Air Force Academy's new boss judging success by what cadets go on to achieve
By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 21, 2017
New Air Force Academy boss Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria isn't judging his 4,000 cadets by what he's seen so far since returning to Colorado Springs.
Instead the veteran fighter pilot who ran the air war in the Middle East in his most recent job said how those cadets later perform in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is a better yardstick.
"I think we should measure what we do here by what I have seen in combat," said Silveria, a 1985 graduate of the school and the most experienced combat pilot to head the academy in a generation.
Silveria has flown combat missions over Iraq and the Balkans at the controls of the F-15E Strike Eagle, arguably the Air Force's most effective bomber. In a 32-year career he's logged nearly 4,000 hours in the cockpit.
Those stick-and rudder skills earlier landed Silveria the job as the Air Force's dean of fighter pilots in 2014 when he was put in charge of the service's Air Warfare Center in Nevada.
It also likely played a role in getting Silveria picked to head the academy, which hasn't been run by pilot with his kind of combat experience since Lt. Gen. J.D. Dallager took the superintendent's job in 2000. Dallager flew combat missions in Vietnam.
Silveria's arrival at the academy also follows rumblings around the Pentagon and among the school's alumni that it needed a leader who would better emphasize military training.
A week into the new job, Silveria is focused on learning about the academy. He's met with his staff and thousands of cadets who grilled him in question-and-answer sessions.
"In these first days I really want to listen," Silveria said.
The general says much has changed at the academy since he left in 1985.
Even the cadets seem different from his classmates, he said.
"They are so smart," he said. "They are so sophisticated."
The son of an Air Force master sergeant, Silveria first came to the academy in 1981.
Going to the school was a natural fit for a teenager who'd followed his father across the globe.
"I grew up on bases with jet noise and fliers," he said. "I loved it."
His father, Walter Silveria, taught his son about duty, honor and courage at the dining room table. Family trips took the future general to the beaches of Normandy and the Berlin Wall.
The elder Silveria died after a battle with cancer days before the general took command. He said his grief over his father's death has been mixed with admiration for the skills he learned from the seasoned sergeant. At the academy, Silveria honed his leadership skills, rising high in the cadet rank system. Academically he held his own.
"I was squarely in the middle of my class."
He left Colorado Springs with a degree and a bride on his arm.
His wife, Virginia, has stayed by his side through a dozen overseas deployments and 18 household moves.
"I don't think there is anyone who loves the Air Force more than Virginia," he said.
Over three decades of rising responsibility, Silveria has learned that there's a lot more to the Air Force than its pilots. "We now fight with space and cyberspace, manned and unmanned," he said. "We would be arrogant to think we can fight any other way."
That means that cadets leaving the academy now need a broader set of skills and an understanding dropping one bomb on a target is the work of thousands of airmen, not just one pilot.
"From the very beginning, they have to grab onto this culture of collaboration," Silveria said.
That doesn't mean the academy needs to shelve time-tested traditions. The school's foundation of ethics and honor, it's grueling physical challenges and legendarily-difficult academics will stay.
"There are time-tested basic principles we are going to hold on to as airmen, but they to be in the context of the time," Silveria explained.
Tradition is a big deal at the academy. New ideas often spark opposition from the school's 40,000 alumni and thousands of others from the White House down.
That doesn't bother Silveria.
"There's a lot right with the idea that so many people are interested in what's going on here," he said.
Silveria wants even more people interested in the school and he's already started an aggressive plan to meet community leaders to make that happen.
"I really want to be part of this community," he said.
Getting out in the community has already proved costly for Silveria. On one of his first days in town he and Virginia hit a restaurant on Academy Boulevard. The couple was seated next to a table of four cadets.
The general chatted with the stunned group, unused to breaking bread with a three-star.
As he left the restaurant, Silveria picked up their tab.
While Silveria anticipates changes during his run at the school, some things are not up for negotiation.
First among those, he said, is his demand for constant innovation. He wants cadets who can react to changing conditions and think on their feet. New ideas are a requirement for Silveria.
Second on his list is a constant need to examine how the academy is doing its job. Satisfaction with the status quo won't be tolerated, he said.
"We have to be tough on ourselves," he said,.
The third of Silveria's unchanging rules is firmly aimed at problems that have haunted the Air Force and its academy in the past. Misconduct, sexual assault, hazing and all manner of bad behavior won't fly with the new boss.
"My red line is cadets who can't treat each other with respect and dignity," he said.
The rules aren't new for Silveria, who has led Air Force units from fighter squadrons to the academy,
"What's different here is we have to teach leaders," he said. "We have to teach leaders to enforce those standards."
But from what he's seen of academy graduates overseas and the cadets he's met in his first week on the job, his new subordinates are up to the task.
"We're in good hands," he said.
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