Beyond the ‘fields of friendly strife’

Cadets explore leadership principles on the battlefield at Gettysburg


Decisions made by officers during the Battle of Gettysburg struck home for 43 Air Force Academy cadets who explored the historic battlefield in May as part of the third annual Gettysburg Leadership Summit.

Coordinated through Air Force Athletics and the Department of History, the summit integrated the common threads of leadership, teamwork, communications and warrior ethos that are critical to success in sports competitions and military engagements.

President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address at the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery just four months after the battle where more than 7,000 men lost their lives.

Four senior cadet researchers.

“The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract,” Lincoln said in part. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

Lincoln never envisioned captains of Air Force Academy athletic teams visiting the site, remembering those who fought and died and learning from them how to defend the nation that emerged from the Civil War.

The battlefield served as an open-air classroom. USAFA history professors facilitated the tour, recounting the events that unfolded during the pivotal 1863 battle and leading cadets in discussions.

“The idea is that you give them some idea of what the value is and the applicability of your subject,” says USAFA history professor Dr. Chuck Steele. “But then you take that a step beyond, and you have the cadets or the young officers start to ponder the decisions of people in levels of authority beyond their own.”

The cadet athletes recognized the similarities between leading teammates “on the fields of friendly strife” and guiding men and women into battle in defense of a nation.

Four senior cadet researchers.

“We’re getting to have an experience of what leadership should look like and how we can learn from leaders from the past and basically learn from their mistakes, learn from their actions — what they did well, what they didn’t do so well — and how we can apply that to sports,” says soccer captain C1C Kaitlyn Cook.

USAFA coaches, including women’s basketball assistant coach Capt. Brooke Cultra ’09, recognize the value of the leadership summit.

“I hope making the trip to Gettysburg, studying the events and walking the battlefield will help give the cadets a fuller appreciation for the circumstances and complexities surrounding the decisions that were made; that it would bring perspective to the decisions the cadets face; and that they’d see increased value in using history as a tool to gain practical and relevant leadership insights,” she says.

For the third year in a row, the Gettysburg Leadership Summit was sponsored by Paul Madera ’78, a board director of the USAFA Endowment.

“I was glad to sponsor the trips and was able to join the trip in 2017 to see how it flowed and what lessons were being learned. It was fabulous,” Madera says. “It was intensely interesting as a former military officer and as an American. And it was a privilege to be able to help our cadets get a great, memorable experience that hopefully will last far beyond their year as a team captain.”

In the summer of 2017, Academy graduate Lt. Col. (Ret.) Don Raines ’86 sponsored a similar staff ride to Europe, enabling six cadets to study six famous battles that shaped the history of the continent, including the medieval battle of Agincourt, Waterloo, the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Britain, the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.

“Visiting those battlefields makes the books and lessons come alive,” Raines says. “Seeing the cemeteries really makes you think about the decisions that officers had to make, from generals to lieutenants. It’s no longer war games or books to read in the dorms, it’s the reality of becoming a warrior in the profession of arms.”

Through the Endowment, Academy graduates like Madera and Raines work with the departments of history, athletics and others to sponsor unique staff rides that help build cadets into effective leaders.

“I like taking away the different leadership styles we got to hear about,” says boxing captain C1C Levi Knox. “Some were very aggressive leaders, others were like passive, but they still really cared about their teammates or the soldiers they led on the front lines.”


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