800px-AFA_Graduates“Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence in All We Do.”
– Core Values of the United States Air Force Academy

My family and I had the honor of attending graduation at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, over Memorial Day weekend. The son of a friend was graduating, as a Second Lieutenant, with an assignment to flight training school. It was a momentous and moving series of events.

The mission of the Air Force Academy is “To educate, train, and inspire men and women to become officers of character motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation. The United States Air Force Academy is the nation’s premier institution for developing leaders of character.”

The USAFA is the youngest of the four service academies, established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The first class graduated in 1959, 54 years ago. The first women were admitted in 1976, graduating in 1980. There were several international cadets graduating this year, one from our friend’s squadron. He was from Serbia and a top official of their government attended the ceremonies. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad was also present, as a relative of his also graduated.

Some interesting facts: 17 cadets have graduated posthumously; one has received the Medal of Honor. One hundred seventy-two graduates have been killed in combat, and 36 were prisoners of war. Academically 35 cadets have been Rhodes Scholars, 92 Guggenheim Fellows, and 36 Fulbright-Hays Scholarship winners, plus others. One hundred sixteen have attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government. The Academy doesn’t only graduate pilots and fighters, as 708 have entered medical school.

The school focuses on military (teaching students to be officers through military art and science), leadership, professional development, and aviation science and airmanship. The airmanship opportunities sound the most fun, as students have the opportunity to fly and experience soaring, jumping, and powered flight though sailplanes, a UV-18, a T-41, and tandem parachute jumps. If one is still brave, you may earn your “jump wings” after five jumps.

Academic development is critical, as entering students have GPAs and ACT/SAT test scores among the highest in the nation. It is a very competitive process. Students take a heavy class load, graduating in four years with a bachelor of science degree while taking a full complement of military science, basic science, engineering, social studies, and humanities classes. No underwater basket weaving or six-year extended vacations for these students.

Physically, not only are traditional military skills taught, but all students must participate in either an intercollegiate or intramural sport. There are 17 men’s and 10 women’s intercollegiate teams. Our friend played rugby – and lived to tell about it, receiving an athletic recognition award.

Though there have been reported problems with sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, the Cadet Honor Code states, “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” The students we spoke with take both their oath and this code seriously.

We, the taxpayers, are paying about $282,562 for a four-year program for each student. The academic portion is about half of the cost. Though I am a committed fiscal conservative and a proponent of lower taxes at virtually all times – this is money well spent.

The review parade on Tuesday was impressive, with all 40 squadrons marching in, and the graduating seniors recognized with the flying wedge formation – the reverse of the formation used when they first marched in as freshmen. It symbolizes the growth of the last four years.

Then each squadron had a separate swearing-in ceremony, where the individual cadets took the oath and were sworn in by an officer of their choice. In many cases it was the officer in charge of their squadron, but often it was a father, grandfather, mother, or other person important to them. I’m not sure who was prouder – the person offering the oath, or the cadet. A few tears were shed, mostly by the mothers.

Graduation day was a gorgeous Colorado high-desert day, with an initial threat of rain or hail, but the return of sunshine before long. The cadets marched through the tunnel onto the Falcon football field in perfect formation – which they continued all the way through the rows of seats to their assigned seat. It was an incredible sight to see, and apparently had to be practiced several times before they got it right. More striking yet was the photo FROM the tunnel to the football field. This photo shows a dark and glowering sky to the southwest, with incredibly fierce clouds. Something we in the stands were aware of, but not just how threatening it looked.

Each of the 1,024 students’ names were read, they all received a salute and handshake from the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Donley, then saluted and were in turn saluted by the next classmate. As the 36th squadron started across the stage, children under the age of 10 were allowed to go line up for the hat toss at the end. Each child was allowed to keep the hat they retrieved. Most were brothers, sisters, or cousins of the graduates. Unfortunately, our son was too old to participate.

Our friend’s mother had a full schedule of receptions, meals, and events planned for the three days. This included having a huge section of 30-some family and friends, each with their own 24” by 36” hand-lettered sign – which we raised at every opportunity – while cheering madly! He was very gracious and tolerant of her (and our) excesses! All the cadets looked very intimidating, impressive, and dignified in their dress uniforms. They were unfailingly polite and welcoming to the thousands of guests flocking around them, many of whom resembled aggressive paparazzi.

However, at the end of graduation day – when the final toast was drunk, his uniform off, and the party over – our friend became just another tired (former) college kid who only wanted his mom to hand him a blanket and turn off the lights so he could get some sleep. After 60 days of leave he reports to flight training school for part two of his military career.

To him, and to all the other graduates and their families, we offer our deepest thanks for their dedication, their hard work, and their commitment to protect the rest of us from “all enemies foreign and domestic.” This July we need to be especially cognizant of the special duty they have voluntarily chosen.

“If our air forces are never used, they have achieved their finest goal.”
– General Nathan F. Twining

Photo credit: Danny Myers, U.S. Air Force photos (Public Domain)

Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute.

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