When the U.S. Military Academy Corps of Cadets was informed in March that they would be finishing the semester virtually and not returning from spring break, Class of 2021 Cadet Tyler Shekleton realized his summer plans were going to be a lot different than he had imagined.
Shekleton had been told the week before spring break began that he would be serving as the commander of Cadet Field Training over the summer.
Cadet Field Training is a three-to-four week program of instruction that emphasizes general military skills, individual preparedness training, preparations for extended field operations and leading, participating in and conducting small unit tactical operations.
Now, that didn’t seem like a guarantee with the academic year in flux and COVID-19 spreading throughout the world.
In the months between the March decision to keep the Corps at home and July 1 when Shekleton and the rest of the CFT cadet cadre returned to the academy, the summer training schedule was torn up and rebuilt from scratch. CFT was moved and adjusted to allow for a 14-day controlled monitoring period along with other COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Cadet Basic Training, which normally doesn’t interfere with CFT, will now run simultaneously causing conflicts in training areas that haven’t existed in years past.
“Every day was a new challenge, whether that was deconflicting land or figuring out ‘Hey, what details can we get away with not doing? What training events are really essential to our training plan?’” Shekleton said. “It was a very, very complex process that took a lot of really smart people to figure out and a lot of dedication and man-hours to work through.”
While most of the macro-level planning such as what training would be performed on what days was handled by the Brigade Tactical Department and Department of Military Instruction, Shekleton said he and his staff — including CFT Command Sergeant Major Class of 2021 Cadet Nicholas McDonald — worked on developing the messaging that would guide them throughout the summer and determine his training intent as commander.
“Historically the CFT (messaging) has been it is a training environment and we are here to get after it and work hard,” Shekleton said, “Now, we’ve kind of had to pull that back a little bit, reign it in and say, ‘Hey, our first priority is people and with people comes risk mitigation and protecting the force.’ Not that it hasn’t been a priority in the past, but that’s moved to COVID outranks everything and if we need to wean back on training, we can do that.”
For Shekleton and McDonald, it has been a process neither anticipated when they began the interview process for key leadership positions.
The first round of interviews took place in December. A second round then took place at the beginning of the new year. The interviews and the selection of summer leadership positions are part of the process to decide on the cadet leadership for the following academic year including first captain and the four regimental commanders.
Shekleton was notified in March that he had been selected as CFT commander. McDonald was originally slated to serve as the CFT S-3, before being reassigned to the command sergeant major role as part of a leadership shakeup in April as Cadet Summer Training was adjusted.
“I was very excited,” McDonald said of being named CFT command sergeant major. “It's a really cool job. I get to do a lot of cool things and kind of make it what I want it to be. S-3 would have been a really cool job. I would have gotten to run a lot of the operations here ... but this is more my style of leadership.”
As the cadet leadership overseeing CFT, Shekleton and McDonald will command more than 1,300 of their peers who are either running training or taking part in it. Although they are both sons of West Point graduates — Shekleton’s dad Daniel graduated in 1991 and McDonald’s dad Anthony in 1982 — their paths to this moment have been very different.
Shekleton decided at eight years old that West Point was the place he wanted to be. Along with his dad, Shekleton’s uncle and great-uncle are also graduates from the academy. In 2008 while visiting his uncle, who was teaching at the academy at the time, Shekleton attended an Army-Navy baseball game, caught a home run ball and was sold on becoming the fourth member of his family to join the Long Gray Line.
“I still have that ball from the Army-Navy game,” he said. “After that point, everything was dedicated to getting into West Point through middle school and high school.”
McDonald had considered attending West Point, but he enlisted in the Army after high school instead. He graduated from Ranger School at 19 and served with the 2nd Ranger Battalion before deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend West Point.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have some pretty formative experiences with some difficult training,” McDonald said. “Coming here, I’ve had a lot of good experiences and I have the opportunity to teach and mentor a lot of people and it’s really cool. Especially in this job, I’m constantly pouring out knowledge to people around me where I can.”
Throughout their first three years at the academy, both have had the chance to hold lower-level leadership positions but stepping into their roles during CFT is their first chance to lead at the higher organization level.
That challenge has been magnified this summer as the schedule was adjusted and the training plan was rebuilt because of the new realities caused by the coronavirus.
Shekleton and McDonald both said the many changes caused by COVID-19 forced them to be creative, think outside the box and be innovative in ways a typical summer detail doesn’t have to. Instead of recreating the CFT they went through a few years earlier, they have had to help develop a new summer training plan.
The first priority throughout the process, Shekleton said, was protecting the force. After steps were taken to mitigate risk and stop any potential spread of the virus, they could then work to accomplish as much training as possible.
He added that they hope to use CFT to build leaders through military skills training and by fostering discussions on character, diversity, inclusion and sexual assault, as much of the country is currently doing.