Air Force Academy cadets arrive in Colorado Springs where they go through the transition of civilian life, to that of a cadet preparing to become a military officer. Here, cadets learn everything from how to wear the Air Force uniform for the first time, to fully discovering the reality that they are not going to have the typical college experience, but an experience that requires them to live by the Air Force core values and standard.
(U.S. Air Force video/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
Cadet 2nd Class Aaron Goins sensed the excitement from across the parking lot. He could feel the nervous tension as hundreds of men and women, most only months removed from high school, were about to get the jolt of their young lives.
Not long ago, he was in their shoes. But now, as a U.S. Air Force Academy upperclassman, it’s his job to help get the newly arrived freshman cadets settled into the environment where they’ll spend the next four years transforming into Air Force officers.
The class of 2018 appointees made their way across a small parking lot to Doolittle Hall, where they gathered with friends and family to hear remarks from senior Air Force Academy leaders. They were told to get their cries and goodbyes out of the way because once they stepped through the doorway, their four years of training would begin.
Once inside, the nervous appointees made their way from station to station, signing forms and dropping off personal records, all building to the moment they were hauled away to basic cadet training. Their in-processing day had officially begun.
Soon after, they found themselves roped off from loved ones, in a line leading toward the open door of a bus, where they met the cadre responsible for training them.
“You look down the aisle (of the bus) … you see fear in most all of them,” said Goins, a member of the bus cadre for in-processing day.
As the bus pulls away, the new cadets’ families and friends wave and shout goodbyes, but the cadets don’t notice, as they’ve been directed by the bus cadre to face forward and sit at attention. They ride in absolute silence across the unfamiliar Academy grounds before getting their first taste of basic cadet training from two upperclassmen, who until now, haven’t done much to acknowledge their existence.
“Everyone on this bus — all eyes on me!” said Cadet 1st Class GenisGuzman, a senior at the Academy and member of the cadre. “You are now basic cadets. From now on, you will not speak unless spoken to. One day, the decisions you make could determine whether someone lives or dies. The training that will help you make these choices begins here and now. My cadre and I are here to prepare you for the challenges you will face both as cadets and as officers.”
Over the course of the 10-minute bus ride, stunned basic cadets listen as they’re given their first set of instructions and general knowledge information, which unbeknownst to them, they would be required to recite perfectly in only a matter of minutes, with proper courtesy titles, after exiting the bus.
“Before they come here they have an idea … (but) a lot of them don’t realize what basic is really going to be like,” Guzman said. “It’s a fire-hose treatment, but you pick everything up and do your best to execute.”
Guzman challenges the busload and sets the standard they will be expected to adhere to during their time at the Academy.
“I will warn you now, if you are going to choose a path of mediocrity, do not insult my cadre or the long blue line by exiting this bus,” he said. “If you are not a person of absolute integrity, stay on my bus. If you accept the minimum as your personal standard, stay on my bus. If you are not willing to sacrifice your personal comfort, your safety or your life for this great nation and defend it, stay on my bus.
“If you are ready to commit yourself to something bigger than us all, selflessly devote yourself as a warrior and fight for this great nation, then pick up your things and get off my bus!”
As the basics hurriedly exit the bus, a long line of cadre shout instructions at them from every direction. They head for the “footprints,” which are painted red to signify their class color and align their feet, where they stand at attention and await what’s next.
The position of attention is explained in detail, after which, cadre are instructed to “fall out and make corrections.” They work their way through the formation of basics, correcting posture and hand positions, while quizzing the cadets on the information given to them on the bus.
Goins said the footprints are an immediate test of a cadet’s ability to think under pressure with sensory overload. It shows them, “you’re not going to college; you’re coming to the military.” He added, “There are a lot easier places (they) can go for college, but they choose to come here.”From the flurry of activity on the footprints, the cadets progress, single file, through a maze of buildings and rooms in the cadet area of the Academy grounds. In a haze, they find their way through medical processing, haircuts and uniform issue. The shock and awe of their first day in the military, Goins said, is a lot for basic cadets to wrap their heads around.
“I remember very little from I-day after the bus and the footprints,” he said of his own experience at BCT.
Once the dust of their first day settles, the basics find themselves in their dorms, their heads still spinning from the chaotic day. It’s at this point they have a moment to reflect.
“I had that thought, ‘Why am I here? I could just be home relaxing … I’d have an entire summer break before college,’” Guzman said. “That’s when (basics) think, ‘Do I really want to be here? This is only the first day. It’s only going to get harder from here.’”
As night falls, the cadets lie down and attempt to sleep, but according to Guzman, after what feels like the blink of an eye, it’s time for that first wake up call.
“I don’t think I’d ever woken up at 4:30 in the morning in my life,” he said. “Having people knock on your door, sirens going off, whistles blowing and people yelling, you open up your door in your (pajamas) and people are yelling that you should be in your uniform already.”
The basics frantically attempt to adhere to the instructions from their cadre, but as Goins noted, they are waking up in a new, unfamiliar place, having just slept in a new bed, trying to properly put on their uniforms for only the second time in their lives.
Somewhere between their in-processing day, first wake up and first meal, the cadets realize they won’t be able to take BCT one step, week or day at a time; they will need to survive meal to meal, Goins said.
Validation for the cadets is on the horizon though, as everything they’ve done so far has led up to the point when they swear in, as a class, in front of loved ones and senior Academy leadership. After a quick introduction to formation marching, the cadets make their way to the parade field, in their first formation, render their first official salutes and reaffirm their reasons for applying to the Academy.
“You’re confused and out of step, but you kind of end up walking over there together … then you take the oath,” Goins said. “It’s a great sense of pride knowing that you’re taking the oath to defend your country and you’re willing to put your life on the line … it helps make it real. That’s when it hits you that you are in the military.”
The cadre will now take the basics through six weeks of training, teaching them the military knowledge they need for their time at the Academy. Voluntary cadre positions offer upperclassmen who’ve been through BCT their first leadership roles. They get to see the “why?” behind it all, Goins said.
“The biggest thing that I didn’t realize in basic is that this isn’t just for the basics,” Goins said. “This is for the cadre as well. This is where (the cadre) learn to develop a leadership style. This is the first time you’re really thrown into the fire and told, ‘Here are 20 people; you and (your fellow cadre) are responsible for their wellbeing.’”
Goins said keeping the reason cadets applied to the Academy in the forefront of their minds is vital to the cadets’ success through BCT.
“(Cadets) should feel honored,” he said. “(They) worked hard to get the opportunity to try out. (They) worked hard to be able to work harder for the next four years.”