2020 NCLS focuses on the human condition, diversity

Thousands of cadets and graduates, staff members, community members, military personnel and visiting university students took part in the 27th annual National Character and Leadership Symposium (NCLS) Feb. 20-21 at the United States Air Force Academy.

This year’s theme was “Valuing Human Conditions, Cultures and Societies” and the event featured a variety of speakers from business, the military, sports and global activism.

At the opening ceremony, USAFA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria ’85 challenged attendees to search out speakers who they know they disagree with. By doing so, he suggested, attendees will broaden their horizons and grow.

“Our uniforms are the same — we move in unison, we march together, we fly in formation together,” he said. “But the truth is, in so many other ways, we are not similar. We do not come from the same place.”

That’s why NCLS is such an important gathering, Silveria said.

“What really matters is the diversity of background, the diversity of experience, and ultimately the diversity of thought,” he said. “That’s what makes us strong.”

Silveria said the nation wins wars when it builds teams made up of individuals who bring differing experiences and viewpoints to their roles. And the goal of NCLS is to celebrate that diversity and learn from it, he added.

The following is an overview of several speakers throughout the two-day symposium:

  • Former Secretary of Defense and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Dr. Robert Gates, was the John and Lyn Muse Keynote speaker on Thursday night, Feb. 20.

    Dr. Karin De Angelis, associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, conducted a “Fireside Chat” session with the former public servant.

    Gates served in the Air Force, and then joined the CIA. He admitted that he had no intention of staying with the CIA for 27 years, but on his third day on the job the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. He knew then that he wanted to serve his nation and help with efforts to counter oppressive regimes.

    “I thought maybe I ought to hang around and do my bit to take on this totalitarian power, because the future of the world depends on it,” he said. “There really hadn’t been a plan, but I was committed. If I had a contribution to make, I should make it.”

    Gates would eventually work his way up to CIA director.

    Years later, President George W. Bush offered him the job of secretary of defense.

    “We have all those kids out there doing their duty, how can I not do mine,” he recalled thinking in accepting the job.

    He would stay on as defense secretary under President Barrack Obama as well.

    Gates learned several leadership lessons during his career that he offered to the crowd. Among them — be willing to listen to honest opinions or recommendations from subordinates; be willing to make tough decisions when all recommendations are contrary to your path forward; and be willing to embrace new technologies.

    He said he’s heartened by recent progress made by the military when it comes to partnering with tech companies and business to innovate more quickly.

    Responding to a question about U.S. alliances, Gates said he remains frustrated by allies who don’t pay their fair share when it comes to national and global defense. He said just nine of 29 allies spend more than 2% of their gross national product on defense — a funding threshold that the U.S. has been pursuing for many years.

    “I feel as strongly as anybody in Washington that the allies have been freeloaders and freeriders for too long,” he said. “They have not done their part, and they need to do more.”

  • Col. Kim Campbell ’97, chair of Airpower Innovation & Integration at USAFA, spoke on the topic of “nothing ever goes exactly as planned.”

    “Just when you think you have a solid plan of action, something happens that requires you to adjust and make changes,” she said.

    Even with last-minute adjustments, Campbell said leaders need to push forward toward mission success.

    Campbell used an example from her own combat experience as an A-10 pilot to drive the point home. In 2003, Campbell was flying a mission over Baghdad, Iraq. The weather wasn’t ideal, but a call came in that ground troops were in a firefight with enemy combatants.

    Following her flight lead below the clouds, Campbell would deliver her weapons to help the friendly troops in danger. Unfortunately, her A-10 was hit by an enemy missile and the damage is significant.

    She had to make a quick decision about whether to eject, but Campbell didn’t want to do so over enemy territory. She decided to remain in her jet and attempt to return to base, using infrequently used manual reversion methods to fly and land the aircraft. She would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for her actions.

    Campbell told the crowd that, despite the stress of the situation, the support of her team and her trust in the airplane brought about a positive result.

    “That situation pushed me to my limits — it pushed me outside my comfort zone — but it was a defining moment in my life because it showed me what I was capable of doing,” she said. “I got to see first-hand to see what it means to be part of a team that can have a leader that inspires and motivates them in difficult times.”

    Other leadership lessons have included trusting in one’s team; allowing for failure and space to learn from mistakes; and relying on the “power of the debrief.”

  • A panel of four USAFA graduates discussed topics of mental health, life balance and more inside Polaris Hall.

    Lt. Col. Rochelle Kimbrell ’98, Maj. Katy Tenpenny ’05, Maj. Nick Kellenbence ’08 and Maj. Cristina Kellenbence ’10 were all part of the “Human Condition from an Aerial Perspective” panel.

    All said that teamwork, healthy relationships and mental health resources play an important role in remaining focused despite the stressful jobs they do.

