Leaders of warriors

American Indian graduates of the US Air Force Academy

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The evening of May 27 is a night that 2nd Lt. Connie Ambrose, a member of the Navajo Nation, will never forget. It was one of her last days as a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Ambrose had many friends and family members make the trip from Jeddito, Ariz., to witness her commissioning ceremony. As one of few American Indians to graduate from this esteemed service academy, rivaling West Point and Annapolis, Ambrose was filled with pride and excitement to hear her name called.

Second Lt. Jukari Davis, also Navajo and a graduate of the USAFA Class of 2007, was there to read Ambrose her oath of office. She swore her oath as flash bulbs went off and applause filled the room. Ambrose;s family posed for pictures; their new officer in ''mess dress'' stood proudly next to her relatives, who came dressed traditionally. This was a moment of achievement for Ambrose, her family and her people.

Ambrose was one of two American Indian cadets among the roughly 800 members of the academy's Class of 2008. USAFA is a commission-granting institution of the U.S. Air Force. The training program balances academic, military and physical requirements, and confers a second lieutenant commission in the active-duty Air Force upon graduation. Cadets enter this four-year accredited university with a full scholarship, including room and board, and owe a five-year service obligation after graduation.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, American Indians are over-represented in the armed forces and have been since World War I. Natives are more likely than any other ethnic group to join the military; however, the overwhelming majority joins the enlisted ranks. Earning a commission offers an important advantage: advanced education. Interviews with five American Indian graduates of USAFA demonstrate that common themes of family tradition, education and warrior roles continue to push some young Native people toward officership.

Retired Capt. D.J. Eagle Bear Vanas, Odawa, graduated from USAFA in 1992. Before becoming an accomplished writer, entrepreneur and motivational speaker, Eagle Bear was one of very few Native officers in the Air Force. ''It was an important part of my family history,'' he said, ''but my father told me, 'If you even think about going into the military, become an officer.'''

Vanas' family encouraged him to pursue higher education, and the accredited university setting paired with intense military training at the Air Force Academy seemed like a perfect fit. During his time in the Air Force, Vanas was able to influence other young Natives as he headed USAFA's Minority Enrollment Office.

One young person that he was able to reach was 2nd Lt. Jukari Davis. Davis, originally from Shiprock, N.M., had always thought of entering the Armed Forces.

A graduate of the New Mexico Military Institute, Davis wanted to honor one of his grandfather's last wishes by becoming a professional ''military man.'' ''It was an honor,'' he said, ''to be a contributor to my community as a warrior in the Armed Forces.''

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental engineering, he was assigned to the 354th Civil Engineering Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Though he is a long way from his family on the Navajo Nation reservation, Davis continues to be honored by his community upon returning home at many Gourd dances and pow wows.

Attending USAFA has brought honor to all of its Native graduates. Some families have even sent more than one child through the academy's rigorous program. On the same night that Ambrose was being commissioned, 2nd Lt. Lindsay Freeman, Lumbee, was reading the Oath of Office to her younger brother, 2nd Lt. Kyland Freeman.

A graduate of the USAFA Class of 2007, Lindsay currently holds a position in the same office that Vanas led; now referred to as Diversity Recruiting. Upon being asked how her career in the Air Force fits with her tribe's definition of a warrior, she responded, ''I am able to serve my tribe and the country I live in. ... Graduating from college allowed me to be a better asset to my people.'' Lindsay's older brother, James, also graduated from USAFA.

Major Lawrence Yazzie, Navajo/Comanche/Sac & Fox Class of 2000, also comes from a family with a USAFA history. Yazzie and his brother, Lamoni, played basketball for the Air Force during their time at the academy. Their younger sister, Desbah, currently plays rugby for the Academy. ''The U.S. Air Force Academy was an extension of my family's service and complements our warrior culture. Getting to participate in athletics was an added bonus,'' Lawrence Yazzie said.

Over the years, the U.S. Air Force Academy has seen cadets from many Native nations including: Navajo, Lumbee, Cherokee, Lakota, Comanche, Sac & Fox and Blackfoot. Attending USAFA is a difficult challenge, but the advent of advanced education and a commission in the world's most powerful air force helps make its Native graduates members of a new generation of warrior leaders.

When asked if he had any advice for young Natives who are interested in pursuing a commission, Vanas said, ''Do your research! If this lifestyle fits your values and you can commit to the service requirements, this may be for you. It is a good path to be on and can help you to fulfill your people's warrior responsibilities.''

For more information on the U.S. Air Force Academy, visit www.usafa.af.mil.

Amileah Stribling, Blackfoot/Metis, is a senior at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, majoring in social work. She plans to pursue a doctorate in counseling psychology and re-join the Air Force to serve as a psychologist for airmen and their families. Stribling is on the steering committee for the Urban Indian Wellness Consortium and a member of the (Re)Search for Change team, and is currently serving as secretary for the UW-Milwaukee American Indian Student Association.