Colonal Kaifesh is soon to be the new Commandant of Rickover Naval. He is recently retiring from 28 years of service with the United States Marine Corps. He grew up as an Illinois local, having graduated from Indiana University before attending Officer Graduate School for the Marine Corps.
Cadet Villasenor and Cadet Pena had the opportunity to interview him firsthand.
What made you want to be a part of Rickover?
Well, my whole career has been working with young, aspiring service members and people. I’ve coached, I’ve taught as an infantry officer. I was a leader, a mentor, a coach, a teacher, all those things are what I enjoy the most. I got deployed numerous times and when it came time for me to wrap it up, I want to go back to what I enjoy doing. Rickover is a great school, great reputation. I was made aware of it. I looked at a couple of other places. Westinghouse was one. I came here and I was told that the commander was getting ready to retire and there might be an opportunity here. I was already looking for institutions like this and once I got here, got a chance to meet the staff, students, and administration, I thought this would be a very good fit.
What do you think you can bring to Rickover?
I think I can bring what I’ve always brought. Hopefully some inspiration, some direction, leadership, a desire to help inspire peak performance.
Seeing this school, in the time that you spent here, what do you that you like or may not like?
What do I see that I like? Well, I like everything that I see. I see a large group of great students that work very hard to do well in school, athletics, extracurricular activities: whether it be drill or drama. My hope is to help push and continue, to even make it better. You know, grow the school, pick up our presence, make us recognized, not only across the city and the state, but the region and the country. If we’re going to do good things, let’s do good things, right? I think Rickover has the potential to be a place like that where young students from all over the city come to get a first class education, learn about leadership, an opportunity to practice it, and be ready to go up to the real world and make great contributions for the country, themselves, and the community. That's what I look at on what you do here, hopefully, great things.
How do you feel about the integration of students becoming staff such as Battalion?
My understanding is that the Battalion Staff may not have been able to be exercised as much this year. But when I look at Rickover and I see all the great students here, I think a focus for next year is going to be to get a very, strong Battalion Staff in place where students are taking leadership roles in the institution. Giving them all an opportunity to be challenged, to grow, to flourish. You know, give them more responsibilities, give them more say in what goes on, give them the opportunities to excel, and really be that young leader that we want them to be. From what I’ve seen and heard, this is something we need to work on. I think that’s an important goal and high priority. Something we should really do. I’ve already talked to Commander Tooker and Principal Biela, it’s something we want to work on. To really get the juniors who are going to be seniors next year to really be those true leaders, be that leadership, and really help direct the whole student body, the school, and the program. I think that's something we’re going to focus on the next couple of years. I’ve also got some ideas on some things that the senior class that can really own and grow as leaders, as team members, and really get a graduate level degree in leadership.
So, you came from the Marine Corps. How do you feel about the integration of Marine and Navy morals together and other divisions?
As you know, the Marine Corps is a division of the Navy. We work very closely so we have a very strong bond. This was just a wonderful and unique opportunity. I did look at the Marine Corps Leadership Academy, I thought there was more potential here. I think as a whole, we are one team, one fight. All the branches, especially between the Marine Corps and the Navy. We come from the same place, so it’s not a hard transition.
Are you looking to being a more disciplinary type or more of a guiding figure? As far as working with the cadet corps, where do you exactly see yourself?
Well, I would come in as the Commandant, Commander Tooker’s current role. How do I see myself? I think discipline is essential; there are lots of ways to do it. I’m a firm believer that if you treat young people like adults, they’ll act like adults. I think it’s best for our young leaders to give them the opportunity to make decisions that are right and advance them forward. So, is discipline necessary? Oh, absolutely. How you go about that? I think there are lots of ways but I think that if you treat young leaders like adults, they’ll act like adults and do the right thing. And that’s the thing, that’s what we want.
With us attending a Naval academy, where do you stand with pro-college versus pro-military in post-secondary options?
