2/7/2014 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- When Cadet 1st Class Heather Shepard recounts her childhood, it doesn't entail memories of fun-filled family vacations, carefree playtime or the ample supply of snacks that were available to her after school.
She said the No. 1 one thing she remembers until age six was being hungry and scared -- all the time.
This year, Shepard along with four other cadets will be a part of the first ever cadet panel at the annual National Character and Leadership Symposium Feb. 26. The cadets will share their diverse stories on corruption, poverty, abuse and heartbreak, and how they were able to persevere through tough, unimaginable times to get where they are today: cadet leaders at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Shepard, a legal studies major, said while living with her biological mother; she was exposed to a harsh world of drugs, alcohol, abuse and poverty. While her mom struggled with addiction and worked as a prostitute, Shepard said her siblings were often left alone in an apartment or hotel room.
"When we were fed, I gave my food to my youngest brother before me," she said. "His safety was my main concern before my own and I never let random people or strangers touch him. I also remember watching my mom almost get beat to death. I have many scars from physical abuse myself."
At age seven, Shepard was adopted by a new family but struggled with the transition. During her junior year of high school, she was placed in a boarding school for at risk children and it was then Shepard said she decided to turn her life around.
"It gave me the chance to see the potential I had in myself, and that I could defy the statistics if I wanted to," she said. "After piecing together my history and learning my identity, including reuniting with my mother at 16-years-old, I realized that God was giving me a chance to do something with my life. The only question was, 'how ambitious was I willing to be?'"
Shepard is one the Cadet Wing's Personal Ethics and Education representatives and is on the track and field team here. Upon graduation, she said she hopes to get involved in social work after she earns a master's degree.
Cadet 4th Class Shane Culver, a computer science major, faced his worst nightmare after suffering a severe injury following a football and car accident leading doctors to believe he'd never walk again.
"I got angry at how life was going and thought, 'This isn't who I want to be, and something has to change,'" he said.
Culver suffered six broken vertebrae and extensive nerve damage. Doctors suggested he not partake in physical therapy however, he said through his faith and determination to attend the Academy, he taught himself to walk again.
"There was too much nerve damage in my spine," Culver said. "The doctors thought it would be too risky to walk again, because I ran the risk of becoming paralyzed. I wanted to attend the Academy because I knew I wanted to do something bigger than myself. I wanted a challenge, and I wanted to serve."
Culver said he continues to have flashbacks of the accidents and occasionally experiences back pain when doing certain physical activities.
"I lost all flexibility," he said. "I used to be a cheerleader, and now I can barely touch my toes. My goal in life is to change lives. I want to make an impact, and through speaking at NCLS, if I can at least inspire and touch one person of the thousand I'll be speaking in front of, every moment I've triumphed will be worth it."
Cadet 3rd Class Yohance Salimu spent most of his teen years homeless.
At age 14, his family lost their apartment after the recession and Salimu spent three years staying with friends, storing his clothes in school lockers and living at a homeless shelter with his 16 siblings.
"My biggest challenge in Los Angeles was blending in with people who had so much," he said. "It goes beyond saying that I don't take this opportunity at the Air Force Academy for granted."
Salimu, a geospatial science major, said discomfort from his life style broke him down but eventually built him up.
"The application process to the Academy was tedious to complete on my own but I just kept telling myself it's not about me," he said. "I was trying to find a way to be able to support my family while I was in college. I had an on-going internship in high school at the Aerospace Corporation as a lab technician, and my income had become a key component of my family's survival. I couldn't leave for college and pull away support from what is really important to me, my family."
Salimu could have attended the Academy directly but chose to attend the Prep School first to be able to provide extra income to his family.
"During Basic Training, I told leadership my situation and how I needed to get my first paycheck to my family as soon as possible," he said. "Even though electronic devices aren't allowed during training, I was able to access my bank account and send them a debit card connected to a new account that I named 'Why I do this.'"
About four months after Cadet 3rd Class Mohamed Gallala, an international cadet here, joined the Tunisia military, a revolution erupted causing the president and his family to flee Tunisia, leaving the country in disarray.
Gallala said he never imagined he'd be a part of an internal war that would put his country and loved ones in harm's way.
"I had always thought an enemy was a foreigner to the country but in this case the enemy happened to be the government," Gallala said.
Tunisian cadets were ordered to stand in the way of friends and even family members. Gallala said he regularly worried about the safety of his family.
"My biggest challenge was to wake up every day trying to live a normal life while knowing that my family could be in danger," he said. "Especially in a period when the military was targeted by a terrorist group connected to the corrupted government. I had constant fears that my family and friends were in danger because I was a military member."
During the revolution, the Tunisia citizens rebelling against leadership were not the bad guys, Gallala said.
"They wanted to get rid of the corrupted government that reigned there for 23 years," he said. "They couldn't take any more tyranny and were unable to find jobs and feed their families."
For Gallala, the trying time changed his perspective on the military. He said he hopes to educate cadets at NCLS on what happened in Tunisia and how it evoked the Arab Spring-riots, and civil wars that occurred in the Arab nation in 2010.
"I also want people to understand how important it is for the government to work for the good of the people and not the opposite," he said.
Cadet 1st Class Joseph Abakunda, an international cadet, is also very familiar with corruption, danger and heartbreak.
Amidst fear and genocide in Rwanda, Abakunda's parent fled the country in 1982 and he grew up as a third-generation refugee. He said his mother and father escaped Rwanda with their parents, walking miles upon miles with their cattle to Uganda.
Abakunda's family members who didn't make the journey lost their lives.
"All of my uncles and aunts who didn't flee were dead by the time we returned to Rwanda in 2000," he said. "I have more cousins dead than alive today."
Through the terror and injustice, Abakunda said he developed a passion to serve and defend his country. At age 15 he said he knew he wanted to be a part the military.
"Preoccupied with asking why everything happened the way it had, I concluded the only institution that had single handedly stopped the genocide and the only hope the average citizen had in confidently saying, 'Never again' was the military," he said.
Abakunda is an engineering management major and serves as squadron commander of Cadet Squadron 18. He said he wants to share his story at NCLS because he is incredibly grateful to be able to attend the Academy.
"It's the least form of appreciation I can show for the education, friends and unforgettable experiences this country has given me," Abakunda said.
According to NCLS Program Director Maj. William Tucker, about 5,000 people are expected to attend NCLS this year with 27 speakers on the schedule.
"We have 4,000 men and women here with fantastic stories to share with their peers," Tucker said. "The cadets on the panel have stories worth sharing and can add a signature piece to the story we want to tell about character and leadership at the 2014 symposium."
The cadet panel is scheduled to share their experiences 9:10 a.m., Feb. 27, in Fairchild Hall.