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First some hard learning, then celebration at TEC

McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. – Coast Guardsman, Petty Officer 1st Class Jaensen Lewis assigned  to the Puerto Rico Military Entrance Processing Station, San  Juan, watches the graduation ceremony here of  57 Airman Leadership School and 266 Air Force Noncommissioned Officer Academy graduates from the Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center. Lewis graduated in the top 10 percent of his NCOA class as a Distinguished Graduate. Students from other service components, the Total Force and partner nations often attend courses at the Air National Guard’s Lankford EPME Center. (National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Kurt Skoglund)

McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. – Coast Guardsman, Petty Officer 1st Class Jaensen Lewis assigned to the Puerto Rico Military Entrance Processing Station, San Juan, watches the graduation ceremony here of 57 Airman Leadership School and 266 Air Force Noncommissioned Officer Academy graduates from the Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center. Lewis graduated in the top 10 percent of his NCOA class as a Distinguished Graduate. Students from other service components, the Total Force and partner nations often attend courses at the Air National Guard’s Lankford EPME Center. (National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Kurt Skoglund)

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. – Guest speaker, Chief Master Sgt. Denise Jelinski-Hall, senior enlisted advisor to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, challenges 57 Airman Leadership School and 266 Noncommissioned Officer Academy graduates to achieve their best here April 4, 2013, at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center. Top ranking Defense leaders have visited and inspired students at the Center for 45 years. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master sgt. Kurt Skoglund/Released)

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. – Guest speaker, Chief Master Sgt. Denise Jelinski-Hall, senior enlisted advisor to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, challenges 57 Airman Leadership School and 266 Noncommissioned Officer Academy graduates to achieve their best here April 4, 2013, at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center. Top ranking Defense leaders have visited and inspired students at the Center for 45 years. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master sgt. Kurt Skoglund/Released)

McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. – Col. Timothy J. Cathcart, commander of the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center here awards Senior Airman Joseph Pico assigned to the 106th Rescue Wing, New York Air National Guard, the John L. Levitow Award, the highest award bestowed for Air Force enlisted professional military education.  Pico and 56 other students graduated from Airman Leadership School April 4 along with 266 Air Force Noncommissioned Officer Academy graduates at the Paul H. Lankford EPME Center.  (National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Kurt Skoglund)

McGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. – Col. Timothy J. Cathcart, commander of the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center here awards Senior Airman Joseph Pico assigned to the 106th Rescue Wing, New York Air National Guard, the John L. Levitow Award, the highest award bestowed for Air Force enlisted professional military education. Pico and 56 other students graduated from Airman Leadership School April 4 along with 266 Air Force Noncommissioned Officer Academy graduates at the Paul H. Lankford EPME Center. (National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Kurt Skoglund)

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. -- It started with introductions, like formations, like group discussions - and then sharing personal experiences.

It gave them presentations, homework and tests that broke through comfort zones, like a gauntlet.

It put up barriers of physical fitness and uniform inspections outdoors in the hand-numbing winter air.

But amazingly, officials say, the hundreds of Airmen who arrived here many weeks ago for some tough leadership training made it through to their graduation day at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center.

There were many outstanding efforts. Officials from the Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center announced high achievements in the recent Noncommissioned Officer Academy and Airman Leadership School during an April 4 graduation ceremony.

"I'm proud of you," said Chief Master Sgt. Donald Felch, Lankford EPME Center commandant. "You are to be better leaders as a result of it."

Noncommissioned Officer Academy's, Tech. Sgt. Brian Zeisel, from Alaska, and Airman Leadership School's Staff Sgt. Merci Sand from Minnesota, earned the Commandant Award.

Academic achievement awards were presented to NCOA's Tech. Sgt. Sharlene Shuler from South Carolina and ALS's Senior Airman Adam Wilde from Illinois. There were 33 other Distinguished Graduates in the combined group of 323 students.

The John L. Levitow Award, the highest award bestowed for any Air Force enlisted PME, was earned by Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Huber, from Whiteman Air Force Base, and Senior Airman Joseph Pico from New York.

"It's amazing," said Pico, after receiving the top honor. "I would not have been able to achieve it without my flight." He made lifelong friends during the school, he said.

Pico is assigned to the 106th Rescue Wing, New York Air National Guard, in Long Island.

He said his course work challenged and rewarded him. "I can take this with me in my civilian job and as an Air Force weapons instructor."

Guest speaker, Chief Master Sgt. Denise Jelinski-Hall, senior enlisted advisor to the chief of the National Guard Bureau, challenged the graduates to achieve their best.

"It does not matter where you came from or what your background is, you can choose what you put your minds to," she said.

"I believe that leaders make themselves available for opportunity," she said.

Jelinski-Hall said that the hopeful leaders should remember to follow and expect the highest standards from their Airmen, using the Air Force's Core Values as well as the best standards and ethics. "Keep grounded on them and you will be successful."

Be the best that you can be, Jelinski-Hall said adding that "professional Airmen lead professional Airmen."

"Congratulations on your graduation," she said.