It’s up to the individual, I don’t think there’s a wrong choice in any way. I think the goal is that you make sure you progress to something bigger and greater beyond ourselves. Whether that young student from the academy wants to go to college, that’s a wonderful thing, there’s no crime in that, we encourage that. That’s the part of the reason why everyone is here, I hope. To make sure that they’re prepared to go to college and succeed. A majority of the folks will go to college, that’s good. As opposed to going to the military, I’ll never say no to that. I’d never say that isn’t a good idea, I’ll encourage that as well. But I still think that depends on the individual, where they are in their life and what they want to do with their next step. If they want to serve right away and go to school after or if they just want to serve and make a career there or if they wanna go serve and try to get into the officer corps. There are lots of different options but as far as college or military service. It depends on the individual and what their goals and desires are. We will support whatever their choices are; I’ve met some of the counselors and they’re wonderful at facilitating and making sure that every student is getting to do what they would like to do, whether its service, whether it’s college, whether its work. Whatever it may be. There is no wrong answer there, as long as everyone is moving on, doing something productive and being that great, young American citizen. Helping out the community and others, there are a million ways you can do that.
Is there a specific reason you went into the military and why you picked the Marine Corps?
I’ve always been super patriotic. When I was five years old, my room was red, white, and blue. I had tennis shoes that were American flags. For whatever reason, I’ve always been super patriotic. I’ve always wanted to serve; when I was in college and I was looking at my next transition, the military was high on my list so I was talking to my recruiters for my junior and senior year. I was wrestling so I couldn't do ROTC but I did do my ROTC classes my freshman year of college. But wrestling was a full-time job and ROTC is a full-time job too, so I couldn't do both. I stayed with wrestling but worked with my recruiters, after I went to officer candidate school. Why did I choose the Marine Corps? All the different services all have wonderful things to offer, a unique mission. In the Marine Corps, it was more aligned with what my skill sets were. The Marine Corps is predominately the infantry and the expedition forces: you go in, take care of business quickly, and move out. I thought the reputation was good, it matched well with me and what my strengths were. I, very well, could have chosen the army, the navy, the air force. Maybe not as much, I never really wanted to fly. I’ve always wanted to be in front of people and lead. That's why I chose the Marine Corps.
Since we are a Naval academy but have members from the Coast Guard and the Marine Corps such as yourself, do you think this is beneficial for our students? To have a diversity of staff members from different divisions of the military?
I think so. I think we have a unique opportunity to see a broader range of experiences and expertise. Our Coast Guard instructor can offer things that some Navy and Marine Corps can never do. Obviously, we have several great Navy instructors and a Navy commandant, they’ve got unique expertise that they can share. Bringing in someone like me with a Marine Corps background, that's just another element. I think it's beneficial because you have more opportunity to be exposed to different services, different experiences, and different expertise. I’ve had a chance to talk to several, different students who are already working on talking with their recruiters because they want to enlist into the Marine Corps. I was able to share some things with them and I can talk to them to be a little more informed than someone getting ready to be in the Navy. I think that the fact that we have a broader range of military instructors that's great.
Dialing back to your service, as far as leadership is concerned, why have you been able to lead or accomplish?
I have been in a leadership role for almost my entire career. I’ve commanded at the platoon level, the company level, the battalion level, and the group level. As a lieutenant, as a captain, I am very proud of the work I was able to do as a young officer, training my units. We did have competitions, like Super Squad; My units did very well, we won several division championships in a row. Before I became the Battalion Commander, I was a training officer, training the battalion for these competitions. After 9/11, I lead units into combat and I'm very proud of how they performed in combat conditions. I’m also proud of the fact that in almost every deployment, I brought everybody back, not all though. However, I think that's a large part to deal with because we trained them very well, they were disciplined, they were focused, they were lethal, they were ready to fight. I couldn’t have asked for any more on the battlefield.
What would you be your message for students that are having a hard time?
I would say don't sweat the small stuff and it's all small stuff. I think if anybody is going through a hard time, you just need to take a breath, relax, look at the problem before you, think about how are you going to address that problem, and if you can't come up with a solution to address the problem, know that you have a pool of people who are willing to help and support. So if any student out there is having a tough time, we have wonderful teachers, counselors, our military instructors, myself, and Dean Kane. There is a large group of committed and caring people that can sit down, talk, work out a plan. Once you have a plan in place, it’s just about the execution. So I would just encourage student because I know it's tough, it’s high school. There’s lots of stresses, lots of transitions. Don't sweat it, everything is going to be okay. Stay focused, put the plan in place, and be disciplined to stay focused to execute it. Don't be afraid to use the talent pool of resources you have around you, the people that care and are willing to support. I think that's one of the biggest messages I could share. You have people that care about you and will help you with anything you need. You don’t need to think like you’re taking on the world by yourself, that’s what we’re here for.