Athena Has Arrived

By Col. Everett S.P. Spain Department Head of Behavorial Sciences and LeadershipApril 4, 2023

From left to right, Col. Katie Matthew, academy professor and program director of the Department of Sociology, Col. Julia Coxen, academy professor and deputy department head of Systems Engineering, Col. Kate Conkey, academy professor of The Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership, and Col. Julia Wilson, deputy director of the Department of Physical Education, walking away from Thayer Hall on March 28 at the U.S. Military Academy.
1 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – From left to right, Col. Katie Matthew, academy professor and program director of the Department of Sociology, Col. Julia Coxen, academy professor and deputy department head of Systems Engineering, Col. Kate Conkey, academy professor of The Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership, and Col. Julia Wilson, deputy director of the Department of Physical Education, walking away from Thayer Hall on March 28 at the U.S. Military Academy. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Woodruff/ USMA PAO.) VIEW ORIGINAL
From left to right, Col. Katie Matthew, academy professor and program director of the Department of Sociology, Col. Julia Coxen, academy professor and deputy department head of Systems Engineering, Col. Kate Conkey, academy professor of The Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership, and Col. Julia Wilson, deputy director of the Department of Physical Education, return a salute from Cadet Jonas Ebner, Class of 2023, as they walk away from Thayer Hall on March 28 at the U.S. Military Academy. (Photo Credit: Photo by Elizabeth Woodruff/ USMA PAO.)
2 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – From left to right, Col. Katie Matthew, academy professor and program director of the Department of Sociology, Col. Julia Coxen, academy professor and deputy department head of Systems Engineering, Col. Kate Conkey, academy professor of The Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership, and Col. Julia Wilson, deputy director of the Department of Physical Education, return a salute from Cadet Jonas Ebner, Class of 2023, as they walk away from Thayer Hall on March 28 at the U.S. Military Academy. (Photo Credit: Photo by Elizabeth Woodruff/ USMA PAO.) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Col. Julia Wilson, Deputy Director of the Department of Physical Education, U.S. Military Academy.
3 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Col. Julia Wilson, Deputy Director of the Department of Physical Education, U.S. Military Academy. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Woodruff/ USMA PAO.) VIEW ORIGINAL
Col. Katie Matthew, Academy Professor and Program Director, Sociology, U.S. Military Academy.
4 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Col. Katie Matthew, Academy Professor and Program Director, Sociology, U.S. Military Academy. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Woodruff/ USMA PAO.) VIEW ORIGINAL
Col. Julia Coxen, Academy Professor and Deputy Department Head, Systems Engineering, U.S. Military Academy.
5 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Col. Julia Coxen, Academy Professor and Deputy Department Head, Systems Engineering, U.S. Military Academy. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Woodruff/ USMA PAO.) VIEW ORIGINAL
Col. Kate Conkey, Academy Professor, Behavioral Sciences & Leadership, U.S. Military Academy.
6 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Col. Kate Conkey, Academy Professor, Behavioral Sciences & Leadership, U.S. Military Academy. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Woodruff/ USMA PAO.) VIEW ORIGINAL
From left to right, Col. Julia Wilson, deputy director of the Department of Physical Education, Col. Kate Conkey, academy professor of The Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership, Col. Julia Coxen, academy professor and deputy department head of Systems Engineering, and Col. Katie Matthew, academy professor and program director of the Department of Sociology posing in front of Taylor Hall on March 28 at the U.S. Military Academy.
7 / 7 Show Caption + Hide Caption – From left to right, Col. Julia Wilson, deputy director of the Department of Physical Education, Col. Kate Conkey, academy professor of The Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership, Col. Julia Coxen, academy professor and deputy department head of Systems Engineering, and Col. Katie Matthew, academy professor and program director of the Department of Sociology posing in front of Taylor Hall on March 28 at the U.S. Military Academy. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Woodruff/ USMA PAO.) VIEW ORIGINAL

The mythical Greek goddess Athena was renowned for her ferocity … and her wisdom. Deeply valuing this combination of military and intellectual excellence, many years ago West Point adopted Athena’s helmet with sword as one of its primary institutional symbols. Today, it still adorns many cadet uniforms, academic buildings, sports fields, special equipment and more.

Yet, symbols are only meaningful if they inspire future human behavior. If looking for the virtues of Athena in a senior military officer, what knowledge, skills, and behaviors would one look for?

Regarding Athena’s military excellence, the U.S. Army has established formal processes such as command selection boards and command assessment programs to select its best leaders and warriors to lead its battalions. Due to both voluntary officer attrition and the Army’s centralized selection process, fewer than one out of every 10 active-duty second lieutenants will ever command an Army battalion. Indeed, the Army’s battalion commanders are among our nation’s finest warriors.

Regarding Athena’s academic excellence, Army officers who earn a doctoral degree (typically Ph.D.’s) are even rarer than those who command battalions. Whereas graduation from most undergraduate and master’s degree programs is guaranteed if one adequately completes a specified set of courses, earning a Ph.D. entails the rigors and unknowns of researching a new human, social, or scientific phenomenon, and sharing that knowledge with the world through a published dissertation. The Ph.D. graduate is a producer of knowledge, versus just a consumer of it. Indeed, the Army’s Ph.D.’s are among our nation’s finest scholars.

