Into the Wild Blue Yonder


Latter-day Saint cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy aim their sights on a future bright with promise

“Here they come! Here they come! Here they come! Here they come!” In a stadium jammed with spectators, a solitary young voice squeals in delight. Thousands of eyes straining to the horizon detect five small specks, like flecks of black pepper on the mashed potato clouds.

In an instant the flecks become diving falcons, become shrieking jet fighters, become intergalactic defenders. The stadium reverberates with the scream of a thousand thunders as the silver sky chariots flash overhead. Then, just as quickly, the thunder is gone.

Through the silence, a ranking officer rises to address the throng of young men and women decked in blue, white, and gold. “Officers,” he says into the microphone, “you are dismissed.” And the air is simultaneously filled with 875 white hats, flung high in the jubilant realization that four agonizing years of effort have been successfully concluded.

No, it’s not commencement exercises for Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. But it’s the next closest thing that will occur on this planet for at least a dozen decades. It’s graduation day at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a time of unparalleled pageantry and pomp. The aircraft slicing through the sky are the Thunderbirds precision flying team, ready to tantalize the crowds with the roar of their afterburners. The ceremonies also include skydiving exhibitions, glider landings, bands, drill teams, military dinners and balls, and parades and marching sufficient to rival Buckingham Palace.

The young men and women tossing their hats into the bright May sunshine are among the sharpest students in the United States. Toiling under tremendous academic and athletic burdens, they have at last achieved a degree in astronautical engineering or aviation sciences or international affairs or any one of 20 other specializations offered at the academy. They have earned their celebration.

Amid the cheers and shouts, however, graduation here as anywhere is a time for looking both forward and back. The seniors become commissioned officers and enter the armed forces; juniors, sophomores, and freshmen each move up a grade and assume new responsibilities and status. Parents and friends gather to cheer those who are finishing their studies and those who are merely pausing before continuing another year.

For the 63 Latter-day Saint cadets at the academy, it is also a time of looking both into the past and into the future. Their achievements haven’t come without effort, and for a number of reasons, this graduation day is perhaps more significant to them than to anyone else in the vast stadium.

—Ted Parsons has been named as a new cadet squadron commander, leader of 105 men and women. Normally that’s quite an honor for any cadet, but for Ted it’s especially noteworthy. Ted is the first Latter-day Saint to successfully re-enter the academy after having resigned to serve as a full-time missionary. (Others have resigned from the academy to serve missions, but Ted was the first to be readmitted.)

“There was never any doubt for me that I would go on a mission,” Ted said. “When I got back, I called the admissions officer and told him I would like to return. Maybe it was because I was on the varsity basketball team when I left or because I was number ten overall in my class when I left, but after he checked my file, he got excited. The registrar sent me a packet of material, which I completed and returned. My congressman agreed to renominate me (all cadets must be nominated by a member of Congress, who is allowed to have only 10 nominees at the academy at any given time). I came back and they welcomed me.”

Captain Ray Longi, Ted’s A.O.C. (air officer commanding, a career officer in charge of a squadron of cadets), met Ted on his first day back at the academy and was so impressed with him that he assigned him to the top leadership position for a junior in his squadron.

“That caused some hard feelings at first,” Ted said. “Camaraderie and unity in each class are intense, and none of the other cadets even knew who I was. But I’ve tried to overcome it by working with people.” Ted, who is a pre-med student and hopes to become a doctor, is now one of the most popular cadets in Colorado Springs. “I’d rank Ted, and I mean this in all sincerity, as one of the top ten in his class of 1,000,” Captain Longi said.

Ted wears the superintendent’s pin, which means he has maintained a 3.0 or better average in both scholastic and military training (Ted’s grade point average is actually about 3.8—not bad at an institution where the mean I.Q. is 130—and his military performance average, comprised of evaluations by his A.O.C., his classmates, and his instructors, is usually about 3.6).

It used to be just about impossible for someone who resigned to return to the academy, but Ted’s example set a precedent. Officials began to realize that LDS cadets who resigned to go on missions did so out of conviction, not because they were no longer interested in the academy. While Ted was on his mission in the Arequipa Peru Mission, another cadet, Cody Carr, left the academy for the Switzerland Zurich Mission. He came back this year and is also excelling in his studies and training. Mike McDonald, another LDS cadet, is currently an elder in the New York City New York Spanish Speaking Mission and hopes to return to the academy. Todd and Jay Esplin plan to leave at the end of the summer on missions to Osorno, Chile, and Lima, Peru, then return to the academy. Guy Neddo will soon leave for the Hong Kong Mission but hopes to return to the academy after two years.

