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Saturday, May 29, 2010

USAFA Grad Week: Commissioning Ceremony

The Air Force Academy is so rigorous that cadets quickly learn to just immerse themselves in that world to survive. It becomes easy to forget that there could ever be an end to those four years. And, in fact, there is not—because graduation from the Academy is merely a new beginning of their career in the military. The entire purpose of those four years is not simply to earn a degree, to gain management experience, to achieve peak physical condition, or to learn about winning wars and championing peace. When all is said and done, the Academy builds men and women of character to lead the United States Air Force and accomplish a greater good in the world.

For seniors at USAFA, their lives as Lieutenants begin right before their lives as cadets end. Tuesday night—the night before graduation—the cadets participate in their commissioning ceremonies. Luckily for me, these ceremonies are formal affairs which also include a Graduation Ball. (Yes please, and thank you. There are definitely perks to marrying a cadet.)
Each squadron hosts its own commissioning ceremony, and they draw out of a lottery for the order in which they select their location. Matt’s squadron were the lucky ducks who were able to select the Air Gardens--probably the most picturesque place you could imagine for such an event. Unfortunately, a storm was rolling in that night and the ceremonies were all moved inside. Thus, the Fighting Bulldawgs of 13 ended up commissioning in a gym. But I’m pretty sure the cadets were too ecstatic to care.

The commissioning ceremony begins with a few speakers and formalities, and then the cadets take the Officer’s Oath in alphabetical order. Each cadet selects the higher-ranking officer whom they wish to administer the oath. Naturally, Matt asked our dear friend and his mentor, Major Steve Hendricks, to administer his.
Once the oath is completed, the cadet shoulder boards must be replaced by gold Lieutenant bars. Cadets ask someone who has supported them throughout their time at the Academy to perform this step. Matt naturally selected his soon-to-be wife to do the honors.
And with that, Matt became a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. The squadron provided refreshments afterward and Matt was able to catch up with family, friends, and Colonel Mackenzie and Sergeant Winters. They had led Matt’s squadron until they were transferred before his senior year and had each flown back to support their cadets.
After the ceremony came the party—the Graduation Ball! Matt and I met up with our friends and their dates and strolled around the Terrazzo before hitting the dance floor.
Chase and Haley, Jon and Erin, me and Matt
And then, we danced the night away—quite literally. Matt and I stayed until the very last note of the very last song, reveling in the excitement of their last night at the Academy and wishing it could last forever.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

USAFA Grad Week: More than a Parade

Each Wednesday throughout the school year, the cadets march in a mini-parade in the Terrazzo at lunchtime. For Veteran’s Day, Recognition, and other major events, they march in a full-blown military parade on the parade field. Graduation Week is one of those major events which merits the real deal.

The morning before graduation, thousands of spectators excitedly gather in the stands at the parade field. For many of them, this will be the only parade without floats and candy that they will ever witness. The Academy encourages guests to arrive early, and when the Academy asks anyone to do anything, well, they do it. Consequently, the stands were nearly full at oh-nine-hundred-hours—a full sixty minutes before the parade start time. USAFA goes to great lengths to greet each guest, usher them to a seat, and then entertain them as they wait. The “pre-show” includes the jump team parachuting onto the field, the live Falcon mascot flying low over the bleachers, and members of the cadet honor guard performing tricks with sabers.
At ten o’clock sharp, attention is turned to the 4,000 cadets orderly lined up in 40 squadrons, stretching from the bottom of the ramp clear back to the Air Gardens. The crowd cheers as the band begins to play and the steady cadence of boots hitting pavement resonates through the little valley.

Row by row, the cadets enter the parade field with their respective squadrons. I anxiously count each squadron as they pass until finally Matt’s Bulldawgs of 13 reach the grass. At that point, the rest of the cadet wing is forgotten as I search for Matt among his 100 squadmates.
Once the entire cadet wing has found their place, the crowd rises to their feet and the band continues to play as the American flag is marched to the center of the field. Four thousand salutes are rendered and each note of the national anthem rings with more pride than could ever hope to be captured at any civilian sporting event you will ever attend. The final words, “home of the brave,” sink in as the anthem concludes and the flyover echoes the applause. Jet after jet rocks the skies above and the bleachers rattle in approval.
The cadet group leadership and squadron commanders step forward with the guide-on bearers and march toward the center of the field. On cue, forty squadron flags—called guide-ons—are posted as a salute to the Academy superintendent, a 3-Star General. They then orderly march back to their respective squadrons.
To understand the next step of the parade, a little background knowledge is necessary. It must be known that hierarchy is an intrinsic part of the Academy. After completing basic cadet training and entering the Academy for the first time, freshmen are still required to “earn” their right to be part of the cadet wing. From August until the end of March, they have special, incredibly strict rules that only apply to freshmen. These include no civilian clothes at any time, the eating rules I touched on in the previous post, and my personal favorite: the Terrazzo walking rules.

The Terrazzo is made up of giant concrete squares bordered by marble. Freshmen are not allowed to walk on the concrete but must instead make their way around the Terrazzo by jogging on the outer marble slabs with their backpacks in their left hand so they can salute with their right. They are required to greet every upperclassman they pass with a specific phrase: “Good [insert time of day], sir/ma’am. [Insert squadron chant].” For example, if Matt was escorting me and we passed a freshman in squad 24, they would be required to pause in their tracks, turn to us and say: “Good morning, sir. Good morning, ma’am. Hard core two-four!” It’s fantastic.

