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Air Force Academy Spirit

NCLS speakers share experiences, perspectives on leadership with cadets

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley talks to Air Force Academy cadets about the nature of service in the Arnold Hall Theater Feb. 19 during the National Character and Leadership Symposium. Photo by Rachel Boettcher

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley talks to Air Force Academy cadets about the nature of service in the Arnold Hall Theater Feb. 19 during the National Character and Leadership Symposium. Photo by Rachel Boettcher

By Ann Patton and

Staff Sgt. Don Branum

Academy Public Affairs


Speakers shared life experiences, expertise and food for thought with both cadets and visiting university and college students during the National Character and Leadership Symposium at the Air Force Academy Feb. 18-19.

Speakers included Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley, former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick, Center for Citizen Leadership chairman Eric Greitens and retired Army Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell, a survivor of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon, among many others.

Secretary Donley was one of the first speakers the morning of Feb. 19.

“I’m proud to be with you today among the wide range of speakers,” the secretary said. He thanked members of the Association of Graduates’ Class of 1973 for sponsoring the event, and he thanked the speakers for supporting the symposium.

“I’m jealous that I can’t spend a couple of days and attend every one of the events,” he said. “As you can see from the quality of cadets, this venture is worthy of all our time.”

Secretary Donley recognized cadets’ commitments to serve the United States during a time of both military and economic adversity, as the nation fights two wars while experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

“True character often becomes apparent in the face of adversity,” he said. “This is the time for leadership. This is the time for character.”

Character, Secretary Donley said, means asking why, what, whom and how

 Airmen serve. The “what” is encapsulated in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”: the freedom of speech and expression, freedom for every person to worship in his or her own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

“We serve these principles as enshrined in our Constitution,” he said. “We find that defending the Constitution is more important than defending America itself because there would be no America without the Constitution. There may be no higher calling than defending the Constitution and the American people.”

How Airmen serve is as important as the act of serving, Secretary Donley continued.

“Our men and women are trusted with weapons of unimaginable destructive power, and even a small mistake may cause a loss of life,” he said. “The core values’ adoption by all of us defines us. Service is diminished if our values are compromised. There is perhaps no more important time to live by them than now, when our nation calls upon us.”

As Secretary Donley addressed cadets in Arnold Hall, Dr. David Callahan, author of “The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead,” spoke in Fairchild Hall. He is a senior fellow and co-founder of the New York-based Demos think tank and holds a doctorate in politics. He branded himself NCLS’ bad news bear.

“I believe the nation is in big trouble in terms of ethics and character,” he said and added it is the biggest challenge of the 21st century.

During research for “The Cheating Culture” and as examples, he learned that tax evasion has doubled during the last 15 years, employee theft has become the biggest single form of crime against businesses, high-profile sports figures have admitted using illicit drugs to enhance performance, and two-thirds to three-fourths of young people have admitted to academic cheating in the last year.

“In every sector, trust is in short supply,” he said.

There is some good news, however. Dr. Callahan pointed out the crime rate has fallen with New York City, experiencing its lowest homicide rate. In addition, drunken driving has dropped 40 percent since 1980, and the suicide rate dropped 15 percent last year.

“But it is a bifurcated morality,” he said. “We can do better.”

He said there are signs ethics and morals are strengthening.

“You can never count Americans out for reform,” he said. “The pendulum is swinging toward reform.”

Society, he believes, should reward a strong work ethic. Rule breakers should be dealt with justly. No one is above the law, and everyone should have a say in how the rules are made.

When Colonel Birdwell went to work at the Pentagon Sept. 11, 2001, he expected a slow day. Senior officers were in meetings out of the building all day, and the office TV was on. Instead, he and his two co-workers in the Pentagon watched news reports as the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers stood in flames against the Manhattan skyline.

A trip to the second floor lavatory shortly afterward saved his life.

“I stand before you by grace,” he told students in Fairchild Hall.

