According to Ron Novack, executive director of Syracuse University’s Office of Veteran and Military Affairs (OVMA), “Every day is Veterans Day at Syracuse University.” Given the University’s historic commitment to veterans and military families, it’s no surprise that the OVMA…
Meet Lt. Col. Michael Skarda, Syracuse University’s Air Force ROTC Detachment Commander
When Michael Skarda started the journey of becoming a commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force, there were no indications that his military career was beginning amidst two decades of conflict.
In 2002, Skarda joined the Air Force’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at the University of Maryland, a path he had already seen his older brother successfully navigate and wanted to pursue for himself.
Skarda says the time was memorable for him in many ways. His brother was able to come back to campus and take part in the commissioning ceremony, providing a brotherly welcome into the officer corps of the U.S. Air Force.
Additionally, Skarda recalls being an ROTC cadet prior to the U.S. entering combat operations in Iraq. When the invasion began in 2003, he says many of his fellow cadets stepped back from their decision to join the military. His familial bond and desire to serve guided Skarda forward into what would become a remarkable career.
Currently, Skarda serves as the ranking officer for Syracuse University’s Air Force ROTC detachment, where he and a small staff of cadre prepare the next generation of military officers for the challenges that await them in an uncertain world.
“The challenge for the cadets, as I look forward in this global security environment that we operate in, is wondering where the next spot will be,” says Skarda. “We know the Pacific will certainly be active, but things are changing so rapidly that I hesitate to say any one location in the world is going to be the next hotspot.
Skarda’s first experience with real-world operations came early in his career. One of his first tours placed him in Germany where, as an intelligence officer for combat aviation units, he found himself amidst the struggles of a post-Cold War Europe and the demands of new, growing conflicts within the Global War on Terrorism.
Not long after Germany Skarda served aboard the RC-135, a signals intelligence reconnaissance aircraft that supports military and strategic leaders with real-time on-scene intelligence collection.
Skarda flew in the skies above Afghanistan supporting operations on the ground, and in his role was responsible for the acquisition and transmission of real-time intelligence information for decision-makers on the ground.
From the Heart of Africa to Central New York
The mission of U.S. Air Force ROTC is to, “develop air and space force leaders of character who are expected to fight and win the nation’s wars.” Skarda realizes that in today’s global environment, the cadets he is helping to train and mentor will soon be military officers, some of whom will be in positions to make critical decisions in ways he didn’t have to face.
“Flexibility and adaptability are going to be absolutely key,” Skarda says. “As I look forward there’s just going to be things where the pace in which things happen is going to be incredible. Flexibility is key to air power to get it correct, and that’s only going to become more true in the future.”
In addition to flexibility, Skarda credits perseverance for his own success in life. Throughout most of his career, he has been fortunate to get his top choice of job assignment or duty posting. When he decided he wanted to get some experience outside of the intelligence field, however, it required a little more tenacity.
“I applied to become a foreign area officer and I actually did not get selected on my first two applications, it is a very selective program, especially amongst those in the intelligence field,” says Skarda. “A good piece of advice for anybody who’s ever wanted to do anything, persistence is typically the recipe for success. As boring as that sounds, that is often the truth that I’ve discovered.”
As a Foreign Area Officer (FAO), Skarda was at the forefront of the nation’s diplomatic efforts from within the Department of Defense. According to Skarda, being FAO is what a lot of people think they’re going to do when they go into military intelligence in the Air Force.
Foreign Area Officers help develop policy positions on regional affairs, helping to make recommendations on security assistance and international agreements. They receive, evaluate, and translate information from national and international agencies to better inform Air Force leadership.
Skarda was assigned to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), headquartered in Stuggart, Germany. The assignment required him to spend nine months learning French at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and then an additional six months traveling to U.S. embassies in Africa to gain regional experience.
“Folks often speak of Africa like it’s a country, but it is massive. China, the United States, most of Western Europe can all fit into the African continent and still have plenty of space,” Skarda says. After the completion of his time as an FAO, he set his sights on going back into instructing. The ROTC became an obvious choice based on his own experiences.
Time to Give Back
Skarda arrived on campus over the summer, and after the first few months in his new position says he’s excited to be in this environment, particularly around cadets.
“Any time we get to instruct cadets, whatever it is, there’s this new kind of energy that I feel. After a 17-year career, some of that energy and excitement can leach out over time,” Skarda says. “You start to remember it once you speak to cadets, you remember why you joined, and so it’s kind of energizing to mentor and raise up this next generation of Air Force officers.”
One challenge Skarda will face in the coming years is recruitment. Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force missed its active-duty recruiting goal for the first time since 1999. Skarda realizes that it’s more than just a numbers game, the expectations for what officers can achieve have risen, but the population of eligible recruits has dropped over the years.
“Something like 23 percent of American youth are eligible for military service, only 23 percent,” says Skarda. “The cadets that make it into through this program are, in the truest sense of the word, elite; not everyone can do it,” Skarda says.
He does, however, want to make sure those eligible know the opportunities are there.
“Do they at least know about it? Do they know that we’re here? That we’re accessible, we have scholarships, and we offer a path toward an honorable line of work in service to our country? We have to continue beating that drum and getting that message out there,” says Skarda.
Those interested in finding out more about the opportunities available in the Reserve Officer Training Corps are encouraged to visit the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs website for U.S. Air Force Detachment 535.