He made it.
sense of celebratory accomplishment was heightened in proportion to the deep valleys our cadet traversed to reach the day. Entering a USA school for the first time since Mrs. Mund’s memorable Kindergarten in Baltimore during our MPH year, straight to Basic Training’s 6 weeks of grueling exertion, sleep deprivation, harsh psychological onslaught. Being seven thousand miles from home with almost no communication. Choosing the most difficult major, and adding on an Arabic minor. Compressing classes in order to study abroad, almost impossible as an engineer. A devastating knee injury during Christmas break the first year that led to surgery, recovery, and punishment from above in spite of the appeals by his student leadership. Dedicating himself to learning to lead in a different way, to commitment to the kids in his Officer’s Christian Fellowship, to pushing his limits running a marathon with a heavy pack and maximizing physical fitness tests consistently, hours of PT and recovery and then a last-month rupture of his quadriceps muscle in the other leg. Losing a summer research position abroad for one missed meeting which followed late nights with younger cadets reeling from the death of a classmate, but rebounding to do an excellent project locally. Carefully considering the proffered pilot slot but opting to take a very unconventional course by cross-commissioning into the Army. Enduring all the skepticism and criticism that entailed because he prayerfully believes that a path towards working globally with local militaries in places beleaguered by war will be the most effective path to justice and mercy for those who suffer, so he heads off to infantry training in hopes of joining the Special Forces (Green Berets).
In fact, at one point this week, our graduate joked that our mother-to-child-HIV-transmission-prevention project slogan in Uganda could be the theme of his college career: Webale Kwejuna, literally ‘thank you for surviving’ or ‘thank you for pulling yourself through’. It is the greeting for a mother who has just delivered a baby, recognizing that surviving childbirth in the majority-world is not a given. Nor is reaching graduation at the military academies.
For all the uncertainty, stress, demand, difficulty, however, we can see the value of this education and the severe beauty of this experience. The USAFA core values are:
Service Before Self
Excellence in All We Do.
And while we are very proud of our cadet’s hard work to achieve the honor of being a “distinguished graduate” (the Air Force equivalent of Magna Cum Laude), we are even more grateful to see these values deeply etched into his soul. In these four years we have seen him choose integrity, holding to what is true and right even when it costs him dearly. We have seen him shape his life around service to others rather than personal gain. We have seen him strive for excellence in everything from completing projects to developing skills.
So it was not even a question in our minds that we would depart early from our Serge triennial conference to make it back to Colorado for the party. We were in Spain for the last ten days of May, participating in leadership training and prayer (and more on that later). Then last Monday morning we departed at 3 am for a 29-hour travel marathon to Colorado Springs. Tuesday and Wednesday involved picking the rest of the family up at airports, shopping for the post-grad party, and attending a series of meaningful events.
His room mate’s open house, dinner with his best friend’s family, a cloud-covered chilly parade formation to watch the seniors step out of their squadrons as they symbolically prepared to leave the academy, a brunch with another friend’s family. Those days culminated in the Wednesday evening commissioning service where the 22 cadets in squadron 12 gathered in their uniforms to swear their oath of office and enter military service, pledging to defend the constitution. Scott and I had the honor of pinning the 2nd Lieutenant bars onto his shoulders. At the end of the hour-long service for those cadets and families, all rose to sing the Air Force song. Then in recognition that our son had just joined the Army not the Air Force, they played the Army anthem as well. To our surprise, our son stood alone and sang it as a solo. It was to his surprise too. I think that moment symbolized a lot about this phase of life: standing out of the crowd, singing truth even if alone.
Thursday morning, the actual graduation day, dawned clear after a week of thunderstorms and cold damp. I know this because I was up before 4 am with a rare doozy of a migraine headache, a vortex of altitude and exhaustion and time-change and emotion that ended in throwing up and stumbling into the day. The challenge of logistically managing three over-80 year olds, one of whom suffers from advanced dementia and visual/hearing impairments, along with the intersection of all our kids (rare!), and guests, and traffic, and rules and protocol, in a borrowed house (for which we are eternally grateful) and a rental van, almost defeated us, but by 8:30 or so we were seated on our perch in the stadium. The band played, the faculty paraded in. The cadets marched in with precise formation, and for about five minutes I was convinced that some dire fate had befallen ours, who did not seem to be in the spot we expected amongst the honor graduates. Until Jack figured out, oh, the OTHER right. And there he was, spied through the binoculars, smiling with his colleagues. The President of the United States arrived, with secret service and snipers positioned. The sun beat down. The speeches proceeded.
