USAFA graduates next Air Force leaders

The United States Air Force Academy graduated 979 cadets at its annual commencement ceremony Wednesday, May 24, 2017.

The new graduates included 15 exchange students from 15 different countries.

Under warm Colorado sunshine, the newest members of the Long Blue Line — one by one — ascended the stairs to accept their diploma and shake hands with dignitaries. The new second lieutenants also received their first salutes as officers.

Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson ’81, who presided over her final graduation ceremony before retirement, challenged the Class of 2017 as they officially became second lieutenants and headed out into the real Air Force.

“You will enter a more complex, interconnected and volatile geopolitical landscape than our military has ever known,” she said. “But I’m confident that you are ready to outpace the rapid developments of our adversaries.”

She applauded the graduates for their dedication to the Air Force core values and their commitment to its overall mission.

“It is you that will ensure that we will remain the best Air Force on the planet and I look forward to the destinations you will take us in the air, space and cyberspace domains and beyond,” she said.

Dr. Heather Wilson ’82, newly confirmed secretary of the Air Force, spoke a few words of encouragement to the newest officers in her force. (Wilson and Johnson were both members of Blackjack Cadet Squadron 21 in Wilson’s Doolie year.)

“Today is your day to celebrate,” she told the crowd. “And tomorrow you will be officers in a nation at war.”

She reported that the U.S. and its coalition partners are attacking about 100 targets a day from the air against ISIS in the Middle East.

“Eighty percent of those weapons are delivered by the United States Air Force,” she said, to a rousing round of applause.

Wilson added that Russia and North Korea also pose a threat to the stability of the globe. The new officers will be part of the force that will deal with such global threats in the coming years, she said.

“Working together, under the guidance of Secretary of Defense (James) Mattis, and with the support of the United States Congress, we will seek to restore the readiness of the force to fight,” she pledged. “We will modernize and innovate to meet the needs of the future.”

Keynote speaker for the morning was Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In his early comments, Gen. Dunford applauded the Class of 2017 for surviving the “great toilet paper shortage of 2013” when sequestration meant temporarily insufficient funds for the military.

“An extraordinary accomplishment in and of itself,” he joked.

Gen. Dunford said there are more than 100,000 airmen standing watch around the world. Many are supporting combat operations, and joined by thousands more soldiers, sailors and Marines.

He congratulated the graduates and encouraged them to be strong leaders in our nation’s military.

“Everything you’ve done has come down to this,” he said. “You’ve answered the call to lead in our Air Force.”

Gen. Dunford suggested that the new officers accept a few tidbits of advice from his military experience — be flexible, lead through change, have the back of fellow airmen, and be a good teammate.

“If my experience makes me confident of anything, it makes me confident of the product that we produce here at the United States Air Force Academy,” he said. “I’m absolutely confident that you will measure up to the task at hand.”

The newly minted second lieutenants were led through the Air Force oath before joining in the Air Force Song. The celebration turn raucous after a flyover and 30-minute performance of the Thunderbirds air demonstration team.

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