Colonel Birdwell’s work area was in the direct path of the American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 that was traveling at more than 500 miles per hour when it slammed into the Pentagon. His co-workers died, and he suffered third-degree burns over two-thirds of his body.

Two days after the attack, Mrs. Birdwell received a call on her cell phone – a number reserved only for family and close friends – from the White House. President and Mrs. George W. Bush wanted to visit with victims of the crash.

Later, the Birdwell family recalled with humor Mrs. Birdwell asking at the end of the conversation, “How did you get this number?”

The reply: “Ma’am, we are the Secret Service.”

Colonel Birdwell told NCLS participants the somber demeanor on the commander in chief’s face no doubt reflected the weight on his shoulders.

“This is not going to go unanswered,” the president assured the Pentagon attack victims in the hospital’s burn unit.

After four long years of excruciating treatments, skin grafts and plastic surgeries, Colonel Birdwell was finally released from medical care for his injuries. He returned to the restored Pentagon afterward for a visit.

“I was going to walk back into that building in memory of my two friends,” he said.

While Colonel Birdwell gave his presentation in one auditorium, attorney C.L. Lindsay spoke to cadets about the real-world consequences of online behavior in another. Mr. Lindsay wrote “The College Student’s Guide to the Law” and founded the Coalition for Student and Academic Rights.

“Everything you do online has a real-world equivalent. Think about the offline equivalent first,” he said.

Mr. Lindsay stressed anything posted or sent online may be copied infinitely and may remain there indefinitely. He cautioned students about illegally downloading music and movies from the Internet. Fines for copyright infringement can reach up to $250,000 per infraction.

“Sexting,” or sending sexually-charged materials via cell phones or the Internet, is like swimming in shark-infested waters, Mr. Lindsay said. While it may be legal for adults, it can result in permanent embarrassment. For exchanges involving persons under 18, the waters become even more hazardous: if caught and prosecuted, someone of legal age may face criminal charges and may be placed on a list of known sex offenders.

“Stuff online is a billboard,” Mr. Lindsay said. “There is no expectation of privacy.”

To avoid pitfalls online and remain safe, he had recommendations for the students. Set computer privacy levels at their highest, don’t post photos of illegal activities such as drug or alcohol use, and use strong discretion in selecting a profile photo.

He further advised not to post numbers of any kind, especially such identifiers as area codes and addresses or photos with such identifiers as dormitory names in the background.

 “Assume your information will be there forever,” he said. “Think before you click ‘send.'”

Cadet 2nd Class Glynnis Quern of Cadet Squadron 36 listened to several speakers, including Nate Self, a former Army Ranger and a veteran of the Battle of Roberts Ridge in Afghanistan. A Roberts Ridge panel met twice, once at 9:20 a.m. and again at 1 p.m.

“I was impressed with Mr. Self because I imagine his experience … would be incredibly difficult to talk about,” Cadet Quern said.

While she enjoyed this year’s symposium, Cadet Querm said she would like to see NCLS “spill over” into Saturday as previous years’ symposiums have done.

“By the last speaker of the day, my attention was definitely waning,” she said. “I certainly enjoyed everything, but I think we should go back to last year’s schedule. Most (cadets) don’t want to give up their Saturday mornings, but with the quality of the speakers and the importance of the content, I think it’s a worthwhile sacrifice.”

NCLS is about changing lives, one person at a time, said Col. John Norton, director of the Center for Character and Leadership Development. The theme of this year’s symposium addressed the challenges of leadership in the modern era.

“The Air Force Academy has a duty to expose cadets to diverse points of view so they can reflect on what they’ve heard and make up their own minds about complex issues,” Colonel Norton said.

One of the most powerful aspects of NCLS is the opportunity for cadets to interact with students from other colleges, Colonel Norton said.

“They soon realize they’re alike in more ways than they imagined,” he added.

Colonel Norton said he thought this year’s symposium was compelling for a number of reasons.

“The speakers reminded our students that the world in which they lead will be fraught with challenges and complexities but also filled with exciting opportunities to make a difference,” he said.

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