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"There were certain lessons that I got as a 16 year old as a cadet team leader that I now apply as a Major in the Army with 15 years. Being there out early in front of your people, having some sort of guidance and direction - don't just tell them what to do, show them what to do, teach, educate. And these were lessons that I learned at 16 years old in the first few months of figuring out how to get people from point A to B, very menial small tasks, but it was really invaluable to me."
On Saturday, Sep. 1, 2018, AMCSUS Executive Director Colonel Ray Rottman interviewed Major James Bithorn, alumnus of three schools within the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States. The following is a transcript of the interview:
Welcome to the Military Schooler Podcast, where we bring you inside the military schools and offer insights on this unique education. This is the first in our Alumni Series, where we speak with military school alumni about their experiences at school and how this has helped shape them as adults.
This is also a special episode as we are privileged to have as out host Colonel Ray Rottman, the Executive Director of the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States. He will be speaking with Major James Bithorn, a graduate of a military high school and two military colleges.
Colonel Ray Rottman, AMCSUS Executive Director: My name is Ray Rottman, and after serving thirty years in the United States Air Force, for the last five years, I've had the honor of serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States. The Association was founded in 1914, and currently consists of forty military colleges and schools, with a combined enrollment of over 19,000 students. The Association's members include both boarding and day schools [comprised of] K-8, college prep, two-year junior military colleges, and four-year senior military colleges and universities.
The common thread between the Association's diverse network of schools is they all use the military education model. The military education model provides students with a unique environment with the structure, organization, and focus on character and leadership that helps these students understand, appreciate, and achieve their fullest potential. Contrary to Hollywood's depiction of military schools, they are not options of last resort for troubled teenagers. Today's military schools enroll some of the country's finest young men and women and provide them with a whole person education, including challenging academic programs, excellent student-to-teacher ratios, diverse athletic and leadership opportunities, and, most importantly, we incorporate character development throughout.
"The military education model provides students with a unique environment with the structure, organization, and focus on character and leadership that helps these students understand, appreciate, and achieve their fullest potential."
The goal of today's military schools is to ensure our graduates have the skills and resilience needed to succeed in life. Today, it is my pleasure to be joined by an individual who has attended a military preparatory boarding school, a military junior college, and graduated from a senior military college. James Bithorn is a Major in the United States Army. Of note, he is an Army Ranger. He is married to his wonderful wife, and they have two children. He is a gentleman of great integrity and he coaches Little League sports and loves helping out wherever he can. And with that, James I'd like to you a few questions.
What went into your family's decision to enroll you in a military school?
Major James Bithorn: Thank you sir, I appreciate the question. I'm happy to be doing this today.
There was no single factor, I think, that guided my family and I to enroll in a military high school. Where I grew up in New York, was a moderately successful high school, not exactly a premier magnet school, but not necessarily the worst school in the area. We were looking at options for private school halfway through my high school experience. We were going to go the typical Catholic school route and all indicators were that that's what we were going to do.
I'd also had it in my head, probably earlier than most kids do (freshman or sophomore year of high school), that to pay for college I was going to enter military service in some way, shape, or form. I vividly remember a young Marine who used to ruck march--or really ruck run--through my town on Long Island where I grew up. If you're from New York, you know that's a really unique thing. Not a lot of people from Long Island join the military. I was sort of fascinated by him and my interest kept growing.
[During] the course of online research that my dad was doing, we came across a military high school in Pennsylvania. My dad put the webpage in front of me, and I think my reaction was what surprised him. I think he put it in front of me almost jokingly, but I had, for some reason, a significant interest in it. I wanted to look at more photos and wanted to keep going. We reached out to the school and then, within about thirty minutes, I got a call from the head school football coach, who was very interested and very eager to get me onto his team and into the school. This led to a visit there afterwards.
I personally fell in love with it due to being out of the city and seeing the brotherhood that existed with the students there. It was a unique experience and something I was sort of craving and I didn't even realize that it was what I wanted. As I entered my first year in the school, we hadn't had it necessarily set in our minds that we would do another year, or that I would graduate from it, or if I would go back to public school. But there was a sense of competitiveness, brotherhood, and drive that I got there that I just didn't get anywhere else. That's sort of how we ended up there in the first place.
