Still, the six-week program challenges every aspiring cadet, even if they enter with eyes wide open. Looking back on it three years later, Skenes is thankful for the experience.
"You get [one] phone call during basic; you're away from your family as an 18-year-old," Skenes, who just completed his junior season at Louisiana State University, told Military.com via email. "You're forced to figure out life really [quickly] and figure out how to make new friendships, and self-leadership, all that, discipline. Those 37 days, I never want to do that again, but it's 100% shaped who I am today."
Skenes, one of the best pitching prospects to come out of college baseball in years, is poised to potentially be the top overall selection in the Major League Baseball draft on July 9. He played two seasons at the academy before transferring to LSU, which defeated Florida for the national championship Monday night.
Cadets generally can leave the academy anytime before their junior year without committing to military service. That factored into Skenes' decision to depart Colorado Springs, setting himself up to begin his professional baseball career immediately and putting him in line for a signing bonus in the $9 million-$10 million range.
While Skenes excelled at baseball at Air Force, becoming a two-time All-American and leading the Falcons to their first NCAA regional berth since 1969, he did more than sling a ball. Skenes, who majored in military and strategic studies, made the Mountain West Conference all-academic team. He also embraced the military requirements of academy life, beginning with morning formation at 6 a.m.
"He always had a good idea of how much rest he needed to get, his priorities and having a really good schedule to get everything done in the day," infielder Aerik Joe, Skenes' roommate at Air Force, told Military.com. "He absolutely loved [the military]. He loved what it stood for, the people he was surrounded by. It was definitely hard for him to say goodbye."
Joe was impressed by Skenes’ ability to get along with everyone. He recalled when Skenes befriended a Korean exchange student -- unfamiliar with the U.S. military and struggling with English -- during basic training and helped him navigate unfamiliar territory.
Skenes routinely checked in on other aspiring cadets, too, Joe said.
"At the academy, there were people from all different walks of life, and the way that Paul connected with them was just by having conversations with them and getting to know them better," Joe said. "I know it's simple, but it's something that's really impressive. ... He was able to connect with them on a personal basis so frequently."
Within the Falcons’ baseball program, Skenes was so respected that he was appointed team captain for his sophomore season -- a role normally filled by an upperclassman.
"He made me a better coach because of the questions that he would ask," Air Force pitching coach Ryan Forrest told Military.com. "He would bounce ideas off of me. He would get our input on things."
Forrest and Joe said they still talk to Skenes and, like the rest of the Air Force coaches and players, understood and respected his decision to leave. They are excited to hear which organization will land Skenes on draft night -- the Pittsburgh Pirates hold the first selection, followed by the Washington Nationals and Detroit Tigers -- and although Air Force won't be the school announced after Skenes' name, it in no way lessens the sense of pride those who knew him at the academy will feel.
Griffin Jax, a relief pitcher currently with the Minnesota Twins, is the only Air Force Academy graduate ever to play Major League Baseball.
"I'm so incredibly happy for him," Joe said. "There are a lot of sacrifices and a lot of things that he needed to figure out to get himself in this position, so there's a ton of hard work for him to be in this place."
When Skenes announced his transfer on social media, he referred to his time at the academy as "the most gratifying and memorable years of my life." His military ties remained strong during his time at LSU. He wore uniform No. 20 to honor a former Air Force Academy baseball player who died in a training accident in 2019. He also partnered with Folds of Honor, which provides scholarships for the families of fallen or disabled military members or first responders.
As for serving in the military, Skenes recently said in a televised interview that he would consider it once he is done with baseball. Two of his uncles served in the Navy, and another is a Coast Guard vet who now teaches at the Coast Guard Academy.
"Playing professional baseball was a dream of mine, but it wasn't the primary dream," Skenes told Military.com. "Really, all I wanted to do was play college baseball and go somewhere and know that I had a good career lined up ahead of me, and Air Force was pretty much the perfect place for that."
Want to Know More About the Military?
Be sure to get the latest news about the U.S. military, as well as critical info about how to join and all the benefits of service. Subscribe to Military.com and receive customized updates delivered straight to your inbox.