Chippewa Herald * April 11, 2013     Hit Counter by Digits

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Academy life gets easier after Recognition

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

On the way to the airport Easter Sunday, our son Jasper was complaining that he was starting to feel a little nauseous.

It wasn't that he had too much Easter candy -- Jasper never was that much into sweets, despite his paternal parental heritage. It was a conditioned response to getting back on the plane bound for the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

He has made this journey several times, but the last three -- reporting to basic training in June, and returning from home vacations after Thanksgiving and Christmas -- gave his subconscious good reason to start dreading it. He called his feeling "gut-wrenching."

But this time there was no good reason, now that he has undergone "Recognition." That was the milestone in March when all the freshmen at the Academy transitioned from being "doolies" (Greek for "slaves") to regular cadets.

I wrote a few months ago about the hardships doolies endured every day in the summer and fall: eating at attention, being required to run on the lines, carrying their backpack in their left hand, executing perfect ninety-degree turns at all times, and constant "knowledge tests" about military subjects.

That was all bad enough, but it got WORSE when they reported back after Christmas break. There's a process called "Forty Days" leading up to Recognition that really puts the freshmen to the test.

Jasper was not able to divulge specifics about some of the hardships imposed by his squadron during the Forty Days, but I've heard stories from years past. One squadron made each doolie carry a heavy brick with them everywhere they went. And I do mean EVERYWHERE -- yes, even the bathroom and the shower.

Like everything else at the Academy, all these hardships are designed to build character.

Some cadets have responsibilities beyond college courses, athletics, and military drills. In Jasper's case, he was appointed "Class Rep" for the 25 freshmen in his squadron. One of his challenges was coordinating the seemingly easy task of taking out the trash three times a week for his squadron of about 100 cadets.

At first he went door to door, asking all the other doolies to come help him take out the trash.

The results were not inspiring.

Most of them needed "just a few more minutes" to finish up a homework problem or some other task. Usually Jasper was lucky to get five out of the 25 to help him. That's when he decided to try a new approach.

The squadron was already divided into three "flights," with about eight freshmen in each flight. So Jasper took it upon himself to choose a "trash leader" in each of the three flights, and gave that leader the responsibility for his flight taking out the garbage once a week.

The trash leaders were able to corral their eight doolies to do the deed because they knew they could no longer assume it would be done by the other 24; it was up to only them. All Jasper had to do was remind each trash leader once a week.

It worked perfectly! All of that Senior Patrol Leader experience in Boy Scouts has paid off.

The Recognition training, like the Forty Days, is mostly secret. But suffice it to say that if you think the Forty Days is hard, the final Forty Hours leading up to Recognition is pure nonstop misery.

It all ends, however, with an emotional ceremony where upperclassmen pin their "prop and wings" on freshmen they think are deserving of the honor. Then they enjoy a great meal together.

Many former cadets have said that you can break down life at the Air Force Academy into three parts -- a third is basic training, another third is the rest of your doolie year until Recognition, and the final third is the next 3.2 years. So by that measure, Jasper is now two-thirds done with his Academy education!

Of course, there still is parachuting and Combat Survival Training coming up this summer. When Jasper's brother Ben did CST four years ago, each team of three received some cuddly friends to take along on their journey: a live chicken and bunny rabbit. These pets kept the cadets company when they ventured the woods with very little food, but for some reason, the pets all seemed to disappear by the end of the eight days.

We knew Jasper was back to normal when we found one of his little gifts waiting for us at home after dropping him off at the airport: When Beth turned on the kitchen sink, she got drenched by the sprayer, which had been lovingly taped open as a last act of kindness by a departing Academy freshman the previous day. He also didn't forget the old Saran-Wrap-covering-the-toilet trick.

(For the information of readers lacking adolescent boys at home, Easter Sunday also happened to be April Fool's Eve.)

It's nice to know Jasper hasn't changed too much.

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