It was a week of contrasts. Ann and I were filling our fuel tank in a filling station in Falcon, Colorado late Wednesday evening. Arriving in the next bay was a couple of American youth in a beat up car. Both were mid twenties, one considerably overweight dressed in shorts to show off his tattooed legs. The other, dirty, long unkempt hair, skinny, the belt on his jeans well down on his butt--pretty typical of that generation.
Ann and I both commented on what a contrast to the appearance of those two young men were to the 1021 young men and women that we had witnessed just hours before as they graduated from the United States Air Force Academy.
We where honored to be invited to watch Cadet (now 2nd Lieutenant) Sam Johnson graduate from the Academy. Sam is the son of Doctor Ken Johnson who for a time was associated with the McCook Clinic. During the time they lived in McCook I was honored to teach Sam's mom Connie to fly. After leaving McCook the family moved to Washington State for a time and then to their present home in Watertown, South Dakota where Dr. Ken still practices medicine.
I've not attended a graduation at either West Point or Annapolis but for sure the USAFA's graduation ceremony is a class act. Weather permitting, and it did this time, the event is held in Falcon Stadium, seating capacity some 52,480 people. This day it was half filled with well dressed family and friends of the graduates. Before the ceremony we were treated with a fly by of four active duty F-15E's. Security was tight since the demise of Bin Laden and we all were required to show our tickets, identification credentials and received a once over with "the wand" as we entered the stadium.
Exactly on the appointed time the graduating seniors, they are called First Classmen or "Firsties," splendidly attired in their parade uniforms, marched in together twelve abreast into their seating. Left face, take seats and they exactly fit in the arranged chairs. Somehow seeing those Cadets marching with precision makes tears of pride come to our eyes. No tattoos in evidence, no outrageous clothing, each of the young men cleanly shaved with a short haircut, the ladies with their hair tightly pulled back into a bun, uniforms brilliant white and beautiful blue, clean and sharply creased. Lean physically fit bodies, one and all, a testament to proper diet and exercise. Their appearance spoke loudly that they are all proud to be a part of something more than self.
The dignitaries were introduced and the speaker was presented. This day it was the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Donley, who did the honors. A memorable part of his address was to recognize that each of those young people had willingly joined the military service of a nation at war. They all volunteered to serve knowing that they most likely will be called to combat that will put their lives in danger. They were reminded that just the week before three officers that had been associated with the Academy had been killed in Afghanistan. Where does our country get patriotic youth like that?
The top 10 percent of the graduates who all compete in the areas or military, athletic and academic achievement were recognized and graduated in order of class standing. The remaining Cadets graduated in Squadron order. Each Cadet individually marched across the stage as his/her name was called along with what their next Air Force assignment will be. Each, sharply saluted the Secretary of the Air Force, was handed their diploma and were congratulated with a firm handshake. Each in turn then rendered their first salute as an officer to the new 2nd Lieutenant that graduated just ahead of them before marching smartly back to their seat. Now it takes a fair block of time to recognize each of the 1021 graduates individually but each has earned the honor.
Awarding diplomas completed the new Lieutenants en masse repeated their oath of commission and the ceremony was complete, well almost. Then all together the white parade hats were tossed high into the air and at their apogee the Air Force Thunderbirds roared past the stadium in afterburner. Exquisite!
The Thunderbirds, flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon, performed their complete show. With the Rampart Range to the west and the expansive open plains to the east it was an awesome display even in the eyes of this old tanker pilot.
Many of the cadets, 495 to be exact, both male and female, will be attending pilot training. No less that fourteen will go on to medical school. A total of 92 will go on to graduate school, MIT, Harvard, AFIT and the list went on. I was surprised at the number assigned to Military Intelligence slots many of which will utilize their foreign language skills. Somehow I proudly think that the future of our Air Force will be in good hands but I may be a little prejudiced!
Our own Sam Johnson, who started life in McCook, will be attending graduate school at the Air Force Institute of Technology in Dayton, Ohio. He will then go on to Air Force Pilot training and only the good Lord knows where he will go from there. As a freshman Sam was selected with 74 others to be in a special honors program and was included in the 50 completing the intensive academic program. He graduated with a major in Aeronautical Engineering and notably worked on a project to examine the aerodynamics of the drag (drogue) chutes to be used for the re-entry from space of the next manned space vehicle that will replace the current space shuttles. Other cadets designed, built and helped launch a satellite that is currently in orbit.
Concurrent with the Air Force Academy graduation, similar events take place for the Army at West Point, the Navy at Annapolis, the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy at New London, and the many ROTC attachments at Universities across the United States. These are the young people from all walks of life stepping forward to lead our country in time of war or in peace. We are indeed a blessed nation.
That is the way I saw it.