When Kristen McKenney graduates from West Orange High School in May, she will already have her future mapped out. The month after she receives her high school diploma, she will begin the six-week basic cadet training as a member of the Class of 2020 at the United States Air Force Academy.
“My major life goal is to see the world,” McKenney said. “I love learning about other cultures, and I also want to become fluent in another language. Thankfully, joining the military will help me achieve these goals.”
The military academy for officer candidates for the U.S. Air Force is north of Colorado Springs in El Paso County, Colorado.
McKenney, of Windermere, learned Dec. 17 that she had been accepted, first with an early-morning email and then a phone call from Sen. Bill Nelson’s office congratulating her.
Getting accepted into the program is an arduous process. The first step is to receive a nomination, and she applied to the offices of Congressman Daniel Webster, Sen. Marco Rubio and Nelson.
“Each of the applications was like their own separate college application,” McKenney said. “After my applications were reviewed, I then had to interview before three different boards, which ranged in size from three to nine people.”
The application to the academy is an entirely separate process from the nomination process, and she started during her junior year.
“I had to pass several medical exams, take a physical fitness test that consisted of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, a shuttle run, a basketball throw and a mile run,” she said. “This is on top of the regular things found in a college application such as essays, test scores and inputting all of my academic and extracurricular information.”
It was last fall that she received nominations from Nelson, Webster and the Air Force Junior ROTC.
In the genes
McKenney will be the third member — and third generation — of her family to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy. Both her father and grandfather graduated from there, as well, in the 1960s and ’90s.
“My father and grandfather both had very different experiences at the academy, and I’m sure my experience will be very different from theirs,” McKenney said.
Her grandfather, retired Col. Wayne McKenney, was a member of the Class of 1964, which was the fifth class to go through the academy.
“When he went there, girls were not allowed to attend, and he didn’t leave campus at all during his first year,” she said. “He made the military a career, first flying F-4s in Vietnam, then A-10s in Europe during the Cold War, and then he flew F-16s in Korea in the 80s. He retired in 1991.”
Her dad, David McKenney, was a member of the Class of 1992. By then, females were allowed into the academy.
“And he was allowed to go to his sponsor family’s house some weekends. My dad taught other cadets how to fly gliders when he was there. After the academy, he flew C-5s in Dover, Delaware, and was then an instructor pilot in the T-37 in Del Rio, Texas. He separated from the Air Force in June of 2001 and has flown for Southwest Airlines ever since.”
McKenney is eager to start this new chapter in her life and is ready for the commitment to serve her country.
“A lot of my friends are immigrants, and some of the stories about the injustices in their home countries really motivated me to defend the freedoms that we have as American citizens,” she said. “I believe that people should be able to live their life freely and without persecution and want to do my part to help ensure that these rights are safeguarded. I want to be an intelligence officer in the Air Force, and the academy offers many opportunities to learn about and gain experience in this field.”
McKenney said she is appreciative of her parents and all of her teachers and administrators for their tremendous support.
“It took a lot of work to apply, and they’ve been with me every step of the way,” she said. “I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Contact Amy Quesinberry Rhode at [email protected].