Things can change in an instant with a pandemic continuing to rage throughout the world, which is something Class of 2021 Cadets Reilly McGinnis and Reuben Jones found out the hard way.
When cadet summer leadership positions were announced in March, they were selected as the commander and command sergeant major for Cadet Leader Development Training, which teaches rising firsties (seniors) to lead in tactical scenarios. After receiving their assignments, they worked for four and a half months along with their command staff to plan the training and prepare to execute it amidst the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then, three days before arriving back at the U.S. Military Academy from an extended break caused by the virus, they received a call that CLDT had been canceled.
“I was living in my car on the way back to CLDT,” Jones said. “I had basically been living out of my car and camping my way up to stay isolated and having a good time. So, I came down a mountain in the Shenandoah Valley and I got a call that it was canceled.”
McGinnis said it was a “tough pill to swallow” because they had spent months getting ready, but the call from Brigade Tactical Officer Col. Kyle Marsh was not all bad news. Although CLDT had been canceled, their chance to lead a summer detail had not been. They were instead reassigned to command the newly created Cadet Leader Development, which had gone from being a 400-cadet detail to a 1,400-cadet one when CLDT was canceled.
“We joke and say we’re CLDT with a silent t now,” McGinnis said. “Honestly, it kind of made it a little better for our staff knowing that there’s still hope. We’re still doing something. We just have to shift gears from the field now into a garrison environment.”
After receiving the call on a Monday, they arrived at West Point that Thursday, along with their staff, and began building an entire detail from scratch. When planning their original summer training, they had more than four months and an existing framework to start with because CLDT occurs every year. CLD, on the other hand, was brand new. It was created this summer out of necessity because of the pandemic and the need to bring cadets without other responsibilities back to the academy and place them in a 14-day controlled monitoring period before the academic year started.
Jones, who carried over his role of command sergeant major, said the cadet command staff pretty much locked themselves in a room and spent hours planning the new detail along with 30 officers. They had two weeks to plan and then two weeks of execution before the academic year started.
As the CSM, his role is to focus on, “anytime the person is involved. That’s where I’ve got to make sure everything’s getting done the right way.” That role took on extra importance during the planning process because the most important goal was to keep the cadets taking part safe and mitigate any possible spread of COVID-19 so the academic year could begin on time with everyone healthy.
“I reached out to every other detail here, the CSM, the cadet NCO, really looking at friction points in the execution phase,” Jones said. “So, I spent a lot of time talking with them and learning what they did. They’re all super smart people and they’ve already done it.”
McGinnis’ job as the commander was to be the “visionary” of CLD as they took a blank canvas and built a two-week mission. Along with promoting health and safety, they decided to use the two weeks to make sure the academy’s upperclassmen are prepared to lead during an academic year that is expected to be complicated by the pandemic.
Throughout the process, the entire cadet leadership team was guided by Army officers who were giving them one-to-one and sometimes two-to-one mentorship because it was such a large problem they were working to tackle. There were no job descriptions from the previous year to lean on. There were no prewritten operation orders that just had to be tweaked. Everything had to be developed and planned while considering the necessary measures to keep everyone safe.
“I definitely think it was an incredible developmental leadership position,” McGinnis said. “If I were the CLDT commander as originally planned, we would have both come straight from the field and jumped right into whatever our academic leadership position was ... Reuben and I have been fortunate to have the opportunity and the time to work with senior USMA leadership to plan our vision and our goals moving into the academic year. To shape the policies and shape the way things are done.”
While CLDT is, in essence, a large field training exercise, the new detail takes place entirely on post. That also meant they had to work around Cadet Basic Training, which is largely taking place in the main cadet areas this year instead of being split between Camp Buckner and on-post in a typical summer.
Despite the changes and challenges, they managed to find ways to incorporate some of the CLDT planning they’d completed and use it during CLD. One of the major ways was by making slight adjustments to a character development program they’d developed called “tree talks.”
The program was designed to facilitate discussions between cadets on issues such as active listening, sexual assault, diversity and resiliency, all with the goal that it could be completed informally under a tree during a field training exercise, hence the name.
“The intent behind that was to develop a way to have very simplified and open conversations at the lowest level. So, we have four tree talks, and each tree talk has a topic and three discussion questions,” McGinnis said. “One person has these questions and they’re going to go through them and just talk.”
While planning CLD, they slightly modified the program and now the companies’ cadets are arranged in during the controlled monitoring period, they go to areas on post such as Trophy Point or South Dock to have the tree talks at set times. The goal is still for the talks to be largely informal and open forums for cadets to talk and grow.
“I think what’s so unique and what makes them so effective is that we’re providing a platform just to let people say what’s on their mind,” McGinnis said, “say how they’ve been impacted by the past five months of COVID-19, social tensions, racism and all these things in this world and to really expand our perspective, develop empathy and develop trust just by facilitating these open and honest conversations instead of forcing them to.”
As they planned the new two-week training period, McGinnis and Jones said they both learned how important it is to explain why different decisions are being made and why they are doing different things. With the many changes put in place due to COVID-19, McGinnis said they learned it was important not just to tell their peers they had to wear masks or follow certain guidelines but also to explain the reasons behind them. Those are lessons they said they can carry over to the academic year to explain things such as why plebes (freshmen) have to cup their hands.
“We as a command team have learned if you don’t articulate that why you get a lot of very cynical cadets and cynicism really decreases your ability to influence them,” McGinnis said. “But if you do explain it to the extent that they understand and agree, then they respect you as leaders more and are more likely and willing to follow.”
The initial assignment as the CLDT leadership and their eventual reassignment to lead CLD is part of the process that was used to choose the cadet leadership for the academic year, such as first captain and the regimental commanders. Along with the cadets leading CBT and Cadet Field Training, McGinnis and Jones went through multiple interviews before leading their detail. It was announced Aug. 3 that McGinnis will lead the Corps as first captain this academic year, while Jones will serve as the brigade command sergeant major.
Because of the unique situation of their trainees being entirely upperclassmen and largely their own classmates, Jones said CLD become a high risk, high reward detail that could impact their abilities to lead throughout the academic year.
“We have four weeks to build as much leadership capital as we can and trust with our teammates across the details and all the trainees who are here and the leadership, because we’re both going to be somewhere in a couple of weeks,” Jones said. “Whatever leadership capital we build or we lose, we’ll be starting the school year off within a COVID environment and you need bounty.”