Freshmen cadets get ready to be recognized

Class of 2016 cadets brave freezing temperatures and snow on their “Run to the Rock,” March 9, 2013. The run is an annual Academy tradition heralding the start of Recognition for freshman cadets. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Sarah Chambers)

Class of 2016 cadets brave freezing temperatures and snow on their “Run to the Rock,” March 9, 2013. The run is an annual Academy tradition heralding the start of Recognition for freshman cadets. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Sarah Chambers)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Recognition, which started Thursday, is more than just a tradition at the Air Force Academy: It's also a chance for upperclassmen to see whether freshmen are ready to become leaders, three cadets who are involved with planning for the event said Tuesday.

"Recognition is the culminating trial for fourth-class cadets to prove they have learned the followership traits we've been trying to teach them," said Cadet 1st Class Niko Ruud, a major training events officer in Cadet Squadron 17.

"Beyond that, our squadron's taken a particular focus this year on making them understand there's a lot of responsibility after Recognition," said Ruud, a Milwaukee native who was a flight commander for the freshmen in his squadron during the first phase of Basic Cadet Training last summer. "Once the freshman year is over ... you're starting to learn to lead. That's a big milestone."

The idea behind Recognition is to create a stressful but safe environment that will strip away fourth-class cadets' illusions about their capabilities, said Cadet 1st Class Taylor Scott, the cadet training officer for Cadet Group 2.

"We're looking to make sure they're not going to crack under environments of extreme pressure," said Scott, a native of Anderson, Ind. "When you're faced with extreme stress, extreme pressure, like the world's kind of caving in around you, do you just fold under that pressure? Or do you rise up and meet the challenge?"

Cadet 1st Class Tim Cordeiro, a training officer with CS-17, said the upperclassmen are looking to reveal the fourth-class cadets' character.

"Your true character comes out once we strip away all the shells that we can put up when we're not in a stressful situation," said Cordeiro, a Boston native. "During Recognition, especially Thursday and Friday night when they're at their highest stress levels, we get to see who they truly are -- and they get to see who they truly are. They get to see how they perform in stressful environments."

"We're looking for heart," Scott said. "We're looking for who's not going to quit."

Ruud said the upperclassmen look for the same drive that allowed the freshmen to enter the Academy in the first place.

"It takes a lot to become a cadet at the Air Force Academy," he said. "We all know that they have it in them, but they may not know that yet. That's what Recognition is all about. They wouldn't be getting good grades while playing sports and doing extracurricular activities in high school if they didn't have this thing that we're looking for. They wouldn't be making it through Basic Cadet Training and the Assault Course in Jacks Valley if they didn't have this thing that we're looking for."

Everyone thinks there's a point where they can't continue, Scott said, but the goal of Recognition is to move the freshmen to -- and then through -- that point.

"The purpose of this weekend is ... to show that you can go so much farther than your brain has limited you ... that your potential is so much greater than what you think it is right now," he said.

Pushing through that crucible helps cadets during their upper-class years, Cordeiro said.

"A lot of people tell (fourth-class cadets) that freshman year's the hardest, but really, it's just the most frustrating," he said. "It's definitely not the hardest year. They're going to face a lot of trials ahead, so it's important to make sure they're ready for that.

"When they feel task-saturated as a junior with all the jobs they have to do, their classes and maybe a sports team, they realize, 'I can do this. I've done it before, and I can continue to do it,'" Cordeiro continued.

Recognition incorporates the Academy's cadet leadership model, with sophomores leading small groups of freshmen, juniors overseeing larger groups and seniors coordinating the overall event, Ruud said.

"We have three days, and we made three themes for Recognition," he said. "Thursday night's going to be focused on the individual showing us that they have found ... that heart that Taylor talked about. Friday, we're going to be focused on this team idea.

"The last day is on responsibility. What does it mean to be responsible not just for yourself ... but also other people," Ruud said. "We have three days to get that whole mentality across that they're going to use for the next three years."

The payoff for freshmen who make it through Recognition is as immediate as it is long-lasting, Scott said.

"You see the looks on their faces as they're going through this," he said. "When they get their prop and wings, it's a humbling experience.