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Cadet Wing commander Jake Sortor stays true to Academy values

Cadet 1st Class Jake Sortor shows children how to pack a parachute at the Truckee-Tahoe Air Show and Family Festival in Truckee, Calif., in July. Sortor, the Academy’s Cadet Wing commander, is a Wings of Blue instructor. He and other WOB parachutists performed at the festival. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cadet 1st Class Jake Sortor shows children how to pack a parachute at the Truckee-Tahoe Air Show and Family Festival in Truckee, Calif., in July. Sortor, the Academy’s Cadet Wing commander, is a Wings of Blue instructor. He and other WOB parachutists performed at the festival. (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo. -- If anyone asks, "Who's responsible for the daily operations of the U.S. Air Force Academy's Cadet Wing?" and you answer, "Brig. Gen. Stephen Williams, the commandant of cadets," you'd only be half right.

While it's true Williams is ultimately responsible for the more-than 4,000 cadets, so is Cadet 1st Class Jake Sortor, the Cadet Wing commander.

Sortor, 22, is still assigned to Cadet Squadron 9, but holds the highest position in the Cadet Wing, supervising its daily activities and reporting directly to Williams on large-scale cadet issues. Similar to the general, Sortor leads many cadet projects and is a policy-maker for the wing.

"As a service Academy, cadet morale and Air Force standards are often considered competing interests, but I don't think it has to be that way," Sortor said. "Even in the short time since the new Cadet Wing staff took over command Aug. 5, we've already made some daily processes more efficient, improving morale while still staying true to Academy standards."

More important than policy, Sortor said, is doing his part to fulfill the Academy's mission: developing leaders of character.

"We're in the business of producing grounded leaders of unwavering character and integrity," he said. "Every cadet has a specific skill set and career focus but at the end of the day, once we graduate, we will all be second lieutenants at the Air Force - commissioned officers." 

Maj. Kyle Moe, the CS-9 air officer commanding, said Sortor sets the standard for other cadets to follow in leading by example.

"Jake's message of 'giving all you've got' resonates throughout the Cadet Wing because so many cadets can relate to him through their shared experiences," Moe said. "Jake's been an intercollegiate athlete, attended a prep school and excels in the airfield and in the classroom. Equally important, he's genuine and he's a leader. He cares for each and every one of the cadets and really takes our mission of developing leaders of character to heart - and that really resonates here with other cadets. The cadets under his charge can't help but respect him for that."

Sortor, an economics major, said he begins each day with two thoughts: "How can we make the Academy better today?" and "I must always stay true to myself."

"The ever-changing and volatile world we will enter when we graduate needs the best leaders the Academy can possibly produce," he said. "We must constantly be on the offensive, looking for ways to improve. Organizations and processes can always be made better and it's my job to ensure we work toward producing the best officers. Also, staying true to myself is extremely important; coming into this position, I knew task-saturation would be part of the daily grind and I also knew there would be some things I couldn't even begin to prepare myself for. Still, I know if I stay true to myself and take each situation as it comes, everything will work out."

Regardless of this daily grind - waking well before sunrise, attending class, instructing Wings of Blue parachute classes, leading the day's mandatory formations, exercising, attending staff meetings, finishing homework and somehow finding time for much-needed sleep - Sortor said he never takes his duties for granted. He even manages to pursue his hobbies: skydiving, health and fitness, playing guitar, hiking and other activities, he said.

Sortor said he "lives for the small moments" being Cadet Wing commander allows.

"My favorite moment is when I see that the cadet staff has made cadets' lives a little better or when cadets tell me I've somehow inspired then," he said. "This has a big affect on me since motivation and inspiration builds the foundation for future success."

Sortor hails from Mukilteo, Wash., a town of just more than 20,000 on the shore of Puget Sound. His grandfather, retired Lt. Col. John Julian Paolino, was a Vietnam War pilot and his father a Marine pilot who flew Harrier jets.

Paolino flew more than 650 combat support missions and sorties in in Vietnam from 1964 and 1965 and amassed more than 4,000 flying-hours during his Air Force career. He became the Academy's director of cadet counseling and retired from the Air Force in 1981.

"Growing up in Mukilteo was great," Sortor said. "It has the perfect mix of small-town atmosphere while still being close to Seattle. As my time away from the Academy has decreased over time, I really value any time I get to spend in the Northwest."

Sortor was heavily involved in the Mukilteo sports scene. At Kamiak High, he lettered three years in baseball and football, was an All-Wesco first team outfielder and, as a senior, captain of the school's baseball and football teams. He also set the school record for singles as a freshman when he batted .423, earning second-team all-conference. It probably won't surprise anyone to learn Sortor once dreamed of earning a Division 1 scholarship, Sortor said.

When it came to a career, Sortor said he always knew the military was an option, but hadn't considered the Air Force until he was approached by an Academy football coach.

           "I saw the Air Force Academy as my best opportunity for the future," he said. "I thought I could have a chance to walk-on to the Division 1 football or baseball teams. That I would also be working for something honorable and satisfying was also a major driving force. Being part of the team entrusted to protect our way of life is a pretty cool responsibility."

After high school, Sortor attended Northwestern Preparatory School in Crestline, Calif.

"I wasn't yet ready for the academic rigor of the Academy," he said. "Going to Northwestern Prep set a much-needed foundation for me to build on once I finally got here."

Since then, Sortor has been involved with cadet programs, including a stint on the Falcon baseball and football rosters, but traded Academy athletics for Wings of Blue, the Academy's parachute team. He's now a WOB instructor, a certified jumpmaster and teaches Airmanship 490, a program designed to develop cadets' leadership abilities.

"Taking my fellow cadets with zero free fall experience and building them up to be able to save their own life jumping out of a plane is a pretty amazing experience," he said.

Sortor never considered leaping out of a perfectly good aircraft until he got to the Academy.

"I came to the Academy with zero prior parachuting experience," he said. "My first jump was incredibly memorable, and that's why it's so awesome being able to guide my fellow cadets to their first jumps. Airmanship 490 is the only program in the world where your first jump is solo freefall. You really do have to save your own life."

Sortor said being a WOB instructor is a huge responsibility and leadership opportunity.

"To teach, we have to go through an intensive skydive and Jumpmaster syllabus that takes an entire year," he said. "Operationally, we're trained to excel in a completely dynamic environment and trusted to make split-second decisions that have life and death consequences. Throughout cadets' operational development, leadership applications are abundant in the WOB program. Specifically, learning to be humble, credible and approachable instructors, are leadership qualities we're expected to rely upon throughout our Air Force careers."

The best part of attending the Academy is interacting with other cadets, Sortor said.

"My favorite aspect of being a cadet is definitely the people I'm surrounded by on a daily basis," he said. "Committing yourself to the military and Air Force Academy at such a young age takes a lot of courage. I am extremely lucky to be able to lead these 4,000 courageous men and women. I'm also lucky to grow lots of lifelong bonds with many of my classmates here. Going through the fire together creates bonds that will never break."

Sortor also appreciates the bond he has with his immediate family.

"My family is very proud and supportive of my job right now," he said. "I have even less time now than I have ever had before, so I really have to be conscious of calling my mom, but at the end of the day they understand."

Sortor is scheduled to remain the Cadet Wing commander until Jan. 5 and graduate with the Class of 2015 here in May.

(Editor's note -- Paolino, 75, of Monument, Colo., died Sept. 10, in Florence, Colo. His funeral was held Sept. 18 in Monument.)