The Essence of USAFA: Immersing cadets in the 'total experience'

05/02/2014 -- U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Editor's note: This is part three of an eight-part series detailing the essence of the Academy.

Cadet life at the Air Force's Academy isn't just about academics and sports; it's about immersing cadets in a total experience: education, leadership, physical and mental strength. 

The third of eight pillars comprising the Academy's essence or "total experience," is derived from a Defense Department directive governing the service academies, explaining that cadets are to be "immersed in the traditions and professional values essential to the institutional character of the Air Force."

Some with a significant role in carrying this immersion are Academy Military Trainers -- special duty Airmen who guide cadets through their total Academy experience.

"AMTs play a pivotal role in immersing cadets into the Academy essence as cadet life isn't just about academics in the common sense, it's about instilling a way of life revolving around discipline, training and continual instruction," said Senior Master Sgt. Jackson Helzer, superintendent for the Academy's Commandant of Cadets. "We expose cadets to an experience representative of our total force here." 

The Total Experience
Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson described the essence, and this "total experience," as introducing cadets to "an intensive professional military environment while achieving a four-year college education."

AMTs introduce cadets to this essence by immersing them into a culture of accountability, by maintaining good order and discipline, and enforcing standards, Helzer said.

"AMTs continually work to reinforce the core values, so that they transfer to active duty," he said. "The core values are not something that can simply be turned on the day the cadets cross the stage at graduation but rather, these values are reinforced through a deliberate process over the course of four years."

A large part of immersing cadets in the total Academy experience is the result of AMTs leading by example, said Master Sgt. Cesar Ochoa, the Cadet Wing's Expedition Survival and Evasion Training Program NCO.

"A positive attitude from an AMT can spread like wildfire," he said. "An AMT shows cadets by example how to react to anything and everything. How an AMT reacts to changes is the first impression cadets receive about the reaction they can expect as leaders from the enlisted force. We have to give cadets everything we have if we expect them to do the same."

This immersion also helps cadets pursue their Academic goals, Helzer said. 

"AMTs have the opportunity to experience the classes with cadets; they participate in Capstone Projects and other class projects where we're sometimes interviewed by cadets for our unique backgrounds and experience," he said. "Through this process, we're able to glean some of the academic rigors through the cadet's eyes - thus mutually benefiting both sides in their Academy experience."

"AMTs mentor and coach cadet leaders as they hone their leadership skills in this unique leadership laboratory," Helzer said. "AMTs help cadets operate within established boundaries and engage in situations where they might not have experience. This reinforces a professional military environment as it promotes teamwork between active duty officers and enlisted Airmen."

Part of this professional military environment, Ochoa said, is teaching cadets the chain of command.

"Cadets start to understand that the chain of command is there for them and that their mission is to take care of each other," he said. "Everybody has a mission to care of someone. As AMTs, we're involved in every aspect of their lives, but it's satisfying to see them start to use their chain of command and take their issues to their element leaders and flight commanders." 

The Officer Development System

According to the essence, this leadership training environment crystallizes cadet's intentional commitment to the core value of service before self and enables them to become fit, ethically-based, service-minded officers prepared to lead and mentor Airmen.

To that end, unique to the Academy is the Officer Development System, which provides all members of the Academy constituency a framework and set of strategies to accomplish its mission.

"(The Officer Development System) is something that will integrate and magnify each mission element's unique contribution," said Stephen Shambach, the Academy's Plans and Requirements senior officer development program analyst.

Updated annually, the ODS is the Academy's method of completing its mission: to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become officers of character, motivated to lead the Air Force in service to the nation.

The ODS is the Academy's system for developing officers to meet the challenges of a complex future, Shambach said.

"We need to walk our own talk, reconnect with our objectives, and implement in a way that overcomes natural obstacles and reinforces cadets' identification with Air Force core values," he said. "We are fulfilling our strategic imperative of developing officers of character, but we can do it better and more intentionally."

As a key part of this development system, AMTs take their role in immersing cadets into the Academy essence seriously, Helzer said. 

"The AMTs are standard bearers and work to maintain a culture of commitment and respect; this is paramount as you indoctrinate cadets into the profession of arms," he said.

Maintaining a culture of commitment and respect is essential of all Academy Airmen as stewards to the Air Force and the nation, according to Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson. 

In the larger sense, Helzer said, AMTs immerse cadets in the Academy essence not only by preparing them to be leaders, but also to be Airmen.

"Academy AMTs bring exposure to the active duty world along with their operational experience and ideas, bridging the enlisted-officer gap and creating an environment suggestive of the active duty Air Force," he said. "Through mentorship, professional military education, and teaching them to be their own standards bearer, while living the Air Force Core Values our AMTs instill a sense of pride in Air Force and the privilege to serve our country."