HOMESTEAD AIR RESERVE BASE, Fla. --
Cadets at the prestigious United States Air Force Academy are known as “Falcons” and in three short months a 482nd Fighter Wing Maintainer will go from working on the F-16 Fighting Falcon, to being an Academy Falcon.
Airman 1st Class Joel Bernal, 22, has been selected as one of approximately 1,000 candidates in the nation to be offered a position in USAFA’s 2021 graduating class.
Bernal, an F-16 crew chief with the 482nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, considers his admission, “the biggest achievement of my life thus far.”
Originally from Cutler Bay, Florida, Bernal had no plans to join the military after high school and enrolled at Miami Dade College and worked part time for two years.
His father, a retired Homestead Air Reserve Base civil engineering noncommissioned officer, noticed his son was not reaching his goals and advised him, “Do you want to challenge yourself? You should join the Air Force!”
And that is exactly what he did. As Bernal began to look at enlisting in the Air Force Reserve, he realized the military “was more and more inspiring and I knew it was for me,” he said.
Basic training was “great” per Bernal, who was an honor graduate out of basic military training. And it was there that he first heard of the academy from his squadron commander, Lt. Col. Larson, who was a USAFA graduate.
Larson spoke to all the Airmen of his experience at USAFA and it lit the spark of interest in Bernal.
Then, during technical school, a 22-year-old academy graduate came to brief the budding maintainers on a pilot’s perspective and also spoke of his experience at USAFA—that is when Bernal looked up eligibility requirements and realized he was eligible.
He made contact with the Academy Liaison Officers in South Florida and began the arduous application process.
The United States Air Force Academy, established in 1954, has extremely competitive admissions requirements where they look not only at GPA and test scores, but at the whole-person concept and a candidate’s potential to be an effective officer.
Bernal completed his package in January of 2017 and two months later was studying at his college library when he received a text to call Maj. William McLeod, his 482nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander.
“When your commander calls . . . well, I was not expecting anything good,” said Bernal, who believed his application was still being routed.
Instead, he hears, “Good morning Airman Bernal—I just wanted to be the first to congratulate you on your acceptance to the United States Air Force Academy!”
Bernal was surprised, “I knew I had a chance, but was still blown away!” said Bernal, who immediately went to his car and called his father and mother.
His father, now working as a government employee at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, could not have been prouder. “He’s my number one supporter,” said Bernal, “and with him at Schriever, we won’t be too far apart for the next four years.”
Bernal expects this summer to be tough, but looks forward to the challenges and camaraderie he will experience with his classmates.
“I expect it to be exciting,” said Bernal, “BMT was tough, but not boring, and I expect the same if not more from the academy.”
Considered in the Top 5 percent of universities in the nation per Forbes Magazine’s “America’s Best Colleges,” USAFA will offer Bernal a rigorous military training regimen alongside strenuous academic courses, thorough character development, and a world-class leadership curriculum.
Bernal, who hopes to major in mechanical engineering, anticipates receiving a pilot’s slot from USAFA and attending undergraduate pilot training after commissioning. What does he hope to fly? Fighter jets, of course!
His advice to Airmen who might be interested in the enlisted USAFA admissions program?
“Aim High! Go for it and stay positive!” said Bernal, “I love the thought of being an officer, but this is not why I want to do this. The positive people I know want to give back to the Air Force—they’re the ones that succeed.”