Air Force Featured Stories

New lieutenants give back to Academy Prep School

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Rachel Hammes
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Every year, the U.S. Air Force Academy adds to the ever-growing Long Blue Line of graduates. The new second lieutenants, after having spent the last four years together, scatter across the world. Few will return to the Academy in a professional context.

But for six selected lieutenants, the curtain is drawn back, and they are experiencing a side of the Academy many never do. These lieutenants become military training officers (MTOs) at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School.

"It's a great opportunity — not too many lieutenants get 80 people to work with, and two master sergeants to work with you and mold you," said 2nd Lt. Devin Hightower, MTO for Squadron 3 and a Class of 2014 Academy grad. "I definitely consider myself lucky. This is a great first assignment."

The assignment, which lasts one year before the lieutenants continue on to their respective technical training schools, gives lieutenants an opportunity to gain firsthand leadership experience in the real world, as opposed to within the cadet leadership structure of the Academy.

Second Lt. Heather Shepard, an MTO for Squadron 1, also a 2014 Academy graduate, said she wanted to become an MTO to gain experience.

"I think the best way to learn is to throw yourself into a hard situation where you don't know what you're doing and just force yourself to learn," she said. "And so I felt like this was the perfect opportunity to get the most knowledge out of what it's like to be in a command position, as well as an officer. And I'm in charge of way more people than second lieutenants of my same rank who are off in tech school, or have zero responsibility within their office."

MTOs are the equivalent of an air officer commanding, the command position in a cadet squadron, typically held by a major at the Academy.

As an MTO, Shepard, Hightower and the others work directly under the Prep School commandant of cadet candidates, Maj. Billy Wilson, supervising two enlisted academy military training NCOs, typically master or technical sergeants.

"If there is something going wrong in this squadron, it falls on my shoulders," Shepard said. "But those low points are what build you up, and I think you learn the most from them. As a second lieutenant coming straight out of the Academy, it's an eye-opening experience."

One of the more notable aspects of an MTO's job is the unpredictability, she said.

"You've got to take care of the cadet candidates," Shepard said. "And they all have different things going on. You could have one in the hospital you need to check on. You could have one who's done everything wrong he possibly can and you've got to get paperwork pushed. You've got to get his mentoring in, you've got to make sure he's making his appointments with the commander, the commandant, things like that. Maybe you walk in and the squadron's a complete disaster. Typically we'll do a walk-around and check rooms — are they keeping up with the military standards we've given them? So we'll do a mini-inspection and if they haven't, then we need to address that."

Being a disciplinarian is the hardest aspect of being an MTO, Hightower said.

"Holding people to standards — when you're in a training environment, that's your job," he said. "A lot of people don't want to be that guy. But whatever career field you're in, the rules are there for a reason. Even the ones we don't think are important, it's still important to follow them and to hold others accountable for following them."

Shepard agreed that the days can be busy,and unpredictable.

"It's a 24-hour job," she said. "We're on call all the time. If something happens in the middle of the night, the first number they have to call besides 911 is mine. A lot of military members, they can predict their job is going to be 7:30-4:30. I can't. And some days can be go, go, go.

My AMTs and I will pop in on the weekends to see how everybody is doing ... we care about them, we're here for them. And we don't want to make them feel like they're doing this alone. They're here without parents, they're trying to grow up and mature, but they still need someone to rely on. MTOs are closer in age to them, we still keep those professional boundaries, but we're able to better understand what they're going through and what their fears and concerns are."

Five out of the six lieutenants currently serving as MTOs are Prep School alumni, which Hightower feels gives them an added edge in relating to the cadet candidates.

"MTOs are a huge part of the Prep School because they give the cadet candidates someone to look up to, they give them someone who makes them think, 'Oh, five years ago he was in these same dorms,'" he said. "I was literally in this same squadron five years ago. So it gives them someone to look at and say, 'He was here, and look what he's doing now. So in five years, I can be like him or like her, I can be doing all these things. I can make it. Just because I'm a preppie doesn't mean I'm disadvantaged in any way.'"

Master Sgt. William Bullecks, an AMT for Prep School Squadron 3, said cadet candidates and MTOs have an almost symbiotic relationship — they help each other grow.

"An MTO's basic responsibility is to give the cadet candidates the perspective of what it was like to be a cadet," Bullecks said. "Most of them are prior prep school candidates themselves, so they have the experience of a prep schooler and the Academy. And then to come here as a lieutenant, they have the ability to show them how a lieutenant is supposed to be, as well as adapt and learn how to be a lieutenant themselves while they're here."

Hightower agreed this is why the MTO process is beneficial.

"The whole system here is really set up to help me grow," he said. "Not too many people get the opportunity to get to sit down one on one with all these cadet candidates, just trying to make it to the Academy and trying to go and do all these things ... It's definitely an awesome experience. I get to give back to where I came from, which is a huge part of it. And I get to have a real impact on their lives."