Forged in fire

Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould and 10th Air Base Wing Commander Col. Tim Gibson hold a press conference June 27 to provide updates on the Academy’s firefighting and evacuation efforts. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Mike Kaplan)

Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould and 10th Air Base Wing Commander Col. Tim Gibson hold a press conference June 27 to provide updates on the Academy’s firefighting and evacuation efforts. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Mike Kaplan)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Paula and I simply couldn't be more proud of all the members of our Air Force Academy team for the selfless and dedicated manner in which the team handled last week's Waldo Canyon Fire crisis! Col. Tim Gibson and the entire 10th Air Base Wing leadership team stepped up to face what was arguably the most severe threat in the Academy's history.

We are blessed to have professionals such as Academy Fire Chief Ernst Piercy and Deputy Chief Ken Helgerson leading the best fire department in the Air Force. The chiefs' expertise and tireless efforts, as well as those of our brave young fire fighters, were instrumental in protecting our community. Seamlessly and rapidly blending into the National Incident Management Structure, they brought together equipment and manpower from across the region and nation, synergizing efforts of the Larkspur, Donald Wescott and Palmer Lake Fire Departments; Buckley, Peterson, Schriever, and Vandenberg Air Force bases and support from Fort Carson, Pueblo Army Chemical Depot, Cheyenne Mountain, the U.S. Forest Service, and Wyoming Air National Guard. These defensive operations saved our Academy from devastating fire damage.

Dedicated experts such as Tech. Sgt. Jason Linta, who served as the incident safety officer, were critical to our response. Billy Jack Barrett ensured the safety and security of our beloved horses by leading a coordinated, rapid evacuation of the Academy Equestrian Center. The functional experts comprising our Emergency Operations Center team worked around-the-clock to ensure our safety and well-being.

Particularly impressive was the compassionate outpouring of support from our family members and local churches who, without any prompting, stepped forward to donate food, drink and supplies to the fire stations, offer sanctuary for displaced families, and implemented a quick and orderly evacuation of Pine and Douglass Valley housing areas.

We send our sincere thanks, as well, to leaders from across the state including Gov. John Hickenlooper; Mayor Steve Bach; Army Gen. Chuck Jacoby, commander of U.S. Northern Command; Maj. Gen. Joe Anderson, Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Division commanding general, Gen. Willie Shelton, Air Force Space Command commander; Maj. Gen. Mike Edwards, the adjutant general for Colorado; and El Pomar Foundation Chairman Bill Hybl. Each of them either phoned or visited the Academy offering and delivering assistance. It's all about what we call "community" and it's what makes having our nation's one and only Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs so special!

Academy historian Betsy Muenger put this crucial effort in perspective: "The Air Force Academy has never been so close to fire catastrophe. In fact, this is the first time in the history of the institution that Pine or Douglass Valley was evacuated for a wildfire."

Most impressive was the way the military and civilian neighbors from across the entire Pikes Peak Region and the state of Colorado came together as community partners with a single focus to help each other during this difficult time. Because of these collective efforts, we were able to care for our people, fight and defeat the fire -- and continue the mission of the Academy, as witnessed in the flawless reception and inprocessing of the Class of 2016!

Led by our new commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Greg Lengyel, in only his second day on the job, the combined Commandant of Cadets staff, Admissions Department and 10th ABW team, including a most impressive cadet Basic Cadet Training cadre, exhibited tremendous flexibility as they welcomed 1,035 new cadets and reassured family members of their sons' and daughters' safety and well-being. At the same time, the team made necessary adjustments to continue summer academics, thanks to the generous accommodations of our friends at University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and to resume other cadet summer training activities across the Academy.

Our resilience is certainly tested during stressful times like these - and for many who lost their homes in the fire, the hardship and adversity will continue for quite some time. Please know, and help spread the word, there are many support resources available to service members, families, and civilian employees to help deal with any anxiety or distress this crisis may have caused. Please do not hesitate to contact a chaplain, first sergeant, the Mental Health clinic, the Employee Assistance Program or Military OneSource if you need assistance. Getting help when you need it is a sign of strength!

Team USAFA: thank you for your hard work and commitment! I am honored to be part of this remarkable team! GO FALCONS!