Cadets work out strategy during Cadet Officer School’s Project X exercise Aug. 6.
Cadet Capt. Jennifer French of the Alabama Wing’s Redstone Composite Squadron participates in Project X.
Cadet Lt. Col. Chris Weinzapfel of the Indiana Wing’s RiverCity Cadet Squadron, cadet commandant for the 2012 Cadet Officer School, during graduation.
Lt. Col. Rajesh Kothari, 2012 Cadet Officer School director, speaks during the graduation exercise.
Photos by Susan Schneider, National Headquarters
ALABAMA – On a muggy summer morning at Maxwell Air Force Base, 120 cadets from 42 wings braved the heat and put their skills to the test as they worked to complete a series of Project X exercises at this year’s Cadet Officer School, held July 31-Aug. 9.
“Attention to detail!”
“Wait – let’s rethink this, guys.”
“Work the problem.”
These phrases, words of encouragement and – every now and then – arguments rang out alongside sharp whistle blasts denoting penalties as cadet teams tried to get all of their members across a pool of water without touching its perimeter, using only a wooden plank and a metal barrel.
This challenge, like the other Project X exercises, is a tough test that requires the cadets to use communication, leadership, critical thinking, problem-solving and teamwork to overcome obstacles and accomplish the task. Project X exercises are also used in many of the U.S. Air Force’s various officer and officer candidate training courses.
“Project X is a great exercise,” said the school’s director, Lt. Col. Rajesh Kothari, emergency services training officer for the Michigan Wing’s Maj. Kevin A. Adams Memorial Squadron and former director of emergency services and emergency services officer for his wing. “It teaches the cadets how to pair the skills they’ve learned in the classroom at COS and put them into action to reach a goal. It is a big step in moving them from tactical thinking to strategic thinking.”
Kothari, a CAP member for 31 years, was leading COS for the first time.
Cadet 2nd Lt. Michael Eckart of the New Mexico Wing’s Albuquerque Heights Spirit Composite Squadron echoed Kothari’s assessment. “It’s true learning from experience,” said Eckart, whose team completed the Compound Problem exercise thanks in large part to collaboration between Eckart and another cadet that led to an innovative solution.
“I’m having a blast,” he said. “We’ve all learned so much, and now in Project X, we’re implementing it.”
Eckart, a University of New Mexico freshman working toward a career in Air Force aviation, possibly as a pilot, praised CAP and COS for the head start they’re giving him. “I’ll have a leg up on leadership that will set me apart from my peers,” he said.
While it’s probably the most exciting part, Project X is just one component of COS, one of the top professional development opportunities available to cadets. Only the top 2 percent of cadets from across the nation are given the chance to attend the 10-day course, during which they learn everything from airpower history to communication and problem-solving skills.
Patterned after Air Force Squadron Officer School and held at Maxwell AFB – home of the prestigious Air University and other facets of military education for the Air Force as well as CAP’s National Headquarters – COS is an academically challenging program combining lectures, seminars and hands-on training. Cadets practice what they learn each day through a series of writing and speaking assignments as well as through experiences like Project X, where they have to draw on every skill they’ve been honing to complete each exercise.
Cadet Capt. Jessica French of the Alabama Wing’s Redstone Composite Squadron is still figuring out her goals for the future, but whatever the Auburn University freshman decides to pursue, she knows her COS experience will prove beneficial.
“There is such a huge emphasis on teamwork and communication here, and these skills are keys to success in anything,” French said. “COS has also shown me that I can set goals high and reach them.”
Every cadet at COS is exceptional, but even in this group, some stand out. Each year, one such cadet is chosen to return the following year as cadet commandant and serve as a liaison between cadets and officers and to plan all nonacademic activities for the activity.
This year’s commandant was Cadet Lt. Col. Chris Weinzapfel of the Indiana Wing’s RiverCity Cadet Squadron.
“As commandant, I’m learning a lot about organization and logistics, in addition to the reaffirmation of the teamwork and leadership skills I learned at COS last year,” Weinzapfel said. “I want to be an anesthesiologist, and leadership skills are great to have in any field or profession.”
While the cadets unquestionably gain from their participation, Kothari’s favorite part of the activity is actually watching officers and others gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the cadets.
“I love exposing the cadets to COS, because we really broaden their idea of what leadership means,” he said. “But I really love seeing our senior members and the Air Force folks that volunteer to help with COS as they realize just how talented and dedicated our cadets really are.
“Often, they are startled by the cadets’ insight and sophistication.”
COS was one of more than 30 National Cadet Special Activities sponsored by CAP this summer, and each cadet participant leaves the program better prepared to face future challenges, Kothari said.
“We put a bunch of new tools in their toolkit and then help them understand how and when to use them,” he said.