My son, Christopher, was home for Thanksgiving. During his visit, he spoke to 250 people at Bluffton Middle School, including the entire 7th and 8th grades, about his career as a pilot with the Air Force. Chris is a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and a First Lieutenant. Currently, he flies remotely powered aircraft (RPAs) called Predators. He is stationed in LV but his planes are in Afghanistan. Wow!
Reapers are larger than Predators; he may fly Reapers someday.
I was proud of him during his hour-long talk. He did a good job of keeping the attention of the students and taking a complex subject such as flying a $7 million aircraft and putting it in terms they could understand.
The following article is one I wrote about Chris’ decision to become a pilot. It was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul… Teens Talk about Getting into College.
My advice to every student: Dream big!
Endings and Beginnings
The night my son Christopher said, “Mom, I want to apply to the Air Force Academy,” is etched in my memory. Chris was a freshman in high school and an active member of Civil Air Patrol (CAP). The CAP senior commander’s son had attended the Air Force Academy (AFA) and the commander had encouraged the cadets to think about it.
It seemed like an impossible goal. We were a Midwestern family with no significant military influence. But my husband, John, had been in the Air Force and had shared his admiration for that military branch and general aviation with Chris. We were determined to help Chris succeed.
We began researching the lengthy academy application process and what the commitment to join the military would mean. Chris didn’t seem intimidated by the stringent requirements, such as survival training during boot camp. He continued to attend CAP camps and meetings, as well as speaking opportunities to talk about his role as Cadet Commander of CAP. He was also involved in school sporting events, club competitions, and church youth events. These would all be looked at favorably when listed as activities on his AFA application.
Often Chris was busy every night of the week. Through discipline and good study habits he maintained high grades, held high leadership positions and stayed active in multiple school and church activities.
Chris finished the lengthy application process in the fall of his senior year of high school and submitted the paperwork. His Congressional interviews were scheduled for early December. Every cadet has to be nominated by a member of Congress, the President or Vice-President of the United States, to be considered for an academy. We believed Chris’ years of interaction with CAP senior members (adults) had prepared him well for the poise and quick-thinking skills he would need for the interviews. The liaison officer had said the letter of acceptance or denial from the Academy would probably come in January.
The liaison officer also mentioned that a Letter of Assurance (LOA) was sometimes issued from the Academy. It was the academy’s notification to a cadet that the AFA wanted him or her as a cadet if the Congressional nomination comes through. Most cadets apply to more than one academy to increase their chances of acceptance (Chris applied to three). However, these LOAs were rarely issued, the liaison officer said, so we should not expect one.
Instead, we placed our prayers on the upcoming Congressional interviews.
Then, one day in mid-November, an envelope addressed to Chris came from the AFA. Chris had a basketball game that night so John and I knew it would be late before he arrived home. To be honest, we thought about steaming open the letter before Chris returned, but didn’t.
When Chris opened the letter, hours later, it was what we had hoped — a Letter of Assurance from the AFA! They wanted Chris for the Class of 2007!
The three of us and our younger daughter, Lindsay, whooped and hugged for several minutes. Then we called our college-age daughter and told her the good news. The whooping began all over again!
When John, Chris and Lindsay went into the kitchen for a drink, I stayed in the recliner, rubbing my hand over its soft surface, needing something familiar to stabilize my thoughts and emotions, tripping over each other in wild succession.
On one hand, I was happy knowing the months of waiting were over. Chris had been one of 1,200 chosen among 12,000 applicants to attend one of the finest colleges in the country. He would meet people from all over the world, learn discipline, independence – and hopefully how to pick up his clothes.
On the other hand, in a few months Chris would move across the country, never to return. It would be the end of an era in our family. I held back my tears until later when alone in my bedroom. It wouldn’t do to spoil the party.
Chris did receive his congressional nomination and chose to attend the AFA. The day he and all of the other cadets reported for Processing Day at the beautiful AFA grounds in Colorado Springs was a confusing, emotional time. When the new recruits were told to go upstairs for more processing, everyone knew that was good-bye.
The literature we had received from the Academy advised parents to hold back the tears when saying good-bye. “It is hard on your child to have this last view of you in their memory,” the book stated.
So I forced on a big smile while John snapped a photo of Chris and me. A quick exchange of tight hugs and he was gone.
Our next view of Chris was the following morning when the 1,200 new cadets, smartly outfitted in matching crew cuts, t-shirts and blue pants, stood at attention on the piazza. We tried to find Chris, but it was impossible.
My tears flowed then and several times during the next several months. The few times we heard from him he was busy and working hard but glad to be there. That made our separation then and over the next four years easier to bear.
Chris came home twice a year during the next four years — at Christmas and in the summer for two weeks. Each time I could see changes from the little boy I had raised to a young man — a straightening of the shoulders, good eating and exercise habits, an ease in greeting and talking with people.
In June 2007 Chris graduated from the AFA and was promoted to Second Lieutenant in the Air Force. In 2009 he achieved a lifelong dream when he received his wings as a US Air Force pilot.
At times we still can’t believe it happened. Our son found the courage and determination to apply for and graduate from one of the finest colleges in the nation. He now has his eyes on guiding unmanned aerial aircraft across the Middle East as a pilot of a Predator. He would like to someday fly in a fighter. I have no doubt if he uses the same courage and determination he has exhibited in the past he can reach any goal.
Wow. My chest swelled with pride as I read his story and I’ve never even met Chris. So excited for him; so happy for Kayleen, parent to parent, writer to writer.
Jack: Thanks so much for your kind comments. I wrote that story before Chk Soup advertised for stories for that particular edition. Emotions poured out of me. It’s good to know other students might be encouraged to dream big after reading it and seeing the photo. Did you want to be a fighter pilot?