Silent sentinels: If class photos could speak

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena, Professor, Air War College
  • Professor, Air War College
It is easy enough to rush past the photos of previous classes posted along the walls of the Air War College. For some, these are but dated images of people who have little to do with our fast-paced world of hectic schedules, deadlines, classes, papers and exams. It is true black- and-white pictures of men wearing khaki uniforms seem out of place in our digitized world of instant information, but their stories are our heritage.

Last month, while the world turned a bit slower because of our holiday schedule, I spent some time with the honored alumni of the Air War College. The images of these men and women, the people who have gone before, beckoned me to hear their story.

The Air War College can be a bit eerie late at night, especially when winter imposes its premature darkness, and muffled sounds emanate down isolated and abandoned passageways. When alone, it is not as easy to ignore massive class pictures framed by large pieces of wood and suspended at eye level. The images of now silent sentinels challenged my presence and queried my business in their institution, I could almost hear, "Halt, advance and be recognized." I am not sure I satisfied their challenge, but I do feel compelled to pass along the story they conveyed.

The sentinel's story begins with the class of 1947, a serious group of people -- men who fought a world war and won. They were still part of the Army's Air Corps, wearing khaki uniforms with ties tucked-in neatly at the second button. There were 71 graduates, all males, in that first class. The class of 1948 looked similar to the class of 1947 with one significant difference; students no longer wore the patch of the Army Air Corps on their left sleeve. This was the first class of an embryonic service, the United States Air Force. The class of 1949, 124 strong, wore coats over their khaki shirts.

The first civilian graduate, B.E. Blankinship, was in the class of 1953. Air Force Lt. Col. L.P. Willingham was the first female military member to graduate from the Air War College in the class of 1970. The class of 1975 had a significant increase in African-American representation. The class of 1981 had the first female civilian, R. E. Holmes from Defense Logistics Agency, also an African-American. The first color photos were taken for the class of 1986. The class of 1988 smiled a lot.

A makeshift black paper frame sets off the photograph of Lt. Col. Siri Skare of Norway. A member of the 2010 class, she was killed last year in Afghanistan when her compound was overrun by militants. This is not a complete narrative; suffice to say every class and each sentinel has a story to pass on. To hear what they have to say, one must only take the time to stop, look and listen.

Once in a while, a silent sentinel reappears in the flesh, usually flanked by loved ones. They often point to their former self and say, "that is me" or "these were my classmates." Possibly confused by the changes made to their college and by the hurried goings-on of present day faculty and students, these visitors disappear as quickly as they arrived. Are they real or transient apparitions?

They are real enough. Their deeds fill history books, for these images are of people who won wars, changed the course of history, established a proud tradition for the Air War College and the Air Force. The silent sentinels serve to remind all who pass through the doors of this institution that it is not enough to merely satisfy present-day standards. One must also be prepared to answer a challenge from the past, to "advance and be recognized."