Then, the end of March rolls around and with it brings Recognition Weekend—three final days of hazing in which the freshmen get a little BCT refresher and finally “earn their wings” (and are now free to be treated as human beings rather than lowly freshmen). At the conclusion of the third day, the entire cadet wing participates in the Recognition Parade. This parade begins with the sophomores, juniors and seniors marching together in their squadrons, and then the freshmen march in and officially join the cadet wing. This step is repeated in the Graduation Parade, but reversed as the seniors march away from their squadrons and thus leave the cadet wing forever.
After the seniors march away, they stand before the cadets and a change of command ceremony takes place. The cadet commander—the top ranking cadet at the Academy—turns his saber into the General, who then bestows it on the rising cadet commander. Then one by one, the squadrons begin to march out of the valley, passing the seniors on their way. Salutes are again rendered by squadmates as the remaining cadets march by their squad’s seniors.
And then, once every squadron has left the field, the order comes: “Seniors, about face!” One thousand right feet step back on their toes and the weight switches to their heels as they turn to face their friends and loved ones in the audience. They remain in that position for about a nano-second before jumping up and down and hollering in celebration.
Good times ensue.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

USAFA Grad Week: A Tour of the Campus

I am a firm believer that home is where the heart is. For me, that meant that for 2.5 years, Utah was just the place where I worked, slept, and got to hang out with my family Monday-Friday. Then from Friday-Sunday, I felt "home" with Matt in Colorado Springs. I even mistakenly responded "Colorado" when asked where I was from a few times and had to correct myself. (Turns out, weekends aren't quite enough to establish residency.) Matt was the lucky one who truly got to call this place home.

Still, I was over-the-top excited to have my family in town for Matt's graduation. Mostly because I loved that my family loved Matt enough to drop everything for a week and drive a thousand miles to support him. But also because I finally got to share with them a place that I had come to love so much over the past few years.
My family arrived late Sunday night, along with Matt's parents and oldest sister, Monica (whom I idolized when I was a little girl). Naturally, a grand tour of the Academy was in order for Monday. We met everyone at the visitor's center, watched the introductory USAFA video, and then walked down to the famous Cadet Chapel. Though Matt attended church off-campus, he had institute class in the chapel every Monday throughout his time at the Academy and also represented our church on the interfaith council that met there once a month.
After admiring the Air Force-inspired architecture and decor inside the chapel, we headed down to the cadet area (which is only accessible when accompanied by a current cadet).
On the other side of the wall pictured above is the Class Wall, which boasts the crest of each graduating class the Academy has ever had. Tradition is that the new class crest for the upcoming seniors is revealed at Ring Dance (which takes place for the soon-to-be seniors at the beginning of Grad Week) and after graduation, is hung on the center of the wall throughout their entire senior year.
Then it was off to Mitchell Hall, where Matt and 4,000 other cadets enjoyed gourmet cuisine in 20-minutes or less for breakfast and lunch each day at the Academy. Dinner is typically more relaxed and they can come and go as they please or grab a to-go dinner box to take to their dorms. Matt explained the whole process to our families, including a demonstration of what it's like to eat at Mitch's as a freshman. (A few highlights: remaining "at attention" throughout the meal, chewing each bite exactly seven times, requesting ketchup by reciting its barcode, etc.)
Fairchild Hall, or the Academic Building, was next. My baby brothers enjoyed free reign in the hallways which are normally full of clean cut, uniform-wearing cadets walking orderly to class.
We stopped in a classroom so Matt could explain how classes are typically run. At a normal university, the teacher quickly welcomes the class and jumps right into the lecture. At BYU, class usually begins with a prayer. And at the Air Force Academy, class begins with a designated class leader calling the room to attention.
Matt also showed our families the mechanical engineering lab and explained a lot of technical mumbo jumbo that went over all of our heads. That boy sure picked a rough degree.
Pictured below is the infamous "Bring Me Men" wall which, well, doesn't quite say that anymore. It stands above the drop-off point for brand-new cadets about to enter basic cadet training (their 6-week-long "boot camp" the summer before their freshman year). The idea was that they were being dropped off as boys and would return from BCT as men. But then women started complaining that it was sexist (meh, I'm okay with thinking of "men" like "mankind"--encompassing everyone), so it was taken down.
Now in its place is the poignant cadet motto:
"Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence in All We Do."
We made sure to take a few of the standard Terrazzo pictures as we walked around and enjoyed the grounds. It is such a beautiful campus!
The visit eventually concluded with a tour of the dorms. Somehow the only picture I have of this is of Matt with his diploma from graduating Institute.
We took one last picture at the overlook which had been one of mine and Matt's favorite spots over the years...
... and then headed to Jodie and Steve's house for a little pre-graduation party. The Hendricks family was (is!) such a huge part of our lives and we'll forever be grateful for them taking us in like they did.
Still to come: the Graduation Parade, Commissioning Ceremony, and the big event itself!
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