By Kelby Flanigan, Contributor
The perception of an officer training program may trigger a memory of a hard-nosed drill instructor screaming at a young cadet.
But at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, there’s no screaming going on. It’s a leadership and mentoring program that for more than 60 years has produced our country’s future leaders and world’s finest second lieutenants.
Meet the “Wolfpack,” the brand given to the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) at UNO.
Established in 1951 during the rise of the Cold War, the AFROTC is an educational program designed to give men and women the opportunity to become Air Force officers while completing their degrees.
“Fundamentally, it’s a leadership course. We’re here to build leaders,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Chocolaad, commander of the University’s Detachment 470.
As commander and chair of Aerospace Studies, Chocolaad’s mission is to develop the world’s second lieutenants for the U.S. Air Force within his three year rotation at the university.
That means qualifying corps members will receive a presidential commission through the preparation of the leadership skills and tools provided by the program. Chocolaad works hard to provide the corps with leadership direction that he attained through a decorated career serving the Air Force. Among his service includes working on a joint IED (improvised explosive device) task force at the Pentagon.
His work in international affairs has aided air forces from other nations in developing their own security capabilities. This work has been a valuable asset in the classroom for teaching UNO cadets multicultural teamwork and communication, Chocolaad said.
“Everything we do in the Air Force is a team sport, everything we do in the Department of Defense is a team sport,” he said. “If you don’t know how to work as a team, you will not do well in the department. You learn that as a lieutenant.”
However, becoming a cadet does not mean he or she will become an active duty officer. This course is setup in two separate parts.
“We’re not sending anyone to Afghanistan. It’s designed so that you get a college degree,” Chocolaad said.
The curriculum gives students the opportunity to find out if the Air Force is right for them while earning academic credit. Chocolaad suggests any student interested in the Air Force or general aviation to think about joining the AFROTC.
“You can put yourself on a dual track,” he said. “You can be enrolled in a civilian aviation program and you can be enrolled in AFROTC. As you’re going along you can decide ‘Hey, military aviation isn’t for me.’”
This dynamic to the curriculum helps students decide the best path to take individually. But those Mavericks who dream of being the “Top Gun,” must take one of the few roads available to become an officer.
“You’ve got three paths to be an officer in the Air Force, and right now you have to be an officer in the Air Force to fly,” Chocolaad said. “You can either go to the Air Force Academy out in Colorado Springs, Colo., you can go to officer training school or you can come to AFROTC.”
Although the amount of commissions issued to graduates is not limited by detachment, the Wolfpack can take pride in being ranked among the best of the 141 detachments existing nationwide.
“We have higher quality students here, and we earn our fair share,” said Chocolaad. “GPA wise, we are fourth in the northwest region, with an average GPA at a 3.334. We beat the national average of ROTC cadets selected for field training last year.”
The Air Force ranks the top performers based off of a cadet’s GPA, ACT score, physicality and leadership ranking.
Part of the corps’ success is credited to UNO having one of the region’s best aviation departments on campus, offering aviation opportunities not available at many universities.
“We’ve partnered with the aviation [department] for instance,” Chocolaad said. “They have full motion simulators that are FAA certified, which allow cadets to get sim time, as some folks have never been in an aircraft.”
The corps’ leadership training is not limited to the Air Force, it also involves the university and community.
“If we have a chance to partner with the community, we jump on it,” Chocolaad said.
For example, when UNO’s safety office wanted to test campus safety procedures, the AFROTC students assisted the office, along with the Omaha Police Department to act out crisis situations on campus.
“We used ROTC cadets who played the role of students and we tested out some of the safety scenarios that you see on the walls,” Chocolaad said. “The students got to test leadership. We evaluated students in dynamic situations and said if this happens, what would you do? They really enjoyed that and had a great time doing it.”
In addition to the curriculum, cadets also participate in fundraising and assistance programs. Chocolaad notes that the corps was able to raise about $5,000 for the Wounded Warriors Project and the Special Olympics by organizing a 5-kilometer race called the POW/MIA Memorial 5K. Their volunteer work with UNO’s Seven Days of Service and Habitat for Humanity helped to fix up several community houses.
“Ultimately, we put someone in charge and get to give that person feedback on how well the cadets did running the event,” Chocolaad said.
Although leadership is the primary focus stressed throughout the curriculum, an overlooked asset provided by the corps is its job benefits. Once a cadet receives their bachelor’s degree, the Air Force will seek to commission them with the intention of seeing active duty within the year.
“I can certainly tell you that the ROTC is not going to hurt you in terms of kicking off your career,” Chocolaad said. “You can do four to five years of service for your country and when you walk away, you’re probably going to be ahead of your peers.”
As the fall semester begins and a new class of AFROTC emerges, the lieutenant colonel provides some career advice to all UNO students.
“Look for experiences,” Chocolaad said. “If you’re not going to do ROTC, look for the opportunity for some type of service learning. If you can walk into a job and have experience under your belt, in addition to a degree, it’s likely going to separate you from everyone else.”