Despite The Pandemic, The Air Force Academy Welcomes The Next Class Of Cadets

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Christian Murdock/The Gazette, Pool
Upperclassmen yell at the incoming cadets on the footprints that were spaced 6 feet apart Thursday, June 25, 2020, at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The COVID-19 pandemic gave the annual tradition at the Air Force Academy a much different look with cadets in masks, hand sanitizer at every station and the class of 2024 social distancing as they went through the process.

The next class of cadets arrived for basic training at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Thursday, going through a pandemic-altered version of the institution’s traditional “In-processing Day.”

The event still served its primary purpose as initiation for the new freshmen: They received Air Force compliant haircuts and physical training clothes; they passed medical and physical standards of the service branch; filled out Academy paperwork and were introduced to their roommates.

Yet, the pandemic altered other traditions. Where normally parents say goodbye at the Academy’s Doolittle Hall, on Thursday appointees were unceremoniously dropped off by parents who were asked not to leave their cars. Members of the new class were each handed a black face mask and sent to socially distant check-in tables at the football team’s indoor practice field — all in an effort to keep the cadets as widely spaced as possible.

The Academy expected 1,167 cadets for the in-processing, of which an all-time high 30-percent are women. Once they passed the initial screening, the masked freshmen loaded onto buses in small groups, then brought around to the entrance of the Core Values Ramp — a tunnel to the center of the campus. Above the ramp it reads, “Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence in All We Do.”

Christian Murdock/The Gazette, Pool
Members of the class of 2024 march the Core Values Ramp Thursday, June 25, 2020, during In-Processing Day at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

There, as they got off buses in order to walk through the tunnel, the trainees were put through the most theatrical component of their initiation. Immediately as they stepped off the buses, they fell instantly under a barrage of shouts from upperclassmen in their formal uniforms. 

The idea, said training instructor Master Sgt. Michael Walsh, is to “induce a little bit of stress.”

“They’re trying to get these ‘basics’ to react without hesitation; they’re trying to get them to follow instructions during a chaotic fog of war, if you will,” Walsh said.

After walking through the gauntlet of calls from upperclassmen, the "basic cadets" stood at attention upon blue painted footprints arranged in a socially distant grid, where Cadet First Class Theresa Kozak, a senior at the Academy, announced the moment as the first step of their Air Force experience.

“The expectations are set much higher for you all now. You have chosen to sacrifice your personal pride for your brothers and sisters in arms,” Kozak shouted shortly before sending them up the ramp. 

What follows will be six weeks of basic military training on the sprawling Academy grounds, at the end of which they will be formally accepted as Cadets 4th Class, the academy term for freshmen, ready to begin their four-year education for roles as officers in the Air Force or newly formed U.S. Space Force.