840 graduating Air Force second lieutenants serve as inspiration

Air Force Academy graduation - 840 inspirational stories!

Last month, our Air Force Academy launched our 57th graduating class, to lead and serve our Air Force and our nation. As each new second lieutenant stepped before me, I could feel a sense of accomplishment radiating as he or she shook my hand, saluted, and stepped off to begin a life of service. I could hear their families and friends cheer, condensing four long, hard years of support into that short span of time before their next classmate's name was called.

From the corner of my eye, I could see them excitedly render their first salute as commissioned officers in our Air Force, not yet recognizing the weight of responsibility that had shifted to their shoulders with that first gesture of respect.

During that brief moment we shared on the stage, I couldn't help but wonder which of them would be the icons we learn about 20 and 30 years from now. Which one would go on to be the first Air Force chief of staff based on their leadership and contributions in the space or cyber domain, perhaps in addition to airmanship in a cockpit. Which ones might soon find themselves in the other extreme, a tough physical conflict using the rigors of their academy training to make the right decisions to endure themselves and to save their brothers and sisters in arms? As a tall young cadet saluted and passed, I wondered if this cadet might serve first as an airman and then later, apply talents as a sports coach or successful entrepreneur continuing to serve the community. As another cadet heading to pilot training stopped to shake my hand, I wondered if this cadet might, after flying an Air Force jet, be at the controls of a commercial airliner fighting to save it and the lives of hundreds on board. It pained me to consider that some were walking across the stage into a business that sometimes requires the ultimate sacrifice.

As I looked into their number sitting as a class, I wondered how many might have to pay that price for our nation. In our history, 182 academy graduates have crossed that same stage and sat in those same seats before paying the ultimate sacrifice. Thirty-six more suffered at the hands of the enemy as prisoners of war, some for half a decade or more, before finally returning home.

Yet, I was comforted to see in their expressions as they snapped their first salutes that they were taking this responsibility with the strength and humility that come with awareness that challenges will indeed come, and the confidence that attends the experience of overcoming challenges before. Indeed, even as we implement new technologies and find more relevant ways to train and educate the cadets, the essential elements of the Academy experience remain unchanged - an emphasis on honorable living and leadership, a rigorous academic program that equally weights technical cognizance and the humanities, immersion in the Air Force's missions, ethos and professional culture, and a competitive spirit. The world is different from that faced by the Class of 1959, the Class of 1981, and even the Class of 2010, and it is not necessarily easier.

These cadets will enter a world that will require them to think with more agility, to leverage diverse partnerships in an inclusive way, to blaze trails with an entrepreneurial spirit, and to serve as Airmen and leaders of change in the ever-evolving Profession of Arms.

With every handshake, every salute, every smile and every tear I could tell they were ready. They will make us proud. Although our mission at the Air Force Academy is to "educate, train and inspire," on this day I was the one inspired by our newest 840 second lieutenants joining the Air Force.