RR: That is quite interesting. I have found in my job that a lot of times it's not the parents that bring the student--or the potential student--to the military school, it's the student that, via the internet or social media, reads about the military schools and see the challenges and the opportunities that they afford, and they in turn bring the parents to the schools. Thank you for sharing that, I found that quite interesting.
What were your first impressions of military school?
JB: I automatically fell in love with it. I was brought in for the visit, you know, you're looking at an environment very different from the city where I grew up: beautiful rolling hills, vegetation, things along those lines that I was just not familiar with. And then, it was the people that I met that made me want to stay there.
It was the openness and willingness to bring me in to the pre-existing family. I thought that was amazing. And then I peeled a layer back behind the brotherhood and friendship and then there was the competitive nature of things there, the opportunities that were afforded. The next thing I know I'm joining the drill team, I'm joining the Raider team, I'm doing the color guard; all these things I've never shown interest in doing before in my life, but they were just unique things. I was on the debate team, the declamation team. There was just so much to do that was so unique there. I found it absolutely fantastic and fascinating in the same regard.
RR: That's wonderful. A lot of parents and some students are concerned about that transition that they will experience.
Can you tell the audience a little bit about about your experience, the difference between living at home and what you found when you first arrived at the military school and began to live on campus?
JB: Sure, so living at home, obviously you wake up in the morning. Mom and Dad have breakfast there for you, the house is always fully stocked, you have all of your personal hygiene [supplies]. There's a sense of self-reliance at an early age at home that you don't get compared to a military school. I think that was the difference. And you sort of had to learn how to do the very basics to take care of yourself, which isn't really common in today's youth, at least in my opinion.
The, "Oh, I have to make sure that I actually do my own laundry...oh, I actually have to make sure any of the allowance I get, that I actually save it if there's a purchase I would like to make." I think that was really what the transition was--learning a little bit more self-reliance. It wasn't very difficult to deal with because the school offered a great safety net and support system, and that brotherhood -- the friends that I made that I keep referring to -- that made it worthwhile.
A lot of those kids I went to school with had been first year military school kids at some point in time, whether it was that year with me, or a couple years prior or whatever it was. It wasn't by any means a difficult transition, but it was definitely a transition where I had to learn a little bit more about myself. What I noticed when I came home in the summer or during the holidays--I looked around to my friends from public high school, and it was no knock against them, but I thought there was just a little difference in maturity. I think that maturity I gained was because of the military high school experience.
RR: Wonderful. So you mentioned self-reliance and that benefit.
Can you think of some other life skills that you learned from your time at military schools and how they may have benefited you?
JB: First off, academic study. I was not a poor student in public high school, but I wasn't the best, either. The use of study hall, the way you would in a collegiate environment, in a military high school was really useful for me. The thing about military high school is you can take the underlying purpose of it: to prepare young men and women for success in life and to be outstanding citizens.
And that's what that school did for me: better study habits, learn how to socially interact like an adult. That was key, and some of these lessons I still use for my children, whether it's dinner table manners, whether it's how to act during a ball, or some sort of high end social engagement, how to shake somebody's hand and look them in the eye, how to properly escort your date when you're in high school like a young man instead of an over-eager teenager. These were all the things that were actually lessons that I was taught. Before we went to a military ball there was etiquette taught to you like, "How do you tie a bowtie...well this is how you tie a bowtie."
I find that even in my adult years I have friends who don't have that experience. In turn, they don't know how to teach that to their children, either. I think I've been given a pretty valuable gift that I've been able to take those lessons and give them to my children, too. It sort of expands on itself as years go on.
RR: How did your time at the military prep school prepare you for your college experience? And was there any time when you got to college, that you felt, "Maybe I'm missing something."
JB: I definitely had a head start compared to my peers. Day one of the military college experience: how to stand in a formation, how to march, how to render a salute, all those basic military courtesies. That was the easy first step in the door. This kept my mind a little bit more clear, I think, than others. I wasn't having to learn things for the first time. The military college I went to, the first year during the summer when you come in, they have a freshman induction portion. It's waking you up at 5:00 in the morning, doing P.T. all day long, long ruck marches up and down mountains, stuff like that. I did not feel out of my element doing that. I felt comfortable and I felt like the lessons I learned were now building upon themselves in military college. It just made things a bit easier.
RR: I'm going to ask you to go back in time briefly for me. Some parents and prospective students are concerned about what it's going to be like--what that culture shock is when they first arrive.
