In the Air Force Academy's 55-year history, this is the first time that a
chairman of the Joint Chiefs has been the commencement speaker --
and a Navy admiral, at that!
Since 9-1-1 there has been increasing cooperation among not only our various U.S.
service branches, but also among other countries in
the quest to defeat terrorism and maintain a more peaceful global
co-existence. We saw two other clear examples of that besides Admiral
Mullen's motivational address: some of the cadets will be
assigned to Army posts and Navy bases, not just Air force bases, and fifteen of the 1,001
graduates are citizens of other countries -- from every continent
except Antarctica. They received the same intensive education as the
cadets from the USA.
It was an honor to be among the nearly-30,000 attendees in the stands.
We totally lucked out getting tickets to the event.
When Jim made campground reservations on base a couple weeks ago he
found out that graduation was scheduled four days after our arrival.
Graduation isn't just a one-day event; there are related activities for
the cadets and their families all week.
We had no
clue. It didn't take us long to think how cool it would be to go to
graduation. Jim called the number for tickets and we were disappointed to learn
that no more were available. We gave up the idea and didn't think much about it after that.
The first day we were in the
FamCamp we were checking out the laundry room in our loop and ran
into a couple, the Kepples, whose daughter is one of the graduating
cadets. Their son graduated from the academy two years ago. Two kids graduating
from the USAFA -- that's impressive. No, the family doesn't have "connections"
with their congressmen. Their kids are just that outstanding, and once one has
proven himself or herself at the academy, it's easier for a sibling to get accepted.
The learning curve is certainly shorter for everyone involved the second time
As we talked to the couple and their son, Jim mentioned that we'd like to go to the ceremony but
couldn't get tickets; we'd have to plan further ahead in the future if
we wanted to go. He was just stating a fact, not asking for tickets.
The couple surprised us when they said they thought their daughter
had "several extra tickets" and, if so, how many did we want?! Wow.
if she has any left," we replied.
We were delighted but didn't get our hopes up. That was
just too good to be true, wasn't it?
Glad we got to see this.
Two days later the Kepples came over to
our camper with two graduation tickets for us in their block of twenty! Turns out, Rebekah had
several left. They offered the remainder to some younger cadets so
they'd have better seats than the section 'way high up in the stands where
underclassmen sit to watch the seniors graduate.
We thanked the couple profusely and started asking questions about the
graduation itself. We also read information on the academy website and in the
Academy Spirit newspaper about security, proper protocol, and the like.
The Kepples warned us that it's easier for folks in the campground to just
walk the mile to the stadium than to fight thousands of vehicles driving into
the parking lots. They also warned us to wear plenty of sunscreen and take some
bottled water with us. We'd be in the bright sun at altitude for several hours
during the middle of the day, perfect conditions for dehydration and sunburn.
We took heed of all their advice.
Not many people here yet; our seats were
lower than this
but we came back to this general area
for the air show and a faster exit.
Security was tight but not as tight as it sounded like it would be. No
coolers, backpacks, food, or beverages in containers like our UD water bottles were
(supposedly) allowed. Only clear liquids in sealed containers were permitted. Later we
realized that some other folks were able to bring in their own food and drinks
we had, too. Concession food was expensive and conducive to heart attacks. At
least we had our own water, which we supplemented from drinking
We left our camper about 9 AM and had a pleasant walk to the stadium, gloating to ourselves as we walked
faster than the line of traffic we passed. When we got close to the stadium we
could see hundreds of people in line at a gate on the upper level. We knew our
seats were close to field level, so we asked a roving security person where
we should go in. He pointed to an unseen gate that was closer to our seats and
we headed down some stairs.
We lucked out again -- absolutely no one was in line at that gate and
we breezed through security!
Since we thought all this would take more time, we now had about
90 minutes to kill before the ceremony began at 11 AM. We rented soft
seats with a back, which turned out to be an excellent idea.
The metal stadium seats got pretty cramped for our long legs. Even with padding and something to lean back against, we finally
had to get up after about three hours and walk around during the
lengthy diploma ceremony because we were tired of sitting
Clockwise from lower left: Rebekah's aunt,
brother, father, mother, and Jim
While we were waiting we just tried to absorb everything going
on around us.
It was interesting to read through the commencement program, talk with
friends and family members in the Kepples' group, watch half of
the stadium fill up (just the west half of the statium, so everyone
could face the speakers), listen to the USAF band, watch the
pictures projected on the large video screen, see the various
dignitaries escorted to their seats on the field or on stage,
enjoy the precision saber demonstration (below),
and simply feel proud of being Americans and able to attend a
ceremony like this. One of my (rather far) extended family
members graduated from West Point and is a career Army officer
but I didn't attend his graduation two decades ago. I know what
a big deal this is for the families. We were glad to be able to
share this experience with our new friends.
We couldn't have asked for much better seats, considering how we
acquired them! We were about ten rows up from the field and down
near the goal line. We were able to see what was going on
without relying on the video screen and I could get some decent
pictures from that location.
The crowd got quiet when they saw the graduates assembling at
the ground entrance to the stadium and the class president
announced the beginning of the ceremony. Everyone stood as all 1,001 graduating
cadets filed into the stadium and into their seats in front of
the podium. That was impressive and sort of goose-bumpy!
