West Point civilians get a taste of Cadet Field Training during Civilian Military Experience

By Eric S. Bartelt West Point Public Affairs Specialist Date: Tuesday, Jun 11, 2024 Time: 12:17 EST
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WEST POINT, N.Y. – Supporting the mission of creating commissioned leaders of character at the U.S. Military Academy comes with an immense responsibility in helping contribute to cadets’ success in building their academic, athletic and character development.

Outside of tremendous guidance from tactical officers, tactical noncommissioned officers and military instructors, the responsibility of that mission falls on civilian staff, faculty, athletic coaches and support staff who spend numerous hours with cadets throughout their 47-month experience at West Point.

During the summer, the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic (SCPME) and the Department of Military Instruction (DMI) conduct a three-day, two-night course called, Civilian Military Experience (CivMX), that allows West Point civilians with no prior military experience, although not a necessity, to immerse in the training experience of cadets and foster a shared understanding about the requirements of the Army profession.

This year from June 5-7, 18 participants spent 56 hours at Camp Buckner living their best cadet life while engaging in a combination of lessons, reflections, field exercises, leadership and fellowship to develop their own competence, commitment and character as an Army professional, which the cadets will achieve when they graduate and move on as second lieutenants in the Army.

Among the many tasks that the CivMX participants undertook was drill and ceremony, the Leader Reaction Course, Warrior Tasks and Drills, land navigation, Call for Fire, patrol operations and the Water Confidence Course.

The CivMX program began in 2022 as Dr. Yasmine Kalkstein, SCPME Lead Character Integrator and associate professor, came up with the idea when she noticed the disconnect between the academic and military sides of the academy, as well as her own frustration with trying to learn about the Army as she was assimilating to West Point’s culture.

“I decided I needed some ‘basic training’ and convinced my leadership to let me develop this idea,” Kalkstein explained. “I roped in Maj. Marc Meybaum, who loves the Army and Army ethos like nobody else, and we developed the details. He later brought in another colleague, Lt. Col. Tom Dull, and the two of them acted as platoon leaders for the first cohort, really piloting the experience for 13 of us.”

Back in 2022, when Kalkstein participated with the first cohort, she said by the end of day one, “It was evident to me there was something magical about the combination of experience, reflection, classes and non-stop intensive nature of the program.”

Kalkstein starts recruiting in January for the program and there was a waitlist by February. As the program continues to develop, there are at least two officers who are assigned to helping build it a couple of months before the three-day venture.

Maj. Chaz Crayne, a MX400 instructor, was the lead officer, with Capt. Aaron Farnsworth, SCPME instructor, as the second in command this year.

Kalkstein said the two officers demonstrated commitment, competence and character to make the program happen despite the hard work required in their regular duties at the end of the academic year.

There has become an intense demand for the program where athletic coaches were asking for different dates because of their availability or former CivMX participants who are asking for a CivMX 2.0.

“I have civilians outside of West Point asking if we can open it up,” Kalkstein stated. “If we had the resources (to expand it), I think this is a fantastic way to build civ-mil relations and understanding, as well as continue to break down silos in our own institution.”

When she first developed the concept of CivMx, Kalkstein knew it would be great but before the first launch, she purposefully asked the officers she recruited to not tell her too much of the details they were developing for the cohort.

“I wanted to experience CivMX as a faculty member, even though I knew the objectives and some of the program,” she said. “I came home saying to my husband ‘that hands down it was the best educational experience I have had in at least 10 years.’ The instructors at the Simon Center are masterful at inspiring us with the Army ethos.”

She said there is a “tremendous passion for this (program) for those who have gone through it,” and that they mostly help recruit the next class.

“We all have had the opportunity to observe cadet training but living the experience of being trained as a Soldier/follower/leader for three days is entirely different,” Kalkstein said. “We experience challenges – physical, interpersonal, emotional – just like any team. And it’s only through challenges that we grow.

“We also have intimate discussions with the officers and the instructors we recruit to teach the lessons,” she added. “I have no doubt every single participant walks away with more respect for the profession and everyone serving, but also for the ideal of the profession.”   

Kalkstein’s husband, Dr. Adam Kalkstein, Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering professor, took part in this year’s cohort and she thought he would do well because he is a “natural teammate.”

“It was fun watching him take on the challenges, and build bonds with people he’s never met before,” she said. “Of course, I was proud when he excelled at land navigation and at the Water Confidence Course, but I was equally proud when my colleague shot me an email that she missed her teammate, Adam, and that he was a great squad leader.

