NCLS 2015 closes out: VA undersecretary says cadets should ‘embrace the uncomfortable’

Veteran Affairs undersecretary and NCLS closing speaker Allison Hickey chats with cadet speaker escorts Feb. 27, 2015, during the Academy’s 22nd annual National Character and Leadership Symposium. Hickey is a 1980 Academy graduate and served 27 years in the Air Force, reaching the rank of brigadier general before retiring in 2007. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Veteran Affairs undersecretary and NCLS closing speaker Allison Hickey chats with cadet speaker escorts Feb. 27, 2015, during the Academy’s 22nd annual National Character and Leadership Symposium. Hickey is a 1980 Academy graduate and served 27 years in the Air Force, reaching the rank of brigadier general before retiring in 2007. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- This year's Academy Character and Leadership Award recipient closed the two-day symposium, featuring 50 discussion panels and speakers, with a frank message on engaging with rather than fleeing from life's uncomfortable moments.

Allison Hickey, a 1980 Academy graduate, and the Under Secretary for Benefits in the Department of Veterans Affairs, told Academy cadets, staff and community guests, to push through and do the right thing when uncomfortable feelings, conversations and decisions surface.

"True leadership emerges from the moments that make us feel most uncomfortable," she said. "If you can't recognize and feel the uncomfortable, how are you going to know how to respond to it effectively? If you're comfortable all of the time, you don't have to dig deep and find yourself in it."

During her first semester here in 1976, part of the Academy's first class to include women, Hickey said female cadets were required to wear different uniforms than their male classmates, sporting untucked shirts and unattractive hats.

"I was uncomfortable that I didn't look sharp like my cadet brothers - so I spoke up," she said. "I sent a proposal to the Academy Uniform Board that was then forwarded to the Pentagon, and approved for the entire Air Force. Six months into my first year here, I was changing the U.S. Air Force for women across the nation."

Hickey said she felt awesome for about a minute or two and uncomfortable for the next two years.

"Speaking up for change really mattered but suddenly made me really unpopular with a whole group of people," she said. "I was cornered in Mitchell Hall by a cadet who got in my face and said, 'If I could take you behind a barn right now and beat the you know what out of you, I would.' All because I was changing how women felt about themselves in the Air Force."

Hickey asked cadets: What will you do?

"What will it mean when it's about changing Air Force visions, missions, resources and doctrines?" she asked. "How will you react to your uncomfortable feelings?"

Change will always make some feel uncomfortable, Hickey said.

"Doing the right thing doesn't mean you're doing everyone a favor," she said. "At that time, speaking for women, brand new to the Academy, didn't win me a whole lot of fame and fortune. Nevertheless, it was the right thing to do. Don't listen to hecklers and don't be a heckler."

Leaders have to speak about difficult subjects as part of the job, Hickey said.

"Such as on drug and alcohol addictions, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, suicide and sexual assault, to name a few," she said. "If you think it won't happen to people sitting in this room today, it will. Those uncomfortable conditions can happen to anyone regardless of their rank and experience."

Hickey referred to the HBO documentary, "Crisis Hotline, Veterans Press 1," as a great resource to guide veterans and educate others on the struggles of today's military veterans.

"Of the crisis phone calls we receive, half are from anonymous active-duty service members," she said. "Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, a particularly sensitive time for suicide, I received about a dozen suicide notes directly in my email box and in my email box alone. That's a very uncomfortable conversation. So what do you do when you're the one who receives that? First, you be need to very real and authentic. Directly ask them, 'Are you okay? Do you plan on hurting yourself or someone else? Don't dance around it and never ever set it aside and say, 'They don't mean it - they're just frustrated.'"

Hickey said she hears veterans' stories every day "that would make you cringe, cry and break your heart."

"They would keep you awake at night," she said. "Uncomfortable, right? I want to wake you up. Why now? Because you've got time to learn how to respond before you are there."

More than 2 million veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade and a half. Hickey said 52 percent of Veteran Affairs employees are veterans.

"I am honored to give a voice to 22 million veterans today," she said. "Now, 4.8 million are receiving compensation for their injuries and illnesses. Currently 50,000 veterans are homeless. Four to five years ago the number was at 150,000, but we've been able to get that number down. No one who has worn a uniform like yours should be worrying about where they're going to sleep each night. We're committed to driving that down."

Hickey presented the audience with more veteran statistics and stories on feeling uncomfortable at a high level in her career.

"The uncomfortable never goes away," she said. "In scenarios where you're really uncomfortable, I would advise you to talk it through with someone you trust, pray it through, or run it through - just don't 'addiction' it through. Do what you've got to do to stay in the fight. Especially if you know you're doing something right."

Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson thanked over 100 cadets and the 60 faculty and staff who were dedicated to running NCLS smoothly despite snowstorms. 

"I hope you felt the passion, dedication and moral courage Secretary Hickey showed," she said. "We're honored to have so many distinguished scholars and thinkers among our speakers who joined the conversation on character and leadership development. I want to thank cadets and other participants for encouraging this conversation by asking thoughtful questions. We're richer for all of your contributions and we must keep the conversation going."

Visit www.va.gov/opa/bios/bios_hickey.asp for more information.