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Major Cody Felipe KSM’08 (pictured second to left) is sworn into the U.S. Space Force, in a ceremony held at the Haleakalā summit.

Service over self: How KS Maui alumni became leaders in the Space Force

Nov. 8, 2023

When Cody Felipe KSM'08 was invited to be a guest speaker at his alma mater, he felt a bit uneasy, and it had little to do with public speaking. First off, he was dressed in his Space Force military uniform, a far cry from his younger days when he wore blue and white while walking the halls at ʻAʻapueo.

But the primary source of Felipe’s angst was a high-profile incident that occurred just a few weeks prior. A mechanical issue at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex where he worked, resulted in 700 gallons of diesel spilling on the summit of Haleakalā. Adding to the tension was the ongoing outrage over the military’s handling of a massive jet fuel spill at Red Hill which had tainted drinking water on Oʻahu.

Felipe and other Space Force officials had been invited by a KS Maui kumu to talk with students, staff and alumni about the diesel spill and cleanup at Haleakalā.

At that moment, Felipe was faced with a hefty challenge: balancing two sides of identity. As a Native Hawaiian military servicemember, he struggled with how to approach this potentially heated meeting.

“It’s a line I have to straddle,” Felipe said. “It’s a balance between meeting the needs of the people and the needs of the mission.”

To prepare for the meeting, he leaned on his former teachers and mentors. They reminded him of who he truly was and acknowledged his bravery for speaking up during an incredibly challenging situation.

“I had to be honest with myself and know my own values and be confident in that,” Felipe said.

Felipe is among of numerous other KS alumni who have joined the United States armed forces over the past 135 years. With roots as a military academy, having established the first ROTC unit in Hawaiʻi, Kamehameha Schools has long celebrated service members and veterans for their duty and commitment to the community.

Felipe’s journey to military service began surprisingly on the soccer field at KS Maui. A standout player, the U.S. Air Force recruited him. After graduating at ʻAʻapueo, he was accepted to the U.S. Air Force Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, which prepared him for entry into the prestigious Air Force Academy.

It was tough balancing academics as an athlete while also adjusting to military life and maintaining a relationship with his then-girlfriend, now wife. He was the first in his family to join the Air Force, and while the prospect of being debt-free after college was a benefit, Felipe grappled with his future.

“In my first two years, there was a lot of self-reflection on what I really want out of this experience,” Felipe said.

But he kept his eyes on the future, and also his beloved home – Maui.

While stationed in California he became interested in joining the newly formed Space Force. Created in 2019, this new military branch has just 14,000 servicemembers with a mission to protect the U.S. and allied interests in space. In 2021, Felipe was commissioned as a Space Force Guardian and quickly learned everything he could about space operations, space situational awareness and acquisitions.

When a position opened at the Maui base, he knew it was time to come home.

But unlike his prior assignments, he found himself on an installation where he was not the expert. He had to lean on others’ knowledge and learn on the go while managing the facility. Making sure there was running water and the building was up to code was different from the missions he had been on before, but he equated that transition to the one he experienced when he first got into KS Maui in the sixth grade.

“Going to KS Maui was different for me,” Felipe said. “The standards were higher than what I experienced before, so I had to struggle before I became successful.”

Fighting through adversity is one of the tips he gives younger people. He believes that becoming a leader happens in how you move past obstacles with humility and a willingness to adapt.

Erin Lindsey KSM’14, a fellow Space Force Guardian, knew he wanted to join the military since he was a child. His father and others in his ʻohana had served. But it was not until he graduated from the Air Force Academy and joined the Space Force that his preconceived notions of the job were broken.

“There’s more to it than just being a traditional soldier,” Lindsey said. “The military helps to provide a lot to the everyday person that you might not know is the military.”

On many missions, the captain has learned that being a good leader means enabling people to do their best. In one high-pressure scenario, another country had destroyed a satellite and his team had to account for some 250 pieces of the wreckage to make sure it did not set off a destructive ripple effect in space. However, contrary to what you might see in movies or popular culture, Lindsey did not need to be loud or brash to lead his team.

“That experience showed me to take a backseat and lean on the expertise of my people to tell me what the best course would be and then enable them as best as I could to ultimately accomplish the mission,” Lindsey assured.

That’s what Lindsey says servant leadership is all about. Empowering others to do their best for the betterment of the collective is something Lindsey says he learned in the halls of KS Maui. Having attended since kindergarten, he says it was ingrained in him to think about the group over the individual.

“Kamehameha Schools does a good job of instilling humility and respect,” Lindsey said. “There’s something to learn from everybody and we all have our own experiences.”

Though contemplating his future keeps Lindsey awake at night, he feels privileged to be able to envision his next goals and dreams.

When asked about legacy, both alums and fellow Guardians offered answers rooted in alakaʻi lawelawe. Cody Felipe said he’d like to be remembered as being a kind leader. Similarly, Lindsey wants to be remembered for how he interacted with people. It may not be something he can quantify now but he knows it’s aligned with his life of service so far.

“How do you impact the people around you?” Lindsey asked. “I think you are successful when you leave people in a better state than when you met them.”

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