Though Athena’s integration of military and intellectual excellence represents West Point’s broader faculty, staff, cadets and alumni, its symbolism may be even more powerful for West Pointers who are women. Women currently represent only 24% of the cadet population and 15% of the senior military faculty. Yet, for the first time in the history of West Point, four current members of the West Point faculty – Cols. Kate Conkey, Julia Coxen, Katie Matthew, and Julia Wilson -- have both commanded an Army battalion and earned a Ph.D. Though quick to defer credit toward those who have served with or supported them along the way, all of them are remarkable exemplars for others, particularly other leaders and those who aspire to lead in the future. Athena has arrived.

Conkey is an academy professor and director of the PL300: Military Leadership program in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. Commissioned into the Military Police Corps from Furman University ROTC, she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology from Auburn University. She commanded a unit with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq that was recognized as the best military police company in the Army, and the criminal investigative command (CID) battalion headquarters she served in as executive officer was also selected as the Army’s finest. She then led the University of Hawaii’s Army ROTC program before commanding the Brigade Special Troops Battalion and U.S. Army Garrison-Camp Buehring, Kuwait.

One of Conkey’s Hawaii ROTC subordinates, Cpt. David Frye, shared stories of how her spirit of “encouragement, guidance, and challenge” motivated him and others to achieve bucket-list goals, such as running marathons. A peer from Kuwait, Lt. Col. John Bagaglio, remembered Conkey’s “always present” leadership style and her officer development program focused on building commitment as opposed to compliance. “(Conkey) had lieutenants do PT in an EOD bomb suit … helping them develop some emotional (intelligence) for our (diverse) team … She gave each lieutenant a copy of ‘The Way of the Shepherd: Seven Secrets to Managing Productive People’ with a personalized note in each. One of my lieutenants ... still has that book on his desk daily.”

Coxen is a professor, USMA, and deputy head of the Department of Systems Engineering. Commissioned as a signal officer through University of Pennsylvania Army ROTC, she earned two master’s degrees from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in Operations Research from the University of Michigan. She deployed to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division and was selected for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, where she served at home and abroad with distinction in leadership roles, including battalion command, at the intersection of special operations and intelligence.

Coxen is an exemplar when it comes to leading and developing officers. John Miranda, her former command sergeant major, shared, “(Coxen’s) unique ability to establish a vision, create teams and drive change is unmatched. When often approached by junior officers … I would undoubtedly tell them, 'Don’t worry about (U.S. Army Human Resource Command), nobody will pay more attention to your career and development than Lt. Col. Coxen.’” Miranda also shared that, “However, it is her spirit that ultimately makes her the best officer I have worked for. Julia was the smartest person in the room and had the heart of a true warrior … there was no one more patriotic. She can motivate a room of steely-eyed Soldiers to follow her anywhere.”

Matthew is an academy professor and director of the Sociology Program in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. Commissioned as a logistician in USMA’s Class of 2000, Matthew later earned a master’s degree from Kansas State University and a Ph.D. in sociology from George Mason University. She deployed to Iraq with both the 1st Infantry Division and the 82nd Airborne Division, and again deployed to the Mid-East as part of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the fight against ISIS. Subsequently, like Colonel Conkey, she commanded the Brigade Special Troops Battalion and U.S. Army Garrison-Camp Buehring, Kuwait.

A junior officer who served with Matthew in the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division noted that “In high stress situations where people are tired, and conflict almost always arises, I quickly learned to bring Matthew into engagements with high tension to leverage her uncanny ability to re-focus people on the real problems facing the team, unit, or organization.” A peer from Fort Riley noted Matthew was one of the few who always built everyone else up, and a peer from JSOC noted that even though her Syria logistics portfolio kept growing to the point that would make most officers overwhelmed, Matthew just kept “so cool” and level-headed. Another example of her positive impact was highlighted by a peer, who remembered, “When the division commander asked for Katie to be his aide, (Matthew’s) brigade commander pleaded, ‘you can’t take Katie. If you take Katie, everything falls apart.’”

Wilson is an academy professor and deputy director of the Department of Physical Education. Commissioned as a finance officer through Texas A&M-Corpus Christi ROTC Green to Gold Program, she earned a master’s degree in health education and Ph.D. in human behavior from the University of Florida. She served in the 25th Infantry Division, 10th Mountain Division, 18th Airborne Corps, and 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Iraq. She commanded both the 33rd Financial Management Support Unit at Fort Drum and in Afghanistan and the Special Troops Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division’s Sustainment Brigade at Fort Riley and in Afghanistan.

Her former command sergeant major, Mike McCabe, shared how “(Wilson) IS the epitome of THE Leader who everyone should follow. She possesses a clear vision … never micromanages … is extremely courageous; I’ve never seen her afraid of anything, and we deployed together. She has the best candidness and integrity and makes you feel that you must be that way as well, without saying you should. She has this ability to make you want to do well for her and the team. All of this comes from her caring for everyone without any biases or judgments. (During) all the Article 15 readings I sat on with her, she never dismissed anyone without them knowing we were there to help … We very rarely had any repeat offenders. As a matter of fact, during our time together, we had the best retention rate in the whole division … Whether it came to PT, training, field time, driving, cleaning, improvements, etc.… she was right there, alongside any Soldier lending a hand. She earned the respect of everyone.”

The next time we see Athena’s helmet and sword symbolized at West Point or beyond, let it remind us that the Army’s warrior-scholar Athenas – including Cols. Kate Conkey, Julia Coxen, Katie Matthew, and Julia Wilson— have arrived. Indeed, we are fortunate that these phenomenal officers choose to be leaders in our Army, defending our great nation and its values, while actively developing others to do the same.