A 1999 Air Force Academy graduate pauses at the Memorial Wall Thursday. The wall intersects the Heritage Trail loop, located behind Doolittle Hall on Academy Drive. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Carol Lawrence)
The Challenge Bridge, built by the Class of ‘59, provides a nice walkway over the small stream before the trail splits into two paths, east and west. The Class of ‘59 is the Academy’s first graduating class.
(U.S. Air Force Photo/Sarah Chambers)
The winding looped trail outside of Doolittle Hall features 22 plaques on granite pedestals displaying graduates with outstanding military and civilian achievements.
(U.S. Air Force Photo/Carol Lawrence)
5/18/2012 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- After tourists browse the Academy's Visitor Center and learn about a day in the life of a cadet, their next stop should be the Association of Graduates Heritage Trail, where they can view exquisite memorials of the Academy's history and graduates.
The shaded, looped trail outside Doolittle Hall offers visitors an opportunity to stroll through a nicely paved path that reveals plaques and detailed memorials of distinguished and fallen graduates, clear back to the original class of 1959.
"We look for projects that will reflect the heritage of the Academy," AOG Executive Vice President Gary Howe said.
The development of the trail is divided into several phases. The first phase occurred in 2005, when the Academy's Classes of '69 and '73 initiated the pavement and landscaping.
The start of the trail features 22 plaques on polished granite pedestals that display graduates with high military and civilian achievements.
"This is a small representation of our graduates who have been stellar in this country and in the development of education, research, science, business, technology and manufacturing," AOG Class Projects Officer Al Burrell said. "For the next 12 to15 years, these plaques will be marking their heritage up through the entire circle."
The Challenge Bridge, built by the Class of '59, provides a nice walkway over the small stream before the trail splits into two paths, east and west. Exhibits presented out east are non-combat related. Those displayed out west are combat-related memorials that focus on the Academy's history and more violent engagement.
"It's about people, not aircraft," Burrell said. "It's about graduates, commitment and character. We didn't want to create a trail and just slap things on it that may or may not be relevant. We want it to develop with a lot of thought and relevant professional emotion."
Towards the west sits the Valor Memorial, created in 2009 by the Class of '89. It includes a clay mold of fallen Marine Kevin M. Shea, who died in Iraq in 2004. Commandant coins surround the statue, which overlooks the Eisenhower golf course and cadet area.
"We don't lose too many of those faces, but most years we'll lose a few," Burrell said. "You see these commandant coins and think about how important it is and who all comes to see it. The site has a fair amount of visitation and the coins still remain here and represent the Air Force, Marines and Navy."
The most developed site is the Southeast Asian Pavilion, created by the Class of '70, a memorial for graduates in the Vietnam War. It includes blue and gray glass walls, memorial benches, a black granite wall with names of fallen graduates and a massive 800-pound bronze relief map that includes 35 military references in Hanoi.
"The pavilion is a magnificent structure by itself, even in an uncompleted state," Howe said.
Burrell said it's important for cadets to be exposed to information on the Vietnam War to uphold the significance of it.
"Vietnam was the first time Air Force Academy graduates had an opportunity and had a mission to go to war," Burrell said. "We sent them over there as majors, captains and baby lieutenants and put them in airplanes, in a totally unconventional work environment. That's something we've never ideologically and theoretically worked ourselves and they had to create themselves."
Retired Gen. Ron Yates, the main initiator of the trail, said cadets need to be continually reminded of the sacrifices of previous generations.
"I think it's important for them to know the character the prisoners of war exuded and the price they paid," Yates said. "Cadets should aspire to them."
Burrell said it's interesting to hear the stories and see emotion from veterans when they visit the pavilion.
"This was a different kind of war emotionally because it was a different society, a hostile society," Burrell said. "I didn't realize how many guys hadn't discussed the war with their wives. When they stood in front of the map and their wives asked questions, the veterans would start to open up and get teary."
By June 2013, three interactive computer kiosks will be installed on the wall next to the map. It'll allow visitors the chance to scroll through a Vietnam timeline from 1954 to1975, using touch screen technology.
"We'd also like to have skilled and trained volunteers out on the trail periodically to explain the war," Burrell said.
Burrell said there are 14 more construction sites on the trail that can be made available, three of which have the potential to be pavilions.
"I think there's probably 25 years of build space out there at the rate we're going," Burrell said. "Whoever wants to build must bring the money and design."
The trail is open to anyone, especially military personnel.
"It gives graduates the chance to pause in front of the memorial wall and honor the fallen," Yates said. "It also gives general visitors the opportunity to see what the exploits have been at the Academy. We have several Air Force Cross and Silver Star awardees."
Burrell said the trail will continue to build and increase in attraction.
He said his favorite aspect of the trail is the overall idea.
"My favorite part is the simple fact that the Air Force Academy graduates, men and women who have completed their education and served their careers, continue to serve this Air Force by establishing their heritage out here to try and push that message," Burrell said.
5/19/2012 1:43:42 PM ET You're referring to young Academy grads flying in combat as 'baby lieutenants'. Very disappointing.