Putting A Day in the rearview mirror

Some of the best parts about being connected to a military academy are traditions and milestones, which are often intertwined. It starts with I Day and ends with Commissioning with a countless blur of them in between.

The Air Force Academy Class of 2026 now has two major ones in their pockets with I Day and A Day, but most parents will also remember a number of smaller milestones like the first letter, the first phone call, and the March to Jacks Valley. USAFA’s rhythm does not allow anyone to dwell on these milestones, though, and even though A Day is a big one and exciting for the now-Doolies and their parents, it’s behind us which means it’s time to look ahead.

We went to A Day and spent less than an hour with our Doolie. An expensive hour, to be sure, but totally worth it.

Some will inevitably make the mistake of thinking, “with BCT behind us, the hardest part is over.” Trust me, it’s not. We’ve made the transition to the academic year, which does not mean the challenges get easier, they only get different.

These young men and women have been going to classes for a dozen years, so there may be a certain comfort in a return to lectures and homework. However, even most of their peers at civilian colleges will acknowledge that making the adjustment from high school to college coursework isn’t always easy. And while many of the Doolies bring to the Academy a track record of high academic achievement, the fact is, the simple math demands that some of them fall toward the bottom of the class.

That’s one of the hardest lessons for many Doolies to learn – failure. If you look over the background that earned them the USAFA appointment, it’s filled with superlatives. We often hear that our military academy appointees are “the best of the best.” Few of them have ever really failed at anything significant. Most of them will fail at something during their time at the Air Force Academy.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s all part of the training. These future leaders have to understand failure at two levels. They need to embrace personal failure so they can both understand their limitations (and work on expanding them) and learn from the experience. On the second level, they need to experience failure so as officers, they are better equipped to understand and deal with the instances when those they are charged with leading come up short. It’s tough to watch or hear about your kid failing, but it’s a necessary lesson, especially for the path these Doolies have chosen.

BCT is intense and exhausting. And like the classes before them, 2026 (“No Quit All Grit”) survived the 6-week ordeal. The next ordeal is exponentially longer and while it may not have quite the physical challenges of BCT (though there will still be plenty of that), the mental and emotional challenges will increase a great deal.

For one, there’s the numbers game. Yes, the cadre rode the Basics hard, but they were limited in number. After A Day, they find themselves surrounded by literally thousands of people, all of whom are at least a full step ahead of them and demand a level of respect. Again, for young men and women who have earned and been given respect for the last several years, this can be something of a culture shock.

That’s one top of something their civilian college counterparts also adapt to – learning to live with strangers. Some will be sharing a room for the first time and doing it with a person they didn’t meet until Transition. And they’ll be sharing a floor with a couple dozen more complete strangers. Now, they will come to know these people better than people they’ve known for years and make friendships that will last a lifetime, but that’s a process that will take time. Initially, it is a stressor.

Time is also not on their side. They are purposefully given too much to handle, which is another lesson in leadership. Yes, these overachievers have balanced challenging schedules before arriving in Colorado Springs, but not at this level. A crushing academic load and regular military obligations are enough to challenge most anyone. But when you layer in all the “Doolie stuff” like memorizing names and jobs, room inspections, the Superman uniform changes, and 100 other little things (Wanna sleep in on Saturday? That’s too bad because the football game is mandatory!), the greatest enemies become time and keeping your head on straight.

There will be important milestones, including Parents Weekend, which is just around the corner, but after that, it can be a long stretch. Recognition is the finish line for Doolie year, but that is a long way off, too long to stay focused on at this point. The Doolies will learn that sometimes it’s best to just take things one task, one moment at a time. As a wise man once said, “if you’re going to eat a whale, do it one bite at a time … and bring the tartar sauce.”

And the parents, too, will be learning a new way of life. Sure, interaction during BCT was severely limited but most Doolies will not have the time to send a daily text message, let alone FaceTime with their parents. That exacerbates the empty feeling of having your kid move out of the house but it’s also training because, yes, the parents are also being trained by the USAFA experience. We’re learning what it’s like to be the parent not of a college graduate but of a military officer, who will not often be available or even to be reached for long and unexpected stretches of time. Right now, we know they are on the academy campus, but once they commission, there will be many times we won’t know where they are, who they are with, what they are doing, or when we hear from them again.

That’s why we treasure and celebrate these milestones and traditions. It makes the time in between just a little easier.

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