By By Sgt. Vincent Fusco, Dir. of Public Affairs & CommunicationsDecember 9, 2009
One of the unique opportunities afforded to students at the servivice academies is to attend a semester at one of their sister academies to learn how the other services do things.
Initially, those students are on the outside looking in, trying to fit into their new surroundings and making new friends.
When you are a cheerleader at your academy, like Senior Matthew Kitchell and U.S. Air Force Academy cadet Siobhan Hulslander are, football games between the academies take on a whole new perspective.
Hulslander is currently finishing her semester exchange here; and Kitchell, West Point Rabble Rousers captain, spent a semester exchange last year at the U.S. Naval Academy.
When Kitchell, a Pekin, Ill., native, arrived at Annapolis, Md., in the fall of his Junior year, he intended to spend his exchange learning about the Navy and attending spirit team practices to keep up his conditioning for his return to West Point. However, when Navy coach John Michael d'Halivand needed someone to fill a spot on the Navy cheer team, he turned to Kitchell.
Being part of the team eased his transition.
At first, many of the midshipmen were hesitant to associate with him, while others went out of their way to talk to him. With his new association, his West Point friends and his new Annapolis acquaintances started hanging out together. They learned more about each other and found they shared many personality traits.
"Once I started associating with everybody in my company (at Annapolis) and realized I had a lot of friends there, it really bridged the gap," Kitchell said. "I could see how the exchange program works to bridge the gap between service academies while maintaining the sense of competitive edge."
For the rest of the semester, Kitchell channeled his spirit into every game and built upon his new friendships at Annapolis. Then at last year's Army-Navy football game, Kitchell took part in the traditional pre-game "prisoner exchange," where Army cadets studying at Navy are "exchanged" for Navy midshipmen studying at West Point. The students return to their roots and cheer on their team sitting with their classmates.
Unbeknownst to the midshipmen, Kitchell was already wearing his West Point Rabble Rousers uniform under his cadet uniform when the Army spirit team welcomed him back.
"When we marched off, the cheerleading team came off and scooped me up out of the crowd and onto the field," Kitchell said. "It made me realize that I missed my team and knowing that they missed me too was a really cool feeling."
After spending the preceding months cheering for Navy, Kitchell was back "home," even for just an afternoon.
This year, Kitchell, the West Point spirit team and spirit coach Angie Senger have extended the same gratitude to Hulslander, who chose to spend her exchange at the same academy her father taught at as an Army officer.
"I was more than happy to bring Siobhan along on the team," Kitchell said. "She had a lot to offer, good spirit and knew the value of bringing the two teams together."
Since making the team in August, she has also attained a new appreciation for the different military services. Being on the team has helped her make friends with cadets outside of her classes and her company, and it provided an active break in between heavy course loads and company duties.
"The Rabble Rousers have definitely been one of the best parts of my experience here at West Point," Hulslander, who is expected to graduate from the Air Force Academy in 2011, said. "It's really nice to have ... something that's fun that you can look forward to at the end of your day."
When the West Point spirit team went to Colorado Springs for the Army-Air Force football game, Hulslander found herself at odds with balancing her level of spirit for each school.
"That was actually really strange because I wanted to cheer for Army and for Air Force-because it's my home," Hulslander said, "but also because of all the ways West Point has become my home for this semester."
Hulslander confided that, of course, she had to cheer for Air Force a few times in that game, but otherwise found that she could be happy for whomever won the game.
"I got to be the winner because I had a wonderful experience here at West Point and the Air Force Academy as well," Hulslander said.
This weekend, both Kitchell and Hulslander will be on the Army side of Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia cheering on the Black Knights in the 110th playing of the Army-Navy football game.
One thing for certain is that no matter where they come from, or where they've been, both will be united in backing Army.
"I'm an Army brat, so I've grown up always cheering for Navy to lose," Hulslander said. "I guess in a way I was an Army cheerleader long before I was an Air Force cheerleader."
Hulslander and Kitchell have made connections through the exchange program they hope to continue throughout their careers.
No matter what side of the stadium they happen to be on, they know they are all part of one team.
"We're going to be future leaders in our respective branches," Kitchell said. "When we graduate, we're all in the same fight. It's not that hard to coexist and work together."