“Hearing him say that he missed his CivMX teammates when he came home … it made me smile and realize the strength of this experience in creating interpersonal bonds across USMA,” she added.

Experiencing what they cadets experience by walking in their shoes

Jessica Godoy, an Office of the Directorate of Intercollegiate Athletics athletic trainer for swimming and diving, has been working at West Point since April 2023 but had the drive and motivation to come here since 2018. She had to check some boxes first, such as get a master’s degree, before her dream opportunity presented itself.

With West Point being a dream military setting, it has been a dream come true to work with the cadet athletes and now given the chance to understand what the military does out in the field was the cherry on top.

“When I learned about the CivMX, I was a little intimidated because I wasn’t sure if I had the courage and bravery to go through it,” Godoy said. “I read and learned about it and spoke to people who did it last year, and I couldn’t say no. It just seemed like such a great experience.

“My thought was if I could physically push myself through obstacles that (the cadets) push themselves through for weeks in just three days, then I’m going to be more appreciative for what they do and get to learn more about what they do,” she added. “Working with the cadet athletes, I can now understand not just the athletic side of things, but those military and physical demands that they have to accomplish over the four years that they’re here before they commission.”

Even though it is only three days, Godoy felt it was a great way to not only understand what the cadets go through, but “as a way to sympathize and empathize for them moving forward.”

The experience culminates with the Water Confidence Course where participants walk a high beam to then maneuver along a rope while hanging to eventually drop into the water. Then they move to the “Slide for Life” where they zip line from a tower to then plunge into the water. Godoy said she was definitely scared because it was something she never has done before.

“I think it is a big mental game … at the top of the Slide for Life, my heart was beating out of my chest – I’m not going to lie about that,” Godoy said. “The scariest part was that you already have that momentum from the line, so I had to adjust myself a couple of times to feel confident that I could hold on. When I was ready, I took a deep breath and then just let myself go, and I couldn’t have executed it better. I felt no impact on the water.”

Between the Slide for Life and walking across the beam, she said she felt “shaky,” but it also gave her a new perspective on her confidence level.

“I believed I was confident person to begin with, but I didn’t think I was this confident of a person,” Godoy exclaimed. “As an athletic trainer with my cadet athletes, I encourage them to push past their limits. I feel like I had to tell myself that as I’m giving my cadet athletes this advice, but I have to listen to my own advice, too.

“I make myself speechless at times because I can’t believe I just did that,” she added. “I sit back and reflect on it, I’m a big person on reflection and breaking down what just happened. How did we just do that? How do we feel about it? How can we take this not only into our physical demands but also our personal life or all aspects of life? I think it’s a lot of messages in one that having confidence and believing that no matter what, if you put your heart and your mind to it and you take control of the situation, you’ll execute it the way you want to and you’ll be successful.”

Godoy was assigned a leadership role as the platoon leader of the group, which was an added challenge for her out in the field.

“I learned that I can’t handle everything by myself because to succeed, you need other people – it’s not a one-man job,” Godoy said. “We are a team at the end of the day. But, in the leadership role, I took something for myself on how to be better beyond the CivMX experience.

“Overall, I think it just gave all of us more of an appreciation for the cadets and more of an understanding of what they go through and why they come to us feeling the way they do sometimes with XYZ on their plate and their stress,” she added. “It’s embracing and learning their struggle and appreciating that they have that courage to go through it for four years … and it’s them taking pride and appreciating all the highs and lows that they experience here because one day other people will be looking up to them.”

A new employee to West Point, Emily Warren, the prevention deputy for Integrated Prevention Advisory Group (I-PAG), heard about the CivMX from her colleagues at the Simon Center.

Warren grew up disconnected from military life but developed a strong passion for supporting the Army through her work as a social psychologist.

“I worked for five years supporting Army Family programs in Washington D.C., but I had zero understanding of the West Point cadet experience,” Warren indicated. “I hoped to get a visceral sense, albeit brief, of what their life is like during Cadet Summer Training so I can better support them.”

Warren admitted that doing CivMX was tough because she had to give up autonomy and control with the idea of following strict schedules and taking orders, which can be tough to swallow.

“It was amazing to see how quickly the human mind adapts to this new role and environment,” Warren said. “Within just a few hours of functioning like a platoon, I felt my identity shift from Emily the individual to Emily the squad member.”

She learned leadership can be complex and it doesn’t necessarily mean being the one with the right answer.                                                                                       

“During the first day at the Leader Reaction Course, we were asked to do a series of complex physical team-building tasks and individuals were randomly selected to serve as the squad leader,” Warren explained. “A person was expected to ‘lead’ the team during this effort despite not being an expert on how to solve these complex tasks. This made me realize my idea of being a ‘leader’ is not just being the expert in the group, it’s knowing how to steward a decision process in the face of new and complex situations and identifying key strengths within your teammates to help get you there.”

