U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. Each summer at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a new group of basic cadets marches in formation for nearly eight miles from the Terrazzo to Jacks Valley.
For nearly two weeks, they endure rigorous training and learn to operate as a team in the field.
For most cadets, this represents their initial basic training experience and the beginning of their paths to becoming Air Force officers, but a few cadets in each class have taken the long road to Jacks Valley.
In early 2012, Senior Airman Leah Young stood in the back of the room during the annual awards banquet at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Assigned to the 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs office, her role was to document the ceremony.
Young listened as Col. Richard Moore, Jr., the wings vice commanders closing remarks. After congratulating the award recipients, he shared a few words about his time at the Academy.
When I graduated from the Academy, my class color was silver, the colonel said. And when Lieutenant Young graduates from the Academy, her class color will also be silver. This was how Young learned she had been accepted to the academy.
I was in the back with my camera in my hands, and I almost dropped it, now-Cadet 4th Class Young said.
Young is one of 57 prior-enlisted Airmen among approximately 1,150 basic cadets accepted into the Class of 2017. She applied through the Leaders Encouraging Airman Development program, developed to give Airmen the opportunity to compete for appointments to the Academy and Academy Preparatory School.
Through LEAD, commanders may nominate highly-qualified Airmen with officer potential. Every year, 85 slots are reserved for direct appointment to the Academy and 50 slots for the Academy Prep School.
Leah was a spectacular enlisted Airman, and Im quite sure shell be an even more amazing officer, said Moore, now the 436th Airlift Wing commander at Dover Air Force Base, Del. She has chosen a path that, while long, will serve both her and the Air Force very, very well.
Young accepted an appointment to the Academy Prep School, which she attended during the 2012-2013 academic year.
The prep school was very beneficial for me, and a great transition from living on my own as a Senior Airman to living in the dorms as a Cadet, Young said. It also prepared her for the academic challenges of Academy courses and focused on leadership.
Cadet 2nd Class Emily Willson, a cadet cadre element leader during Basic Cadet Training, said its beneficial to have prior-enlisted Airman among the basic cadets.
The first time I sat down with Leah in counseling, I didnt ask her the same questions as everyone else because I knew she was a little older and had more experience, Wilson said.
LEAD is an incredible program, Willson said. Once (the priors) become officers, they know how to work with the enlisted force because theyve been there.
With another basic training now under her belt, Young said shes looking forward to her freshman year at the Academy.
I plan to take advantage of every beneficial opportunity that presents itself and build a strong network of successful mentors and fellow cadets, Young said. Her advice to other Airmen interested in commissioning opportunities is to find exactly what you want.
The Academys not for everybody, she said. Its definitely a different lifestyle than ROTC or any other commissioning program, so my advice would be just go with what you want for your future.
Im proud to commission as a previously enlisted Airman, she said. Im looking forward to using that experience to develop myself into a better cadet, officer and leader.
Airmen interested in learning more about LEAD can visit their local Base Education Office or www.academyadmissions.com.