Chris Henderson took a different approach. For him, attending the academy had been a lifelong dream, but he decided to go on a mission first (see “A Question of Service,” New Era, April 1979). Barely meeting a deadline that requires cadets to be able to graduate before they turn 26, Chris was able to gain a renomination after his mission and is now completing his first year at the academy.

“The overall dream I have,” Ted said, “is that within a few years it will be the accepted norm for cadets to come here, be actively involved, go on a mission for two years, come back, and get right back into it again. My mission was an icebreaker that way.”

—The most difficult thing for Mike Dalby during graduation week was to keep from smiling so wide his ears would fall off.

“You’ve got to meet my parents,” he said, beaming. “They’re the greatest people.” And he talked about changes at home since he joined the Church. “My mom’s quit drinking coffee! And when I started talking about genealogy with her, she said to send her all the sheets and she did the whole thing—all the research, writing all the letters, putting everything together, and typing it up, everything! My sisters thought that if I joined the Mormon church I’d walk around in a dark suit, grow a huge beard like Brigham Young, and lose all my ambition. But I think they’ve learned differently. And dad’s so proud of me graduating.”

Mike’s parents came all the way from Stephenville, Texas, to see him commissioned as a second lieutenant and to watch him march with the wing staff. “There are 40 squadrons, divided into four groups of ten squadrons each. The groups form the wing. Wing staff has four seniors and four juniors who are in charge of the cadet squadrons as far as we can be without getting into the officer chain of command. It’s a good opportunity to work with high level officers with a frequency you’ll probably never have again,” Mike explained.

Mike joined the Church during his junior year. As a member of the debate team (one of more than 100 extracurricular clubs and activities cadets can participate in), Mike kept running into LDS debaters on other teams.

“Our forensics team is in the same district as BYU and Weber State and Southern Utah State College, and I just started talking to people about the Mormon church. Of course, they loved to talk about it, and I listened. I had come to a point in my cadet career when things were going pretty bad. I had failed a class and my grades were getting lower and lower. I was having some problems with drinking. I had always been interested in religion, but I realized that my church at home had been more of a social thing than a spiritual thing,” Mike said.

“During spring break I came up to BYU and visited people there and talked with some of the professors in the department of religion,” Mike continued. “The people were fantastic, just great. Then I went and talked with the missionaries. One of them came from almost the same background I came from, and he was one of the most spiritually strong people I’ve ever met.”

Mike had a debate team friend, Marty Wojtysiak, and together they explored the gospel. “All of a sudden these people started giving me answers to questions I’d always had but had been unable to answer,” Marty said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting. I want to learn more.’ Mike and I listened to the discussions together, and together we decided to join the Church. The semester we got baptized was the best semester both of us ever had, both grade-wise and on the military side of things.”

Since then Mike and Marty have come full circle in the gospel—now they’re sharing it with others. At a class party there was a bowl of punch, and Mike didn’t know if it had alcohol in it. “One of the biggest drinkers in the squadron turned to me and said, ‘Don’t drink it. There’s alcohol in it, and I don’t want you to be drinking.’ He found me a glass of fruit juice instead. At first the other cadets kidded me about joining the Church, but now they watch out for me. They even change their speech when I walk into the room. And my mother—at first she wondered what was going on, but what mother can get mad at you when you tell her, ‘I’m not going to be drinking anymore; I’m not going to be cussing anymore; I’m going to be a very nice young man’?”

“I’ve baptized a couple of people I helped teach about the Church,” Marty said, “and that’s just a joy! Jay Decker is a freshman I baptized—he’s six-foot-six and I’m only five-foot-ten! Like always, everyone showed up at the baptism. A cadet gave a talk on baptism, a cadet talked about confirmation, one played the piano, one led the songs, and Ted confirmed Jay.”

Recently the cadets celebrated the anniversary of Mike and Marty’s entrance into the Church by presenting them with a cake with a single candle. Incidentally, the two converts have done all right in collegiate debate, too. Marty won one of the two events he reached in the national finals, and Mike reached the finals in three events.

—With the relief of having examinations over, Guy Neddo has been able to use spare time during graduation week to go flying. For him there’s nothing like being up in the sky.

