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Eulogists: Cadet's heart led him to Air Force Academy, skydiving

May 18, 2017 Updated: May 18, 2017 at 7:24 pm
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photo - A poster of Cadet 1st Class (senior) Kaleb Estes, of Cadet Squadron 39, stands behind the Cadet Wing Honor Guard during their posting of the colors for Estes'  memorial service that held at Cadet Protestant Chapel on Thursday May 18, 2017. Estes died May 7 in a commercial skydiving accident near Ellicott, Colorado. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette.
A poster of Cadet 1st Class (senior) Kaleb Estes, of Cadet Squadron 39, stands behind the Cadet Wing Honor Guard during their posting of the colors for Estes' memorial service that held at Cadet Protestant Chapel on Thursday May 18, 2017. Estes died May 7 in a commercial skydiving accident near Ellicott, Colorado. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette. 

Cadet Kaleb Estes didn't let much slow him down.

Mourners at a Thursday memorial service for the senior cadet remembered how he came back from an earlier skydiving injury so serious that it landed him in Craig Hospital, Colorado's premier facility for spinal injuries.

"He would always respond 'Yes Ma'am' when I chastised him for doing wheelies in his wheelchair," recalled eulogist Lt. Col Meredith Beavers, who commanded Estes' cadet squadron.

Estes was determined to return to the sky. He died May 7 in a skydiving accident that remains under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.

His death, so close to next Wednesday's graduation was a powerful blow for Estes' classmates who gathered in the school's Cadet Chapel Thursday.

"Our hearts are full of grief, questions and even fear," Lt. Col. Mike Newton, a chaplain, said during the service.

AFGA MEMORIAL

A memorial service for Cadet 1st Class (senior) Kaleb Estes of Cadet Squadron 39 was held at Cadet Protestant Chapel on Thursday May 18, 2017. Estes died May 7 in a commercial skydiving accident near Ellicott, Colorado. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette.

 

Fear wasn't something Estes seemed to know much about. He was a skydiver with more than 500 jumps. He was a base jumper, skate-boarder and part-time philosopher who was seen as one of the brightest members of the class of 2017.

Classmates described him as an inspiration and a leader others gladly followed.

"There was something about him," said fellow senior cadet Graham Johnson.

The pride of Hartselle High School in rural Alabama, he gave the valedictory speech at his 2009 high school graduation.

"You will never be truly happy until you follow your heart," Estes told his fellow graduates.

AFGA MEMORIAL

A member of the Cadet rifle team leaves after a volley of shots following the memorial service at Cadet Protestant Chapel on Thursday May 18, 2017 for 1st Class (senior) Kaleb Estes. Estes, who was part of Cadet Squadron 39, died May 7 in a commercial skydiving accident near Ellicott, Colorado. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette.

 

Estes did just that. He spent two years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham before his heart told him to head for Colorado Springs and a life in uniform.

He didn't fear that life in the military came with risks.

"In the midst of a 16-year conflict, when you sign up, you know what could happen," explained Capt. Daniel Walker, a chaplain.

Leaders at the academy spotted something special about Estes soon after he started at the school.

"He wanted to do exciting things with his life," said Brig. Gen. Kristin Goodwin, the school's commandant of cadets.

Estes was a cadet who always seemed to be in motion, pursuing his own adventures while counseling others on their plans.

"I don't think there was anything Kaleb loved more than adrenaline," Beavers said.

Amid the push for bigger and bigger challenges, Estes wasn't seen as reckless.

When younger cadets would come to his often parachute-strewn dorm room looking for advice before attempting a daring stunt, Estes would urge them to slow down and think through their plans.

AFGA MEMORIAL

A memorial service for Cadet 1st Class (senior) Kaleb Estes of Cadet Squadron 39 was held at Cadet Protestant Chapel on Thursday May 18, 2017. Estes died May 7 in a commercial skydiving accident near Ellicott, Colorado. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette.

 

"Kaleb saved at least 20 cadets' lives," Johnson recalled.

Estes kept skydiving, eulogists said, because it put him in touch with something that was bigger than himself.

"He truly lived his life," Johnson said.

Sure, he was smart. He made many friends. His classmates admired him. He didn't need to take risks to be cool.

But his passion for the sky was part of that package, eulogists said.

"It was his heart that brought all those talents and abilities together," Goodwin said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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