What Unites Us
BY COL. (RET.) WILL GUNN '80, AOG BOARD VICE CHAIRMAN
Our AOG board vice chair, Col. (Ret.) Will Gunn ’80, is writing this column for the March 2023 issue of Checkpoints. Because he is term-limited, Will is departing after serving eight exceptional years on the board. His leadership has been extraordinary, and he will be greatly missed. His inspirational thoughts on “What Unites Us” convey an important message for all. — Col. (Ret.) Bob Lowe ’71, AOG board chair
A highlight of my time on the AOG board of directors occurred on July 22, 2022, when I stood with other board members on the Terrazzo in front of Vandenberg Hall welcoming the Class of 2026. They had just completed their march back from Jacks Valley.
On that beautiful afternoon, I spoke to several cadre members and basic cadets and basked in the sunshine and intense enthusiasm of the cadets. The experience resurrected the excitement I felt the first time I stood on the Terrazzo — 46 years earlier — when I arrived for Basic Cadet Training (BCT) as a member of the Class of 1980.
Over the past eight years, I’ve had many inspiring moments while serving on the AOG board, and I have a confession: I’ve fallen in love with the Academy all over again!
While I was never at odds with the Academy, I was like many others who responded to the recent USAFA graduate survey in that my feelings had peaked at graduation and had waned a bit over the years.
My love for the Academy was first sparked as I approached the Cadet Area in a taxi along with a couple of my future classmates on the first day of BCT in June 1976. That’s when I first saw the Cadet Chapel’s 17 spires with the mountains in the background. It was love at first sight.
While I’d seen photos, I was awed as I beheld the view in person. Of course, my revelry for the Academy’s magnificent architecture and natural beauty soon faded to the background as I worked to memorize cadet knowledge and survive the rigors of BCT, but the scenery continued to be a source of inspiration and renewal during my cadet years.
However, physical beauty isn’t the only reason I’m passionate about the Academy. I’m also drawn because of the grounding that the institution laid for me and the strong bonds that I share with so many others.
In recent years, I’ve heard much more than I would like about divisions — political, ideological, racial and otherwise — that plague our nation. Our graduate community is no exception, but I believe the common bonds we share are far more significant than the things that separate us.
I believe at least three things unite most graduates: 1) surviving the Academy’s rigorous academic and training journey, 2) having had a holistic education focused on developing the whole person, and 3) adherence to a set of core values that led to the taking of an oath as a commissioned officer.
Whenever I encounter an Academy grad of any age, I know they went through a tough program, and that knowledge provides a point of commonality.
During my cadet years, the core values of “ integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do ” weren’t articulated in the same way they are today; instead, we heard a lot about the whole-person concept. Regardless of how it was expressed, the underlying values have always been the same and are the cornerstone of what the Academy was and remains all about.
The Academy thoroughly challenged me. After conquering one challenge after another — from BCT, Recognition and SERE to a demanding academic load and the numerous real-life leadership opportunities — I departed with the confidence that I (along with other members of the Long Blue Line) could do almost anything.
In recent years, I’ve heard Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark ’86 repeatedly say that the Academy’s mission is to develop leaders of character. This enduring focus has had a profound impact on me and is the underpinning of what unites me with other grads.
I never served in combat, but that foundation was tested in my life in 2003 when I was assigned the task of establishing an office that would provide defense representation to Guantanamo detainees who were to be brought before military commissions. Admittedly, I was apprehensive about the assignment. When first contacted, I selfishly focused on the adverse impact that defending alleged terrorists might have on my career.
However, after getting past much of my initial angst, I was able to call on the foundation that was laid for me at the Academy in both formal and informal settings. For example, I was blessed to be taught by Gen. (then a colonel) Malham Wakin in Ethics 310, where we discussed Socrates’ proposition that “ the unexamined life is not worth living ,” and Gen. Wakin’s corollary that “ the unexamined ideal is not worth dying for. ”
Recalling those concepts led me to reflect more clearly on the kind of person I wanted to be and the challenges that lay before me. I was also able to call on the oath that I pledged on graduation day to “ support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic ” and another key phrase in that oath in which I pledged to “ well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter. ”
I also applied critical thinking skills that had been enhanced during my cadet days and contemplated Thomas Paine’s statement from 1795 that “ he that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. ”
It was through my Academy foundation that I concluded I had a sacred duty to carry out with integrity the mission that lay before me.
Academy graduates are also united by a commitment to service.
As a senior, I struggled to get over air sickness in the airmanship program and eventually decided I didn’t want to go to pilot training. While thinking about the career path I would pursue, one day I briefly spoke with Lt. Gen. John Hopper outside the cadet store in Vandenberg Hall.
At the time, Gen. Hopper was a major and was serving as an air officer commanding. Several years later, he would serve as the Academy’s first Black commandant of cadets. Essentially, he told me that I shouldn’t fret if I ever decided I didn’t want to pursue a lengthy Air Force career because the Academy existed not just to prepare future Air Force leaders but to prepare leaders of character for the nation.
I’ve seen service before self epitomized in the actions of many graduates in and out of uniform. Two of my closest friends set a powerful example in that regard after their military careers. Col. (Ret.) Eric Garvin ’81 has inspired me through his service as executive director of a nonprofit organization called Cross World Africa. That organization makes lives better for poor people in Africa by making grants of livestock and establishing other programs to enable people to escape poverty by starting their own businesses.
Another friend, Richard Hall ’79, powerfully inspired me and was a catalyst for my getting involved in the AOG. Richard was a selfless, visionary, action-oriented leader who was also the chief catalyst for the first-ever super reunion of Black service academy graduates in 2010. He also helped establish the Way of Life Alumni Group, which promotes service and community among Black Academy grads by encouraging them to get involved in the Academy. Even though Richard died in 2016, his legacy persists due to the many people he impacted.
I thank God for all the Academy gave me, including the relationships forged while there and later with grads from other eras. I’m also thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to serve on the AOG board.
If you’re not already involved in the Academy, I encourage you to find a way to get involved. My service on the board has shown me that today’s cadets are brilliant and can hang with their predecessors from any era.
What unites Academy grads is strong and enduring — much stronger than that which separates us!
Col. (Ret.) Will Gunn ’80
Vice Chairman, Board of Directors
Association of Graduates
Col. (Ret.) Will Gunn '80