Annual NCLS offers deep dive on ethics, human dignity
USAFA’s 29th annual National Character and Leadership Symposium offered cadets, alumni and community members a hybrid in-person and virtual event focusing on the theme of Ethics and Respect for Human Dignity. The gathering occurred Feb. 23 to 25.
“Our theme is incredibly important and timely,” said Lt. Gen. Richard Clark ’86, USAFA superintendent, at the opening ceremony. “The Air Force Academy is an institution of higher learning, cutting-edge research and where we shape the future of the profession of arms.”
The annual symposium brought together scholars, military and academic leaders, corporate executives and athletes to discuss honorable living and leadership.
The speakers’ list included George Takei, actor and human rights activist; Dr. Ben Carson, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Annette Gordon-Reed, author and professor at Harvard University; Robert Woodson, president of the Woodson Center; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown; Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost ’88, commander of U.S. Transportation Command; and Gen. David D. Thompson ’85, vice chief of Space Operations, United States Space Force.
A secondary theme of the symposium centered on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which happened to coincide with the gathering. Many speakers noted the global instability of that moment helped emphasize the need to be prepared for whatever military challenges lay ahead.
“In our current events, we see what happens when a leader … does not act morally or is not ethical,” Gen. Clark said, “and doesn’t show respect and dignity for the people around them.”
Checkpoints covered the three-day symposium and following are a few highlights. (Full videos of some of the speakers’ presentations can be accessed via the Air Force Academy’s YouTube channel.)
C-17 crew members who participated in the massive evacuation of Afghanistan — dubbed Operation Allies Refuge — were on hand for a panel discussion. Those in attendance included Lt. Col. Alexander Pelbath ’01, Capt. Jasmine Leyro ’14 and flight nurse Capt. Hannah Swysgood.
(A fourth panel member, Capt. Mark Lawson, was unable to attend due to the crisis in Ukraine.)
The crew members participated in the 16-day mission — from Aug. 16 to Aug. 31, 2021 — and helped evacuate more than 125,000 refugees from Kabul airport.
Lt. Col. Pelbath said the mission was accomplished in extreme heat, in a contested environment and with little or no rest. He admitted the evacuation was stressful at times, but everyone found the focus to complete the mission.
“This was unlike anything that any of us had done before,” he said. “This had never happened in history — the largest air evacuation in history.”
As the aircraft commander for her C-17, Capt. Leyro noted that — at 29 — she was the oldest member of the aircrew. Her crew flew four missions in and out of Kabul.
“We were all in our 20s,” she said. “And we’re executing something unprecedented … especially for us.”
Responding to a question about the NCLS theme, Capt. Swysgood said respect for human dignity is ingrained in everything her team does. A flight nurse’s role is typically to care for injured U.S. military personnel, but this time they were called upon to provide medical care to Afghan refugees.
“Human dignity is a huge part of what we do,” she said. “We got to work with a variety of people every single day.”
Her team responded to the scene when 13 Americans and 200 Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing at the airport. They offered care and comfort to countless wounded individuals.
Some of the more uplifting experiences from Capt. Swysgood’s role included the delivery of several babies on the way to freedom.
“It was a crazy, amazing experience to be a part of,” she noted.
When asked for any advice she would give to current USAFA cadets as they prepare to join the Air Force or Space Force, Capt. Leyro said it’s easy to focus on the frustrations and challenges that come with any job.
“The important thing is to wake up every morning and choose your perspective,” she said. “You get to choose to be good, to be noble, and to live gratefully.”
Lt. Col. Pelbath added that cadets should be ready for whatever may come their way.
“None of us knew we were going to find ourselves in that position,” he said. “Sitting [at the Academy] 20 years ago, you never could have told me I was going to be the last aircraft off the ground in Afghanistan. You don’t know what’s coming next … you see what’s happening today in the world. The lesson for me is you can’t predict the future. The two things you can control in your life are attitude and effort.”
