On becoming an officer

Speeding along the track, the car dropped with the grade, coming to a full stop at the bottom. The boy timed it, stopwatch in hand, programmable calculator and notebook nearby. For hours the time trials continued, one car at a time. For hours the boy converted inches per second to miles per hour, determining which Hot Wheels car was fastest in real-life proportions.

An engineer by nature, he was especially fascinated with mechanical motion. Trains, planes, automobiles, rockets. His interests with them came and went in a cycle, each mode of transportation in its turn. Rockets were rich for experimentation, with opportunities to change engines, payloads, to note wind shifts and humidity. Awe for the power of lift-off, delight for the trajectory of flight, the interest in rockets continued into college years, when the boy helped design ones of larger scale.

Model trains had their place, the HO track laid out or taken down numerous times over the years. Scale mountains and buildings were built and destroyed. Grandfather’s expensive engines and cars now wait until his interest turns back to them.

Aside from paper airplanes, it’s harder for a child to play with planes than the others. It’s not harder to appreciate them, their speed and grace, their miracle of lift, their sleek lines. Airplanes were best of all. At age nine, he was allowed in the cockpit with pilots of a commercial flight. Prior to take-off the pilots let him turn on cabin lights. As a fifth grader, the boy wrote a letter to the local Air Force recruiter, asking for posters of the jets. With no response to his request, he was disappointed but moved on. Then one day two recruiters showed up at his school, surprising the secretary when they asked for the boy. He went to the office, where they presented him with posters, folders, and pencils, enough for himself and to share with classmates. He still has the posters.

He talked with his parents about entering the military, about trying for an appointment to the Air Force Academy. And then when he was almost 13, the nation suffered an attack.

By chance he was in Washington, DC on the day U.S. forces entered Iraq. By chance he met Senator Tom Harkin that day. His parents, attuned to the inspections, the claims, the lies, understood the folly of the war of “liberation,” the plan to force democracy on a nation that had not attacked us. His parents discussed it in front of him, with him.

And all three stopped talking about military service.

In high school he enjoyed strong instruction in all areas, especially math, science, and music. He honed self-discipline as a saxophonist. In symphony bands the ensemble play taught him structure; in jazz band he learned to break free. Fortunate to know local working musicians, seeing how they juggled groups and gigs, he ruled out a music career. And his focus shifted back to engineering.

The boy entered college at the usual time. In his first week, he made an appointment with the dean of the engineering college. They talked about a study plan focused on aerospace. The dean may have been surprised that a freshman would so easily approach him for advice, may have been impressed by the confidence that would allow it. Later the boy, by then a young man, would work for the dean, helping develop a class on wind energy.

But the young man struggled. An engineer by nature, he was not enamored with a career in engineering. The notion of working behind a desk with little personal interaction did not appeal. He wanted to know he was making a direct difference in others’ lives. He talked with his parents about possible career paths, but nothing clicked.

On track to graduate in another year, he had trouble imagining his future. Then one day three years ago, his aerospace group hosted the head of the university’s Air Force ROTC department. Not long after, the young man spoke with his parents, suggesting he might stay at the university to complete a master’s degree in engineering.

“Explain it to me again, because I don’t get this,” his mother said. “Why do you want a grad degree in engineering when you don’t want to be an engineer?”

The story came out, the idea to enter the ROTC program and enter the Air Force when his master’s was complete. His parents were not surprised except for the timing of the decision, but they cautioned him to weigh the choice carefully.

He had a summer internship lined up in Seattle with Boeing. It was an attractive opportunity to see what an engineering career could mean. Often interns were offered permanent positions once they graduated. But on returning home in the fall, he was more sure than ever that engineering and for-profit industry were not for him.

In the fall, he entered the program. The first time his mother saw him in uniform was the next spring at the annual dinner. Though it shook her slightly at first, it was not so different from the marching band uniform, the symphony band tuxedo, the jazz band suit and tie. It was a different band now, the uniform blue this time. His self-assurance showed through.

Since that dinner there have been two more, marking completion of field training, of his wing commander assignment, of his final year.

On Saturday he will take the officer’s oath, beginning a ten-year commitment to the Air Force, and to serving us. As a second lieutenant, he will outrank 85% of U.S. active duty military personnel, giving him a special duty to use his office wisely.

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

His parents did not make this new officer. He did. He is becoming an officer as he is becoming himself.

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