To Higher Heights

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“To Higher Heights,” New Era, May 1997, 20

To Higher Heights

At an academy already known for excellence, LDS cadets like Jake Oldham keep soaring and soaring.

Just about everybody at the Air Force Academy knows who Jake Oldham is. It’s hard not to.

Jake was the Top Graduate, number one in his class for combined academic, athletic, and military scores. In his four years at the academy, with a double major in premedicine and mechanical engineering, he maintained a 3.969 grade-point average.

Jake earned a spot in the drum and bugle corps. He was number one at the academy in his weight division in boxing and placed third at nationals. And he was one of four group commanders (a leader of 1,000 cadets). No wonder he got a standing ovation at the awards ceremony.

Jake spent graduation week meeting generals and VIPs. His photo was on the front page of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph. He sat in the first chair of 916 chairs at graduation. His name was added to the 100-year honor roll.

Despite all these accolades, Jake earned a reputation as a modest, polite young man. “He always showed a profound respect for others,” said John Hasler, director of the Colorado Springs LDS Institute. “He always stood up when you entered the room. He always shook your hand and looked you in the eyes. It was more than just being polite. He made each person feel important.” One military officer described him as “a perfect poster boy for the Air Force Academy.”

Jake graduated in May 1996. He is now studying medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, on his way to becoming a military doctor.

That’s quite a list of accomplishments, particularly for someone who once resigned from the academy with no guarantee he’d be allowed to return. A lot of people at the academy know that story about Jake Oldham, too.

Why He Left

Jake accepted a call from the Lord, signed by a living prophet, to serve full-time in the Japan Sapporo Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That meant resigning, leaving the lofty realms of the academy for the even higher heights of the mission field.

“I prayed about it a lot,” says Jake, who comes from Kaysville, Utah. “I knew it was what I needed to do. Some things are important enough that, no matter how difficult, they are worth doing.

“And my mission was a great experience. I have never spent two years, even at the academy, so focused on one thing—learning the gospel and teaching it.

“My mission not only gave me an opportunity to love the Japanese people and to share the gospel with them, but it also did a lot to help me understand myself and to strengthen my testimony.”

How He Returned

As his two-year mission came to a close, however, Jake had to face the reality that he might not be reappointed to the place cadets call “the hill.” “I had to apply all over again, compete with a new group of potential appointees, and try to communicate with the admissions officers clear from Japan. I was a bit apprehensive,” Jake explains.

Even though the process is tough, he was greeted with open arms. “I discovered that the academy is learning to respect returned missionaries. We come back as better leaders, better people, just better officer-candidates all-around. The things they teach us in the mission field about loving and helping people—those are traits that make anybody a better person.”

Soaring and Soaring

Yes, just about everybody at the academy remembers Jake Oldham. He was exceptional. But Jake was also typical—typical of what returned missionaries can contribute to any organization. The truth is that returned missionaries (and LDS cadets in general) are soaring at the U.S. Air Force Academy, an institution that recognizes those with an ability to fly in leadership, academics, and athletics, as well as in the sky.

In 1996, out of approximately 4,400 cadets, 135 were Latter-day Saints (126 male, 9 female). Thirty-one were returned missionaries. The 44 LDS freshmen were the largest group ever. Six senior LDS cadets—all returned missionaries—were squadron commanders (leaders of 100). There were seven LDS cadets on the football team. LDS cadet Shane Rogers won the steeplechase at the Berkeley Invitational track meet. And not only was Jake the Top Graduate, but Jim Smith, another returned missionary, was the top junior.

In July 1996, 19 LDS cadets returned from missions and were accepted back in. In August (timing is important, to assure that summer training is completed), a new group of 25 cadets resigned to go on missions.

For 1997, there are 127 LDS cadets (112 male and 15 female). Thirty-eight are returned missionaries. Two returned missionaries serve as squadron commanders; one is a vice wing commander (second in command over all cadets). Now a senior, Jim Smith ranks number one academically in his class.

Three LDS cadets played varsity football, another won a conference championship in wrestling, another won a championship in fencing, one is on the water polo team, three are playing baseball, two female cadets play junior varsity volleyball, and freshman Bryan Summers is the basketball team’s sixth man.

A Monday-night institute class (held on campus) boasts enrollment of 110. For the first time ever at the academy, an LDS chaplain has been appointed. An LDS Cadet Choir is being organized. Cadets continue to play a major role in the Colorado Springs 14th (Singles) Branch, serving in two elders quorum presidencies and in other Church positions.

Fourteen former cadets will return from their missions during the summer of 1997. About 30 more are preparing to resign in August to serve missions.

They all follow in the footsteps of Ted Parsons. He was the first cadet reappointed and readmitted to the academy after resigning to serve a full-time LDS mission. That was in 1978. Hundreds have now followed his example. Little did he dream what a pioneer he was and what a legacy he left, just as Jake Oldham and others are leaving a legacy now.

Here’s what just a few LDS cadets had to say during graduation in 1996.