    Cristina Kellenbence said it’s important for all airmen to have a support network in place so they can get things off their chest when struggling.

    Nick Kellenbence said it’s also important to remember that each person reacts differently to situations. One pilot on a mission that eliminates an enemy combatant may not struggle with their part in the death, while another may suffer a negative reaction. He shared briefly about one mission his MQ-9 was involved in which resulted in the death of a likely innocent bystander, noting that it haunted him for some time.

    Tenpenny encouraged those struggling to seek help when needed, even though there sometimes remains a stigma when it comes to people requiring such care. That stigma, she added, is starting to fade as leaders realize the importance of such openness and honesty among military personnel.

  • Maj. Gen. Michael Fantini, director of Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability, spoke on the topic of creating a culture of “can” in organizations.

    “It drives me nuts when people say we can’t,” he admitted.

    Fantini noted that often it just takes the efforts of one person to make what seems impossible possible. He used examples from his own life to highlight that truth.

    Early in his career, his goal was to become a pilot and serve his country. In reality, Fantini’s eyesight wasn’t good enough to qualify for pilot training without a waiver. An Air Force captain ultimately helped pave the way to a pilot slot for the young lieutenant.

    Then, at the end of pilot training, Fantini was grounded after being diagnosed with malignant melanoma. A colonel made a few phone calls on Fantini’s behalf, and he was returned to flying status in the F-16.

    Fantini told the crowd that perseverance and a can-do attitude helped make a long career in the military possible.

    “A blind, cancer-ridden fighter pilot is just not supposed to happen,” he admitted. “I’m lucky enough to stand here to say we were able to make that occur.”

    He noted that three key thoughts kept him in the Air Force for more than three decades — mission, people and family.

    “I challenge you to step back and ask what is going to keep you in our United States Air Force,” he told the crowd. “It may only be six years, and we’ll say thank you. It may be 10 years, and we’ll say thank you. I’m hoping it will be 20 or 30 years.”

  • Ishmael Beah, author and former boy soldier from Sierra Leone, shared his story of indescribable hopelessness and eventual redemption.

    He grew up fairly carefree in a remote village, sheltered from the horrors of war. Back then, his hope was to become an economist and a hip-hop artist.

    But at the age 12, as his country was engulfed in war, he lost his parents and two brothers in the fighting. After a year on the run, Beah was recruited into the military.

    Over time, he became a feared and brutal warrior. Beah would quickly climb the ranks of the boy soldiers, leading a group of 150-200 young men in battle.

    “You learn to function in madness very quickly,” he admitted. “You have to adapt to the situation in order to survive.”

    After three years as a soldier, Beah was rescued from his violent existence by the United Nations Children’s Fund. He went through an eight-month trauma rehabilitation program to reorient his life.

    “My father used to say to me, if you are alive, there’s a possibility that something good could happen to you,” he recalled.

    Many suggested that a young man who had experienced such violence early in life could not be rehabilitated, but Beah worked hard to prove critics wrong.

    “With the right care and support, you can recover … and you can refocus everything that happened to you for something good,” he said.

    Even though he remained angry and suffered insomnia for many years after, Beah slowly was able to find purpose and direction in life. He has since attended college, written several books and served as an advocate for exploited children around the world.

    “I hope to show the strength of the human spirit to overcome everything,” he told the crowd. “But also how one can refocus and repurpose your life even after it’s been shattered.”

    When asked why he didn’t remain bitter about what had happened to him, Beah admitted it was a process to get to that point.

    “What I had experienced, I could make it a burden and that burden I knew would kill me,” he said. “Or I could lighten those loads a little by thinking … why am I still alive? Can I find a purpose in that.”

  • Former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel spoke during several NCLS sessions, recounting his decision to leave the National Football League after three years. Although he loved the game, Urschel felt a very different calling — mathematics. He’s currently pursuing a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    “I loved football and that was one of my life’s passions,” he said. “But I know math is my life’s work.”

    Urschel credited his mother — a math whiz in her own right — for his love of the discipline. Today, Urschel gets his competitive juices flowing with every math problem he solves.

    “There are so many unanswered questions,” he explained, “a whole theoretical universe to understand. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a mathematician.”

    Urschel said he advocates for mathematical literacy, adding that it’s important to motivate young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

    “The world that we live in is an increasingly quantitative one,” he said. “Mathematics and quantitative reasoning isn’t just beautiful or interesting, and it’s not just a powerful tool, it’s a necessary one.”

  • During the NCLS event, the Academy presented the Malham M. Wakin Character and Leadership Development Award to Maj. Keturah Onukwuli. She was responsible for the planning of the renaming of the USAFA airfield in memory of Gen. Benjamin O. Davis.

Dr. Karin De Angelis (right), associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, moderated the Fireside Chat with former Secretary of Defense and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Dr. Robert Gates, during the John and Lyn Muse Keynote Lecture.

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