Personal Reflections on Military School Character Development

military school character group

As a child, I was lost in my own world. Many children are. They are trying to make sense of a confusing world and trying to find their place in it. They are creating who they are and who they will become. They do this from example and experiences. A boy who is rejected from a team may no longer see himself as a sportsman. A boy who gets away with lying may see himself as a liar and not be ashamed of it. A boy who learns from a mistake will try not to make that gaffe again, though it may take a few times for it to sink in.

"As a child, I was lost in my own world. Many children are."

I was not a troubled kid or a kid in trouble. Like many future cadets I was a bright young man who was not doing as well as I should in school. I needed something to challenge me, to push my boundaries, to hold me accountable, to give me goals that I could accomplish. A place that I could earn praise from adults and peers that I respected. I was not an athlete, I didn't have the grades to compete with other students for academic teams, I couldn't sing or paint or draw. The small private school and huge public school at home had nothing that I saw myself achieving in.

"I would have not gone to college without Carson Long. The men there expected me to achieve and picked me up when I failed. Now I have two master's degrees and am a retired army colonel."

carson long military academy
Colonel Armon Cioppa, US Army (Ret.), Carson Long Alumni Carson Long Military Academy, New Bloomfield, PA

Entering Military School

My parents made a great decision for me in high school. On the recommendation of a family friend who had attended the school, we visited and then enrolled in a military boarding school several states away from home.Though I was outwardly against it as it was different and scary, I was secretly excited about it after I had walked the campus and talked to the students. Because military school combined my home life with my school life, this was not a place where I could hide my lack of character development or cover up my mistakes. When I was in the wrong, I could not just go home for the day; I had to deal with the problems that I had caused.

military school character young

When you first think of military school discipline, you might picture push ups or marching with a rifle. Yes, that does happen, but the important parts come afterwards. After your punishment you are renewed back into wholeness as a cadet. You are not saddled with your decision forever. The faculty and staff are not there to punish you. They are there to get your attention, build your trust in them, and simply talk to you about why you made a poor decision, what you could do better, and make you actually THINK about it.

"I thought that one day, when it really mattered, I could snap out of bad habits and immediately have good habits."

Think about it. As a teenager all I thought about was how to appear to be cool, how to talk to girls, and how to get away from my parents. I certainly did not think about decisions and consequences. I believed that consequences were just the cost of being a teenager. I thought that I would go to college because everyone I knew went to college. I thought that one day, when it really mattered, I could snap out of bad habits and immediately have good habits. There were no thoughts about the work that it would take. There were no thoughts about goal setting and making a path to get there.

"Military schools develop character by offering a structured and disciplined environment, which offers first-hand opportunities to practically apply ethical leadership and experience the benefits of good decision making."

Army & Navy Academy
Col Wayne Ward, USMC (Ret.), Commandant of Cadets Army and Navy Academy, Carlsbad, CA

After entering military school, men and women who loved me and cared about me were suddenly in my life. Peers who I could look up to (not just because of who they were dating, or what sport they were playing, or how many beers they could sneak out of their parents fridge) were suddenly in my life. Everyone was so focused on how shiny my shoes were, or how clean my room was, or if I was studying during study hours. These little things became so important for me. I did not realize that those were the baby steps that I needed to start focusing on the great things I could do.

The Honor Code

People started talking to me one-on-one about what the Honor Code was and what it meant. All of the new cadets were given 4 multicolored notecards, with tiny type, that we had to memorize in order to gain our first set of privileges (using the pay phone, drinking coke’s at lunch, not having to study those cards anymore). The Honor Code was just one of the many facts on my cards, but it was certainly the most important.