Lt. Col. Pelbath shared one additional piece of advice for the soon-to-be airmen and guardians. He said it’s important to find distractions to relieve the stress of important missions ahead. He conducted a fantasy football draft the night before flying into Afghanistan for the final evacuation.
“These are the things you have to do,” he said. “You’ve got to get your mind off it. You cannot focus on it all the time, or you'll be consumed by it.”
Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost ’88, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, joined the symposium’s final day via a virtual video connection.
“I’m jealous of all the adventures that you will be having,” she told the cadets in the audience. “I’m living vicariously through you all as you finish up your Academy experience.”
Responding to a question about the theme of NCLS, Gen. Van Ovost emphasized the importance of carrying USAFA’s core values into an Air Force or Space Force career.
“We exercise ethics-based decision making all the time,” she said.
Gen. Van Ovost also noted it’s important for the graduates to be good ambassadors as they fan out around the globe to accomplish their military missions.
“You’re representing the greatest military in the entire world,” she said. “So, what you demonstrate really makes a difference. “
A prime example occurred during Operation Allies Refuge, according to Gen. Van Ovost, when airmen helped evacuate upwards of 125,000 Afghan refugees.
“Everyone just sort of pitched in and did what was right,” she said. “We reflected the very best of America to people who were scared and who were in need.”
In response to another question, Gen. Van Ovost emphasized the need for teamwork and diverse teams that look for outside-the-box solutions.
“None of us is as smart as all of us,” she said. “We can't do it alone.”
She added, however, that once an officer has a seat at the table, he or she needs to participate.
“Your voice needs to be heard,” she said. “If it is not, we're missing an opportunity to make a better decision.”
Four Air Force and Space Force leaders took part in a panel discussion on the first day of NCLS. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.; Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson ’85; Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass; and Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force Roger Towberman attended the symposium in person to answer audience questions.
Responding to a question about a failure and how he grew from the experience, Gen. Brown noted that he failed his first check ride in the Air Force.
“Then I did the re-check,” he said. “I passed, but I got some additional training because I didn’t quite make it all the way.”
He said the experience was humbling for a second lieutenant.
“It was a motivator for me,” he said. “With failure, it’s not so much that you failed, it’s how you respond to it. It’s the attitude that you have.”
Responding to a question about his career expectation when he was a cadet, Gen. Thompson said he was in Cadet Squadron 7 in 1985 along with C2C Richard Clark (now superintendent) and C3C B.J. Shwedo (now USAFA’s director of the Institute for Future Conflict). None of them would have imagined the path their careers would take.
“What I will tell all of you is you shouldn’t be thinking or worrying about anything like that,” he told the crowd. “I was a little bit naive and oblivious when I was young. I understood I wanted to be an airman … but I didn’t understand what a future path and a future career might look like.”
He said it’s good to establish short-term and long-term goals, but then don’t worry about those specific hopes too much.
“Chart a path perhaps, but don't expect to follow that exactly,” he said. “Mostly worry about what you need to do today … and what you need to do to prepare for the future.”
The chief master sergeants were asked how cadets can best ready themselves to lead the diverse enlisted force upon commissioning.
Chief Master Sgt. Bass said high-performing teams have several things in common.
“All of them value the diversity and the strengths and the talents of every single team member that's on it,” she said. “As you get ready to go out there … know your folks and look at the talents, the strengths and the diversity that those folks bring to the team.”
Chief Master Sgt. Towberman said effective leaders are ones who don’t have all the answers but know how to ask questions and listen.
“Knowledge is all around you on that diverse team, and drawing that out is probably the most important thing you can do for the team,” he said. “Getting thoughts from everyone … even the ones who it doesn’t come naturally to. A diverse team is great — an inclusive team is what wins.”
Responding to a question about the ongoing development of officers for the Space Force, Gen. Thompson said he fields a lot of questions about a possible future Space Force Academy.
“My answer is always the same,” he said. “We have a Space Force Academy. The United States Air Force Academy is the Air Force and Space Force academy.”
