COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The fading pigment of purple lined the bottom of Victoria Yeaste’s left eyelid, highlighted by a scabbed-over cut millimeters away.
The shiner was a painful reminder of the 18-year-old’s first encounter with combat training.
Hundreds of Air Force Academy “basics” walked out of Jacks Valley on Saturday — a right of passage signaling the end of field training and the final phase of their sweat-laden introduction to the Air Force.
They marched en route to their final week of basic cadet training, which ends Saturday. But before any “basics” could leave Jacks Valley, each faced a grueling test in the woods a few miles of the terrazzo.
The assault course — a dirt trail laden with obstacles, smoke bombs and a “cadre” of upperclassmen yearning to put a hurt on the academy’s latest recruits — marks the hardest physical challenge for each “basic” during field training.
Yeaste’s black eye offered a hint of the challenge she faced.
During a practice run through the course, a fellow cadet accidentally kicked the Lawrenceburg, Ky. native when they were told to drop to the ground for a “grenade” drill — an exercise forcing “basics” to fall on their bellies and get back up as quick as possible.
“We made a nice connection,” Yeaste said, grinning.
For Charlie Flight of Demons Squadron — a group of about 25 “basics” hailing from across the country — the test came three days before leaving Jacks Valley.
“Get through the A-course and you’re home free,” said Nelson Onwuzu, a “basic” from Tyler, Texas. “The rest is cake.”
Roughly 50 boots belonging to “basics” in Charlie Flight stomped the ground in unison, kicking up dirt. Three seconds and four stops later, the “basics” finally spoke up through the dust.
“Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora, Ka ora,” they proclaimed, parrying their rifles and each muzzle into ghost targets. “Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora, Ka ora.”
Basic cadet training’s most grueling test began with a rugby chant.
The course is the centerpiece of field training meant to test the elementary combat skills and endurance taught during the “basics’” stay at Jacks Valley, where cadets spend two of their five weeks of basic cadet training learning elementary combat skills.
Academy officials counted 1,035 recruits when basic cadet training began on June 28. When the flight marched into Jacks Valley nearly two weeks ago, 997 remained.
The assault course occasionally weeds out a few more. The academy counted 992 “basics” remaining when Charlie Flight readied for their turn through the course.
Charlie Flight would face an untold number of exercises later in the day for their impromptu show of gumption. That bit of initiative showed the camaraderie they’ve developed. But “basics” also need to learn the central tenant of basic cadet training: Turning high school leaders into followers willing to take orders.
“It’s kind of like: Break them down individually and build them up as a team,” said Brandon Eaves, 20, an upperclassmen who helped oversee Wednesday’s activities. “It’s kind of like a war between us and them ... it’s who’s stronger.”
The “cadre,” though, waited to tip their hand.
Looking to burn off a bit of that extra energy before the assault course, the “cadre” ordered a pugil stick competition — a bout between two “basics” wielding foam-padded sticks used to clobber each other in a dirt ring.
Grins on their faces, the “cadre” matched the tallest “basics” with the shortest.
A “mighty” 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds, Vincent Webbe soon found himself battling a 6-foot-4, 235-pound football recruit inside the ring.
A few thumps by Webbe’s opponent — Dan Menendez, 19, from Chicago, Ill. — was all it took to end the match.
“To be truthful, I want a rematch,” Webbe gripped, a smile on his face.
He soon learned to savor those extra moments of rest.
Red smoke rose in the woods south of Charlie Flight. The sound of grenades echoed.
Minutes before entering the assault course, Nick DeJulio, 22, a cadet entering his senior year, ordered his “basics” to dodge dozens of “grenades.” He ordered lunges, squats and low crawls. Then came pushups.
“You don’t want people to go ‘Oh, it was easier when you were here,’” DeJulio said.
Crawling through the dirt, the “basics” in Charlie Flight began sounding a different chant. Gasping through the dust, the cadets sang “I love the Air Force” over and over — a final ode to their “cadre” before plunging into the course.
First came a countless string of “grenade” drills, followed by a crawl beneath barbed wire that grew progressively closer to the ground.
“Get your face in the dirt,” a cadre member yelled. “I don’t want to look at your face.”
A series of wood-beam hurdles followed, leading the way to rifle parry exercises, tunnels and a second rifle maneuver requiring “basics” to thrust the muzzle of their rifle into a foam dummy.
Before they could reach any of that, one cadre member had a question for Webbe.
The “basic” beside him served as his “battle buddy” of the moment. That basic just happened to be Menendez, who administered the earlier beating.
All the cadre wanted to know was Menendez’ hometown. Webbe hesitated.
“Grenade,” the “cadre” yelled, swift punishment for Webbe’s inattention to detail.
A 20-yard ditch covered with a tarp lay ahead, followed by a stern-faced “cadre” member unimpressed with the youth before her.
Noticing one “basic” barely holding onto his rifle, she grabbed the weapon and frowned.
“What do we need to do to get this rifle back,” she asked.
“16 pushups,” another “basic” replied.
Nodding her head, she agreed — only to bark out a few more commands.
“Stop acting tired,” she yelled. “You’re not tired.”
A six-foot tall wall greeted cadets who “duck walked” 30 yards away from the ill-contented “cadre,” followed by a crawl beneath more barbed wire.
Exhausted, some “basics” tried to butter-up the “cadre”, in the hopes of escaping more pushups. Two cadets recited an old Chris Farley routine, remarking the greatness of former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka. Their breathless jokes earned a couple smiles — and more “grenades.”
Yeaste and her battle buddy, Miranda Bray, 18, also remembered trying a few jokes.
“Sir, oxygen and potassium went on a date,” Yeaste recalled. “It was OK.”
“The ones that failed chemistry didn’t like the oxygen one,” Bray said.
Most simply put their head down and accepted the fate of physical pain.
“They keep pushing because they see the end,” Eaves said. “The one thing you want to do is finish.”
A crawl through a mud-filled pit, two more walls and countless more “grenade” drills left them at the final obstacle: Several “cadre” and a short wall leading to relaxation — and a shower.
Webbe cleared it fine. Yeaste escaped uninjured as well — embracing her “battle buddy” as she crawled over the final wall about 45 minutes after beginning the course.
Menendez, however, neared the final obstacle with one arm at his side, limp.
Clearing the wall, he cursed. He felt the shoulder pop out of socket during a “grenade” drill dozens of yards before the finish line.
His shoulder dislocated, Menendez still managed a smile.
“I wanted to finish,” Menendez said. “I want to be a cadet. I came here for a reason.”