First you hear them sounding off, in unison, somewhere from deep within the sanctity of their barracks, like young wolves, pulling their tethers tight, about to be turned loose from captivity.

Then they come rushing past, dressed in fatigues, running in formation, onto the parade deck where they go through their last physical training as a knob, a title they will soon shed in an emotional ceremony of body and soul.

This is Recognition Day at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, where 710 cadets began as freshmen back in August and only 624 remain to see this glorious April morning.

But that was 500 miles of running and 25,000 push-ups past, back when they were strangers instead of brothers in an uphill battle to survive the Fourth Class System.

On this long-awaited day, after walking in gutters, being stripped of their individuality, they finally would be recognized as members of the Corps of Cadets, a monumental moment indeed.

Camaraderie

But first come the low crawl, fireman's carry, team pushups and ammo-can carry, all in the name of camaraderie, esprit de corps and humility as anxious parents watch from the sidelines, cameras in hand, hearts filled with pride.

Standing tall amid the shaved heads is Lt. Gen. John Rosa, president of the school, who remembers his recognition day in 1970.

"It's a tough year, so it means everything," Rosa said. "For many of these young people this is the biggest thing they've accomplished in their lives. But they did it as a team. Individually, they realize, they wouldn't have been able to do it. It's pretty emotional."

But the most emotional part, when each group returned to their battalions, behind the iron gates, was yet to come.

Tears of joy

Sweaty from the morning's events, the class of 2014 files into the barracks and begins 114 pushups, one more than last year's class, just to be stronger.

Completely spent, they are lifted by upperclassmen who encourage them, engage them and finally call them to crawl, prostrate across the red-and-white checkerboard quad, to grab the company guidon, where they pile on top of each other and recite the cadet prayer in a final gesture of completing a long, long journey.

Then they line up, arm in arm, eyes closed, as seniors thump their chests, a sign of welcome, as bagpipes blare "Home Sweet Home," over loudspeakers, followed by a sullen, suspenseful silence.

It is in this moment that tears of joy, pain, exhaustion and exhilaration merge and overwhelm these young men and women, these cadets, these brand new members of the corps.

Finally, as they brace, the regimental commander speaks the words they have waited so long to hear, "The Fourth Class System ... is no longer in effect."

The end, which is only the beginning, has finally arrived.

Reach Ken Burger at 937-5598 or follow him on Twitter at @Ken_Burger.