Traci Stine began to cry as she gave her son Caden a last hug Thursday .
The hug would have to suffice — she couldn’t put into words how she felt as her son entered the Air Force Academy along with the rest of the Class of 2023.
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Like all the parents, she was told it was the last time she would be able to speak to her basic cadet, or doolie, for nearly a month.
For Caden, the parting was also a beginning. Stine had known for a long time that his goal is to be a military pilot.
The Indiana native originally set his sights on Purdue University’s professional flight program. But around the time he entered high school, Stine decided he wanted to join the military.
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“I ... wanted to serve my country and take the hard route through everything,” Stine said.
Stine is one of 1,147 appointees who arrived at the Air Force Academy on Thursday morning for in-processing — the first step of their journey to becoming second lieutenants upon graduation.
Friday marks the beginning of six weeks of basic training.
“You look at these parents, certainly they have an immense amount of love for their son or their daughter,” the academy’s football Coach Troy Calhoun said. “And yet, they’re also pretty practical and have a maturity and a grasp to understand the long-haul advantages that their son or daughter will have.”
Two hallways led out of the room where Traci Stine and other anxious parents waited with their sons and daughters. Appointees walked one way, parents the other.
“Let’s go! C’mon! Hurry up! Don’t run!” the Air Force cadres, senior cadets responsible for training the incoming class, barked as appointees prepared to board the buses.
The bus was full of silent appointees with eyes locked forward under the careful watch of two cadre.
After a short loop around the training fields, the silence was pierced by the cadre’s harsh commands.
“Everyone on this bus, all eyes on me,” Lauren A. Benedict yelled.
As the bus drove around the academy’s roads, Benedict instructed the doolies.
“One day your choices will determine if people live or die,” Benedict said, “The training that will help you make the correct choices starts here and now.”
The bus stopped.
“If you’re ready to give yourself to something bigger than all of us,” Benedict said, “Then get off my bus! Go! Go! Go!”
Sefilina Maile, a swimmer, and one of 286 recruited athletes in the Class of 2023, raced off the bus. A line of cadre awaited her, yelling commands.
Shortly before she got on the bus, she had mixed emotions about what the day would bring.
“I’m excited, but I know it’s going to be hard,” she said. “But I’m excited to get through it.”
As she and the other appointees soon found out, her prediction about the difficulty of the day proved to be right.
The cadre swarmed the appointees with a flurry of demands, instructing them how to stand, where to look, and exactly how to place their hands.
“Your feet will be 22.5 degrees off the center of your body,” a cadre yelled.
Each appointee must repeat the seven basic commands told to them moments before on the bus. Those who stumble or cannot remember are met with harsh rebukes.
Appointees marched under an archway adorned with large silver letters that read, “Integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do.”
Shortly after, they were sworn into the Class of 2023 and officially became basic cadets. Then they completed a short series of administrative tasks, before entering the haircut station.
Male cadets were given a buzz cut. Female cadets were given three minutes to put their hair in a bun, or it would be trimmed.
In the past, clippings were thrown away. But last year, Dr. Shelley Aldrich, a dermatologist at the academy, thought it better to to donate hair if it exceeds 8 inches in length.
“It was heartbreak for her seeing that it was just going to be in the trash,” Tech. Sgt. Daniel Pontillo said. Pontillo works in Aldrich’s office and decided to help out with her project.
Cadets who choose to donate their hair could give to one of five charities. Pontillo began the day hoping that the donation program would be a success. After the first few dozen cadets came through, and no one had donated, he lowered his expectations.
“I’ll count success if we get one,” Pontillo said.
For the incoming class, the haircut station is one of a few moments of peace in a stress-filled day. But for the cadre, the intensity of the day is quite different.
“It’s a lot more fun than I thought,” one cadre laughed. “But it’s exhausting.”