Can you describe what your first few days of military school were like and what they felt like to you personally?
JB: The first couple of days--I actually came to the military high school during football camp. It was fortunate, I had a little bit of a slow start into things. It was before the academic year began. So I got to learn and grow with the football players and sort of build friendships before the rigor of the academic year began. Like anything else, it's the first time I'm away from home, so yes there's a sense of homesickness that you do have, which is normal. It's normal for any kid as they go to college.
But there was no real culture shock. I never felt that at all. I was just too interested with all these different types of kids who were not New Yorkers, who had different life experiences that I could talk to and hang out with and have these cool friendships. There was no real culture shock. I had to learn to be a little bit more disciplined academically. The reason I had to learn to be a little more disciplined academically was because I was interested in the rewards that were offered in the school.
If you were a First Honor--95 or 90 GPA, I can't remember what it was--there's less time you sat in a room during study hall and you can have those thirty minutes in your personal room and do study hall, things like that. So I think that was a little more of a culture shock than anything else, but it was the right type of culture shock and something I've carried with me today through an undergraduate and two Master's degrees.
RR: Do you remember anything that first semester, or first few weeks, that was fairly difficult for you to adjust to and embrace that new environment where you found yourself?
JB: I'd say the first difficult point was going to an all-male environment 24 hours a day, especially when you're a young man going through, you know, puberty or whatever else you experience as a teenager. That was the oddity I think. The uniqueness about the high school I went to was that they didn't shy away from that subject. You were taught how to responsibly, like a grown man, interact with women, which is really invaluable for today's youth, particularly with what you see on social media and what you see on TV, etc. How to treat women with dignity and respect [was also taught].
So that was probably the oddest part of it. There always seemed to me that for each unique aspect of military high school culture, there was always a teaching point associated with it or a safety net to not become overly distracted beyond what the purpose of the school was. And that was institutionalized in the organization. Somebody had actually thought through the student experience while they were here and how do we assist them through the process...how do we continue to develop this young man, if that makes any sense.
RR: It does. The next couple of questions are going to be talking about leadership. Obviously the military colleges and schools focus on developing leadership skills.
Can you briefly describe what your first leadership position was at a military school?
JB: Sure! It was a cadet team leader in charge of three people in a squad. I think I was an Alpha Team Leader. And I was offered that leadership position probably earlier than cadets normally would. I don't know if there was just the indicators of capability or that my football coach liked me. I don't know.
But that was my first real touchpoint with military style leadership. And frankly I wasn't too good at it at first because I didn't know really what to do. There were certain lessons that I got as a 16 year old as a cadet team leader that I now apply as a Major in the Army with 15 years. Being there out early in front of your people, having some sort of guidance and direction, don't just tell them what to do, show them what to do, teach, educate. And these were lessons that I learned as a 16 year old in the first few months of figuring out how to get people from point A to B, very menial small tasks, but it was really invaluable to me.
RR: Well thank you for that.
Given your time in the three military schools or colleges you attended, what was your most challenging leadership position and how did you get through that challenge?
JB: The most challenging leadership position I had was probably at the Senior Military College I went to. Your second year there, you're afforded the opportunity to be what they call "cadet cadre" for freshman in their first year attending the college. And, as corporal cadre, which is what I was, you are pushing yourself very much so in different ways than you ever had to before in your life.
A couple of examples are that when the freshmen come in for their introduction to military college experience, the challenge week that we put them though, you're there a week prior. So, for one you're taking extra time away from your summer break. And then you're learning the discipline to treat cadets with dignity and respect while pushing them to the edge of their capabilities. In a small sense, to break them down and build them back up again. And that's not a common lesson that a 19 year old is taught.
It teaches you a lot about leadership. The other part of that was that it was the first time I was waking up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning, making sure that I had the energy and had done the necessary preparation for the day to then lead these cadets and leave the impression upon them that I was the standard that they wanted to be one day. And that experience is absolutely something that I have taken forward with me since then.
RR: You sound like a very positive and upbeat person, just by your nature.
What is your favorite memory of being at a military school or college as a cadet?
JB: I would probably say that my favorite memory is, I would have to go back to military college on this one, I was afforded a very unique opportunity to be on a Mountain Rescue Team. This Mountain Rescue Team, to be on it, there is a selection process that took you two years to finally be recognized as a member of the team. A lot of the skills I was taught there got me through Ranger School however many years later, particularly as I'm sitting in the mountains of Dahlonega and climbing rock walls and being tested on knots and things of the sort.
