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For those of you who don’t know, I am an “ex-cadet” from the U.S. Air Force Academy. I’m not one of those cadets that left during basic training, or didn’t make it until Christmas. I made it through all of the hardships of that first summer, and made it through all of freshman year. In fact, I spent a total of 2 years, 1 month, and 2 days at that wretched place before I left and received an honorable discharge from Active Duty.

Now that you know my background, you should be able to realize that my knowledge for this information comes from first-hand experience. I went through it all – from Basic Cadet Training (6 weeks being treated like an animal the summer before freshmen classes start), to Recognition (a three day training session where you prove to your superiors, the upperclassmen, that you are ready to earn your “prop and wings,” and become one of them), to having a coachee of my own as a “three degree.”

I know what it’s like to not have summer leave, and I know what it’s like to have 25 credit hours on my plate. I understand the hardships of being on academic probation, having no passes to leave base, and the utter frustration of taking physics, chemistry, and calculus while being a history major. I also know first and foremost how cynical some people can be at that institution, how bad many of the teachers can be (some learn the material a week or two ahead of you), and how even while most people there are brilliant and “the best of the best,” many of them may be vastly better than you.

Overall, the U.S. Air Force Academy is an amazing institution. The graduates there receive an education worth over $400,000 during the four years they are there, as well training worth millions once they graduate as a commissioned officer. The pride and prestige of making it through an institution with all of the pressures and demands that USAFA does deems well to almost any employer after the 5-year (or more) commitment is over. While your GPA may not be as high as at another institution, it’s the degree that matters. Saying you graduated from USAFA with a Bachelor’s of Science (everyone gets a B.S. regardless of the major) is priceless, and most likely worth the pain it took to receive.

As amazing a place this is, there are many problems involved with going here:

  • Good friends are hard to come by. While many cadets grow close through trials and tribulations together, the stress and amount of work makes it hard to keep friendships afloat. Usually if you do have a chance to make good friends, it become very hard to continue to meet with fellowship.
  • Academics – while 18 credit hours is usually the lower end of the spectrum, there are also 40 lessons of class, and more days of school than any other in the nation. According to the Student Academic Services department, for every hour of class, there are two hours of homework.
  • Time limits – with all of this homework, other barriers prevent you from having the time to finish it all. Military formations are common throughout the day and evening, leaving you even less time for work.
  • Physical fitness – with the intense academics and military aspects come the demand to stay physically fit. Fitness tests happen about twice a year and all cadets take physical fitness classes each semester. The necessity to go to the gym, at the very least, once every other day, is a must for most cadets. Not only is this the case, but physical education classes (boxing, water survival, unarmed combat) can be a key contributor to being placed on “RECONDO,” a mandatory, daily workout program with a former Marine.
  • Military duties – While you may have many other academic and physical requirements, you are still a member of the Active Duty Air Force and thus have a job to do. After all, you do get a monthly salary along with your free education.
    • As a freshman or “Four Degree,” your role is to memorize handfuls of information called “knowledge” from a tiny book called “Contrails.” This knowledge includes quotes from famous military generals, strategists, and Presidents, as well as Air Force planes, bases, occupations, uniform items, and the chain-of command. You also have an obligation to wake the upperclassmen up in the morning with the shouting of “minutes.” Minutes are exactly what they sound like in the morning, the time until breakfast begins. They also include the meals for the day, uniform of the day, and of course, an important reminder to turn off your lights and lock your drawers. Minutes can be stated before any meal or formation. An extended version of minutes, called “Checkpoints,” also includes the days until graduation for each class and the officer of the day. Don’t forget about greeting! Each freshman must “greet” all upperclassmen with the standard greeting: “Good morning/afternoon/evening Cadet Rank John A. Doe,” followed by a squadron greeting. (i.e. Squadron 21 – Blackjacks’ greeting was “Double Down!”) At certain times during the year, freshman will also be required to add items at the end of the greeting such as the upperclassman’s hometown, major, future Air Force job, and ring stone. All this with the added duties of taking out the trash, running on perpendicular corners when outside, carrying your backpack in your left hand at all times, and not being allowed to own civilian clothes, media, or games for an entire year all contribute to this wondrous time.
    • Things don’t get easier during sophomore year as a “Three degree.” While the challenges of freshman year are all behind you, new complications await. At the end of freshman year, you are transferred to a new squadron, many times alone from your freshman squadron. All of the people who supported you throughout the toils of a year of hell are not with you any longer. Also, you are now getting your first take on leadership, as you have at least one freshman as your direct responsibility. Your job as a sophomore is to keep them sane, as well as push them to pass knowledge tests, achieve high academic and physical results, and to simply not give up. Being on the other side of the fence is an intensely different feeling, and sometimes a feeling many are not ready for. While your duties become less time-consuming, academic difficulty increases with heavy demand. Keeping it all together becomes challenging with even more time restraints as it is the job of the sophomores to man the “CQ,” a desk that serves as the first impression for all visitors entering the squadron.
    • If you have made it junior year as a “two degree,” life is smooth sailing. By now, you are mainly taking classes that pertain to your major, and your are now officially “committed,” meaning that if you leave, you will now owe the U.S. government years of enlisted service or pay them back monetarily for your education. You may now have a car, if your grades are good enough, and you may leave on weekdays until 7PM. You are given more leadership duties, usually at the head of an element of about 10 people, and at the end of the year you are awarded your class ring and given your future occupation in the Air Force.
    • “Firstie year” is the home stretch. This year is all about you. You have almost made it to becoming an officer, and as long as you don’t screw up, a nice diploma, gold bars of a second lieutenant, and the “Thunderbirds” (the Air Force Flight Demonstration Team) will be yours.
  • Suicide – This past year, a firstie so close to graduation hung himself in his closet one night due to high levels of stress. After almost four years completed and the worst over, he ended it anyways. After he set the precedent, nearly a dozen other cadet had suicide attempts in the weeks to follow. Is the stress designed to build an individual’s character worth this?

