The United States Air Force Academy is sited in view of Pike's Peak

The United States Air Force Academy is sited in view of Pike’s Peak, inspiration in July 1893 for Katharine Lee Bates’ writing of the song “America the Beautiful.” The academy is located, indeed, in a beautiful area near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Cadets, though, have little time during their rigorous four years of academics, military, physical, and leadership training to admire the scenery.

At the 58th graduation of the USAFA class of 2017 late last month, nearly 1,000 of our nation’s (and allied nation’s) finest young men and women marched up a stage to accept their Bachelor of Science diplomas. If you’ve lost hope, seeing that spectacle — the pomp, the circumstance, the precision, and the sacrifices — will restore it.

My nephew graduated on May 24th and is heading to Air Force special operations training following a well-deserved leave. He could have been, however, a statistic. While about 1,200 cadets start at the USAFA, only about 1,000 end up graduating, testament to the rigor. He could have been a part of the 17 percent that don’t complete the training.

Like most of his fellow graduates, he contemplated during his freshman year — the toughest year — the choice to drop on request. The thought was enticing. While many of his friends and fellow high school graduates attending college were chasing skirts and drinking beer — arising at noon to attend a couple of classes several days a week — he was enduring the legal hazing that defined his freshman year. “SIR YES SIR!” and “NO MA’AM!” as well as oh-dark-thirty room and uniform inspections, strenuous physical training, and arduous academic schedules — every day of every semester with no breaks and little fun — made up his “college” experience.

In addition to the tough four years, and the constant and high standards and demands imposed upon the cadets, there’s the matter of their future. Each graduate has an obligation of six or more years, paying back with interest, if you will, against the investment the American people have made in each cadet in paying for their tuition, training, and room and board for the past four years. To an 18-year-old starting at the USAFA, six years — one third of their lives — can seem an eternity.

And unlike many college experiences, which can be more a circumstance of debauchery vice honor, the program at the USAF Academy is guided by the USAF’s core values of “Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do,” character-building demands that can be unfamiliar to the secular, non-military members of our great American melting pot. And hard to live up to and hard to dedicate one’s self to.

But my nephew stuck with it, encouraged by his family, some inner “sticktoitiveness” he possesses, and the voice of that pesky little angel on his shoulder warning if he were to quit, “You’lllll be sorrrrrrreeeeee!”

Commissioned the day before graduation, each of almost 1,000 brand new second lieutenants’ names were individually announced during the graduation ceremony in the vast Falcon Stadium to approach and salute the guest of honor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joe Dunford, where they accepted their hard-earned diplomas. If you listened carefully to their names, you received a lesson in diversity, a great strength that, far more than our purple mountains majesty, binds together the mosaic of our America the Beautiful.

Male and female. Multinational. Multi-experienced. Multi-skilled. Names like Marcello Andre Peray-Genovese, Lou-Liang Cheng, Noah Frederick Kwai Heen Kwock, Hayder Abdulkareem Mahdi, Qian Gao, Min Je Kim, Laurynas Galdikas, Ari Ben-Canaan Luzada, Santos Jayagopal, Jose Augusto Martinez-Alvarez, Maya Helolelomekealoha Woody, Jacob Patrick Ploschnitznig, Waverly Karena Aguon Hock, Nnaji Emeka Omenye, Khornwitpong Soonthonnitkul, Kojiro Kobayashi, Nickolas James Radosevich, Jennifer Hong Diem Le Luong, Dominick Valentino Speranza III, and Thomas Christian Baron von Vietinghoff-Scheel.

Of course there were the typically American Davis, Gonzalez, Moore, Smith, Watson, and Well peppered throughout the 1,000 names called and a few obligatory United States Air Force Officer names like Adam Fly — there has to be a Fly attending the USAFA — and Weston Steelhammer and Anthony Mountain, Steelhammer and Mountain being great names for U.S. Air Force officers.

Alec Fetzer’s name was called too. Yet, my nephew was just one of the some 1,000 young men and women who made and stuck with a deep, meaningful, and firm pledge, lived an honorable four years at the USAFA, rightly listened to that pesky little angel, and committed to “Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do.”

And if you need it, these fine young leaders reinforced, too, the hope in our youth and America’s true beauty — whether their names were of alphabet soup, simply Smith, or superhero-like.

Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at