Being out in the field wasn’t optimum since there was a rainstorm one evening, but Warren did feel that connection to the cadets and their ability to embrace the struggles they face.

“The day we spent learning about field artillery, weaponry and camouflage in the field brought the idea of the Army as a ‘profession’ to life,” Warren exclaimed. “The cadets I spoke with and the esteemed instructors from across the Army were so excited to share their knowledge, passion and enthusiasm for what they do. Everyone I spoke with was so poised, smart and happy we were there. You can tell this was more than a job – being in the Army was part of their core identity.

“Also, I couldn’t complete one of the Water Safety Course tasks, which I had the luxury of deciding I had reached my physical limit that day and not overly sweat the consequences,” she added. “Cadets don’t get that luxury – the course is a graduation requirement. This was a big learning moment for me in understanding life as a cadet and their need to push themselves beyond their limits.”

Warren said it was a great experience and loved the group that she shared the 56 hours within the field.

“The best part was seeing everyone’s professional expertise pop up during our tasks and team-building exercises,” Warren detailed. “For example, one of the participants is a performance psychologist at the Center for Enhanced Performance, and he was so skilled at encouraging us to rephrase our self-talk when we got down on ourselves. Another was a nurse at the hospital and she, along with another participant who works as a sports nutritionist, made sure everyone was well-fed and hydrated. It was fun to see everyone bring their professional skillset to this wildly new experience.”

Dr. Joel Cartwright, research psychologist and laboratory director in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, heard about CivMX from his colleague, Dr. Aryn Pyke, who graduated from the 2023 cohort.

Cartwright, who is prior service, wanted to gain a greater understanding of what the cadets summer training consists of and how it compared to his own personal experiences of enlisted basic training. However, he did learn one thing about himself over the 56 hours at CivMX.

“I was reminded of my dislike for heights, but I also realized that I often use my age as an excuse to avoid pushing myself like I used to,” Cartwright explained. “This experience demonstrated that I can still tackle challenging tasks and reminded me of how much I enjoy them.”

There were ebbs and flows to how Cartwright experienced CivMX, much like the others, where the most grueling part was the Water Confidence Course.

“After spending the night at our patrol base in the rain, with very little sleep, tackling both my fear of heights and my doubts about my physical strength to complete the course was definitely the most challenging part,” Cartwright said.

After it was all said it done, Cartwright was reminded at how amazing the cadets and military personnel are at what they do on a daily basis.

“I was most impressed by the Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division and their professionalism in ensuring that our cadets are receiving the best training possible,” he said.

Cartwright had many compliments toward the group he worked with during the CivMX and said he couldn’t have asked for a better group to have spent those three days with.

“The team’s diverse backgrounds and personalities made the experience even more rewarding as we worked toward the same goal with grit and determination,” Cartwright remarked. “When things got difficult, everyone kept pushing for more. I have no doubt that we will all stay in touch for years to come.”

Cartwright thanked Kalkstein and her team at SCPME for putting together an “amazing program” that could not only benefit West Point staff and faculty, but military spouses and dependents in the future, and help the general population get a better understanding of the profession of arms.

He also talked about the importance of having a sense of belongingness in the realm of behavioral health, retention or general satisfaction in the workplace.

“I have heard several statements that have resonated with me over the last couple of years about how easily West Point can make you feel like you do not belong, whether that is because you are a civilian and not military, you earned a degree in the humanities instead of engineering, you are an ROTC grad and not an Old Grad, you branched non-combat instead of combat, you went to a public versus private college, you are an instructor instead of a TAC officer, and the list goes on and on,” Cartwright expressed. “The CivMX experience allowed us to focus on our similarities instead of these differences and that everyone here, no matter their background or role, are Army professionals striving to build, educate, train and inspire the Corps of Cadets to be commissioned leaders of character committed to the Army values and ready for a lifetime of service to the Army and nation.”

Kalkstein said that most of the faculty and staff do want to understand the cadets, and that “sometimes it takes walking in their shoes for a couple of days for us to do that.”

“It helps us relate to them more,” she concluded. “I can talk more confidently about how content my teaching prepares them for Army leadership. It was, frankly, surprising to me that this opportunity did not exist before.”

For those interested in the 2025 CivMX, Kalkstein is involved with the recruiting process and readying participants for the experience. Currently, there are 12 people interested and on the list for next year and they’ll get priority when the dates open for the next CivMX.