August 1, 2013 Updated: August 1, 2013 at 10:29 pm
The Air Force Academy's class of 2017 wraps up basic training Friday with a historic distinction.
The lowest dropout rate.
In three weeks of grueling basic training at the academy's Jack's Valley, only one freshman has quit. Overall, the class that arrived with 1,190 cadets in June, will head to class this month only 30 cadets smaller.
Unlike most military basic training programs, the academy offers its cadets an easy out - they can walk away from basic. It was a tool once seen as a way to cull weaker members from the class.
Routinely, freshmen would leave by the dozen.
In 2013, though, the freshmen were greeted by a new basic training philosophy and leaders who focused on keeping cadets.
"It's as good as basic cadet training has ever gone," said Brig. Gen. Gregory Lengyel, the academy's commandant of cadets.
Training remains tough, Lengyel said Thursday as he watched muddy freshmen finish an obstacle course.
But training now is accomplished with respect, a minimum of yelling and a maximum of expectations, he said.
While the freshmen sweat in the mud, their upper classmen trainers and academy brass are in there with them. Even Lengyel completed the obstacle course and other challenges.
Senior Nate Bratka, the 6-foot-7 cadet in change of the basic training program, went through the obstacle course carrying a 60-pound log. In one section, where he had to squirm his massive frame beneath barbed wire, trainers made Bratka go through 11 times, until he did it perfectly.
Bratka said the ordeal showed freshmen the resolve they show in basic training doesn't vanish when they leave Jack's Valley.
"This is what fanatical pride is all about," Bratka said.
On the final day of basic, as cadets went through ordeals of strength and stamina, senior cadet Erik Schweiss led a flight of chanting cadets. They waved brooms and shook the valley with whooping yells.
It was just one more way to show freshmen they're part of a team; one more reason not to quit.
"We're the cheerleaders," Schweiss explained.
Freshman cadet Joey Carl said basic training has changed him in more than one way.
The would-be offensive lineman is in the best shape of his life.
"I lost 23 pounds," Carl said.
But basic has done more than that.
"It's finding who you really are and testing your limits," he said. "You feel like a new person."