Precise, too, as you'd expect during a military procession.
Every detail of the ceremony was planned, practiced, and
appeared to be executed perfectly. Even though we don't know any
of the graduates or speakers, the whole ceremony gave me more hope in
these uncertain times. I felt pride for these young people and
more confidence about the future of this country as they assume
leadership roles in the military.
The last dignitary to be escorted to the stage was Admiral
Mullen, in the white dress uniform on the left in the photo
After the national anthem,
invocation, introductions of guests, and commencement
address by Admiral Mullen, awards were presented to about 100
distinguished graduates for their academic, military, and/or
During his speech the Admiral gave encouragement to the
graduates by sharing that he was much closer to the bottom of
his class academically than the top. We forget the exact
numbers, but something like 661st out of 816 cadets. The
Admiral's point was that any of them could distinguish
themselves in their Air Force careers, just as he has in the
Admiral Mullen at the podium
I found some interesting stats on the Academy's website about
this 52nd USAFA graduating class.
- So far, 42,864 cadets have received their Bachelor's degrees and
2nd Lieutenant commissions.
- Two hundred eighty-one of those have been international
- This year's class of 1,001 cadets had a 26% attrition rate over
four years; 1,334 students began their training in 2006.
Considering the stringent process to be admitted, I'm a little
surprised there is such a high "DNF" rate! That says a lot about how
tough the training is.
- Just over 81% of this year's grads are male; 19% are female.
- Four are sets of twins. Some are second-generation grads;
others have had older siblings graduate before them (as many as two or
Fifteen are international students from Europe, Asia, South America,
The North American cadets are ethnically diverse, too.
- Over half (520) of the graduates will go on for pilot training.
When they complete that training, their minimum service commitment is
- Other grads must serve at least five or six years in the Air Force, depending on
The longest part of the ceremony was the individual presentation
of diplomas to the graduates, who were called by name within
their forty squadrons. Some of the cadets are shown waiting to
go up on the stage, above. They got their diplomas, then shook
hands with Admiral Mullen before returning to their seats:
Rebekah shakes hands with Admiral Mullen
after receiving her diploma.
One thousand and one salutes and handshakes: the
Admiral must have a lot of stamina!
Rebekah Kepple, "our" graduate, was honored for her athletic
distinction when diplomas were presented to members of Squadron
3. We waited until she received her diploma before we got up to walk around and stretch
This was the most informal part of the ceremony. A lot of
people took bathroom breaks and began milling around at this
point. The dignified, always well-behaved crowd became more
joyous and exuberant. So did the graduates as they came off the
stage with their hard-earned diplomas! It was fun to watch as
they high-fived each other and hugged. The families of each
squadron appeared to be sitting in the same general areas around
the large stadium. As each graduate was called to go on stage,
shake hands with Admiral Mullen, and get their diploma, a little
group in the stands would cheer and whoop and try to get their
THE TRADITIONAL HAT TOSS
It took over an hour for all the cadets to receive their
diplomas. By the time that process began, we were getting hot in
the sun and needed to find some shade. We intended to return to
our seats for the oath of office, Air Force song, dismissal, and
Thunderbirds Team aerial demonstration.
However, we found a cooler, less crowded spot to stand and sit
in the end zone to watch those activities. It was little higher
up and closer to the exit. Some of the officers and younger
cadets in attendance had also relocated during the ceremony from
stands higher up:
We just stayed there for the remainder of the ceremony even
though the view wasn't as good when the newly-commissioned
officers did their traditional hat toss.
The two graduation traditions I enjoyed the most were the hat
toss and the Thunderbird flyover. Talk about joy and exuberance!
By then the solemn parts of the ceremony were done and everyone
was in celebration mode. I've seen the hat toss on TV and in
photos. It's the most publicized photo from the ceremony.
I got these two photos of the stadium and graduates from the end
zone as everyone stood for the Air Force song:
Unfortunately, I missed the exact moment all 1,001 grads tossed
their hats into the air. That's also the exact moment all six of
the Thunderbird planes fly over.
I knew it was coming and I saw it with
my own two eyes but I didn't get my camera open fast enough to
catch the spectacle. Note to self: my next camera needs to have
quicker responses. It's not just me. There really is a lot of
lag time before and between shots.
Here's a perfect professional shot of the moment by Cherie A. Thurlby from the
2007 ceremony that I grabbed from the internet:
Photo by Cherie A. Thurlby
She was one of several pros who are allowed onto the field near
the graduates each year. You can't get a picture like that from
Here's the shot I took from the end field right after the hats hit the ground and
hundreds of kids between the ages of 7 and 10 were allowed on
the field to scramble for them:
Some of the hats are still a few inches in the air or are
rolling on the turf, soon to be scooped up by the horde of
little kids rushing to the area. I wonder how many of those kids
end up at the academy when they are eighteen?
The grand finale was the Thunderbird aerial demonstration.
Graduation tradition doesn't get much better than this! I'll
talk about it in the next entry.
like to get the whole graduation scoop, click
here to read the
post-graduation issue of the Academy Spirit newspaper. I haven't downloaded this because it's a BIG pdf
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil