West Point hosted the 35th annual National Conference on Ethics in America Oct. 8 and 9 at the U.S. Military Academy's West Point Club. The conference aims to capture different facets of character development, and this year's theme was "Choosing the harder right over the easier wrong." Four guest speakers were invited because their stories exemplify the conference's theme.
Each of them faced a major crossroad in their lives. One path led to well being and the other to dire hardship; yet only one demanded moral and ethical action, and it was the road less traveled. In the face of crushing ultimatums that come with great personal and professional risk, they chose to do what is right in order to benefit others. Their ethical conduct has earned them honorary recognition for their integrity, selflessness and courage.
Former CIA agent John Kiriakou exposed the brutality of other agents who tortured insurgents in captivity along with how this treatment was a legal U.S. government policy approved by former President George W. Bush. Kiriakou served 23 months in prison for being a whistle blower and was punished by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act, a law designed to punish spies.
He talked about his justification for exposing this information alongside other aspects of corruption found throughout government agencies. The goal of Kiriakou's story was to help people think about how leaders do not always hold themselves to a higher standard and that exposing them is an example of taking the harder right.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, retired Naval Capt. John M. McGrath was a prisoner of war and tortured by enemies throughout his six-year imprisonment in Hanoi during the Vietnam War.
He remained bound to the military Code of Conduct and was prepared to die by their gruesome hands. The alternative meant betraying his country, but he was kept alive and used as a political pawn.
McGrath went into detail about his story. His bones were dislocated and crushed during his imprisonment. Some unlucky servicemen were beaten to death for resisting, while others caved after a slap. He never gave the enemy more information than details about his personal life. Those who violated the Code of Conduct were court-martialed upon their return to the United States.
When it comes to holding people accountable, third guest speaker Rachel Denhollander was the first woman to speak up and partially responsible for the prosecution of USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar who sexually abused more than 200 victims.
Denhollander explained how she challenged the institutional structures in place that allowed predators to flourish by exposing the lack of accountability from leadership toward dealing with them. She inspired monumental change as various organizations developed policies and reporting procedures to protect victims as a result of her testimony.
Cadets at the NCEA event were inspired by her story to come forward and encouraged maintaining a stronger academy that fights to eliminate sexual assault and harassment.
"I'd like the cadets to take away from the National Conference on Ethics in America a strong understanding about some of the challenges that are involved in identifying the harder right, but even more difficult, choosing the harder right over the easier wrong," Director of the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethics (SCPME) Lt. Col. Scott Virgil said. "Situations where you must choose the harder right may only have a 10-second window for you to act, whether it is regarding something in combat, or prisoners of war, or how the academy or society are dealing with sexual assault. If you haven't thought about it or built that muscle beforehand, you may miss that window."
After the guest speakers shared their stories, participants were given a chance to discuss the ethical issues they listened to. Participants in the conference included over 90 USMA cadets, 59 ROTC cadets, 57 civilian students and 9 cadets and midshipmen from the Naval and Air Force academies.
Students from each of the schools were strategically placed at different tables. This furthered West Point leaders' diversity agenda by allowing cadets an opportunity to listen to people from different backgrounds and regional cultures so they can reflect on ethical decision making from various perspectives.
"The diversity within our group was amazing. Having a couple of ROTC and civilians in our groups made it so that not everyone was agreeing on things. I think for every single discussion we had at least one or two people being against what the group was saying," Class of 2020 Cadet Yili Quinlan said. "No one was attacking them for their difference in opinion, but we recognized their point of view and we had some back and forth to understand why people thought that way."
Peer groups discussed the systemic issues that exist within institutions, the need to bring them to light and holding people responsible for unethical conduct. Another topic involved the importance of developing competency and character traits built upon a strong moral foundation.
This year's conference was different from others because students participated in a leader's challenge exercise on the second day. The exercise consisted of a story from the fourth guest speaker, former Capt. Josh Rodriguez, an infantry reconnaissance platoon leader and a cavalry troop commander. He was awarded three Bronze Stars during his service; one was for valorous actions in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Eastern Afghanistan.
During a deployment, his troops were tasked by his superior to convoy to another outpost after enduring combat operations without any sleep for days. Rodriguez requested that they have time to rest given the exhausting circumstances prior to receiving orders, which was denied.
Rodriguez felt the rigorous journey to the outpost would endanger his troops because they were not functioning properly from a lack of sleep. It required them to convoy through mountains late in the evening without any light but the moon, and he believed too much could go wrong. He decided to disobey his superior's orders.
Three hours into their sleep, the outpost was raided by 50 Taliban members. The attack was so severe that it was destroyed. Nothing was left at the outpost except the dismembered remains of casualties who Rodriguez and his troops would have fought alongside.
"This is a powerful scenario they won't forget. It's about wrestling the decision of when to disobey and apply what the current Chief of Staff of the Army describes as disciplined disobedience," SPCME Chair for Character Development Peter Kilner said. "Obedience is a core military virtue, but we must know when to disobey and do it smartly in a war zone because the environment is so complex, fluid and often so de-centralized that situations will change. There could be a huge risk or a huge opportunity you may not have anticipated, and you will have to know when to disobey."
During the first round of discussion, participants were unaware of the consequences of Rodriguez's choice to disobey orders as seen in the raided outpost. Many agreed with his choice to take care of his troops and stay behind. The second round allowed them to discuss alternative courses of action to avoid losing other people's lives such as requesting helicopters or borrowing drivers from another unit.
"We may never have to make decisions that are this difficult, but even on a smaller scale, it helps us decide when to listen to leadership and when to commit to our own decisions," Class of 2021 Cadet Caroline Mitchel said. "He chose to disobey the orders he was given, which shows a lack of trust in his company's commander.
"If I were to have a leader I really trusted, then I would follow their orders because I believe they have me and my Soldiers' best interest in mind," Mitchel added. "But if I have no trust and they gave me an order that I did not really agree with, then it would be a lot easier to say no."
Kilner shared that the series of guest speakers and events at the National Conference on Ethics 2019 helped mentally prepare attendees to make ethical decisions more easily and quickly given their exposure to a broad set of difficult circumstances. Another goal of the event was for people to take away an improved awareness of their own character where personal ethics are concerned.