The Essence of USAFA: The Air Force professional culture

06/05/2014 -- U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Editor's note: This is part seven of an eight-part series detailing the essence of the Academy.

The Air Force's Academy offers potential cadets a commissioning source unlike any other in the Air Force to fulfill its mission of educating, training and inspiring men and women to become officers of character, said the Academy's Superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson.

"Each of the Air Force's commissioning sources produce excellent officers, but our uniqueness stems from the breadth and depth of our offerings, our four-year cadet experience and how we execute our mission," she said. 
Based on this uniqueness, General Johnson said, is the Essence of the Academy, comprised of eight components including "Exposing Cadets to Air Force Professional Culture."

Academy staff

More than half of the Academy's faculty and staff are active duty or retired Air Force officers and Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs), or officers from other military branches. The majority of the rest are career Air Force civilian employees.
"Exposure to uniformed personnel and professional career civilians enriches every experience for cadets and is an invaluable part of their early development," General Johnson said.

The Academy's 40 cadet squadrons are led by Commandant of Cadets Maj. Gen. Greg Lengyel. Each cadet squadron is led by an air officer commanding, usually in the rank of major, many of whom are US Air Force Academy graduates themselves. A small percentage of these officers come from other military branches.

"Everyone at the Academy has a role in shaping cadets into leaders of character who become fit, ethically-based, service-minded officers prepared to lead and mentor Airmen," General Lengyel said. "But, the first line of excellence in shaping these cadets into leaders who embody the Air Force Core Values are the air officers commanding."

The AOCs are supported by the cadre of NCOs who comprise the Academy Military Training Corps.

"These NCOs are incredible role models for our cadets and have the unique opportunity to train and develop future leaders of the world's greatest air and space force," General Lengyel said. "They all exemplify integrity, service and excellence."

AOCs and AMTs are involved in every aspect of cadet life; counseling, supporting, assisting and setting the standards of conduct and behavior for cadets to emulate and much more, General Lengyel said.

Both the AMTs and AOCs undergo in-depth training and are certified as professional instructors. AMTs must successfully complete the Academy Military Training Course, taught by certified veteran instructors here and AOCs must earns a masters degree in counseling before assuming command of a squadron.

The forty cadet squadrons are grouped under one of four cadet groups led a lieutenant colonel with previous command experience. Each group commander has authority over the squadrons and is responsible for training cadets in military affairs and Airmanship, advising cadets holding leadership positions, and act as role models for these future officers.

"Equally pivotal to a cadet's development is the Dean of Faculty staff who lead instructions built upon a strong core curriculum equipping cadets to deal with the technological, organizational, and personnel challenges they will face as active duty officers," he said.

Basic Cadet Training 

Before cadets ever set foot in a classroom and are officially accepted into the Cadet Wing, they must first take on the challenges of Basic Cadet Training. Arriving at the Academy in June, these trainees spend their first six weeks enduring Basic Cadet Training, a rigorous orientation program introducing them to military life. 

Basic Cadet Training consists of two phases; the first focuses on the transition from civilian to military life, occurs in the cadet area; and the second, focusing on pushing trainees to their physical limits, takes place in Jacks Valley. 

"BCT challenges the basic trainees physically, mentally and emotionally," General Lengyel said. "The trainees' commitment to their nation, the Air Force, the Academy, to their teammates and to themselves is tested daily. This extremely demanding experience forces the trainees to expand what they believe to be their limits and ultimately, emerge with a deep sense of pride as well as a renewed confidence in their accomplishments and abilities. This helps them understand what sets the Academy apart from other (commissioning sources)."

Next up for those who successfully complete BCT is the Acceptance Parade, which marks cadets' transition into the academic year and their acceptance into the cadet wing, signified by the cadets' receiving their fourth class shoulder boards.

"Fourth class cadets are expected to enter the Academy armed with physical fitness, mental resolve, enthusiasm for competition and challenge, and an attitude positively directed toward success," Lengyel said. "The fourth class year is typically more emotionally and physically demanding than anything cadets have done in their lives. To succeed, it is imperative that fourth-class cadets accept the challenges that the Air Force Academy presents, recognizing that their training is directed toward making them and effective member of the Air Force and a leader of character."

Just the beginning...

The fourth class experience provides cadets with a foundational understanding of the Officer Development System and focuses on developing institutional Air Force knowledge. This includes a deep understanding of military structure, Air Force core competencies and distinctive capabilities, the enlisted forces, other services and employment of forces.

"After completing their fourth class year, cadets possess a solid overview of how the military is set up and their role in it," General Lengyel said.

The third class or sophomore year concentrates on a cadet's transition from a follower to a leader. The primary goal during a cadet's sophomore year is to become an effective military role model for the freshman cadets. The third class year prepares cadets for increased responsibility as they internalize standards essential for success at the Academy and in the operational Air Force. 

During their second class summer as cadets transition into the second-class, or junior, year, cadets begin to apply leadership skills and increased knowledge of the operational Air Force, and practice leadership principles while serving as Cadre in BCT, ESET or as parachuting, soaring or navigation instructors. Cadets are sent across the world to Air Force Bases to interact with active duty Airmen during Operation Air Force, a three-week program familiarizing them with the mission and the lives of Airmen.

In their junior year, cadets prepare to take on the responsibilities as primary trainers for fourth class cadets. They are instructed in practical leadership and supervisory skills by serving in NCO positions with their squadron's chain of command. They become technical experts in drill and ceremony, personal appearance and room inspections, and subsequently train the third and fourth class cadets.

The also study how to apply leadership principles in larger teams, learn about officer authority and responsibility and continue to hone their supervisory skills. 

In their senior year, cadets take the reins of command as cadet wing leaders. This experience offers cadets the opportunity to hone their leadership style as they prepare to be commissioned as second lieutenants.

This, General Johnson said, is where a cadet's real journey begins - when they pin on their second lieutenant bars. 

"The continuous, full-spectrum exposure to professional Air Force culture at the Academy is a unique benefit that cannot be duplicated," she said. "Our purpose is to produce leaders who are exceptionally well-prepared to lead in a complex, challenging, technically sophisticated and ever-changing geo-political environment. The intellectual and social capital that is built during the USAFA experience is our competitive advantage."