So, does this sound that bad? Well, believe it or not, even by reading this one can never understand the true feeling of having gone to a military academy unless they actually did. No teacher, commander, enlisted person, or family member can dare give their opinion of how well a cadet is doing unless they have been through it themselves, and in most cases, they haven’t.
Leaving the Academy is a tough choice. The world outside of those gates is a very hard one, filled with complications and obstacles that most cadets are not adept to solving with their four years in that “zoo.” Albeit different, overall, the Academy experience is probably worth it in the end, but I’ll never know. Strangely enough, I’m alright with that. Besides, even though I am one of the many that didn’t make it, I will always be a member of the Class of 2012, Squadrons 21 and 2, and the sayings: “‘Never Falter, Never Fail,’ ‘Hap,’ ‘Double Down,’ and ‘Delta Tau Deuce.'”


10 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of the U.S. Air Force Academy

  1. I think that my take on USAFA may be more positive than yours, but I do not dispute a single word you wrote. Excellent summary of four years; just missing the parts that made it bearable for those of us who DG’ed (done graduated). As with many of my friends who realized that this was not their calling, I admire your courage. Non-academy people also don’t realize the amount of fortitude it takes to resign.

  2. Hey my gf is in the academy and shes only there for free schooling and not liking the life style, my question is do you think its worth her trying to stay? She wants to help people not fly planes our build nuclear reactors and everyone tells her to stick in there but I know its not for her. Please if you can write me back I would really like your input



  3. I have a question for you if you could help.
    My boyfriend is more than likely going to the air force academy. As his gf, I’m wondering how difficult it will be on our relationship in general. We both reside in GA and are seniors.
    Be honest, I’m trying to get real information and make realistic choices for both if us.
    Thank you for any help you can give me.

  4. Thank you for posting this – as a parent of a soon to be ex-cadet I found it very helpful and enlightening. My son doesn’t talk much, so your descriptions of what life has been like are very helpful to me in understanding why he’s just not that “sad” to be leaving. I believe the parents buy into the dream and the pride and when it doesn’t work out, it’s really hard for them to let go. And then there are those wonderful parent groups – I will miss my group a lot. Wish you would update this post and tell us how your parents felt and what you did after USAFA.

  5. As a “Preppie” (graduate of the USAFA Prep School) and one year “on the hill,” I see things haven’t changed all that much in 30 years.

    We didn’t changed squadrons until after 3 degree year, and the ramp used to say “Bring Me Men.”

    The academics got me. The work load is incredible. I know from AcPro, I had to meet with a board of instructors to plead my case. If I had done more EI (Extra Instruction), I might have stayed to graduation.

    At least I avoided SERE.

    • Erick, I got a chuckle out of your comment, because among officers, we often joked with the ROTC grads that we zoomies came from the Tech School. But don’t be fooled, our college credits are accepted everywhere and every graduate mastered more engineering than many engineers from other colleges. Now the question always is, did we learn anything about leadership? I know that I did, but I also learned a lot about leadership from the NCOs who took me under their wings, and commanders who allowed a lieutenant to make mistakes.

  6. I had the unique perspective of not getting in right out of high school, going to a civilian college and being in ROTC, then re-applying, being accepted, and then attending and graduating. I then spent 20 years as an officer and loved the Air Force — the Force itself, and not necessarily every job or supervisor/commander there in. I still keep in regular contact with classmates and squadron mates. We all agree that many of us who got in and attended “The Zoo” in the 70’s and 80’s, when the anti-Vietnam sentiment was high and the military was looked down on, would probably not even be accepted to the prep-school today. The academic/athletic schedule tempo is grueling for most — you really have to want to be there. For some it is not sustainable and they leave, and for many of those that is the right decision. Nobody should be there just for the free education or because their officer daddy expects them to be there. I have nothing against anyone who left for other than an honor violation, it isn’t for everyone. That said, for those who do make it and go on, they are very well prepared for the world that is greeting them. Honestly, much the same can be said for those who made it some of the way and fought hard to stay but just couldn’t take the pace. They too are better prepared than had they not gone. Just my opinion. Fred Mahony, USAFA 1987.

  7. I have a similar story. I was a member of the Class of ’80 for nearly two years. I was a sharp troop militarily, on the Commandant’s list, but after spending three of my four semesters there on Academic Probation, I faced the Board and was asked to resign. I met that turning point in my life with mixed emotions. I had loved what the Academy stood for, and what I had accomplished: BCT, being part of the “historic” first class with women, excelling in SERE, leading Doolies. But I also was relieved. I had been bullied, endured some of the most massive egos ever, gave up my summer leave in R-flight, and suffered from homesickness. All of those things are normal and I don’t blame anyone or any circumstance for my departure. I simply couldn’t hack the workload, especially chemistry and math. Life after the Academy was hard for me. I went to work in construction, learned how to drink, lost friends. There really wasn’t anyone I could ever really talk to about my bittersweet experiences at the Academy; nobody could relate or was interested. It took me twenty years of night classes and finally regular college to earn my first degree, working around my day job and trying to maintain a household. I became a teacher and later a school administrator. Ironically, I majored in math. I did become a private pilot, but I still get melancholy when I see a pair of fighter jets fly over, wondering what might have been, had I been smarter, or perhaps more disciplined. I’ve often wondered if there were many out there like me. I can’t attend reunions of the Class of ’80 because that wouldn’t be appropriate. But I will always feel a connection with the men and women with whom I served, and I am ever proud of my time at the Academy.

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