"A cadet will not Lie, Cheat, or Steal, nor tolerate those who do. "
military school character doughboy

The first part was easy. Nobody wanted to be seen as liar or a cheater or a thief, though they might be. The second part was a new one for me. We did not tolerate those who do. It wasn't just the adults who talked to me about this - it was also my cadet leaders. Suddenly the cool kids - the ones I looked up to - were the good kids. That was normal here. Those cadet leaders did not earn their rank by being mean and stupid. They earned it by becoming responsible role models for the other students. They earned it by working hard and I wanted to be one of them, up in the front, with others listening to me. Again, this was not a stage in my life when I really planned things. I did not fully understand the hard work it would take. Fortunately the school knew where I was and had no intention on putting stripes on my shoulders until I had earned them.

Meaningful Conversations

There were formal lectures about character from the adults, but many of these did not resonate with me. I did not see myself as the person they were describing. It was the informal conversations with my peers and mentors that had the biggest impact. We talked a lot. We talked about good decisions, bad decisions, what went right, what went wrong. I vividly remember marching out of the mess hall one day at lunch and over to our company area. One of the other new cadets had lied to a teacher about his homework. Our company leadership had him run to get his homework that "he had left in his room", knowing that he did not have it. When he returned empty handed we all did pushups for him. I remember thinking that I now really hate this guy, but those thoughts quickly turned into thoughts of how we all had let him down by not helping make sure that he wanted to get his work done.

"We talked about good decisions, bad decisions, what went right, what went wrong."

Leadership

It is easier to see others faults than to see your own. Sales pitches for military schools talk a lot about leadership, but leadership is where I really started to take all of these conversations and develop my own character. That simple lesson of letting down a fellow new cadet and the many conversations that it spawned were my first steps towards being a leader. Nobody was going to listen to me because I told them to. I had to become a cadet who others looked up to. I could see where others were wrong and I started to see those same faults in myself.

military school character brother

As a low ranking cadet (follower) it was easy to square myself away, though I thought it was hard. Developing my character was hard, but I had a great support network in the school. My parents were very supporting of this young man that I was turning into. The longer that I attended military school, the better at all of this I became. As I started moving up the ranks, more challenges were presented. While I was far from perfect (I could spend all day talking about my failures) I was changing who I was. In the distance I could see who I wanted to be and was making and following a plan to get there.

One day I found myself in the phone room (cell phones were not available for normal people back then, especially teenagers), crying in the phone to my dad. I had been working so hard and was getting nowhere. At the time I was a cadet officer who helped oversee the junior school. It is hard to get 50+ junior high students to become great cadets. Looking back on this, I should have been embarrassed to be crying in such a public space. But I knew that I was doing the harder right and had hit a stumbling block. Dad told me of a speech that Teddy Roosevelt had given. As an adult, I have an old framed copy in my office and have spent countless hours talking to cadets in the same position as my crying self. Please take a minute to read it and to think about the great stage in life I was in that this related to me helping others and not just being selfish.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. "

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States

Conclusion

These informal conversations happen every day at military schools across the country. They are spurred by what is happening in the 24/7 hurried environment of a boarding school. They are triggered by character development programs and talks given by the the faculty/staff and campus guests. These conversations happen in the classroom, on the playing field, at the dinner table. The desire to have them and the ability for the cadets to use real world experiences, makes such a difference in these unique students lives. These conversations have made such a difference in mine.

Comments

  • James Lowman
    2016-11-20 10:31:48

    Very well written article Andrew. You described and detailed the true meanings of becoming and being a Cadet at a military academy. Very proud and honored to know you, and see the person you have become today.

  • Lynette Stowell
    2016-11-19 22:31:28

    Thank you Andrew, Mr. Erickson, and to all those who contributed to the article. He too is grateful he made the decision to attend and graduate from a military academy. His personal growth, priceless! -A Grateful Military School Alumni Parent

  • John Tubbert
    2016-11-02 22:44:39

    Excellent piece Andrew, my thoughts of the "process" as well!

  • Kalith
    2016-11-02 10:48:07

    This is one of my favorite parts of working in a military school. Students get a great education, second to none, but in addition they know how to behave in a grown up world. It is an important skill that helps our students find success after graduation. Good piece!

  • John
    2016-11-02 08:17:39

    Great article Andrew.

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