For the nearly 1,200 Air Force Academy freshmen who reported for basic training Thursday, everything was different.

Masked and spread out, they only got a brief passenger seat goodbye with parents who were asked to stay in their cars. Coronavirus screening, coronavirus precautions and a coronavirus test greeted the new cadets, who got physical training gear, but no Air Force uniforms, as leaders sought to curb the pandemic's threat.

Even the footprints — the first place where new cadets are placed in formation for their introduction to cadet life — were repainted to keep them 6 feet apart.

But some things never change, like that introduction and its instant, loud messages on the importance of military discipline.

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"You have chosen to sacrifice your personal pride for your brothers and sisters in uniform," senior cadet Teresa Kozak barked at the newcomers on the footprints.

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The freshmen also frequently got a new safety reminder Thursday. "Pull that mask up!"

The Air Force Academy has worked for months to arrange the greeting. As the school sent most cadets home in March in a bid to slow the spread of the virus, some wondered if the class of 2024 would even have basic training.

Capt. Dennis Lynn sat through planning meetings that began long before coronavirus put the campus on quarantine. In recent months, dozens of leaders have gathered in electronic meetings to hammer out the specifics.

For the first day of training, the emphasis was on getting freshman cadets, "doolies" in academy parlance, through the grind of paperwork and medical checks safely.

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"It was about figuring out space and areas ... where we can maintain 6 feet of social distancing," Lynn said.

Lines of cadets that would normally wind through offices across the campus were eliminated. Instead, the offices came to them. Much of the paperwork was accomplished in the cavernous indoor football practice field, where 100 yards and two end zones helped spread out tables to move cadets through rapidly and well-spaced.

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With the exception of their dormitory rooms,  where the incoming freshmen will live with a roommate, and physical training, they are masked at all times.

Even close-order drill isn't close these days.

"When we are marching them around the campus, we must maintain social distancing," said Master Sgt. Michael Walsh, a training instructor.

Walsh and other sergeants wearing the wide-brimmed drill-instructor hats are on hand to help cadets run basic training.

The academy's four-year training system used Monday's event to train cadets at all levels. Seniors and juniors learn to lead and how to set the example for freshmen. Freshmen learn how to follow orders while soaking up the specifics of life in uniform.

Walsh has told the cadet drill instructors that all the yelling that comes with basic training must also serve a purpose.

"They are not just there to make noise," he said. "They are trying to get them to follow instructions instantly."

From a safe distance, the cadet cadre have increased the volume of lectures that were delivered a few inches from a trainees face last year.

On the footprints, the storm of yells aimed at the freshmen rivaled the decibels of a jet engine on takeoff. The voices of the female trainers occasionally pierced through the roaring din.

"Do I LOOK like a SIR?" one asked an unfortunate freshman who appended the wrong pronoun to a the words "I do not know."

Some traditional parts of basic training, like a course in the use of gas masks, have been pushed later in the year in the interest of social distancing during the pandemic. The new cadets will have to wait a few for their first terror-inducing meal in Mitchell Hall, where the freshmen are taught exactly how to eat — one's back may never touch the back of the chair, for instance.

Instead, until the coronavirus tests come back, the freshmen will eat safely distanced with takeout meals in the dorms.

For all the social distancing, though, the academy is still emphasizing the close bonds the new cadets will need to develop quickly.

"Stick together!" Kozak barked at her freshmen charges. "You will not successfully complete basic training on your own."

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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