He added that USAFA has been an important partner in establishing the Space Force over the last two years, adapting its curriculum to ensure new guardians were ready to hit the ground running.
When asked how he deals with disagreements as chief of staff, Gen. Brown said it’s healthy to surround yourself with people who have different ideas.
He suggested there are five stages of “no” that he tries to work through when making decisions — Hell No, No, We’ll Think About It, Not a Bad Idea, We Should Be Doing it Already.
“When you have people disagree with you, you need to get through all five stages,” he said. “Don’t give up, particularly if it’s something you really believe in.”
Brig. Gen. Michael Drowley ’96, commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, joined the leadership discussion virtually. He had planned to attend in person, but the events in Ukraine required him to remain on base.
“This [situation] does provide us an opportunity to sit down and reflect on the profession, on our character, on our leadership and really why you are about to join this service,” he suggested.
Throughout his presentation, Gen. Drowley focused on a question his former commander used to ask airmen. He liked to regularly ask “When did you join the Air Force?”
“It sounds like a pretty benign question — one pretty easy to answer,” he said.
Gen. Drowley said his initial response was the day he graduated from USAFA and commissioned as a second lieutenant. What the commander really was asking, however, was if there was a day when Gen. Drowley felt fully invested and engaged in his Air Force role?
“There’s a day, while you are serving, where you decided the Air Force is you,” he explained. “I embrace the values; I embrace the principles. Now this is a part of me.”
When he began to think about the question, Gen. Drowley said there are a number of days during his 26-year career that he can pinpoint. Graduating from USAFA, receiving his wings after pilot training, checking out in the A-10, serving as commandant of the Weapons School, deploying to Afghanistan for combat operations, and serving as the mission commander for the rescue of PFC Jessica Lynch all rank high in his career accomplishments, he noted.
But he pointed to his more recent appointment as chief of staff for Air Force’s Central Command working out of Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar — helping lead combat operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — as a moment he’ll always cherish.
Even though he was a senior leader, then-Col. Drowley flew combat missions in the A-10 to monitor how well the team was performing and how well they were being supported. One of his final combat missions was over Afghanistan, suppressing enemy fire in support of troops on the ground.
On his way back to Al Udeid, and against the recommendation of an aircrew, he hopped on a C-17 that was delivering tons of equipment and supplies to a remote outpost before heading to Qatar. Gen. Drowley was simply interested in witnessing the airmen during a mission.
As the aircraft approached its destination, Gen. Drowley noticed tracer fire whizzing past. The crew decided to proceed with the landing and delivered the cargo.
“The team did an amazing job,” he reported.
As the plane departed, however, every warning light in the cockpit went off. The C-17 had been hit by six rounds. Despite the issues, the aircrew continued to Kandahar and safely landed.
Because of the damage, the C-17 was not able to continue to Al Udeid, so Gen. Drowley grabbed a ride on an HH-60 Pave Hawk that was transporting a wounded soldier. From that base, he was assured, Gen. Drowley could catch a ride on an aircraft to Al Udeid.
Despite degrading weather conditions, the helicopter crew bravely pressed forward and delivered the injured individual.
Gen. Drowley then hitched a ride on a second C-17 that was filled with military personnel who were headed home after a year-long deployment.
As the airplane landed at Al Udeid and the Army personnel unloaded, Gen. Drowley was struck by what he’d experienced over the previous 36- to 40-hour period.
“I remember thinking to myself, I think I’ve just joined the Air Force,” he told the crowd, “which sounds weird … after 22 years of serving and doing all the things that I got to do.”
As he thought back to the question from his previous commander, Gen. Drowley discovered that joining the Air Force actually happens more than once.
“You’re going to join several times,” he explained. “You’re going to join and you’re going to leave, and you’re going to join and you’re going to leave. And that process is going to happen over and over. I just hope that your joins are going to outnumber your leaves.”
Gen. Drowley urged the future leaders of the Air Force and Space Force to inspire their future teams to “join” and buy-in on a regular basis, because the job ahead promises to be an important one.
