Life of a Female Air Force Cadet

By: Maddie O’Shea

The bus jolted to a halt.

For a short five minutes, the only sound was the rumble of the engine.

Suddenly a soldier stood up, apprehension in the face of every passenger.

“If you don’t have what it takes, get off this bus!” he screamed, his words slicing through the eerie silence that had filled the entire ride.

Cadet Natalie Ketner sat up straighter. Reality set in — she had just arrived at the United States Air Force Academy.

Starting the summer before her junior year, 2013 Hershey High School graduate Ketner began looking into joining the military. She went through a long process of interviews with both the Air Force and the Navy. Through the interviews, she grew to favor the Air Force. After being accepted into the AFA, Ketner knew that her dreams were becoming real. Being a female joining a male dominated academy can be difficult for the nineteen year old, but she has also learned how to adjust and push herself to a potential she didn’t know existed.

The Air Force is the youngest of all military forces, — the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard — created in 1947 under the National Security Act of 1947. Originally, the Air Force was a connected branch to the Army with the goal of supporting ground forces. However, during World War II, the Air Force proved to be far more useful than just protecting troops. Approximately 70.8% of the Air Force is male, while only about 30.2% are female.

Ketner relied heavily on herself to join. Although her friends and family members may not have completely supported her, she found qualities of the academy that many people can’t. She wants to serve her country and her world. Joining the Air Force gives her both a sense of pride and a mental challenge.

After visiting the academy with her father in May, Ketner had to again fly out to for Basic Training — but this time without the safety of her family. Her flight got delayed for 5 hours. However, after meeting a group of other AFA members who were in the same situation as her, her nervousness eased off.

Ketner arrived safely in Colorado and stayed with a sponsor family overnight. Her sponsor dad is currently in the Air Force. Sponsor families help members as a home-away-from-home. Each sponsor family has at least one member from a military branch in order to act as a role model.

At 6:00, Ketner’s sponsor family took her to Doolittle Hall to sign in and receive nametags. Following that, she boarded a short five-minute bus ride going to the Air Force Academy. Once she arrived, each of the passengers ran with their luggage to the academy and began a new part of their journey.

Ketner visiting the academy in May of her senior year. “I knew the air Force Academy would be a good fit for me because I didn’t want to be out in combat in the military or out on a boat in the Navy,” Ketner said.


It was extremely difficult for Ketner to adjust to the Air Force Academy.

Throughout high school, ninety percent of Ketner’s friends were girls. But at the academy, there is a dramatic ratio shift between men and women. Now, about eighty percent of her friends are men.

Despite the different gender ratio, Ketner has learned to make the most of it.

“The women and men will totally back you up, support you, have faith in you, and build you up,” she said.

Another one of the hardest aspects of joining any military branch is Basic Training. For Ketner, there was a mandatory six-week training camp she had to attend over the summer. She started off, like everyone else, as a Basic Cadet. After being accepted into the Academy, she became a Cadet. During the Air Force Basic Training, members acclimate to their environment, learn drill and tactical techniques, and endure through tough rigorous training. Members are introduced to Cadre during basic training. Cadre are groups of commissioned officers responsible for training members of the academy. Included in the camp were a lot of running, drill, and obstacle courses. The six-week instruction is meant to test every member physically, pushing the cadets to their full potential. Although it was exhausting, being accepted into the Air Force demonstrated to Ketner how all her hard work had paid off.

Not only does Basic Training strain an individual physically, but also mentally. Members have hardly any access the outside world. They are not permitted a cell phone during training. If they wish to contact friends or family, they must rely solely on written communication. Letters.

Once Basic Training is over, members can receive their phones and open up communication. There is also a Parent’s weekend where members can visit their child at the Academy.

“Leaving everything I knew made me depressed,” Ketner said. However, once she left for the academy, she quickly forgot all about it.

Located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the Academy’s altitude can be yet another huge adjustment. The academy is approximately 7,300 feet above sea level, which can be hard to adjust to, especially since Ketner performed heavy endurance upon arriving.

Ketner said she sometimes has trouble catching her breath. Once, as she was coming up to the surface of the academy’s pool she said she thought to herself, “I need air. However, when Ketner emerged from the surface she said she still felt as though she was still underwater.

Additionally, while training, Ketner recalled an instance in which there was a lot of dust along the road while she was road guard. This required her to stay in the back of the group and dust always landed in her face. The mixture of dust and the altitude made it difficult for Ketner to breathe.

Want to see actual footage from basic training? In this video, members of the academy train on obstacles, learn tactical skills, and endure tough physical tests. Video taken by Kevin Conroy and Thomas Paul.

As Ketner adapted to new adjustments, she started school at the academy.

At an Ivy League college, an individual has to have a very high SAT score. But at the Academy, there is a step up. Recruiters for the Air Force Academy look for athletics, clubs, and leadership just like colleges; however, one must also be well rounded physically, Ketner said.

The academy is much like any other post secondary school – there are classes, dorms, sports – however, there also specific traditions members of the Academy participate in. Right from the start, tradition shows up in the form of a bridge. After registration, members trek across the bridge as he or she prepares him or herself to get on the bus and arrive at the academy.

But it doesn’t stop there. Every morning, each member at the academy wakes up and has morning formation. One or more member puts up the flag and everyone stands at attention. Each of these traditions is what makes the academy special to Ketner.

Everyday, Ketner wakes up at 6:00 to get into uniform. At 6:25, she heads to Minutes where the freshmen line up and recite duties, engage in physical training, or speak to upperclassmen.