“I see a plane and I sort of tingle all over,” he said. “My brother Roger graduated from here in 1974. I was about 12 then, and I got to stay with him for a couple of days to look the place over. I fell in love with it. And since I want to fly fighters and don’t have 20/20 vision, about the only way to do it is to graduate from the academy.”

Guy is from Malta, Idaho, and graduated in a high school class of 32. “I had to take calculus and trigonometry by correspondence from BYU to even get in here,” he said. When he leaves for his mission, Guy will leave behind the flying club and the glider flights and the air shows. “As much as I do love flying and the academy, flying isn’t the most important thing in my life,” he said. “Right now I’ve been called to serve Jesus Christ.”

Guy remembers all too well his first year at the academy. Six torturous weeks of basic training come first—physical tests of fitness, obstacle courses, marching, climbing, running; psychological tests of loss of personal identity and of following orders no matter what. Cody Carr, a sophomore from Mantua, Utah, also remembers. “You feel like dirt for a while, but each little hassle has a purpose. You all start from zero, and any success you have depends on what you do at the academy.”

The fourthclassmen, or freshmen, are always required to be at attention except when in class, their own rooms, or the latrine. In most places they are not allowed to speak. To cross campus, they must walk only on the white marble borders crisscrossing the terrazzo, the terrace between the academic buildings and the dorms. Freshmen are assigned most of the details and are constantly critiqued by upperclassmen.

“They were always correcting us, and everything was exaggerated,” Cody said. “If there’s a tiny string sticking out from your uniform, they call it a cable. If your arm comes away from your side a quarter of an inch, they say it’s flying in the breeze. You had to run everywhere and could never go fast enough to satisfy them. They expected perfection.” Even at meals, freshmen, also called “doolies” (from the Greek word for slave), are required to sit at attention and to pass food to upperclassmen before they can eat.

Cadets learn that no privilege is to be taken for granted, from breathing on up. It is a big day when they are first allowed to wear civilian clothing or listen to music. Distractions are kept to a minimum because each cadet carries an academic load of 18–21 or more semester hours and is also required to participate in intramural sports. Academic failures soon find themselves back in civilian life.

“There’s a lot of strain,” Guy said, “but the Church is a real relief valve. It provides a way to get out and away from it all on Sundays. When you’re going through pressure, it’s either going to make you or break you. In my case it’s really strengthened my testimony. But there are a lot of things competing for your time—academics, extra-curricular activities, teams, squadron leadership—so it’s easy just to stay here on Sunday and not go to church. You’ll find that the active cadets have to have strong testimonies.”

LDS cadets, even doolies, are allowed to attend a weekly institute class. Guy remembers his first time at institute: “It’s great to see an upperclassman and not have him yell at you. The first time at institute I called an upperclassman sir, and he said, ‘My mamma named me Bill, not sir.’ That sort of put me at ease.

“The amount of contact you have with the Church during the week is limited. Until the academic year starts, doolies aren’t even allowed to go off base to meetings. So the institute is some of the first contact we have with the Church. It’s good to get away from the academic rigors for an evening, and an hour and a half isn’t much to sacrifice. Even now it’s one of the highlights of my week.”

Doolies soon learn that the Church is well represented at the academy. Besides the 40 to 70 LDS cadets, 10 to 15 percent of the faculty is LDS (compared to 2 percent in the air force overall). An active missionary program brings about 5 to 10 cadets each year into the Church. A sponsorship program allows cadets to be “adopted” by families while they’re away from home. And the Academy Ward, located just off base, becomes a hub of activity, especially on Sundays. Most of its members are staff, faculty, or students at the academy, and the cadets have their own group leadership (responsible to the elders quorum presidency), which among other things organizes home teaching, plans trips to the stake farm, and coordinates social events with local Young Adult and YSI groups.

“The theme we have set for the coming year is ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God,’ “Ted, who is the group leader, said. “If a cadet can step back in his busy world and realize he’s a priesthood bearer and a child of God, things will start to roll.”

As they progress through the academy, upperclassmen gain additional privileges until they eventually only have to stand at attention in formation and are able to leave the academy grounds any time they aren’t on duty.

LDS upperclassmen are friendly to LDS doolies, but they let them know they won’t receive any special treatment. Cody explained, “If your eyes wander a little as you’re walking along the terrazzo, one of the LDS upperclassmen might say, ‘What are you staring at mister? Planning on buying the place?’ Then he would add, quietly, ‘By the way, there’s a dance at the ward this Saturday, and you’re invited.’ They want you to know it’s nothing personal, that they respect you because they’ve been through the same thing.”

Both Guy and Cody agreed that being LDS is no disadvantage. Latter-day Saints are held in high repute because of the performance of past LDS cadets. For example, in 1978 both the number one and number two graduates were members of the Church.

“You’re respected if you uphold your standards,” Guy said. “Some nights, for example, I’ll come home late and jump into bed, and my roommate will ask me why I didn’t say my prayers. The other cadets will always order soft drinks for you instead of beer. Once you’ve established yourself, there’s no real friction. The ones who have problems are those who don’t live their own standards. They lose self-respect and the respect of their peers.”

On a typical day, Guy gets up at 4:30 or 5:00 A.M. to finish homework from the night before. Then he gets his room in inspection order, because inspections can come at any time. Breakfast is optional but must be eaten before 7:00. Cadets must be in full uniform and ready for the day by 7:05, and often there’s a squadron meeting until 7:45. Classes begin at 7:55 and last until evening, with some athletic events interspersed in the schedule. There is also a noon formation for lunch and daily marching so tourists can see the cadets. Academic call to quarters starts at 7:30 P.M. and lasts until 11:15. “That’s study time to spend as you need to,” Guy explained. “As you can see, the rest of the day is pretty well scheduled for you.”

“We have a saying here, ‘Sleep is optional,’” Guy continued. “Everything else takes precedence. If you want to get more done, sleep less. Sunday meetings and the weekly institute class really provide a break from that type of pressure, a chance to think about the other side of things.” And Guy does find time to study the scriptures and write in his journal. “I usually stay up until 11:30 or 11:45 and do it then,” he said. Like most of those who go from the academy to the Mission Training Center, he’s likely to discover that his military background will make missionary training seem easy by comparison.

—Sitting on the front row (reserved for honor graduates), David Scott is so excited he almost bounces. David will be announced as the Outstanding Cadet in Social Science, and the asterix printed on the program indicates he is receiving both military and scholastic recognition. But his excitement isn’t due totally to his accomplishments. He’s thinking of tomorrow morning when he will be married for time and eternity in the Salt Lake Temple.

“Jeri Willfong and I met when we had both just been assigned to the Eighth Squadron. We were sophomores. We talked once for about two hours when she was on detail answering the phones. Later, when the squadron was having a get-together at a melodrama, I asked her if she needed a ride. We started dating after that, and it wasn’t long before we started discussing the Church,” Dave explained.

Dave had become a member two years earlier while attending the preparatory school affiliated with the academy and was eager to share the gospel.

“But he wasn’t pushy,” Jeri said. “It was always me asking the questions, and he would just answer them. It took about six months before I got seriously interested.”

“After about a month I started praying to see if she was the right girl,” Dave said. “After about three weeks of praying, I got an answer that yes, she was. I didn’t know how it was going to work out, but I thought it would.”

While he was at Bergstrom Air Force Base outside Austin, Texas, for summer training, Dave got a call from Jeri. She had seen the examples of local member families and had talked to them extensively about the Church while Dave was gone. She had also attended church and received the missionary discussions.

“I’m going to be baptized the 15th of July,” she said.

As soon as Dave returned to the academy, he was sent to Argentina for additional training, so he missed the baptism. But Jeri continued to grow in testimony and activity, and soon the couple decided to make their relationship last forever. But because cadets aren’t allowed to marry until after graduation, they had to wait for Dave to finish school.

“I decided to leave the academy to prepare for marriage and to spend time with my family in Florida, helping them understand why I joined the Church,” Jeri explained. “Now both sets of parents will be here for our reception, and we’re going to have our bishop talk about temple marriage. It’s the first real exposure to the Church for our families.”

—Just inside one of the main gates to the academy is a small, white frame house where many of the cadets congregate when they do find some spare time. The home has been the site of many missionary discussions. And many of the cadets who gathered there for dinner on the Sunday beginning graduation week remembered how the warmth of the Kovalenko home made them comfortable.

“There’s always something going on at Kovalenko’s,” Mike Dalby said. “And if there isn’t, you’re welcome to just come over and talk or take a nap on the couch. While I was investigating the Church, Brother Kovalenko answered a lot of questions for me.”

“The first thing we make them do when they come here is loosen their ties and hang up their coats,” Virgil Kovalenko, a major in the air force, said. “We want them to know they can relax.” The Kovalenkos are typical of many of the sponsors provided for cadets (non-LDS cadets also receive sponsor families).

“We start out with an assignment to give them a place where they can feel family life while they’re away from home,” said Nadine Ramirez, a member of the Colorado Springs Ninth Ward, which also sponsors cadets. “But they end up just like a son or daughter. Our kids look at them as big brothers and sisters. And as the children see some of the LDS cadets going on missions, it strengthens their desire to serve a mission too. I think the sponsorship program helps the cadets to see that if they have a desire to be active in the Church, they can have a positive experience here.”

Over the years, cadets have eaten dinner with members, worked on service projects with them, borne their testimonies to them, and tended their children. They have become friends and fellow Saints. When the cadets’ white hats tumble to the ground following the final hurrah, sponsors will join other parents and relatives in hugging their cadets, shaking their hands, and patting their backs. But the joy of graduation is bittersweet, because soon distances will separate the friends. Still, Church members are everywhere, so fellowshipping will continue, and transfers are common in the air force, so it’s likely there will be opportunities to meet again. Many sponsors later receive visits from married cadets with their wives and families as well as letters and Christmas cards throughout the years.

“We’re glad to have them share their lives with us,” said Bishop Duane Slocum of the Academy Ward. “We’ll never forget the good they do.”

Graduation is a time when past, present, and future all seem to merge. Memories are vivid, excitement runs rampant, and the future seems enticing. The cadets have no way of knowing that Wade Solomon of Phoenix, Arizona, will soon become the fourth returned missionary at the academy, following a mission in Japan, or that a singles ward will be formed for the cadets with Ted as second counselor in the bishopric. Following his term as squadron commander, Ted will also be selected as group commander. Chris Henderson will leave the academy to marry a BYU student. And Debbie Wilcock, who joined the Church at the academy to become the first LDS female graduate (class of 1980), will, at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, become the first LDS female instructor pilot. Right now, all the cadets know is that they have worked hard and trusted in the Lord, and he has made things work out all right.

Today is graduation day 1981, and for the moment it deserves to be treasured as the threshold to a future bright with promise.

[photos] Photos by Richard M. Romney

[photos] Ted Parsons set a precedent when he became the first returned missionary to successfully re-enter the U.S. Air Force Academy. “The discipline I learned at the academy helped me throughout my mission,” he said. “And the experiences in the mission field help me here.” The academy campus is recognized by the distinctive chapel, the white hats worn by students, and the statues based on symbols of flight that ornament its walkways.

[photos] Guy Neddo, a member of the academy flight club, will soon leave to serve a mission in Hong Kong. He hopes to be readmitted to the academy when he returns in two years. Cody Carr, who has been enthralled since childhood by spaceships and space travel, always dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but he interrupted his quest in order to serve a mission in Switzerland. Now he’s back studying astronautical engineering. Other cadets, like Mike Dalby of Stephenville, Texas, who joined the Church at the academy, now rejoice in lending a helping hand at the stake farm even though their free time is a rare commodity.

[photos] Bishop Duane Slocum and his wife, like many of those who sponsor cadets, provide a family atmosphere for young men far away from home. After four strenuous years of training, study, and competition, senior cadets bow their heads in thanks during commencement exercises held in the football stadium. More than 7,000 friends and family members from all over the country look on from the stands, waiting to congratulate their graduates. Envious underclassmen, however, will have to earn more rank before they’re ready to leave. This shoulderboard indicates that its wearer is a sophomore.

[photo] Dave Smith and Jeri Willfong never imagined they’d become Latter-day Saints during their time in Colorado Springs. They expected even less that they’d someday marry each other in the Salt Lake Temple. But this is now the story of their lives. The day after graduation they flew to Utah for the ceremony. A few days later they moved to Alabama, where he’s training to be a helicopter pilot.

[photo] Whoops of joy fill the sky along with white hats of graduating seniors. Since the white hats are worn only at the academy, graduates are allowed to dispose of them by tossing them high into the air. Then eager children, ages 7 to 12, rush from the stands and gather the hats up as souvenirs. The hat toss is only one of many traditions established since the academy opened more than 25 years ago, but it is one that all the cadets dream of taking part in. Graduates here may not be decked out in caps and gowns at their commencement, but like students anywhere, they revel in the knowledge that they have finally achieved their goal.