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Long road to Air Force officer

Leaders Encouraging Airman Development send senior airman to the Air Force Academy

Basic cadet Leah Young cools off after completing the Assault Course in Jacks Valley during Basic Cadet Training July 30. Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Eric Burks

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U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo. - Each summer, a new group of basic cadets march in formation for almost eight miles from the Terrazzo to Jacks Valley.

There, for nearly two weeks, they endure rigorous military training and learn how to survive and operate as a team in a field environment. For most cadets, Jacks Valley is their initial basic training experience and serves as the beginning of the path to becoming an Air Force officer.

But a few cadets in each class have taken "the long road" to Jacks Valley.

In early 2012, then-Senior Airman Leah Young stood in the back of the room during the annual awards banquet at McChord Field. As the chief of internal products for the 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office, her role was to document the ceremony.

She listened as Col. Richard G. Moore Jr., her wing's then-vice commander, took the stage for the night's closing remarks. After congratulating the award recipients, he began to share 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 Lt. Young graduates from the academy, her class color will also be silver."

"I was in the back with my camera in my hands, and I almost dropped it," now-Cadet 4th Class Young said, "because that was how I found out I'd made it in."

Young is one of just 57 prior-enlisted airmen among approximately 1,150 basic cadets accepted into the class of 2017 Aug. 6. She applied through the Leaders Encouraging Airman Development (LEAD) program, developed to give airmen the opportunity to compete for appointments to the Academy and Academy Preparatory School.

Through LEAD, unit and wing commanders can nominate highly-qualified airmen with officer potential. Every year there are 85 slots reserved for direct appointment to the Academy and 50 slots reserved for the preparatory school, according to an Air Force fact sheet about enlisted education opportunities.

"Leah was a spectacular enlisted airman, and I'm quite sure she'll 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 said she learned about the LEAD program through her own curiosity and self-initiative.

"I had become interested in commissioning after working with two very inspiring captains in the public affairs office," she said. "One was an academy graduate and one was a ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) graduate. The one that was an academy graduate talked about both the benefits and not-so-great things there, and I was curious because I didn't really know a lot about the academy."

When researching different commissioning opportunities online, "the LEAD program popped up and I immediately began my application," Young continued. "My mentality was ‘the worst they can say is no' and if I don't apply, I might regret it. My office was extremely supportive and did everything they could to help me."

Her supervisor at the time, Tech. Sgt. Oshawn Jefferson, said, "Leah was my first airman to ever apply for the LEAD program. She was and is a natural leader, one of those airmen who was always destined for more."

Jefferson, now the Uniformed Service University deputy media affairs officer, added, "She earned senior airman below-the-zone, served as the Rising 4 president, and was recognized as an IG (Inspector General) Outstanding Airman. She exuded excellence and had the utmost respect for the enlisted profession.

"I am excited for our future to know we will have an academy grad with the work ethic and know-how of an NCO," he concluded. "I have no doubt she will work hard for her airmen and ensure her NCOs have everything they need to accomplish the mission. Our service is changing and we need leaders who are not afraid of change, hard work and reshaping our Air Force for the future."

Young accepted an appointment to the preparatory 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 got me back into the mentality and rhythm of being in a training environment."

She said it also prepared her for the academic challenges of Academy courses.

"I'd been out of school for a few years," she said. "I'd taken a few math classes online while I was enlisted, but it wasn't the same as going to school every day. So it definitely got me back in the groove, to where I feel mentally prepared to face four years of training and academy lifestyle."

In Jacks Valley, Young said, training primarily focuses on leadership and teamwork.

"During the initial weeks of Basic Cadet Training," she said, "we talked about leadership and teamwork a lot, but here we get to implement it. We've shot rifles, we've done a lot of drill training and marching, and we've gone through the assault course, the obstacle course, and the confidence course."

While navigating the courses, Young said, "you're going to have people that can't exactly do every single obstacle. So you really find your teammates' strengths and weaknesses and learn how to succeed as a team."

With another "basic training" now under her belt, Young said she's looking forward to her freshman year at the academy.

"My goal for this year is to grow and develop as much as I can in every possible way," she said. "I plan to take advantage of every beneficial opportunity that presents itself and build a strong network of successful mentors and fellow cadets."

Her advice to other airmen interested in commissioning opportunities is to explore different options to "find exactly what you want."

"The academy's not for everybody," she said. "It's 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.

Tech. Sgt. Eric Burks is a journalist with the 2nd Combat Camera Squadron.

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