COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration squadron, and the team arrived Tuesday to prepare for Thursday's ceremonial send-off for Air Force Academy's class of 2023.
After checking in at Peterson Air Force Base, the squadron conducted a survey -- flying over the Academy and the performance area above Falcon Stadium, where the commencement exercises will occur.
The roar of six F-16 jets and smoke trails symbolize the first farewell to the Class of 2023 and comes just a few weeks before the Class of 2027 arrives.
Academy officials also made a select group of Cadets 1st Class (graduates) available for media interviews; they took time to reflect on their challenging four-year academic experience, and look ahead to their assignments to start their military careers.
Manmeet Pelia, of Wichita, Kansas, will receive a degree in computer and electrical engineering, then attend graduate school for aerospace engineering, followed by flight school.
""My father emigrated from India, enlisted in the Air Force and became a civilian engineer," she said. "He retired as a master sergeant. I used to tease him about how he'd have to salute me because I'd outrank him, but he retired before that could happen. A lot of what I learned about engineering before I came here, didn't prepare me for what I experienced here."
That included a near-tragedy in her sophomore year.
"My roommate, close friend of mine, attempted suicide," she explained. "I was the one who found her. And so, going through that — being the person who called 911 — was incredibly difficult. And I think what I didn’t expect after that, was I thought I could just shut it off and keep going.”
When Pelia learned that she couldn't, she sought mental help resources at the Academy
"This is a very competitive environment, a cutthroat environment," she said. "Everyone wants to be the best, but there's so much pressure that comes along with it. I'm thankful that I was encouraged to seek help and not try to tough it out, as people think we in the military do. The fact is, there aren't many people between 18 and 22 who have the responsibilities that Academy cadets have."
And what about Pelia's friend and former roommate?
"Thankfully, because of that 911 call, she's alive," she said. "So, she was able to leave the Air Force Academy, but received medical treatment for the next five years, The Academy is still taking care of her. She's a lacrosse coach in Colorado Springs now."
The Academy's encouragement to cadets struggling academically and emotionally was cited as strong influences by two graduating cadets.
"When I started, my grades weren't good and I was on academic probation," said Amber Boll, of Littleton, Colorado. "I couldn't be on the gymnastics team in my sophomore year because of my grades. But there was help available, my grades improved and I was able to rejoin the team. That was probably my proudest moment."
Solomon Pierre-Louis, of Columbus, Ohio, said that he felt more stress in his senior year, as he drew closer to finishing his time at the Academy.
“There were plenty of moments when I wanted to give up," he recalled. "It came down to believing in yourself. Leaning on others, mainly."
Other graduates said that they'll treasure their Academy experiences and relationships.
"I was part of the Catholic choir, and we sang during the closing ceremony at the chapel (which is closed for renovations)," said Marc Previlor, of The Woodlands, Texas. "So, we were the last group of cadets inside that chapel before it closed. And we can’t wait for it to open up again.”
Shepherd Kruse, of Colorado Springs, said facing and meeting challenges was why he wanted to attend the Academy.
"Basic training was overwhelming but my fellow cadets supported me," he said. "No one can make it through here on their own."
President Joe Biden is scheduled to attend graduation ceremonies Thursday.