Simon Sinek, inspirational speaker and best-selling author, joined NCLS virtually to have a conversation with his friend, Brig. Gen. Michael Drowley ’96.
Sinek talked at length about ethical behavior and honesty, noting that those values are more ingrained in the military than in the private sector.
“We all think we’re honest. We all think we’re ethical,” Sinek said. “At the end of the day, every single one of us is confronted with a decision that will force us to prove whether the view of ourselves is true or not. Especially when no one will ever find out.”
He noted that the word “integrity” is displayed on the office walls of companies, but too often that aspirational goal is abandoned if individuals can profit from being unethical.
“Our nation, I would argue, since the mid-1980s, has been marching on a steady beat where we’ve become more obsessed with performance and money than we have integrity and honor,” Sinek said. “We know the result. Just look outside the window and see how we’re all at each other’s throats and how divided our nation is.”
Sinek believes, however, that the younger generation is helping turn things around.
“They’d rather make less money but do it with integrity,” he suggested. “That’s a good thing.”
From a personal perspective, Sinek said he maintains his integrity and ethics by surrounding himself with people of high character. By doing that, he explained, he tries to make his friends proud by living a life of integrity.
“You don’t want to let them down,” he said. “I no longer act for myself, I’m acting for them.”
Dr. Christian Miller, professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, offered some insight into his extensive research on honesty.
His conclusion: Honesty is a virtue that most everyone values, but few people practice all the time.
“[Honesty] really matters to us when we think about other people,” he told the crowd. “When it’s not there, it gets our attention.”
A number of studies indicate that if a person thinks they can get away with cheating, plus they feel the cheating will benefit them in some way, they are more apt to follow through on the temptation to be dishonest.
“I don’t see a lot of evidence of widespread honesty,” he admitted. “We’re falling short.”
One factor that helps boost one’s ability to remain honest is the existence of an honor code or a requirement to sign an honor oath.
When individuals such as cadets live under such a code, and they are reminded of that code on a regular basis, they are more likely to adhere to that expectation, Miller said.
“It’s not a cure-all,” he adds. “It’s not going to fix the problem. It’s just moving the needle.”
Another thing that helps move the needle is admiring exemplars who were or are honest people, Miller said. That’s another aspect of cadet life that likely boosts the honesty of those attending school here, he added.
Dr. Ben Carson, former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon, was the keynote speaker for this year’s Muse Family Foundation Lecture.
Carson shared the story of his upbringing, having been raised by a single mother. She worked as a domestic housekeeper from 5 a.m. to midnight to support the family.
Even though she only managed a third-grade education, she cleaned the homes of professionals and discovered what separated successful people from those less successful — they read books.
As a consequence, she encouraged her children to read books and limit their television intake. The tactic worked, as her children advanced through higher education and in their careers.
“My mother was an absolute opponent of victimhood,” he told the crowd. “And if anybody could have been a victim, it was her.”
Throughout his life, Carson has continued to emphasize education because of his experiences.
“It doesn’t matter what socioeconomic group a person is born into in the country, if they get a good education, they can write their own ticket,” he said. “That’s something we must continue to emphasize, rather than allowing those who want to blame everything on racism and blame everything on someone else.”
The country still has problems with racism and injustice, Carson added, but progress has been made.
“We get to make a choice,” he said. “We get to decide whether we want to build our future on the progress that we’ve made, or the mistakes that we’ve made.”
Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and Harvard University professor, offered her take on the civil unrest that has gripped the nation for the last several years. She talked about her new book, On Juneteenth, focused on the history behind the establishment of Juneteenth (June 19) as a federal holiday.
The holiday commemorates the day in June of 1865 that Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Texas to proclaim freedom for slaves. Texas was the last state of the Confederacy to recognize the emancipation of slaves.
Gordon-Reed calls Gen. Granger a “special kind of leader” because his proclamation affirmed “absolute equality of personal right and right of property” for the former slaves.
