There was a collective gasp among some U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) grads last week when video emerged of fellow grad and current CEO of United Airlines, Scott Kirby, crawling down a short flight of steps, rising from the floor, and then dancing awkwardly.

“So what,” you say, “lots and lots of people dance awkwardly.” 

True, but in this case Mr. Kirby’s clumsy performance (you can see it here) was partially caused by the fact that he was attempting to do it in a severe pair of women’s platform shoes, an above-the-knee silver dress, and stockings. The frazzled blonde wig he wore and had to adjust while he preened and posed probably made it even more difficult to pull-off a graceful performance. 

“Again, so what?” you say. “What Mr. Kirby does on his own time is between him and his employees, shareholders, and the corporate board to which he ultimately answers. Granted, other photos show he appears to be an accomplished drag queen, but if none of them mind, nobody else should, either.” 

Again true, but it wasn’t Mr. Kirby’s sartorial choices or lack of rhythm that caused the collective reaction from his fellow USAFA grads.

The reaction came because it was announced Mr. Kirby would offer a keynote lecture at the National Character and Leadership Symposium (NCLS), a three-day “flagship event on character and leadership held at the U.S. Air Force Academy,” where cadets have the opportunity to hear from military, business leaders, and world-class athletes about their experiences and lessons learned. Among speakers at this year’s conference is a USAFA grad and astronaut who spent four and a half months in space, an unbelievably inspiring paraplegic athlete, and a five-time Olympic gold medalist.

The Academy brass who chose Mr. Kirby as a speaker for NCLS are surely aware of the videos of him twerking in his silver dress and wig, and know he is a proponent of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at United. (Note: the Academy’s X account with a cadet introducing Mr. Kirby as a speaker at NCLS was abruptly removed last Wednesday. Take a moment to look for it. Nothing there.) There are other grads who have enjoyed comparable success in a multitude of fields the Academy could have selected instead. For example, two USAFA grads currently serve in Congress, and my class alone has members in the Montana and Ohio state legislatures, respectively. Another classmate is currently the Mayor of his Texas town. There are undoubtedly many USAFA grads doing amazing things in different fields who could share their stories and inspire cadets to greatness.

And yet, from the constellation of excellence available to it, the Academy and NCLS instead chose Mr. Kirby, United’s CEO and drag queen enthusiast who believes prospective pilots at his company should be chosen based not on ability but rather by skin color and gender.

Hold that thought. 

Before there was an NCLS, the Academy would periodically invite distinguished guests to come and speak to the entire cadet wing. 

The man who stands-out most in my memory was Lt. General Harold W. Moore. 

Moore, who could have been John Wayne’s stunt double, was famous for leading the 7th Cavalry in the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in the Vietnamese central highlands in 1965. The battle, dramatized in the movie “They Were Soldiers Once, and Young” where Mel Gibson portrayed Moore, was historic because it was the first direct engagement between the U.S. Army and North Vietnamese Army. It was also the first combat test of the Army’s new “air mobile” concept of moving troops into battle using helicopters. 

We sat rapt as Moore strode across the stage and coolly recounted how, surrounded, outnumbered, and facing almost certain destruction, the 450 troopers of his 7th Cavalry – ominously the same unit designation as George Armstrong Custer’s that was destroyed to a man – fought nose-to-nose with 2,000 North Vietnamese Army regulars over four bloody days. The lanky Kentuckian and West Point graduate walked us through the battle’s evolution and how he used every skill and tactic at his disposal to avoid his 7th Cavalry troopers from sharing the same fate as Custer’s did at the Little Bighorn nearly a century before. 

The first-person history of the battle was fascinating, but the most important thing Moore shared was what it was like to be in a life-and-death situation as a combat commander. He conveyed to an audience of soon-to-be Air Force officers the incredible weight of responsibility some of us would soon bear when the lives of our brothers and sisters in-arms would depend on our leadership and competence. General Moore’s calmness in the mayhem, smoke, and incoming fire provided an example that each of us could aspire to. He was the walking, talking personification of what an American combat leader should be. 

Which brings us back to the NCLS and Mr. Kirby. 

The Academy’s ideas about what constitutes leadership and character have changed because instead of a warrior such as Moore speaking to cadets, now those who run NCLS thinks it is important a drag queen CEO does. But the Air Force’s mission has not changed, and neither has the nature of combat. A Roman Centurion would have understood the underlying tactical problems and leadership principles of Moore’s presentation. 

So will Mr. Kirby speak to USAFA cadets in a short silver dress, garish makeup, and platform shoes? And if not, why not? His clothing choices appear to be much of what makes him exceptional among the scores of other USAFA grads who have gone on to prominence in their respective fields. 

Or stated another way, does NCLS and the Academy’s leadership believe General Moore’s speech about the Battle of Ia Drang would have been more meaningful and inclusive if he had given it in drag?

Sadly, it appears they just might.

Patrick “Kit” Bobko is a 1991 Air Force Academy graduate who now practices law in Southern California.

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