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The Essence of USAFA: Internalizing the Air Force Ethos

06/04/2014 -- U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Editor's note: This is part six of an eight-part series detailing the essence of the Academy.

Military training here isn't simply designed to run cadets ragged. Instead, it prepares them for real combat and helps them develop a mindset, driving them through the most trying times. 

The sixth component in the Academy's essence, derived from a Defense Department directive governing the service academies, says cadets are to "apply Air Force doctrine and guidance to internalize the desired behavioral and personal characteristics in our graduates," and this ethos will "develop and produce a leader of character with a warrior spirit and expeditionary mindset who is a culturally aware, motivated professional dedicated to serve the nation and prepared to lead in the 21st century."

Through Basic Cadet Training, the Polaris Warrior competition and the Combat Arms Training and Maintenance course here, cadets receive hands-on, professional training to be equipped with modern combat skills and to adopt the ethos of a warrior. 

On "silver" or training weekends, cadets head to Jacks Valley and learn land navigation, military operations in urban terrain, and participate in weapons training to cultivate a warrior spirit and expeditionary mindset.

"Polaris Warrior is our culminating training event of the year," said Maj. Gen. Greg Lengyel, the Academy's commandant of cadets. "All 40 squadrons each have six teams and compete against one another, taking the skills they've gained throughout the year into a test and competition. It's to instill a warrior ethos. That is also the focus of "Second Beast" during Basic Cadet Training."

Cadets need to have a competitive nature to be warriors and to be effective, said Academy Superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson. 

"We cultivate that not just in our intercollegiate sports here but also in the dean of faculty, forensics and Wings of Blue," she said. "We must help cadets build a strong character, have morale courage, provide them a rich and broad education and expose them to the mission, with a fierce and competitive nature. Those enduring values strengthened me, helping me become a decisive leader and adaptive in the Air Force." 

The training cadets receive here is not matched in any other commissioning source in the Air Force, Lengyel said. 

"It is great to be that lieutenant in a unit who knows where to find information in the Airman's Manual, how to put on his or her gas mask and be able to help other lieutenants from other commissioning sources," he said. "It doesn't make them better, it makes them better trained." 

Cadets need to take training and preparation here seriously, said Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Ludwig, the Academy's command chief. 

"If you understand the 'why' behind the training, it will help you prepare well and train hard," he said. "A friend of mine was in the Pentagon on 9/11. Afterward, he said all the training and practice he had in the 26 years before that day came streaming back and was instinctual."

The top characteristics of warrior ethos are: dedication, focus, selfless, competence, courage and patriotism, Ludwig said. 

"It's that mindset that drives them through the most challenging times," he said. "It's that preparation and habit that keeps Airmen in the right frame of mind to be prepared for anything." 

Warrior Ethos is laced throughout Academy programs, Ludwig said. 

"Whether it's a competition on the athletics fields, commissioning education or academic challenges, the ability to help develop the warrior ethos truly rests on how cadets address these problems and work through challenges," he said. "Mental and physical fitness are essential, but the soundness of their character will directly impact the essence. Developing the teamwork and trust will increase the units' ability to execute their role when called upon."

Cadets in the Academy's department of military and strategic studies participate in battle labs where they play out different scenarios for war gaming and take part in air warfare labs.

"We present cadets with complex problems where they can get overwhelmed," said Lt. Col. Jasin Cooley, the department's deputy head for operations and an assistant professor. "The idea is that you don't get overwhelmed -you continue to push through, look for creative options and see it to your desired conclusion. Our lab exercises most definitely do that. Our classrooms lead us up to that point. We provide a theoretical, doctrinal background and then offer operational and sometimes tactical application."

Instructors in the department who have deployed present their combat experiences on "War Story Fridays," where they spend a few minutes at the beginning of class, trying to relate operational realities to the cadets, Cooley said. 

"I think cadets really appreciate it," he said. "Some stories are humorous and some are very grim. I think it provides very realistic and profound insight on what cadets can expect to see when they commission and become leaders in the Air Force."

In today's world, there is a corporate knowledge that any Airman is very likely be in harm's way at some point, Cooley said.

"It doesn't matter your Air Force Specialty, there is a very high likelihood you will be in a high-stress position with troops looking to you for guidance under fire who are in extreme danger or in great physical and psychological stress."

Cooley defines the warrior ethos as never surrendering and always looking for creative ways to handle complex and dangerous problems.

"Being deployed allows your warrior spirit to grow," he said. "Being under fire can add clarity to your actions and responses. During trying situations, you have to take a step back, push back your emotions, get your brain engaged and think of the best way to handle the problem."

Ludwig thinks the biggest challenge to maintaining a warrior ethos is focus. 

"We have so many distractions in life that can hurt our ability to truly be ready," he said. 

"Not knowing what the future looks like can cause us to lose that focus and not be ready when called upon. It's imperative that the organization places the right emphasis on being an Airman ready for any mission you're asked to accomplish."

Being ready and engaged with developing warrior ethos is the only way to ensure success, Ludwig said. 

"We're here to 'support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,"' he said. "The world is always changing, but the oath does not. Our nation needs us to be warriors ready for any threat to our nation's interests."

According to Johnson, the essence of the Academy is not an artistic term. She said it's the idea that we're all focused on the same target.

"Getting to the essence of who we are drives us together," she said. "The essence helps us define our requirements to the Air Staff."