But I met my wife in college and on this Mountain Rescue Team for our Military Ball we would open up the ceremony by repelling inverted in front of the American Flag to the theme of the A-Team opening song, and you'd walk out after completing the repel, your date would put on your jacket for you and then you had the opening dance of the night. And that is probably the coolest experience I had at any three of the schools I attended.
RR: That's awesome. I'd like to hear your wife's perspective on that some time. I'm sure she remembers it quite vividly. Our military schools like to have a relationship as part of the education. We try to have small classrooms and good ratios between students and teachers, and we also have our faculty members and our staff members really get to know the cadets.
Can you tell us a little bit about how important the faculty or a staff member was to you and is there one or two that you specifically remember for something they did to reach out to you?
JB: Yeah, absolutely. I'll start with my football coach in the military high school I went to, who I correspond with as often as a week ago. So he was not just our football coach, he was also a history teacher and he was the building officer -- so the TAC officer -- for the building we lived in. He had a significant influence on how I lead and negotiate obstacles in life, and he would talk about these things at an early age. You didn't really understand sometimes what he was teaching us, but the lessons he was providing: how to stay steadfast in the face of adversity, maintain your character, maintain your presence, directly translated to some of the toughest things I've dealt with in life. And he, he continues to keep in touch with us after that experience whether that's group texts, group emails, and it's funny he sort of refers to us as son, so we had this very unique sort of relationship that I wouldn't have gotten anywhere out of any faculty member at a public high school system or otherwise.
RR: Excellent. Given those relationships with faculty and staff, can you give us some idea of how that relates to your life now? How you are using those relationships? I mean the example of your football coach is a great one, but any others that come to mind, things that people invested in you and that you are investing in others now?
Yeah, absolutely. Some of that was the ability to lift me back up after some failure. I went through, academically, a rough spot in my time at a military college. I was just taking on too many courses, I was trying to do too many things. There a point in time where I was in jeopardy of losing my ROTC scholarship and had to rapidly get something back in place. There was one member of the ROTC department who, again, I still keep in touch with years later. Instead of the negative approach that's commonly taken when you are put in that position, he spent some time with me, set up tutoring, asked me "what are you having difficulties with, why don't we try this approach, stop trying to power through this course, try through this course," and he invested special interest in me instead of allowing me to just sink or swim. It allows you, and it's a leadership attribute that I use today, that gentle failure is okay and you don't learn without failure. And that's the responsibility of leaders is to sometimes allow their subordinates to gently fail, provide that safety net for them, have them learn, and then grow from it. And in turn the subordinates that you developed through leadership apply that to individuals that they will lead later down the road.
RR: You had mentioned that you played football in high school.
How did sports in general fit in to your military preparatory school life or military college life?
JB: I never went a season without playing sports up until I was eighteen years old. The football team that I was on was very unique in the military high school that I went to. It had a terribly historic losing record. I'd say I was the catalyst, I was clearly not, but when I got to that team in my junior and my senior year we turned the ship around to a winning record which is something I'm proud of to this day. It was just an awesome experience because there was a closeness and a brotherhood you got in that football team because you lived together that you didn't have anywhere else, really, and it was just absolutely fantastic. From that I think my desire to coach for the first time really started to manifest itself. So my football coach would do a unique thing for his seniors, particularly the football captains. We would be able to help coach JV games. You know, these were off games from us when we had already played our games. I totally found myself really, really liking that and that translated to me coaching football with my son many years later here in Georgia, Alabama, Kansas -- multiple different places that we've been. That's one of those things that I'm probably proud of most and it really also brought a closeness between my son and I that is absolutely invaluable to our relationship.
RR: You had spoken earlier about the importance of having the opportunity to fail.
Can you describe any time in military school or military college where you did fail and how that played itself out?
