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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.


  1. So I am home in Colorado Springs visiting my family and we went and watched the Thunderbirds. Coolest thing I have ever seen! And I thought about you 2 the whole time!!

  2. This was extremely well written, Ash! It was so inspiring to read about the ceremony and traditions surrounding this event and to really feel like I was there! I'm glad you're doing these posts, it's amazing to learn about Airforce. I had absolutely NO idea how strict it is and everything the cadets are required to do throughout their education there. Holy cow! I thought Matt was a great guy before, but now I think he's incredible! To have gone through that kind of program and done so well there indicates such strength of character, discipline, and integrity. Wow! Awesome! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Love reading your post about the USAF. Reading this makes me regret that I didn't further pursue my application. I applied but then half way through I lost interest because I wanted to have a more typical college experience. Every now and then I think what could have been. lol. I showed your blog to my husby he loved reading your entries about the USAF, since he comes from a military family just as me. =)

  4. Ash, i am loving reading these posts about the Air Force!! Very very impressive!!! WE love you two!

  5. Em- I'm so jealous that you're in the Springs! The Thunderbirds are so fun to watch, aren't they?

    Ang- Thanks so much! What a sweet comment :-)

    Nina- I had no idea you'd ever thought about attending the Academy! You made the right choice if you wanted a more normal college experience, though haha.

    Lis- Love you, too!

  6. Ash - all of us kids wanted to attend one of the academies. Lol. Guess that's what happens, when you grow up in a military family. My younger sis actually got appointed to go to West Point. But they wanted to send her to preparatory school for a year, since they though she was still kinda young. She had just turned 17, when she graduated. Of course she got impatient and enrolled into regular college. To the say least my dad was a bit disappointed but supported her nonetheless. One of the reason, we are soo stoked that both my sis and BIL got stationed there. =)


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