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". . . We've been a nation at war for nearly half your young lives. It's a reality you've
literally grown up with. And yet, here you are, ready to step into the breach, ready to face
the enemy's fire, and ready to take your place in the Long Blue Line that has preceded
you. That you do so, knowing full well the risks and rewards of military service,
speaks volumes not only of your character but also of your courage . . ."
~ Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
in his commencement address to the Air Force Class of 2010
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 around.

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. "Just two, 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 and wished we had, too. Concession food was expensive and conducive to heart attacks. At least we had our own water, which we supplemented from drinking fountains.

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 still.

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 below:

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 athletic achievements.

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 Navy.

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 students.
  • 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 three).
  • Fifteen are international students from Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa.
  • 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 ten years.
  • Other grads must serve at least five or six years in the Air Force, depending on their specialties. 

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 our legs.

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 graduate's attention.


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 the stands!

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.

If you'd 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 file.

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil