As I reflected back on 60 years of history for our still-young Air Force Academy, I had to come to grips with the realization that I've been associated with the Academy in some capacity for 42 of those 60 years. It's hard to believe that it's been 52 years since I stepped off the bus from Denver and started a journey that no one could have imagined or explained. The early years of the Academy were tough because we were trying to build our own traditions and show those Army guys who helped forge our direction that we were just as tough or tougher and would find our own way.
The interesting constant during all of those 60 years is the cadets. We got the best the country could send back in the early years, and we're still getting the best the country can send us as we look to the future.
The academics were tough back then, but they're tougher now because we've brought so much more into the classroom and laboratory than in our day. The research opportunities were already there when I was a cadet, but we've pushed that to levels that will match major research universities today.
The Commandant is still "The Comm" and the cadets will always have a love-hate relationship with that military leader. Back in the "old brown shoe days", we pushed the Comm's tolerance on more than one occasion, moving airplanes, climbing flagpoles, painting airplanes red (our class color), and doing lots of other "Spirit Missions", but we tried not to embarrass the institution always took pride in the Academy. We partied hard when we could, since the drinking age was 18 and the whole Cadet Wing could party together. We might have been a little cynical here and there and complained about the same things cadets complain about today, but we stood tall and defended this institution against anyone who would disparage us.
Vietnam had a huge impact, and we found ourselves on the defensive more and more as the war became more and more unpopular. Yet we went proudly; we fought against a tough enemy that was trying to impart its Communist tyranny on most of Southeast Asia; we lost a lot of good friends who gave their all for their comrades-in-arms and the cause, but also built even stronger bonds with those friends and classmates. That same camaraderie is there today as we wind down from several decades of war in Southwest Asia, so that same constant, the great cadets and future officers, still makes this institution one of the greatest on earth.
Maybe the biggest change I've personally observed has been in the area of athletics. The Academy started off strong from the very beginning when it came to recognizing the impact of big time athletics as a way of gaining immediate credibility, not just in athletics. Army and Navy had both established themselves as powerful performers, particularly on the gridiron, and produced dozens of All-Americans and several Heisman Trophy winners. Our early success in football, to include an undefeated season in 1958, did much to put the new Air Force Academy before the American people and certainly helped us recruit future generations of cadets. We have one of the real long-standing traditions at the Academy in the form of the dreaded Physical Fitness Test, the PFT, and that actually gives us a great measure of the change in athletics and athleticism over the course of those 60 years. The PFT is basically the same test it was back then and is actually a little harder due to the change in number of pull-ups, push-ups, and sit-ups required to max the test. To put this in context, we had one member of my class, the Class of 1966, Tom Brandon, Col, USAF (Ret), achieve the max score of 500 on the test. The Class of 2014 has almost 100! This dramatic change in physical fitness is also evident among our almost 1000 intercollegiate athletes, who are breaking long-standing performance records in all sports. When we were cadets, no one ran around the Academy grounds to get or stay in shape. Very few of us lifted weights. Now, everyone runs around the Academy, and every sport has a strength and conditioning program. All of that contributes to a better-prepared, more self-confident, physically fit future officer.
It has often been said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The only real constant here is the quality of the cadets we're bringing into the Academy. The Academy is still producing the best that America has a right to demand of its military leaders, and that level of excellence is far beyond where we were 60 years ago. I'm just glad I applied when I did, because I'm pretty sure that I couldn't get into the Academy today with the credentials I had back then. Happy 60th Birthday, Air Force Academy - here's to the next 60 years.