Ray Dunham, who was not LDS when he arrived at the academy, found himself looking for Latter-day Saints. “I’m from Oklahoma City, and in high school I had some LDS friends. I figured if I could find other Mormons they’d be a good influence on me.”

He met Keyan Riley from Salem, Utah, verified that he was LDS, and “I thought to myself, I found one of you!” They became roommates, Ray eventually joined the Church, and both he and Keyan resigned, served missions, reapplied, and were permitted to return to the academy.

Ray, who had come to the academy with a twin brother, “had to reassure my parents that the academy wants returned missionaries because they’re good people. Once my parents realized I wasn’t giving up, just serving a mission with the hope of getting back in, they felt more at ease.”

Football player Tom Brown was in line to be the starting quarterback, but went to the Canada Winnipeg Mission instead. After returning from the mission field, he filled in when the starter was injured, and led the Falcons to an upset against Brigham Young University, earning a share of the 1995 conference championship.

“Before my mission, I tried to justify all the good I could do as a football star,” Tom says. “But I had always planned on a mission. I finally told [the coach] I’d love to start, but it would have to be when I returned. It’s been good to come back and play again. But no athletic experience could ever overshadow what you learn on a mission.”

Candy Sharp kept thinking about feelings she had while teaching Tiffany Evans [also a cadet] about the gospel.

“She said it was like a pot of gold she wanted to share with everyone. I thought about that a lot. The gospel brings me joy, too. That’s why I wanted to serve a mission. I knew Heavenly Father wanted me to go, so everything else would work out.” After a mission in Puerto Rico, Candy is now in her senior year.

Kinamo Williams, who ended up as Candy’s zone leader in Puerto Rico, says he hadn’t been totally solid in the Church until he arrived at the academy. “Seeing all the examples around me changed everything. Committing to serve Jesus Christ full time became a simple choice.”

The LDS institute program was also a key to maintaining spirituality, Kinamo said. “Monday was always one of my best days at the academy, because we had the opportunity to go to institute, to feast on the words of the Lord Jesus Christ and get the spiritual strength to go on.”

Although the institute is based in Colorado Springs, a class is taught on campus as part of the academy’s Spiritual Programs in Religious Education activities. An institute faculty member is allowed to visit the academy to instruct the class, which frequently has more than 100 cadets poring over their scriptures. On Sundays, LDS cadets attend meetings in town, where they make up about 50 percent of the singles ward.

Speaking at the graduation service for LDS institute students, Jeff Putnam, who served a mission in Scotland, said, “This is a unique place. There are a lot of people who go out from the academy to different parts of the world, either to missions or to military assignments.”

He then listed where missionaries or graduates would soon be headed: Norway, Brazil, Taiwan, Russia, the Canary Islands … The list went on and on.

Those are the places feeling the influence of Latter-day Saints who come through the academy, he said. “They are people with convictions, people with standards, people who have direction and believe in where they’re going.”

And, of course, they are people who, while they are at the academy, share the experience, understanding, and leadership they have learned as missionaries and as members of the Church.

Forward March

Latter-day Saints also have a presence at West Point, the U.S. Army’s academy in upstate New York, and at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Consider this story about Midshipman Blake G. Jacobson:

One night while he was on watch, his upperclassman asked why the ring he wore bore the initials CTR instead of BGJ. Jacobson explained that the ring is often worn by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that CTR stands for Choose the Right. The upperclassman already knew Jacobson doesn’t smoke, drink, or swear.

A few days later, during a company inspection, the upperclassman suddenly yelled out, “Mr. Jacobson, what does it say on that ring you’re wearing?”

Jacobson was surprised, but barked out, “CTR, sir!”

“And what do those letters stand for, Mr. Jacobson?”

“Choose the Right, sir!”

“Correct. Men, from now on those letters are our company motto!”

From then on, the company chanted, “Choose the Right, left, Choose the Right, left,” as they marched around academy grounds. (Story submitted by Joe and Glo Jensen.)

At Annapolis, there are about 60 LDS cadets, six of whom are returned missionaries. Six former midshipmen are serving missions, and nine are preparing for the mission field, according to Annapolis Maryland Stake President Boyd A. Waite.

There are 82 LDS cadets at West Point. Eleven are returned missionaries. Nineteen former cadets are currently serving missions, and 12 are considering full-time missions, according to Major J. Mark Mattox, West Point branch president. One of them, former cadet (now Elder) Colby Jenkins, who is about to return from his mission in Brasilia, Brazil, said: “Let the members of our wonderful Church know that the Lord blesses missionaries. It’s a blessing, not a sacrifice, to serve.”

Photography by Richard M. Romney

The academy is a place of discipline, but Ray Dunham will tell you it is also a place of friendship and of family ties.

Church bonds unite LDS cadets, who celebrate graduation, pose for a group photo, or, like Jim Price, enjoy off-campus activities with the branch president and his wife.

It’s not easy, but cadets can serve a mission and still graduate. Just ask Brad Dyer, or Kinamo Williams, Neal Blackwelder, or Julio Rodriguez.