Chippewa Herald * June 14, 2012     Hit Counter by Digits

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Air Force Academy graduation quite an experience

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

Wow, what a week! Our entire family spent the week before Memorial Day in Colorado at our oldest son Ben's graduation from the Air Force Academy. How many kids get to shake hands with the President of the United States? (Sure, I met Bill Gates once, but I think Ben just topped me.)

Our five days in Colorado Springs were filled with receptions at the General's mansion, fancy balls, academic awards ceremonies, military parades including real live skydivers and gliders, department awards, and more.

It all culminated in an amazingly well-executed graduation ceremony for 1073 cadets in a football stadium, with the commencement address by President Obama, followed by a private air show starring the Thunderbirds.

The quote of the week was Ben's during one of the fancy receptions. As he was sipping from his punch glass and nibbling on shrimp cocktail, with live jazz music in the background, he turned to his younger brothers and said, "Yeah, this pretty much sums up life at the Academy."

Nothing like a dry sense of humor! In reality, life at the Academy is a real roller-coaster, both for the cadet and for his parents a thousand miles away.

Many people I've talked to over the past four years don't know much about USAFA (United States Air Force Academy). It's like the Naval Academy at Annapolis or the Military Academy at West Point, but it's for the Air Force instead of the Navy or Army. It's also the "new kid on the block" -- only 57 years old as opposed to 165 or 210, respectively. So it's not mentioned as often in movies or popular culture.

Most things you've heard about West Point or Annapolis apply to USAFA. It's as hard to get into, and it's as tough once you do. Despite the difficulties -- or maybe BECAUSE of them -- it attracts some pretty high-caliber students. (The four-year scholarship is valued at $414,000 this year.)

The process of getting a nomination started in Ben's junior year at Chi-Hi. That's when he had to start getting serious about the paperwork. Of course, it really started well before that, with the kind of habits a student must develop.

USAFA demands a good academic record, but it also evaluates athletics and leadership abilities. The strongest candidates have good grades in advanced classes, earn letters in school sports (ideally as captain of a team), and demonstrate leadership and character in organizations such as Scouting.

In fact, I remember listening to a talk a few years ago by the USAFA Admissions Officer. He told the audience that the single best way for a young man to get into the Academy is to join the Boy Scouts of America and earn the rank of Eagle Scout.

There are plenty of cadets at the Academy who aren't Eagle Scouts, of course. But experience gained in earning Eagle does apply directly to the character and leadership traits they're looking for.

At the end of Ben's junior year of high school, he attended a "Summer Seminar" at the Academy, a week-long session allowing prospective cadets to get a feel for what it would be like to go to school there.

It's more than just school. In addition to academics, the "four pillars of excellence" include military training, athletics, and character development. But it is a top-notch academic institution in its own right, always placing high in the U.S. News rankings.

The main goal of USAFA is to train the next generation of officers for the Air Force. Every cadet becomes a Second Lieutenant upon graduation.

There's an old saying: "You can't be a good leader until you learn how to be a good follower." So they make darn sure that every cadet knows how to take orders.

It starts with boot camp, of course, like any other military endeavor. USAFA boot camp is called "Basic Cadet Training," or BCT. This is usually pronounced "Beast" by those who have been through it. (How many other military institutions hold their boot camp at 7000 feet above sea level?)

After about six weeks of BCT, classes start in early August. But learning to "follow" is not over yet. Freshmen have to live in a state of oppression for a full nine months, until late March. They are called "Doolies," from the Greek word "doulos," which means slave.

You know, while writing this, I'm thinking that I could write a whole column on any one of these thoughts...but I just realized that I had not written a single article about Ben's experiences at the Academy since they day he left home in 2008! I am sorry for the missed opportunity.

But it turns out I'll have another chance. Our next son, Jasper, just graduated from Chi-Hi and will be following Ben's footsteps, reporting to BCT at USAFA in just a couple of weeks.

We need to get ready for another ride on the roller-coaster!

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