U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS) --
Each summer at the Academy, a new group of basic cadets march in formation for nearly eight miles from the Terrazzo to Jacks Valley.
There, for nearly two weeks, they endure rigorous training and learn to survive and operate as a team in a field environment.
For most cadets, this represents their initial basic training experience and the beginning of their 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, Senior Airman Leah Young stood in the back of the room during the annual awards banquet at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Assigned to the 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs office, her role was to document the ceremony.
Young listened as Col. Richard Moore, Jr., the wing's vice commander, took the stage for the night's closing remarks. After congratulating the award recipients, he shared 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 Lieutenant Young graduates from the Academy, her class color will also be silver."
This was how Young was told she had been accepted at the Academy.
"I was in the back with my camera in my hands, and I almost dropped it," now-Cadet 4th Class Young said."
Young is one of 57 prior-enlisted Airmen among approximately 1,150 basic cadets accepted into the Class of 2017. She applied through the Leaders Encouraging Airman Development program, developed to give Airmen the opportunity to compete for appointments to the Academy and Academy Preparatory School.
Through LEAD, commanders may nominate highly-qualified Airmen with officer potential. Every year, 85 slots are reserved for direct appointment to the Academy and 50 slots for the Academy Prep School.
"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 initiative.
"I became 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 an ROTC graduate. The one who 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."
While researching different commissioning opportunities online, "the LEAD program popped up and I immediately began my application," Young said. "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."
Young's 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 NCO, added, "She earned senior airman below-the-zone and was recognized as an Inspector General Outstanding Airman.
"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 said. "I have no doubt she will work hard for her Airmen and ensure her NCOs have everything they need to accomplish the mission."
Young accepted an appointment to the Academy Prep 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," Young 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 who can't exactly do every single obstacle. So you really find your teammates' strengths and weaknesses and learn how to succeed as a team."
Cadet 2nd Class Emily Willson, a cadet cadre element leader during Basic Cadet Training, said it's very beneficial to have prior-enlisted Airman among the basic cadets.
"Priors know their stuff, they know what's going on, so you can talk to them a little differently than the direct entries from high school," she said. "The first time I sat down with Leah in counseling, I didn't ask her the same questions as everyone else because I knew she was a little older and had more experience."
Willson continued, "It's been really great working with her, because I can ask her questions about things like the morale of the flight, how people are actually doing, and I knew I would get good answers back from her because of her experience."
When she was going through BCT, Willson said, she learned a great deal from two prior-enlisted cadets in her squadron.
"As a civilian out of high school, you come in here and you don't know anything," she said. "So when you actually got to talk to the priors, they'd come in and help you learn the military stuff."
LEAD is "an incredible program," Willson concluded. "The priors have a wealth of experience, so once they become officers, they know how to work with the enlisted force because they've been there before."
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.
"I'm proud to commission as a previously enlisted Airman," she said. "I'm looking forward to using that experience to develop myself into a better cadet, officer and leader."
Airmen interested in learning more about LEAD can visit their local Base Education Office or www.academyadmissions.com