Better guidance for Air Force cadets

It’s all about character – and the lack of it – at the Air Force Academy.

Cadets doing drugs. Cadets stealing textbooks. Cadets telling dirty jokes and staging a lewd skit. Underage cadets drinking liquor.

One in four men thinking women don’t belong at the academy or in the Air Force. One in five juniors and seniors saying they would give alcohol to underage cadets if they could get away with it.

The most recent symptom of character lapse was the sexual-assault scandal, with women charging academy leaders ignored their assault reports.

The problem isn’t one thing. It’s all those things.

“You could accurately describe it as a crisis of character,” Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. John Weida said, one of four leaders installed last spring during the sexual assault scandal.

Recognizing the crisis, Air Force leaders frame their comments in terms of combat, saying the academy is “at war” and needs “a push of resources” at the battlefront.

Four-star generals will mingle with cadets for the first time this week during the generals’ weeklong quarterly meeting, held each fall at the academy.

Although moral muscle doesn’t come from shaking hands with a hero or hearing stories of valor, it’s one way the Air Force is trying to reset cadets’ moral compasses.

Air Force officials know the solution is complicated. Character is tough to grasp and tougher to teach.

Instilling values in tomorrow’s officers is the academy’s primary mission, and the Air Force has fallen short in recent years.

Michael Dominguez, Air Force assistant secretary of manpower and reserve affairs, said the Pentagon allowed the academy to “drift off on its own” and lose track of the service’s core values of “integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.”

“We understand that the most important thing we do is grow the next generation of officers,” Dominguez said last week. “We let the nation down, and we’re on a journey to fix it.” That journey includes:

-Increasing requirements for officers appointed to teach and provide military training at the academy.

-Reassessing programs at the Center for Character Development, which formulates instruction and conducts leadership research, to find what works and what doesn’t.

-Making character and leadership courses a requirement for graduation and becoming an officer.

-Better screening of applicants.

-Creation of a national character development research center at the academy to be paid for with a $30 million Association of Graduates fund drive.

Air Force leaders quickly issued concrete directives to change cadet life when the sexual assault scandal erupted in January. They set up 24-hour security in dormitories where many assaults allegedly happened, changed how assaults are reported and clustered female cadet rooms near the showers.

The moves were adopted quickly, and academy officials say they’re doing some good.

More tedious is mending the tattered ethical fiber that two investigations – by the Air Force and a congressional panel – recently concluded is at the root of the 158 sexual assaults reported since 1993.

One step, Dominguez said, is better role models.

As the academy became isolated from Air Force values, academy assignments became viewed as a place to mark time or lose career ground, several officers have said.

The Agenda for Change, an edict from Air Force Secretary James Roche and Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, changed that.

The academy is suddenly the place to be.

“We’ll put the cream of the crop there,” Dominguez said.

New Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Rosa Jr. got his third star by coming to the academy months after getting his second star.

Air officers commanding, those who oversee cadet squadrons, are required to have higher rank than before and are sent to get master’s degrees in counseling or related fields before reporting for duty.

The education requirement is a return to a practice bagged years ago to save money.

Candidates used to volunteer for the job. Now, they must be chosen by a five-member panel.

The panel recently chose Lt. Col. Martha McSally, a 1988 academy graduate and the first female Air Force pilot to fly into combat, as a group commander. She reports next spring.

McSally flew an A-10 about 100 hours over Iraq in support of operations enforcing a no-fly zone in the mid-1990s.

She gained notoriety by suing the Defense Department in 2001, challenging an order for servicewomen in Saudi Arabia to wear head-to-toe abayas over uniforms when off base.

The suit argued the order interfered with service members’ religious freedom and prompted legislation banning military commanders from forcing women to wear abayas.

“She stacks up against any officers (and is) head and shoulders above most of them,” Weida said. He said her commitment to follow the chain of command before filing the lawsuit and her strong convictions will send the kind of message cadets must learn.

Weida said every character development program is being reviewed and new ones added.

“Even more broadly, everything we do here should reinforce service,” he said. “What this whole institution is about is we’re trying to develop leaders of character, and so we should have an overarching document that charts a course in how we’re going to develop leaders of character. We don’t have that.”

A committee will draft that document, and a system will be in place in January to incorporate leadership and character training throughout academy programs and classes.

Starting with the class that graduates next spring, character courses are required for graduation. Cadets will be judged on character for suitability for commissions.

The academy wants to weigh applicants on a character meter yet to be developed to make sure they’re fit – hopefully in time to screen the class that arrives in June.

Weida said research of high school students across the nation shows building character is a growing challenge.

“A lot of studies that have been done on high school students in America are very troubling,” he said. “As far as the number who admit cheating multiple times on tests, lying to their parents, all the trend lines are very negative.

“We would be foolish to not recognize that fact,” he said. “We have a bigger job to do each and every year.”