This we will defend

“It’s dangerous. Why don’t you just go a normal college?”

These are the voices and misconceptions which echo each time he reflects upon his decision to join the U.S. Air Force. Senior Edmund Chen has heard enough. In exactly eight months, Chen will have to face the intermingling dread and thrill of leaving his family for the first time, for a long time.

However, backing away from his childhood dream is not an option on his agenda.

“It’s primarily a sense of self-worth. If I allow myself to listen to all those people giving me negativity and telling me how I should live my life, clearly I’m doing something wrong because it’s my life,” Chen said. “There have been people that have tried to talk me out of it, but it’s a sense of what I want to do.”

Chen has always possessed a sense of service and duty. At age six, he would dream of becoming a fighter pilot for the Air Force. His father, previously a police officer in China, further inspired Chen to seek honor in the military and supported him in his decision to join.

“This country [has given] me so many opportunities, even as an immigrant,” Chen said, gesturing around him. “We’ve got Asians, we’ve got African Americans, we’ve got Latinos, all these different races that are in this sort of melting pot that we call America, and you won’t really find that anywhere else. That’s why I feel as though it’s such a privilege that we have. I feel as though I owe something to this country.”

Despite the national pride Chen has developed, choosing to pursue a position in the Air Force is not an easy path. Enrolling in the Air Force means spending a minimum of four years in training — four years of gruelling conditions, tough exercises and psychological tests. Before solidifying his commitment, Chen tackled his own doubts, afraid that he might regret his decision in the future if he made the wrong choice.

“I feel as though [joining the military] is not a sense of money sacrifice or possession sacrifice, it’s a time sacrifice,” Chen said. “I sat myself in my room, and I locked my door, and I asked myself for a few hours, ‘What do I want to do?’ Then I just kind of answered myself, ‘I want to [be in] the Air Force, I want to get an education, and I want to live my life.’”

Chen has made the transition from plastic toy planes and imaginary missions to military recruiters and polygraph tests. Now, following through with his dream means everything on his agenda.

“When I was a little kid, this was partially my dream — join the Air Force and be a pilot. Being a little kid, I thought that this is what my life is going to be. When I was in middle school, I was a little bit disillusioned. I thought to myself, ‘this is a little ridiculous and it’s a big jump,’” Chen said. “I didn’t think I would have ended up here.”


Inside the naval recruiting office, senior Krishna Jennings scanned the room. Flags hung pridefully from their corners and patriotic posters plastered the walls. From every angle, the Marine emblem of an eagle perched majestically upon Earth was visible, yet his mind focused on two singular thoughts: photography and family.

“[When my grandfather] passed away, I felt like I wanted to carry it on as a family tradition,” Jennings said. “One thing my grandpa would tell me is that to stand out, you have to do something different.”

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Jennings decided to embark on a path to join the Marine Corps. First taking his grandfather’s advice to heart, he pursued photography, using the camera he received from his grandparents for his 16th birthday. Now, Jennings hopes to carry on both his grandfather’s legacy and his own niche for camera work as a combat photographer in the Marines.

“It’s an art form, and it takes time to develop that eye to catch that picture,” Jennings said. “You need to be patient to get that picture. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch it at [the right] time, but most of the time, I’ll miss it. I’ll have to reset, wait for it again, and try to catch it again. It teaches you patience.”

Jennings found his calling for photography while exploring a different art form — dance. By volunteering to take photos for his dance team, Jennings immersed himself in finding the right lighting and angles. A year later, he dropped dance and began taking classes for photography.

“Right before we would go on for a big show, we would have to take pictures, and they wouldn’t have a photographer there. So I’d be like, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll just try my best,’” Jennings said. “As I saw the pictures, they’d [say] things like ‘Oh, wow! This is really good!’ I showed my mom and grandma some pictures, and they told me [that I] should pursue [photography].”

With his mother, grandmother and four siblings to worry about, Jennings initially struggled to make a definite decision to pursue a military life. Leaving for the military would mean four to eight years away from the comforts of home.

“My mom is a little worried [about me joining]; I can see it in her face sometimes,” Jennings said. “I’m the youngest child, so she’s very protective over me, but at the same time, [I tell her that] I’m going to be an adult at that point, so this is my decision.”

Yet with a determination as clean as the click of a camera, it’s no wonder that Jennings’ pride for his country, compassion for people and appeal for photography have paved him a clear path toward the Marines.

“It means that I am doing something bigger than what I am. I don’t always want to be focusing on myself in life, so that’s why I want to join the Marines to help me focus on that aspect of it,” Jennings said. “I’m going to miss [my family], but the risk doesn’t outweigh the reward. I do get to serve my country, and I do get to have that degree. So to me, it’s worth it.”


Combine strength, flexibility and agility with an appreciation for national pride, and you get senior Caleb Rickard, aspiring professional gymnast for the U.S. Air Force Academy.

In 2008, Rickard was watching the U.S. national gymnastics team compete in the Olympics when he first felt a spark. This spark, he soon learned, would be the fuel which drives him to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

“I just remember thinking myself, I want to be there someday to represent the U.S. in gymnastics in the Olympics,” Rickard said. “That’s when it really sparked, [when] my interest started progressing.”

Anyone who has attended his competitions or seen him practicing would know that his love for gymnastics came first. Beginning at the age of four, Rickard was originally sent to gymnastics lessons to gain better coordination for baseball.

“I just enjoy the whole acrobatic part, being able to do stuff that no one else can really do. It sort of sets me apart from other people that I normally interact with, because most people can’t do [what I do],” Rickard said. “I’d say that, and also just the thrill of [competing] and the adrenaline that I get.”

As someone whose daily schedules and tasks rely on to-do lists, calendar notes and phone reminders, Rickard strived to find a fitting school which held strength in organization and structure. However, when top schools such as the University of California, Berkeley requested to recruit him, he began questioning his vision and goals.

“There are definitely times when I doubt what I want to do, with gymnastics or with college. It was definitely a hard decision, knowing if I turned down Berkeley, there was no guarantee that I’d get into the college that I wanted. I couldn’t really see myself living at Berkeley with the campus lifestyle,” Rickard said. “At the Academy, I felt like I really fit in. Because it’s military, there’s a lot of structure there, and that’s one thing that I like [about it].”

The rocky admission into the U.S. Air Force Academy involves a number of fitness tests, medical exams, recommendation letters, and lastly, a nomination from a U.S. Representative. To Rickard, however, it’s an opportunity that is worth the work.

“I wanted the whole package deal: top academics, top athletics, and the whole college experience,” Rickard said. “Whereas for most people, their number one priority is academics here, one of my bigger priorities is gymnastics and athletics, which is why I sort of stood apart from the rest of [my peers]. For me, it was like looking for a school that had everything that I wanted combined.”

At school, it isn’t easy being the only gymnast competing for a completely different set of accolades. On the other hand, college, as many say, is a place for people to discover themselves — as well as others like themselves.

“[I’m] definitely [looking forward to] the unity between all of the students. Because you’re in the military and it’s a small campus, you get to know everyone there,” Rickard said. “Getting the opportunity to be actually a part of a team with other gymnasts representing the school would be pretty cool too.”

Moral lesson: while spontaneity often gets the best of us, sometimes, it works out perfectly. Just ask Caleb Rickard.

“One second I was looking at all public schools to attend, and then the next moment, my first choice was the Air Force Academy,” Rickard said. “It was kind of quick, but once I really thought about it, I knew for sure that’s where I wanted to go.”

By Jessica Huang, Production lead
Photos by Kyle Lin and Emily Ng
Photo courtesy of Caleb Rickard

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