Character Educator in Focus: Maddie Ruppel

Maddie Ruppel is a First Lieutenant in the US Army with a specialty of Military Intelligence. She currently works as the Aide-de-Camp for a senior leader and has also worked as a Battalion Intelligence Officer and an Intelligence Operations Officer. Maddie is entering her second year of studies in the Jubilee Centre’s MA Character Education programme and is enjoying the opportunities to apply lessons learned from the programme to her daily interaction with junior Soldiers, peers, and senior leaders alike. 

Character and the Army

When complaining about doing chores as a kid, my dad would jokingly issue his standard refrain, “It’s good for you—builds character.” Increasingly, his response led me to wonder what this ‘character’ was and why in the world I would ever want it if it always came as the result of hard labor. Now, as a junior Officer in the United States Army, I find myself grinning ruefully as I issue my dad’s old refrain to my young Soldiers whenever embarking on some arduous task.

When it comes to the Army, most imagine a world where character is borne, nay dragged to the fore as one is crawling through the omnipresent muck and mire of Basic Training or slogging through the disciplined marching of Drill and Ceremony. While this image does at times reflect reality, there is a good deal more to being a part of the greatest team on earth and, more importantly, to the role of character development in the Army.

As a 1st Lieutenant only two years since commissioning, one thing stands out clearly for me: people are the greatest resource we have. These people have shown me that an affinity for teaching and a willingness to learn are tools one should always carry. When first joining a Combat Aviation Brigade as a Battalion Intelligence Officer, I knew nothing about aviation and had little experience with intelligence work. Still, I was charged with researching, analyzing, and effectively communicating the enemy threat to around 600 personnel who were planning training missions off of my intelligence. I was immediately humbled.

Thankfully, several individuals from Company to Battalion agreed to mentor me, spending hours explaining the aircraft, the threat, and how it needed to be communicated. They patiently revealed tools to me and were always willing to be sounding boards for the enemy scenarios I designed. Their character, i.e. their patience, humility, professional competence, discernment, intellectual curiosity, and intentional mentorship not only compelled me to do my absolute best, but made me the Officer and leader I am today.

Now, as an Aide-de-Camp to a senior Officer with a small team to lead, I have the opportunity to shape and mold how these young Soldiers develop. I have found myself drawing on so many of the great examples from my past and looking to one of the tools the Army provides for intentional character development: the official counseling form and the requirement for each individual to be counselled on at least a quarterly basis.

Since superior professional competency is a baseline requirement for a nominative position at this level, there were several points outside the technical skill realm I wanted to clearly articulate in my team’s initial counselling. First, similar to the Jubilee Centre’s concept of how character is both taught and caught, my Soldiers need to recognize they are influencing others whether they intend to or not. They must reflect on the kind of legacy they want to leave and how they will go about leaving it. Second, they must actively engage in personal and professional development. This means being mentored regularly, as well as involvement in the development opportunities we have—namely a monthly book discussion modelled off my former Battalion Commander’s program. Finally, I expect them to conduct themselves in accordance with a leadership philosophy focused on Genuine, Positive, Servant leadership (GPS). In other words, the tenets of this philosophy become the GPS for how they navigate leading.

The deliberate discussion of character runs throughout these counseling sessions and subsequent iterations allow us to assess and realign ourselves to ensure we stay on track. As with mentorship, the development of character is a two-way street. At the end of each counseling, I make clear my expectation that they hold me to the same standard and tactfully inform me when I miss the mark.

So, while there are powerful ‘It builds character’ moments in the Army when one is face down in a pool of mud, there are perhaps even more significant moments where the sturdy foundations of character are tested and solidified in the actions of a role model, deliberate conversations with a mentor, or the humbling experience of entering a position one knows nothing about.

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