By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 23, 2012 – President Barack Obama addressed the U.S. Air Force Academy’s graduating class of 2012 today, reminding them of the Air Force’s critical role and congratulating them as they prepare to build on a new era of American leadership.
“It’s great to be back at a school that has produced so many of the airmen I’ve known as president,” Obama said on the school’s campus in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Every day I rely on outstanding academy graduates who serve at the White House.”
The president noted “great” airmen serving the country such as Brig. Gen. Marshall B. Webb, who is prominently featured in the photo of White House’s Situation Room taken the day Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by Navy SEALs.
Obama also pointed out that he presented the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to the academy’s Fighting Falcons football team for a second straight year, and record 18th time, and highlighted the service of academy graduates serving aboard Air Force One, such as his pilot, Air Force Col. Scott Turner.
Obama said this visit to the Air Force Academy, his second, brought the class full circle as the cadets were preparing to go to Jacks Valley, a wooded training area on the academy’s grounds, for field training in 2008.
“So I was proud to be here when you began this journey, and I thought I’d come back and help you celebrate at the end,” he said.
“You survived. In you, we see the values of integrity and service and excellence that will define your lives,” Obama said. “And I know you couldn’t have made it without the love and support of your moms and dads and brothers and sisters and grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, cousins.”
Four years ago when the cadets entered the academy was a time of “extraordinary challenge for our nation,” Obama said.
“Our forces were engaged in two wars,” he said. “Al-Qaida, which had attacked us on 9/11, was entrenched in their safe havens. Many of our alliances were strained, and our standing in the world had suffered.”
The U.S. economy at that time was “in the worst recession since the Great Depression,” Obama continued. “Around the world, and here at home, there were those that questioned whether the United States still had the capacity for global leadership.”
Today, the cadets are stepping forward into a “different world,” the president said.
“You are the first class in nine years that will graduate into a world where there are no Americans fighting in Iraq,” he said. “For the first time in your lives, and thanks to Air Force personnel who did their part, Osama bin Laden is no longer a threat to our country.”
“We’ve put al-Qaida on the path to defeat, and you are the first graduates since 9/11 who can clearly see how we’ll end the war in Afghanistan,” Obama added.
The president said all of this means the 180,000 troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan four years ago now number less than half of that figure.
“As more Afghans step up, more of our troops will come home, while achieving the objective that led us to war in the first place, and that is defeating al-Qaida and denying them safe haven,” Obama said. “So we aren’t just ending these wars; we are doing so in a way that makes us safer and stronger.”
The president also commended the graduating class for two achievements at “one of the most demanding academic institutions in America.”
This year, the academy boasts ”the largest number of graduates ever to go directly on to graduate school [and] the largest number of female graduates in academy history,” Obama noted. “You will follow in the footsteps of General Janet Wolfenbarger, who I was proud to nominate as the first female four-star general in Air Force history.”
Obama said the cadets are joining “the finest, most capable military the world has ever known [and] no other nation even comes close.”
Though the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, Obama cautioned the cadets that there are still terrorists in the world who seek to kill Americans.
“And so, guided by our new defense strategy, we’ll keep our military and our Air Force fast and flexible and versatile,” he said. “We will maintain our military superiority in all areas — air, land, sea, space and cyber. And we will keep faith with our forces and our military families.”