SOS: Better than I expected

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO - LACKLAND, Texas -- After commissioning in May 2009, I attended the Air and Space Basic Course the following September.

I hated it.

The course covered material most people had already learned and seemed a waste of time to me. While I enjoyed the networking, I would have passed on the experience as a whole.

I expected the same experience going into Squadron Officer School: a course designed to have captains regurgitate knowledge for some multiple-choice, brain-dump test that also happened to allow officers to network.

My expectations were way off the mark.

One of the reasons my ASBC and expected SOS experiences were so negative is because I am extremely passionate about teaching and learning. I am a certified teacher with experience designing curriculum and classroom instruction. In my nearly 13 years in the Air Force, I've seen military training implemented poorly more often than not and had grown to expect disappointment.

SOS was an experience so different, and so much better, that it took me a full week of the course to regain my bearings and stop waiting for it to be terrible.

SOS is a course that actually makes you think. It isn't just a knowledge test. Many times, the questions raised during the course have no "right" answer. Instead, you get the opportunity to present what you think about a leadership situation and why.  You also explore Air Force and joint operations through the lens of your diverse flight mates.

This time and ability to reflect on our own leadership skills is extremely rare in day-to-day operations but is so critical to leadership development. I honestly wish we had more time for this sort of reflection.

Throughout the SOS course, many of the students adopted the motto, "SOS: It's better than you'd think." Most people I knew actually got a lot out of the course. I had the opportunity to brief the commandant on the top 10 things students liked about the course and got a unique perspective into the perceptions of the entire class.

Everyone's favorite feature was the opportunity to gain perspective from other career fields. The ability to learn the course material, not just through reading articles, but also through the experience of others was invaluable. Pilots throughout the class were the most adamant about this point, because many haven't had the chance to engage others outside of their flying squadrons much at this point in their careers. Many people also wished they had parts of this course much sooner in their careers to help give them a broader perspective.

The second point students liked was the responsiveness of the SOS staff. The course just changed from an eight to a five-week course and we were the first to experience the new schedule. It was very rough and extremely busy, but the staff listened to the students and implemented changes to smooth things out on the fly. I have never seen this kind of flexibility (the key to Airpower) and critical insight in any military course. In fact, between course 15A and 15B, the staff has already significantly rebuilt the schedule and implemented the vast majority of the suggestions the students recommended.

The current SOS staff isn't there to maintain the status quo, hand students course material and hope they learn. They are actively building and refining a high-level leadership course that serves the students of today and those coming in the future.

While there are still challenges with the new five-week schedule and the course will always need refinement, SOS is already a very good course and a great opportunity for captains to hone their leadership skills and knowledge.

I offer words of advice from a number of students from class 15A: You get out of this course what you put into it. By Air Force statistics, SOS is the last in-residence professional military education course 80 percent of officers will attend. Go in with an open mind and a positive attitude, it's worth it.