, as well, Sanks said.

"In my detachment, the perception of Academy cadets was that they were perfect," he said. "They slept at attention, marched to every meal, and if you cut them, they bled blue."

"They're expecting you to know it all," Bush said. "They're expecting you to be maxing the fitness tests. They're expecting you to be killing it in all your classes."

Academy cadets on exchange should try to meet those expectations, but they should also be humble, said Cadet 1st Class Matt Cale, who previously attended Arizona State.

"Don't go in acting cocky," Cale said. "If you go in, you're humble, and you say, 'Teach me,' they're going to appreciate it so much when you perform with their help."

Academy cadets should also be prepared for some differences in customs and courtesies, Sanks said. One example is that ROTC cadets may exchange salutes, depending on the detachment.

"In ROTC, if you're a cadet lieutenant colonel ... you're treated with that kind of respect," he said. "A cadet second lieutenant will treat a cadet lieutenant colonel like a second lieutenant will treat a lieutenant colonel. Salutes are expected. They will treat you as if you are an officer, and you will be expected to behave as if you are an officer, more so than here."

"If you're unsure about something, be over-the-top polite and courteous," Bush said. "When you're in uniform, it's all business. Each detachment will have its own way of doing things. You'll gauge it by ear once you get there, but it's best to be over-the-top at first and adjust as you go along."

The ROTC exchange program is a product of the Academy's Pathways to Excellence initiative, which looks at methods to improve the Academy's officer development experience and develop programs in line with the essence of the Academy.