“I think that’s really important, because he didn’t have to say that,” she said. “He could have just said, slavery is over … everybody go about your business. He establishes equality as a bedrock American value.”
Despite the bold proclamation, the nation continued to struggle with racism and segregation for decades to come. As a young child, Gordon-Reed was the first Black student to attend an all-white elementary school in her hometown. Her parents pressed for the opportunity, despite the threats they received.
In her book, Gordon-Reed recognizes the courage of her first-grade teacher and school principal, who made her feel welcome and treated her like any other student.
While much progress has been made since then, she said, there is work left to be done to bring about racial reconciliation.
“It’s been a long journey from June 19, 1865, to where we are,” she said. “But we’re still dealing with some of the issues that were the fallout from the legacy of slavery.”
Gordon-Reed recalls celebrating Juneteenth when she was a child in Texas, and she is thrilled that it has become a national holiday. She hopes the entire nation will take the time to understand the history behind the anniversary and then mark the day with family and friends.
“Juneteenth is a celebration of community and families,” she said. “With the passage of the federal holiday, we all have a chance to reflect on this and begin the process of recognizing the promise of the American Declaration of Independence.”
The Class of 1959 Leadership Keynote Lecture featured Robert Woodson Sr., founder and president of The Woodson Center which works to reduce crime and violence, restore families, revitalize underserved communities and assist in economic development activities.
Woodson, a civil right activist in the 1960s, recounted several stories of harassment and racism that he encountered during his life and Air Force career. But he noted that he never let those experiences derail his goals and aspirations.
Woodson focused on a quote attributed to pastor Charles Swindoll: “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”
Too often these days, Woodson suggested, people allow themselves to be defined by their circumstances rather than their response to challenges they encounter.
“We are in charge of our attitudes,” he told the crowd. “It is more important than the past. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skills.”
Woodson said he’s concerned about the current national narrative that America is “incurably racist” and that the fight for economic and social equality must continue.
“No individual or country should be defined by its birth defect but by its promise,” he said. “Nothing is more lethal than providing people an excuse for failure. That’s what we’re doing when we tell people you’re the victim of systemic racism.”
The Woodson Center is attempting to shift the focus away from this victim mentality to resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. Woodson said there are many examples of Black individuals who overcame educational and economic obstacles to achieve great success. He seeks to emphasize those stories to encourage others to do the same.
“The critical problems facing us have nothing to do with race,” he claimed. “If America is to rebound, we must instill in our young people — not the horrors of our past — but what we can become. Our future is in our own hands.”
The Class of 1974 Mal Wakin Award — recognizing a current or former Academy permanent party member who has fostered character and leadership development at the institution — was presented to Dr. Gregory Tate. Tate is a training specialist for the Cadet Wing who helped develop USAFA’s updated curriculum focused on living honorably.
In closing out NCLS for 2022, Ambassador Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger ’73 made a surprise in-person appearance to present the first-ever Sullenberger Award for Courage to Lt. Col. Alex Pelbath ’01 for his involvement in Operation Allies Refuge and the final flight out of Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. Pelbath said he shares the honor with his aircrew and all the military personnel who made the massive evacuation mission a success.
“If you think of this award in the future,” he told the cadets, “I hope you'll remember one thing. I hope you’ll remember the 13 Americans who gave their lives last August so that 125,000 Afghan refugees could experience the freedom that only America provides.”
In brief remarks to the Arnold Hall crowd, Sullenberger urged future leaders of the Air Force and Space Force to be ready to face the ultimate challenge — like he did with the Miracle on the Hudson — if and when it comes.
“Believe it or not, despite how I look now, I was once young,” he said. “Once I was sitting where you are, and I guarantee you I was feeling the same things you’re feeling now, thinking the same things you’re thinking now, and wondering what the future would hold for me. The major difference between you and me right now is that I now have the answers to those questions. But you will, too, sooner than you realize.”
Whatever the future holds, Sullenberger urged cadets to live lives that embody the core values and ethics that are taught at the Academy, so that the world sees American values demonstrated and so they have positive role models to follow.