Long after others have gone to bed, he sits in his residence hall’s lobby and polishes his shoes, often for hours. He rubs away every little scuff and dirt speck, and shines them until he can see the reflection of his freshly shaven face from every angle.
And then he polishes them some more.
It all must be perfect – he keeps his trademark blue Air Force uniform, decorated with bars, pristine with pride. Right down to his feet.
The freshman business administration major from Monument said it isn’t because he’s a perfectionist. In fact, he acknowledges flaws in most things. Rather, he is a cadet in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) who finds inspiration in the men who came before him and bled and died in the very same uniform he dons twice a week.
And Craig Gustafson is prepared to do the same.
“People have lived and died in it for their country and the flag, protecting the United States,” he said. “Anyone who doesn’t respect the uniform is basically spitting in the nation’s face.”
Even though a controversial war is raging overseas, Gustafson said he isn’t at all hesitant to sport his uniform every Tuesday and Thursday. In classes and at lunch with his friends on these days, he sticks out.
His blue Air Force uniform accents his traditional clean-cut hairstyle and strong jaw, a sharp contrast to his relaxed peers, who are dressed casually in sweats and t-shirts.
Inside his blues, Gustafson maintains incredible composure, dressed to kill and prepared to die. He spits out Air Force mottos like an automatic and his face knows no fear.
“When he’s in his uniform, he goes into G.I. Joe mode,” said Brandon Johanns, Gustafson’s roommate and a freshman psychology major. “When he’s with his ROTC buddies they’re real formal and don’t even say goodbye. If the uniform is on, it’s like it’s go time.”
But Gustafson doesn’t claim to be above anyone.
“It’s just like everyone else who wears their work uniforms who works at Pizza Hut or in Lory Student Center or wherever. If people don’t like the way someone looks in uniform, that’s their own problem,” he said, and with a grin continued, “Oh, and the chicks dig it.”
Once the blue suit is replaced with a snowboarding t-shirt and loose jeans, however, it’s clear Gustafson isn’t just soldier-in-training. He’s a teenager with goals, a girlfriend and support from Mom and Dad.
“I’m very proud of him. He has lots of talents and skills, which gave him lots of opportunities,” said Paul Gustafson, Craig’s father. “ROTC really came through and we’re thrilled.”
The training corps, Craig said, is like a four-year interview process where everything a cadet says or does can be recorded and used to determine his placing in the military in the future. This is his inspiration for much of what he does.
His goal: to become an officer in the Air Force. Flying, he said, is every little boy’s dream. But few stick with it as he has – he knows that getting there is going to take a lot of work.
Craig’s Tuesdays and Thursdays start at 6 a.m. with physical training. This could include anything from running sprints and long distances for an entire hour to push-ups, sit-ups and everything in between. The training’s purpose is to increase cadets’ fitness levels because “no one wants an unfit military officer” Craig said.
As daunting as his schedule may seem, Craig modestly claims to be an average teen.
“The minute the alarm goes off at 5:20 a.m., I tell myself ‘five more minutes, just five more.’ I’m a normal kid, not a superhero,” he said. “I just have a job to do, and I know that if I don’t put forth effort now I won’t get what I want later.”
Capt. William Schmidt, department of aerospace studies assistant professor, said Craig’s on the right track, and considers him above average on his physical fitness test.
ROTC also has class and a leadership lab on Thursdays required for members.
Along with classes, AFROTC encourages cadets to train for some of their different organizations. Craig is training for the Wing Walker Pershing Rifles, which he describes as the organization best at professionalism and customs and courtesies.
CSU’s AFROTC has won the High Flight Award, beating out Boulder for the best detachment in the Mountain West Conference and is considered one of the best drill teams in the nation, Craig said.
Many cadets, including Craig, also have to prepare for flight. The opportunity to fly fighter and bomber planes will come this summer – but only if they have their altitude chamber card, which is more difficult to earn than one might think.
They must first face the altitude.
Similar to deep-sea training but using height instead of depth, cadets are locked inside a chamber that simulates atmospheric conditions at about 20,000 feet. Eventually cadets go into hypoxia because of the lack of oxygen reaching their brain.
“They have to learn their own symptoms of hypoxia before they can fly,” Schmidt said. “It’s not long before their brain gets silly. They turn a bluish color, may get a tingly feeling in their fingers or experience a state of euphoria or feeling of intoxication.”
Craig will face the chamber in a few weeks.
While many study for tests by reviewing notes and textbooks, cadets prepare a little differently.
Their “exams” are called inspections, where they are expected to stand at attention in formation and are asked questions by upperclassmen. Shoes must be polished, uniforms must be ironed and lint free and they should be clean-shaven and prepared.
Regardless of how Craig does on his inspections, neither he nor any other cadet will receive corporal punishment. Officers can no longer touch cadets, yell at them or give them any type of physical punishment.
“We just get the ‘Man, you could do a lot better then that,’ look,” he said. “You want to know your stuff because it goes on your performance records.”
In total, Craig estimates he spends 15 to 20 hours a week in ROTC-related activities – time that many other students would spend watching TV.
“Being in ROTC has taught me time management. I have to set a schedule. But I still go out, have fun, go snowboarding, skydiving and anything else I want to do,” he said.
Craig successfully balances school, ROTC, physical training and a social life, and so he finds it difficult to watch others fail.
“It makes me mad when I see people who are failing three classes because of too much partying and stuff. If you strive to do your best, and nothing less, you’re going to go far no matter what you do,” he said.
Craig showed signs of leadership and interest in the military at a young age, his father said. He had a fixation with war computer games, like Red Alert, and loved warfare strategy.
“His whole life he’s always been a leader. I saw it in grade school, and I saw it in high school,” Paul said. “He has a natural gift of leadership and I have all the confidence in the world that he’ll excel in the military.”
He recalled a time when Craig first showed him a trophy he won as band player of the year. When Craig showed him his more recent triumph, his father couldn’t hold back the tears.
“Craig showed me his blues and said, ‘Dad I got a bar,’ and he was so proud,” Paul said. “It was d/j/ vu for me, and brought back memories of that time when he was 8.”
For Craig, military service is something he is destined to do.
“I have a service calling. Every American citizen is called to serve the nation in one way or another. It could be anything from working in a nursing home to putting your life on the line,” he said.
Paul has no fear of his son eventually joining the military, war or not.
“He’s in God’s hands, not mine. Many have gone before him,” Paul said. “We’re all here for a purpose, and if he’s been elected to do this, how can I be worried about tomorrow?”
But Craig is ever mindful of tomorrow. It’s what he sees in the reflection of his well-polished shoes – not the sound of his 5:20 a.m. alarm clock or the pain and streaming sweat of his arduous workouts.
Craig sees his dreams taking flight.
Maggie Canty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org