Sunday, June 01, 2014

On the Twenty Years Since My USAFA Graduation


Twenty years ago today, on 1 June 1994, 1024 of us graduated from the United States Air Force Academy, commissioned as brand new second lieutenants. As of September 2012, over 600 members of the class of 1994 were still in uniform. I expect that number is roughly the same today. Reaching the 20 year mark entitles my classmates still in uniform to retire with lifetime benefits, should they choose to do so. I expect some will, but based on patterns from earlier classes I do not expect a massive exodus. The economy is still in rough shape, and transitioning from the military to the private sector after a lifetime in uniform is a jarring experience.

I remember 1994 being a fairly optimistic year, but the personnel situation was precarious for those who wanted to fly. After graduation we found ourselves in the middle of a drawdown, with no undergraduate pilot training (UPT) slots available. One jody (marching song) of the time went as follows:

Oh there are no fighter pilots in the Air Force...(repeat)
Because there is no UPT for 94 or 93
Oh there are no fighter pilots in the Air Force...

I stayed in the Air Force until early 2001, at which point I brought my military intelligence and computer network defense skills to the private sector. I've stayed in the private world since then.

I do not regret my time in uniform, from 1990 to 2001, although I would not repeat the time I spent at the Air Force Academy. Many people are surprised to hear me say that. Upon reflection I believe those four years consisted of a mental, physical, and spiritual endurance test, and I wonder if I could have found a better match for my personality and interests elsewhere.

From an academic perspective, I made the most of my "free" education, graduating 3rd in my class with degrees in history and political science, and minors in French and German. From a leadership perspective I enjoyed my roles as an element leader during my junior year and as a flight commander my senior year. I also met some of the finest young people this nation could have produced, as well as some of the most dedicated professors I've ever known.

After 20 years of consideration, however, I've begun to realize that I endured that four year experience because I thought others expected it of me. I didn't do it for myself, and coincidentally the message the Air Force ingrained into me -- "Service Before Self" -- did nothing to balance my younger personality. In my 40s, I've managed to realize that it's ok to determine and pursue personal interests, but I wish I had figured that out in my late teens.

In a matter of weeks the class of 2018 will report for basic training. Would I tell them to go home? Of course not. My hope is that they are there because they believe their personal goals match the needs of the service. I do not believe they should be there only because they expect their country needs them. The Air Force and the nation needs the best this country can provide, but they should not expect those who serve to do so at the expense of their souls.

This fall is my 20 year reunion, and I plan to attend the event with my family. I hope to see some of my former classmates there, likely with their families. My wife and I attended the 10 year reunion in 2004, and it was a powerful and memorable experience. Today though, I would like to thank all of the class of 1994, especially those still in uniform, for their service. I also extend my best wishes to the brave men and women of the inbound class of 2018. You can do it, but do it only if you really want to be there.

Fly, fight, win!