My heart goes out to you as I heard tonight about the difficulties you are facing at Camp USAFA. Some things have changed there in 11 years since I left, but I am sure many are just the same. Our idealism can be harshly tested in the crucible of training which is the Air Force Academy– and it is easy to feel discouraged, isolated, frustrated and alone.
First, let me assure you that you are not alone. Not only are members of your family praying for you, but many, many other graduates of the Academy are in prayer that cadets just like you will find a way to rise above the normal stresses and challenges of cadet life, as well as the extraordinary circumstances in which our alma mater is embroiled. I am praying for you. I am sure many of your fellow cadets are in prayer for you. And God is with you. In this difficult time, I would encourage you to reach out in prayer to God and give Him the worries and stresses which are your daily fare. USAFA tends to be a place where control is highly valued and encouraged– I know as a cadet I never did a very good job of turning over my worries and stress over the multitude of challenges I faced to Him. Later in life I have learned that ultimately there are many things which we cannot control, and even though we kid ourselves and think that we can have it all together and make things pan out the way way want– ultimately we are in his hands, and there is no better place to be. You are not alone, and I hope you can find encouragement in that fact.
Secondly, let me address what your Dad said you are facing with regard to upholding standards and taking seriously your role as an upperclass leader in your squadron. I read what the Secretary of the Air Force wrote in the last Checkpoints magazine, published by the AOG, and it is clear that some people want to make some fundamental changes in the fourthclass system at USAFA. Are some things there in need of change? Of course. You are in as good a position to see that as anyone. When I was a cadet at USAFA, the people who took their upperclass role (training role) in the squadron seriously seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. Everyone had different priorities, and for most people military training was not one of their top ones. My message to you on this would be: don’t let those around you who may not share your same high standards diminish your idealism in any way, or your commitment to excellence in military training. I am sure that there are still plenty of cadets who seem to live to play the system, who walk a fine line between violating regulations and the honor code, or maybe don’t walk a line at all….. there are plenty of cynics out there, and plenty of reasons to get disillusioned and lose heart. Don’t. Should you continue to maintain high military standards and expect those around you to do the same? Absolutely. Should you feel bad if other cadets seem to look down on you for asking others (like 4 degrees) why they are not following the rules and doing their job– whether that is doing pushups at a football game, wearing the uniform right, or anything else? Certainly not. There are different approaches to encouraging others to meet high standards and expectations, some are more effective than others– and I would guess already at the Academy you have seen a wide variety of these. You are choosing your own methods and experimenting with different approaches– that is good and is one thing that a leadership laboratory (like USAFA) is supposed to be about. Keep your high standards and your commitment to excellence, even in the face of cynics who may look down on you and disparage you for it.
Because the values that brought you to USAFA and the goals and dreams you had, and hopefully still have, are real and true. We live in a culture that does not value integrity, honor and discipline. It encourages people to look out for themselves, live for the moment and not put off an indulgence or pleasure that can be had today– it seems to place more value on entertainment than what is good or true. The engraving inside my Academy ring, which yes, I still wear with pride, is “Triumph of Principles.” It is taken from a favorite quotation of mine, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. He wrote, “Nothing will bring you happiness but the triumph of principles.” Those are important words to consider, I think. One of the most important lessons I learned as both a cadet and an officer was to remain steadfast in my integrity. I would guess there are some around you, likely in your squadron, who have or would encourage you to slacken in your commitment to ideals: to the Honor Code, to your responsibilities as an upperclass cadet, to your expected code of conduct as an officer candidate. Remain steadfast, and take solace in the fact that many others have gone before you and faced similar challenges. Again, you are not alone.
And that takes me to my last thought I will share with you this night. You need to have a family of supportive friends outside your squadron that you can turn to for support and encouragement. Your father indicated you are not really involved in intercollegiate sports or club activities– you don’t have a “group” that you closely identify with. You need to seek out that group– whether it is a cadet Bible study group, a club, or something else. For me at USAFA, my family was the speech and debate team. I know there were some people who thought that sounded like an excuse to get out of intramurals (particularly when I was a 4 degree)– but the speech team really became my family. I still maintain many of the relationships from that team today, in fact I just sent an email tonight to a former teammate who is about to have his first child, and coincidentally received an email with photos of a freshman roommate who just did have his first child– those relationships are priceless and I wouldn’t trade anything for them. You really need to seek out others who can encourage and support you.
As in the Christian walk, at USAFA, none of us are called to face the challenges of life alone. We all need our band of brothers (and sisters!) to help us along. I put a few of these ideas down on paper a few months ago before a PK conference here in Lubbock. The context there was different, but many of the concepts are the same for you in your situation.
Keep your head up and your eyes on the prize. Yes, I know you are focused on more immediate goals most likely rather than the big ones at this time– graduation may still seem like a long way away. The prize of your Academy experience really isn’t the diploma and commission you earn at the end of 4 years, however, I would argue the prize is the person you have chosen to become as a result of your cumulative experiences there. And the friendships you make which will last a lifetime. A lot of your circumstances you will not be able to control, but you will be able to decide in most cases how you respond to those circumstances– and I would exhort you to keep your idealism, maintain your optimism, and remember that every valley you go through in this life is an opportunity to learn and grow as you climb out to even higher peaks than you have experienced before.
May God bless you and keep you, as he holds you in the very palm of his hand. Be courageous and steadfast. Your journey is a long one and the challenges are difficult, but He will not present you with a challenge you cannot meet and overcome with His aid and strength. I will close with a favorite verse:
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
Isaiah 40: 28-31
Remember that whatever your rank or position, you are God’s child, and you are an Eagle. Hope in Him and renew your strength, for in Him you can and will soar to heights you have not even imagined or thought possible.
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