Air Force Academy graduation was a patriotic speech-making, hat-tossing, jet-screaming day as 1,021 second lieutenants marched into their future.
The weather cooperated so there were a lot more misty eyes among the estimated 25,000 people in Falcon Stadium than mist in the the partially blue skies.
Everyone stood as the cadets marched in and a sea of camera phones held by family and friends captured the moment. Many families brought generations, including toddlers and great-great-grandmas.
“We brought packs of Kleenex for all 22 of us, said Cindy Ellsworth, of Chandler, Ariz., eyes welling up even before the program began. ”We are so proud of him. I’m already crying.”
Her son Kyle Ellsworth, who was an AFA pole vaulter, heads to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, for intelligence training. Grandparents Dick and Sandra Schaffer, sitting below her, noted another grandson is back from Afghanistan. Dick Schaffer, served on a mine sweeper in World War ll, and knows about combat. “Of course we worry about them,” he said.
Mom was still crying after it was all over as she hugged Kyle when he arrived in the stands. “It was amazing after so much hard work,” Kyle said. His favorite part of the ceremony? “I don’t know it was all a blur.” His grandmother, looking at the cadets hugging parents, said, “They all look so young.”
Graduating cadets expressed excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation about their futures.
Justin Mitnaul, 22, a Liberty High School graduate, is following in the footsteps of his sister Joceyln Mitnaul, a 2007 academy graduate. Their dad is retiring from the Air Force.
Justin Mitnaul said he’s “excited to get started” at pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas.
Before marching onto the field, the cadets were bunched up in the stadium tunnel. The electricity was fierce, with their exuberant cheering bouncing off the narrow concrete passage.
Ian Hocking of Colorado Springs, has three brothers who graduated from the academy: Christopher, 2006; David, 2007, and Nathan, 2009.
Ian Hocking was home schooled. The worst part of academy life, he said was figuring out how to study since he wasn’t used to lectures. His worst class was Calculus 3. “Because of that I changed from mechanical engineering to tech management,” he laughed.
Then, more serious, he said, “If I serve in war, that’s okay. Yeah, I’m nervous, and excited, not scared,” he said, adding that he wants to fly helicopters on rescue missions.
Michael B. Donley, secretary of the Air Force, who oversees a $100 billion budget, shook hands with many graduates as they crossed the stage to receive diplomas.
In his address, Donley noted that “the sacrifices are real” and he praised the cadets for wanting to “contribute to the greater good.”
Donley, who served in the U.S Army in the 1970s, told the class of 2011: “The risks of military service were brougt home to this community last month when academy assistant professor Maj. Philip Ambard, Lt. Col. Frank Bryant, class of 1995, and Maj. David Brodeur, class of 1999, along with five other airmen and one civilian contractor were killed in Kabul.
“You have chosen not only a career, but a way of life that puts service before self,” Donley said.
He noted the Air Force is in transition seeking balance and flexibility to be ready for current and emerging threats.
”The Air Force needs you to be good teammates ... international security is a team sport,” he said.
The excitement escalated as cadet after cadet marched forward to get a diploma, 40 squadrons in all. Then they raised their right hands and repeated the Oath of Office, swearing to defend the Constitution against all enemies.
The crowd eagerly watched the skies for the Thunderbirds.
“I’ll start to cry, I do every time,” said Yvonne Allen, of Colorado Springs, a 1989 graduate.
She and her husband Scott, who teaches French at the academy, were there for Melissa Beerse. “To see a woman graduate 20 years after I did is an amazing thing. It’s come a long way,” Yvonne Allen said.
Christy Milhouse, of Georgia, whose brother Alex graduated, said she sent care packages. She recalled that when he was in basic training and couldn’t have books, their mom would write down quotes from his favorite Russian authors and send them to him to cheer him up on hard days.
Suddenly, the Thunderbirds were overhead in the wild blue yonder, and in a blink, disappeared leaving behind vapor trails and a powerful roar.
The white hats were tossed skyward and droves of 7- to 10-year-old children rushed onto the field to nab one.
Then the Thunderbird pilots really showed thier stuff with startling and gut-wrenching manuevers with names such as Surprise Attack and Four-point Rollover.
“Mission accomplished,” said John Van Winkle, AFA spokesman, as things wound down.
He noted that on June 23, a fresh crop of about 1,000 recruits will arrive.
Taylor Olson, a cigar in hand, and his 8-year-old sister Laura riding atop his shoulders, said he goes for pilot training in Mississippi. “I want to do that,” Laura chimed in.
Graduating 2nd Lt. Sean Bertsch, 26, a Woodland Park High School alum and academy hockey player, will head to work in project management at Edwards Air Force Base. He summed up his four years: “Looking in the rear view mirror, it went by so fast. But while I was here, it also seemed to take forever.”
- Frank Hall Schmitt Jr. was the first of 1,021 in line to receive his diploma.
- The last graduate took the stage shortly before 1 p.m. and the Thunderbirds followed with their flyover.
- Long and unique names get the loudest cheers.
- About 25,000 attended the ceremonies.
- The Thunderbird finale began about 12:45 p.m., about a half hour later than scheduled.
- The academy says 42,874 cadets have received diplomas and their lieutenant’s bars since 1959. “It’s our Super Bowl,” says John Van Winkle, academy spokesman.