JB: Sure, absolutely. I guess I demonstrated leadership early on during my first year in military high school I was rapidly promoted and I blew curfew purposely a couple of times. One of these times I was caught and when this happens you are put on extra duty and you lose your rank and then you may not gain your rank back, and I was really devastated because I had people who had placed trust in me and I very purposely was interested in hanging out, blowing off curfew. Quite frankly it was girls at church that I was more interested in talking to instead of getting back to campus at the right time and then sort of sneaking my way back on. So I lost my rank and I thought that was it, that's all over. You know, I blew that opportunity. It wasn't common to have your rank reinstated, but mine was and then I was promoted to a fairly, in the cadet corps ranking system at the end of the year, to a high ranking position which I again didn't expect to have happen. The president of the school, he pulled me aside and articulated to me why that was the case and he told me it was how I handled myself in failure and to how I continued to lead and that allowed me to pick myself back up and move forward. So that was an important lesson to me. That you can fail, but staying the course will still lead to the outcomes you desire.
RR: James, what advice would you give to a parent who is considering potentially exploring military preparatory schools or colleges?
JB: Give it a chance. Give it a chance because it is something unique and it will build upon itself and it will make you a better person later in life. It will offer a network of friends, a cohort of individuals who will also continue to be successful in life, that just won't be afforded in a public school system. The lessons you'll learn there will build upon themselves. So, just explore it. Give it a chance. And explore the different person you could in turn be if you were to give it a chance.
Can you kind of briefly give us an idea of how military school impacted your life at large? I mean, here you are many years later, two master's degrees, performing great things for us in the United States Army. How much of what you do today relates back to your experiences at military schools and colleges?
JB: All of it. It has all built upon itself. My ability to be successful in a junior military college was derived from the lessons I was taught in military high school. My ability to be successful in military college was derived from the two previous experiences I've had and some of my experiences in the army, particularly leadership, is really derived from all of those experiences. As you traverse life, whether it be in the business sector or whether it be in the military or whatever profession you so choose, leadership is one of those intangible qualities that can't necessarily be taught in a classroom. You have to experience it. You have to try and fail. And it's one of those things that the people who are truly desperate for success in their organizations, whether it be business or otherwise or it be military or otherwise, value individuals who can lead. Whether that be direct leadership or that be organizational leadership. And I had those opportunities to experience that as a 16 year old, as a 19 year old, and as 22 year old all before commissioning in the army. So I felt comfortable when I stepped into those roles. And then I felt comfortable in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt comfortable on a football field coaching kids in Georgia and Alabama. And I feel comfortable sitting in an academic classroom and sharing with my peers or helping them. And all of that is derived from the experiences I had at those three schools.
RR: That's wonderful. I appreciate that very much.
What advice would you give to a student or a parent who is looking at military schools? What should they be looking for specifically?
JB: Values. What you should be looking for is what values are being taught to your child. When I say that, I'm speaking to the parents. And then what unique opportunities are being afforded and how does that translate to success in college and in life there afterwards? So the question you should be looking for is what graduates do [the schools] have out there in the world doing great things. You know, that's one first indicator. What unique programs exist? What unique opportunities exist? And then the true indicator is going to come during a visit. As a young man or woman looking to explore military school for the first time if you get an opportunity during a visit pull somebody aside and say, "Hey what's the deal here?" And I did that during my visit to my military college. I said, "Hey what's the deal here? How do you really feel about these things?" and try to squeeze the juice out of the experience. That will give you a good indicator of what you think the experience is truly going to be like.
RR: Thank you very much for allowing us to ask you these questions and for your candid responses.
Is there anything that you would like to add, that maybe we didn't cover, that you would like to tell the audience about military colleges or schools?
JB: I'd say this one closing point I would leave it with is the why go with this approach. The "why" is the path less travelled and the path less travelled that leads to self-reliance. In this day and age there are certain qualities because of easy access to the internet or social media or otherwise that prevents these tremendous lessons that were commonplace earlier. Whether it be, you know, the 50's through the 80's or otherwise before the information age really came about. I feel like I am a better man, a better father, a better husband and a better leader because of the experiences I had in military school. And I don't think I would have had them had I stayed on Long Island and just gone the path that I had. Military schools make good, mature adults who are focused on purpose and focused on reason and focused on practice so there is still unique value to those type of institutions and they will be better adults for it if they take the chance.
RR: That's great. James, I would like to thank you personally for taking the time to help others understand a bit more about the various aspects of military colleges and schools. And I also truly want to thank you and your family for the sacrifices that you make as an Army officer on behalf of our great nation. Thank you very much and I appreciate your time.
JB: No worries at all, sir. Thank you very much. It's my pleasure.