It is the beginning of a weekend somewhere, but not for us. We waved goodbye to weekends and a myriad of never-before-appreciated freedoms when we raised our hands and swore to defend the Constitution. The obligation was taken freely, but a commission from the U.S. Air Force Academy is anything but a free ride. The commitment comes at a price paid out over four tumultuous years, followed by serving in far-flung assignments that often put lives on the line.
Our angst was palpable, mixed with the muggy congestion of sweaty bodies and frustrated souls filling the corridor. “Correction please, sir. John Stuart Mill’s quote on war is as follows: ‘War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriot feeling that thinks nothing is worth war is much worse. A person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.’”
I recited these words, an Academy variation on the original, two years before 11 September 2001, before I became a security-forces officer, before running convoys in Iraq, before being confronted with all the ugliness of war: picking up burned bodies and bloodied children, towns laid waste, back-to-back-to-back deployments, broken families, suicidal troops. As a leader I was responsible not only for what I could control, but also for what I could not. It was all so fast, brutal, and very human—and the Academy prepared me for it.
Only now, years later when the pace of my life has slowed, have I begun to understand how the Academy pulled it off. The answer is not to be found in the Academy catalog any more than in the lofty words directed at my classmates and me by senior officers on our first day at the school, nearly every day after, and on our last day, when we joyously hurled our cadet caps toward the heavens. No, the Academy taught all of us a lesson that we needed the entire four years to fully appreciate: Nothing that matters is easy; nothing that’s easy matters.
The unforgiving onslaught of freshman year with its rites of passage, boot camp, and Ivy League–level academics set seemingly impossible standards. Nothing much changed over the years that followed. Semester after semester brought another round of tests of knowledge, strength, and character. Our zoo-like existence deteriorated into a co-ed Lord of the Flies . The exertion to battle through another day at the Academy took all the fight I had, but that was the cadet life I knew: to always be fighting. And somehow in the midst of it all, I learned to consider not only how, but why and when to fight.
This is the enduring value of the service academies. They are institutions that unapologetically teach young men and women that there are things worth fighting and dying for. This ethic weaves together not only military service, civic responsibilities, and personal lives, but also composes the texture of our moral fiber.
If I could go back and tell my younger self, the one with her back against the wall, just how ugly war really is, she and the majority of those standing with her would not have cut and run. The service academies remain proving grounds for young people who believe, as I did, that some things are more important than their own personal safety. These are the beliefs based on which we left our youth behind and came into the fullness of the oath we took.