It all started in March 2020 when cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, left for spring break, expecting to return after a week of vacation. Little did we know that the COVID-19 pandemic would turn that week away from the academy into five months.
Few people could have imagined what would happen during those five months. First, the pandemic caused a worldwide public health emergency that isolated everyone from friends and extended family, closed schools and shut down businesses. Political tensions intensified. Then, a series of violent protests broke out following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The U.S. was broken and divided, and the Corps of Cadets was geographically scattered, experiencing the pandemic and civil unrest in real time.
The events of 2020 affected every cadet differently. One friend and classmate lived in the heart of Minneapolis during the riots; another fought the pandemic while acting as primary caregiver for his mother, who suffered from stage 4 cancer; and another worked a side job to help his family pay the bills. Everyone was living different lives and had their own struggles, and we had no one but our families with whom to discuss these things.
The biggest question became: How do the academy’s student leaders safely reintegrate the corps back into West Point and create a trusted, cohesive team in the midst of a pandemic and societal upheaval? After finding out that I was selected to serve as the cadet First Captain for the 2020–21 academic year, answering that question became my ultimate mission.
Luckily, I had an amazing team of mentors and peers. Our quest to find the answer began with the introduction of a new summer leadership detail called Cadet Leader Development.
Uniting the Corps
After COVID-19 canceled Cadet Leader Development Training, which was the culminating field training exercise for the upper two classes that my team and I had been planning for four months, we were assigned to lead Cadet Leader Development. The purpose of this leadership detail was to reintegrate the upper two classes back into West Point, put them through two weeks of controlled COVID monitoring and implement a character development program that would help establish the trusted, cohesive team we were trying to put together.
How do we unite a corps of 4,400 individuals of different races, religions, identities and experiences over the past five months in the midst of all the civil unrest and a pandemic? How could I as a leader serve as a catalyst for positive change?
First and foremost, we discovered that the key to building trust within our organization was to listen to one another. Public discourse at the time centered around the idea that, “If I disagree with your opinion, then you do not have a right to have one.” Being apart for the past five months, cadets returned to West Point having experienced events in different ways. There were many diverse opinions about how the pandemic and social unrest should be addressed. We had to find a healthy way to engage in these important discussions and be able to see the world through our classmates’ lenses. We did this by introducing “Tree Talks.”
Tree Talks were a character training protocol that provided cadets with the time, space and resources to actively listen to one another and engage in developmental discussions surrounding complex issues such as political activism, COVID-19, race, sexual harassment and assault, mental health and more. The name “Tree Talks” came from wanting these facilitated discussions to be effective, yet so simple that they could happen anywhere—even out in the field under a tree.
This training began with small-group exercises in active listening. Our goal was for all cadets to listen to understand each other, instead of just listening to respond. After listening to understand those around us, we were able to empathize with our classmates and understand that despite our differences, we each have valid feelings and opinions.
In subsequent Tree Talks, we addressed more complex issues, but the reason we were able to do so in a civilized manner is because of the foundation of trust established by first listening to understand our classmates.
Aside from building trust within the corps, our other main goals for the year were to create cohesion and increase morale. This truly was an unprecedented academic year due to COVID-related restrictions. For most of the year, cadets were not allowed to leave post. No families, friends or other outside guests were permitted to visit the academy in order to mitigate the risk of a COVID outbreak.
As a result, there were no outside spectators at sporting events, no one in the stands watching parades, no guests invited to formals and no families present during class weekends. Many cadets felt alone and isolated, and we knew the only way to create a cohesive team and increase morale throughout the corps was to provide people with the opportunity to come together.
We decided to make the most of what we had and who we had around us. Since we could not leave West Point, we brought as much fun to the academy as we could. Whether it was concerts in Eisenhower Hall, pickup sporting events on the Plain, outdoor movie nights or Thanksgiving turkey dinner in the barracks’ hallways, we created opportunities for people to gather, feel a sense of community and meet people outside of our normal social circles.
We quickly built friendships with our classmates who began to feel like family, and we created a sense of home away from home.
In my years at West Point, I never felt closer to my peers than I did during my senior year. They were my family, and after all we had been through, I trusted that we would stick by each other’s side through anything.
Since graduating and commissioning as a second lieutenant, I have carried with me the lessons I learned about building trust and cohesion within a diverse group of individuals. Since becoming a platoon leader, I find myself facing a similar challenge of creating a trusted, unified team made up of 26 soldiers from all walks of life. Every one of them has their own story, opinions, motivations and beliefs, but it is my job to do what I can as a leader to unite them as a cohesive platoon.
I apply the lessons I learned about active listening and bringing people together every day I stand in front of my soldiers as their platoon leader. While I may have learned these lessons in the midst of a pandemic, these principles are enduring and generalizable to all conditions, and I am thankful I have the opportunity to apply them every day as a young Army officer.
First Lt. Reilly Rudolph is a platoon leader in the 84th Engineer Battalion, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. As First Captain, she was the highest-ranking cadet in the Class of 2021 at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.