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Air Force Academy basics complete rites of passage during last days in Jacks Valley

By TONY PECK | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: August 1, 2018

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — The Air Force Academy class of 2022 is days away from completing basic cadet training, but before basics can leave Jacks Valley, they must complete two iconic rites of passage.

The first hurdle consists of donning gas masks and braving a room full of tear gas. Next, the culminating event of basic training: surviving the infamous assault course of wooden obstacles, smoke grenades and a cacophony of screaming cadre.

Wearing black gas masks and layers of protective clothing, basics lined up single file to enter a large container as white smoke leaked from the doors. Inside, the basics tested their gear, relying on the battlefield technology to protect them from tear gas.

But before they exited the container, they had to “break the seal,” lifting the gas masks off their faces and taking deep breaths of the acrid smoke.

“It is completely unlike anything I had done up to that point in my life,” said Liam Connolly, a senior cadet in charge of the tear-gas training. “It is a rite of passage for a lot of people who join the military, regardless of branch.”

Learning to trust equipment is the primary goal for this part of the training, Connolly said. But learning to overcome panic is equally important.

“You feel that panic, but you keep a presence of mind and everything starts to settle down,” he said. “After about 30 seconds (after exiting), you can see them relax. That is indicative that their training is paying off.”

Later, after basics coughed the tear gas out of their lungs and washed it from their eyes, they marched to the assault course — the ultimate physical and mental test.

Basics crawled through the mud and under barbed wire. Smoke swirled overhead as the cadre blew whistles, yelled commands and made the new cadets do push-ups and squats.

At the end of the course, the exhausted cadets assumed a fighting stance and yelled, “Only the strong survived,” words etched into a plaque over their final obstacle, a waist-high wooden wall.

“We want to make them feel accomplishment at the end,” said Luke Dekker, the cadet in charge of the assault course.

Crawling over the sweat-soaked wall is a moment filled with pride, he said. “If you ask any grad, Jacks Valley and the assault course is what they remember.”

For many, it is the first lesson in the difference between failing and quitting, Dekker said. The experience helps basics learn to bridge the gap between mental and physical determination.

“They have to earn that last wall,” Dekker said. “During the course, you can’t rely on anyone but yourself. We really make it a rite of passage.”

©2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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