The Air Force Academy's class of 2019 will finish basic training about 6 percent smaller than it was when the basics arrived at the school in June.

The class began with 1,248 would-be cadets on June 26. But a basic training that commanders call the most challenging test of cadets in recent years pared the ranks to 1,177 - with 71 of the freshman dropping out to resume civilian life.

Unlike other military basic trainees, academy basics can leave voluntarily and have the option to drop out without penalty until the end of their sophomore year.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Williams, the school's commandant of cadets, said the attrition at basic training leaves the school with cadets committed to defending their country and striving for excellence.

"We're going to challenge them over and over again," he said.

Attrition rates at basic training had dropped in recent years, with just 30 basic cadets leaving training in 2013. Since then, leaders say they've turned up the pressure on freshmen.

Cadet 1st class Taylor Perkins, the basic training cadet commander, said trainers want every basic cadet to succeed. One innovation for 2015 was a "physical training card" that sets limits for how much exercise freshmen can be asked to accomplish. Upperclassmen use it to ensure they aren't pushing the freshmen too hard.

"One of the things I'm most proud of is the professionalism," Perkins said, noting that the upper-class cadets who run basic training worked to ensure that everything they did taught the trainees a lesson they will need for Air Force life.

"It's about having a purpose to the training we are doing," he said.

Last week, the freshmen met "Big Bad Basic", a morning of combat with well-padded pugil sticks. The freshmen entered a sand-floored arena two at a time to battle in a drill that's designed to simulate bayonet fighting.

Basic cadet Erin Sagisi of Los Angeles took top women's honors and basic cadet Kahner George of Athens, Ga., was the men's winner. Neither was the biggest or the fastest. Their victories came through a combination of luck and skill.

"Each challenge is another milestone," Williams said.

In a new policy, the academy didn't allow the freshmen to speak to reporters during basic training.

Tuesday, the freshmen will trade in their combat uniforms for parade garb for a ceremony that marks their acceptance into the cadet wing. Classes start Thursday.

Perkins said he'll smile at seeing the smaller, tougher class of 2019 finish basic training.

"I'm going to have some pride in the basics and letting them go off into the cadet wing," he said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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