After hugging their families goodbye a last time and passing under the "Recruits Only" sign on Thursday morning, members of the Air Force Academy's Class of 2021 were led to the main campus by upperclassmen barking orders that would dictate their lives for the next year.
Keep your arms pinned to the seams of their pants and your feet at a 45-degree angle; catch up to the person in front of you, but never run; walk only on the marble tiles, not the concrete; be ready to set aside your pride for the team; and maintain composure even if other cadets are screaming at you to do push-ups and blowing whistles in your face.
Without a let-up in the torrent of orders, the cadets were led to their ritual shearing - haircuts intended to make them indistinguishable from the other male or female basics. Some lose mere millimeters of hair. Others are unrecognizable. All leave in an orderly fashion, their civilian lives left behind.
Every freshman entering the academy experiences this abrupt transition, known as Doolie Day. During this annual event, more than 1,200 would-be cadets were processed and embarked on their six-week training.
Training includes physical conditioning, marching drills, uniform and dorm inspections, weapons inspection and lessons on honor and ethics. Three weeks are spent on the main campus, and the rest are in the rural training area known as Jacks Valley.
"Doolie Day is the second-best day at the Air Force Academy, only after graduation," Chief Master Sgt. Bob Vasquez said, as he shook the hand of every basic before they left their parents. "By definition, these are the best in the world, and starting today, we will mold and shape them into the best officers in the world for the best Air Force in the world."
Before the recruits left their families, they were reminded that the next four years leading up to potentially being commissioned second lieutenants would not be easy.
"This will be tough, but the things that we value the most are the hard things," Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin, the 28th Commandant of Cadets.
For the families listening, the first challenge is saying goodbye. The Bushelman sisters, twins Mollie and Morgan, have never been apart for longer than a week, so for Morgan, who will attend the University of Kentucky, Mollie's departure for the academy is bittersweet.
"I'm nervous for her, since we've never been separated for a long period of time," Morgan said. "But I'm excited for her, too."
For all the intensity, rigor and familial separation that comes with attending the academy, the recruits had one last moment before stepping into training to ask themselves the question that brought them here: Why the Air Force Academy?
"Why not?" Devon Connors, a basic cadet from Tampa, Fla., who will play football for Air Force, said. "It's the best education, best football and best college experience."
Like many parents hugging their children goodbye, Connors' mother, Sandra, wanted to hold on. "No, I'm not ready," she said with a smile.
Connors' father, an Air Force Academy alumnus, patted his son on the back. "He's ready to fly."