The Air Force has a long tradition of breaking barriers, from the sound barrier that catapulted it into the jet age to racial integration, the Air Force Academy's leader told cadets during a two day annual leadership symposium that wrapped up Friday.
"Each time those barriers are broken we become a stronger Air Force," Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria said at the outset of the 25th National Character and Leadership Symposium hosted by the academy and brings in professional athletes, business executives and military leaders to teach cadets about leadership.
The symposium has evolved over the past quarter century, reflecting differant values and changes in society. This year's the was ethics and respect for human dignity.
Guest speakers included Pittsburgh Steeler and Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, Trumball Unmanned CEO Dyan Gibbens and Mark Geist, who was a security team member in Benghazi, Libya, during the 2012 attack in which the U.S. ambassador was killed.
"Everything is wrapped around the idea of how do we develop leaders of character," explained Christopher Luedtke, a spokesman for the event. "We as an institution, and the cadets themselves, never stop that pursuit."
During the opening ceremonies, Silveria recounted the Air Force's "70-year history of breaking barriers."
He highlighted the Tuskegee Airmen, acclaimed African American pilots who flew fighters during World War II when the armed forces were segregated and the first female fighter pilot in the Air Force, Brig. Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt.
Those barriers are often a sign of the times, the academy superintendent said.
"Issues such as racism, sexism, sexual assault and sexual harassment are in the way of us becoming a more effective fighting force," Silveria explained. "We cannot afford to discount any ideas or ignore any talent."
Some of those ideas are still politically contentious.
A panel on transgender service members was held Thursday morning.
"This is a panel about understanding," Col. Gary Packard said as he introduced the panel speakers. "Understanding what transgender military service is about."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Logan Ireland is a transgender male who currently serves at Peterson Air Force Base with Security Forces. His wife is retired Army Cpl. Laila Ireland who is a transgender female.
The two starred in a 2015 New York Times documentary entitled, "Transgender at War and in Love," which followed the couple during Logan's deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Throughout the panel the two explained their service before the Defense Department policy change in 2016 that allowed transgender men and women to serve openly in the military.
Laila Ireland said that before she transitioned she would sometimes have to wipe her face with a tissue in front of her commander to prove that she was not wearing makeup.
"I had to watch where I stepped," Laila Ireland said. "There was no willingness to learn or patience at all."
Staff Sgt. Ireland's experience has been different. He was able to deploy as a male to Afghanistan in 2015 even though transgender service was still banned.
"It really goes to show it comes down to leadership on a fundamental level," Logan Ireland said.
Laila Ireland expressed the frustration she felt before the policy change, saying that hiding that side of her life felt like lying.
"Part of the warrior ethos is integrity," she said. "And we violated that every day by not being open about who we are."
Panels covering issues such as transgender service and sexual assault were necessary to have an "open and honest dialogue" about ethics and respect for human dignity, Luedtke said.
"That is what we are trying to do here," said Luedtke. "We are dealing with some really difficult issues."