President Obama’s speech carried a myriad of personal references to the class, to their experience arriving in the canyon fire that threatened the area, amidst evacuations. He spoke soberly and politically, though his humor peppered the paragraphs occasionally. The moment that stood out to me: when considering the Syrian refugees, he said, he thought “those could be my children”. That global thinking is not universal amongst his potential successors. Nor is the ability to compromise, to see paradox and nuance. To temper realism and idealism together. Frankly I felt sad that my son will not have this Commander in Chief for long, because as much as one may disagree with some of his policies, he remains a reasonable person who is not trying to use our military to control the entire world.
Then the graduates were called forward, all 812, one by one, their names read loudly as we applauded. They received their diplomas and then shook hands with the president. Caleb paused with President Obama, hearing a brief “you will do great” encouragement. Our row in the bleachers stood and yelled when his name was called, all 20 of us, his biological family and sponsor family and local friends, all people who have poured into his life and helped us parent from afar. The sense of completion, closure, relief, joy rippled through the crowds.
But 812 names take a long time in the mid-day sun on metal benches at high altitude, with not a speck of shade. One of our friends who happens to be an Air Force colonel from our main supporting church took my mom to find respite, but Scott’s parents thought they would be fine. A little later I decided we should move them to shade anyway, which was timely because his mom became completely overwhelmed by the heat and the situation and we had to get medics and a wheel chair and ice. I accompanied her to the emergency medical tent where I stayed for the rest of the graduation, so I missed the iconic official dismissal followed by the hat toss as the Thunderbirds swooped from behind out of nowhere in a deafening roar. This graduation ends every year in an air show, heart-stopping maneuvers by six F-16 fighter jets flying in close formations, passes, flips, spins, acrobatics. The graduates laugh and cheer and roar and mingle. The formality of the ranks dissolves into celebration, and they stream up into the stands to finish watching the show with their families.
Then hugs, photos, the massive traffic jam, and a couple of hours of frantic preparation as we decorated our borrowed house and prepared dinner for about 60 people. The evening was a wonderful, relaxed time of food and drink and fellowship. The grill, the deck, the slowly cooling darkness. An abundant spread. A generous handful of the Officer’s Christian Fellowship kids with their families, sponsors, some faculty. Handshakes and cake and excited anticipation of the next phase. Thankfulness for these friendships that carried our kids through. Sadness of goodbyes. The glimpse one gets as a parent that this child we only know in part has meant a lot to a lot of people.
It was a spectacular day.
But a day that took a toll, nonetheless. Deeply satisfied joy in completing this milestone, and yet the poured-out complete exhaustion of getting to that point and hosting and not quite getting it all right or all done. But our 2nd Lt. was honored and glowing, and that’s all we wanted to see.
The day ended with news that one of the Thunderbirds had crash-landed at the end of the graduation show, which was why the traffic was inexplicably not flowing. The pilot ejected to safety and maneuvered the plane away from homes. The same day a Blue Angel airplane crashed on a training flight, and that pilot died. I believe the juxtaposition of those two crashes with the glorious graduation exactly pictures the reality of this military education and commitment. We aren’t just talking about getting a good job or starting a good career, we’re talking about service that will cost some of these kids their lives. That makes the present moment more raw and sweet and full, the undeniable edge of mortality hovering over the toasts and the laughter.
I wonder if graduation would be that dramatic for someone who partied through four years of higher education. When the bulk of life is perfused by hardship, the day of relief becomes a real reason to rejoice. Which, I think, is a picture of all our lives and the hope of Heaven. To the degree that we embrace the struggle of reclaiming this world, enter into its darker and more painful places, we will long for the party-to-end-all-parties completion of the all-things-new. Choosing the military academy mirrors choosing a life of risk, service, voluntary deprivation, and while the years take their toll we anticipate a glorious day ahead.
Meanwhile back in the present reality, we bask in the taste of the revelry that for now is only a temporary glimpse, and plod on. We are humbly aware of God’s grace to this point, and desperately dependent upon God’s mercy as we go forward. The road from here out does not exactly get smooth. But for this moment, we are all enjoying our 2nd Lieutenant’s relieved smiles.