At 6:45 morning formation takes place. Each squad forms up and has a personal appearance inspection. From there, Ketner goes to her room and gets ready for the day, goes to breakfast, and walks to her morning classes.

At 11:35, she has noon formation. Members of the cademy form up again and march to lunch. After eating, Ketner either has classes or squad time. Squad time has a roll call where people in Ketner’s squad give information for upcoming events or what each member is doing right or wrong. Then, more classes.

Finally, at 3:45 she changes again for sports or training sessions, followed by dinner and club activities or homework. After an exhausting day, Ketner goes to bed around midnight.

Currently, Ketner’s classes consist of Military History, Japanese, Calculus, Behavioral Science, and Computer Science. Her major is Engineering. After graduating, Ketner will become an Officer.

Officer Training School is another nine weeks of physical and mental challenges. After completing OTS, Ketner has the authority to lead other men and women of the academy.

“I’ve learned to push myself more than I ever had before,” Ketner said. “The human body is capable of so many things.”

Members must be athletic or be engaged in something physical whether on a club, intramural, or intercollegiate level. The academy offers many sports including basketball, soccer, softball, volleyball, cross country, and golf. Even more unique activities are available to members such as mountain climbing, ultimate frisbee, archery, and horseback riding. To make sure all members are staying physically fit, every so often he or she are tested on physical strength through a physical fitness test. If a member fails to reach the benchmark, he or she is warned but must put him or herself in shape for the next test.

This pdf from the Air Force Academy showcases physical fitness achievement levels along with requirements for graduating the Air Force Basic Military Training as of 2015. Students are tested periodically to make sure they are still in physical shape.

Not only must Ketner prove her physical strength through a test, but also four different obstacle courses at the academy. The courses are known as the Confidence Course, the Leadership Reaction Course, the Obstacle Course, and the Assault Course. Ketner and her squad went through each course twice.

The Confidence Course required a combination of climbing, running, and jumping. The goal of this obstacle course was to build the confidence of Ketner and her squad members for the more difficult challenges ahead.

One of the biggest motivations Ketner had throughout were her squad, “They’re always right there, pushing you to your fullest potential.”

The Leadership Reaction course, the second obstacle course, emphasized problem solving through different scenarios. In one instance, Ketner recalled she and her squad had to transport a dummy across a rope. One person from her squad had to go to the other side and they had to use their body weight to pull the dummy across.

The third obstacle course, simply known as Obstacle Course, tested endurance and speed. Not only were there obstacles, but there were also Cadre who were present between obstacles who used reinforcement to push each individual in Ketner’s squad. While waiting in line to go through the course, individuals had to do push ups. This course was especially hard because it included water as an obstacle.

The first time Ketner attempted the Obstacle Course, “There was a rope over water, and I was wearing wet gloves. That time, I fell in.”

And finally, the hardest course arrived after many hours of training and dedication. The Assault Course. The course requires participants to wear helmets and carry rifles throughout the entire course. Sometimes, the members of Ketner’s squad would have to use their rifles to hit obstacles in the course. Between every obstacle, like the third course, Cadre were there; however, in this course, they would yell at each individual harshly. If anyone lost their rifle, they had to restart and go to the beginning. As an addition to the obstacles on the course, Cadre would also throw pinecones as “grenades” and everyone in the squad would have to throw themselves on the ground.

While going through the assault course for the first time, Ketner got tendonitis in her shoulder. Her arm was severely stiff, which made her right side weak. Ultimately, she lost her rifle twice and had to restart the course from the beginning both of the times she lost her rifle.

“This is the course that everyone hates,” Ketner said. “You don’t know if you can push through mentally.”

Although Ketner had moments where she felt like she was losing faith in herself, she also remembers a feeling of accomplishment after completing all four obstacle courses.

“There’s a sign [at the end of the course] that says ‘Only the strong survive’,” Ketner said, “It’s a grueling course, but it’s so rewarding at the end when you look up and see the words.”

Ketner climbing over water on the third obstacle course in June. The first time she went through the Obstacle Course, she fell in. Picture submitted by Ketner.


Crawling under barbed wire in the Assault Course at the end of June. “It was extremely difficult from the weight of my helmet and rifle,” Ketner said. Picture supplied by Ketner.


Ketner (far right, standing in second row) and her squad getting a group picture after the Assault Course in June. This course was the most advanced and most challenging. Picture supplied by Ketner.


“When I was first applied to the Air Force Academy,” Ketner said, “a lot of my friends were confused or joking about me joining the military because it seemed like something crazy for a girl to do.”

Not only does Ketner’s gender surprise people, but also her major – engineering. Throughout high school, she loved physics and math. It always came naturally to her, so she embraced it. The 2013 HHS graduate even created her own Robotics club, which motivated her to stay on an engineering track. Ketner was the president of the club, which is still running at HHS.

Ketner highly wants to be an inspiration for women who are tentative about joining the military because of their gender.

“People are going to think you aren’t going to do as good as the men here. Even if you don’t, you have to have the mentality that you will do your best. Don’t be disappointed with that,” Ketner said. “You need to be able to test those stereotypes and challenge yourself. Know that you aren’t alone.”

Ketner, right, with friend Katelyn Walbridge, right, during the six week long Air Force Basic Training on July 10th. Training consisted of rigorous physical activities, but Ketner often had motivation from her squad and friends. Picture supplied by Ketner.