Air Force Boot Camp FAQ

 

Some useful abbreviations:
BMT: Basic Military Training (the proper name for bootcamp)
TI: Training Instructor (the proper title of a drill sergeant)
MEPS: Military Entrance Processing Station (where you go to join– your recruiter will schedule you an appointment and get you there)
DEP: Delayed Enlistment Program (an optional program that lets you delay shipping out for up to six months)
AFB: Air Force Base

1. Where is Air Force Boot Camp?

It’s located at, and makes up a huge part of, Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas. It’s less than an hour’s drive from The Alamo.

2. What’s the schedule like?

When I went through Basic, it was a six-and-a-half-week process, and now it’s been extended to an eight-and-a-half-week one. (They’ll tell you “eight weeks” to make it sound easier, but don’t be fooled, the partial “Zero Week” which they aren’t counting is traumatic enough it should almost count twice).

I can’t speak from direct experience since I went through pre-change, but the weeks are roughly: In-Processing and Intro to the Military (Zero Week), More Intro to the Military (First Week), Intro Drill and Ceremony (Second Week), Combat Preparation and More Drill (Third Week), More Combat Training (Fourth Week), Even More Combat Training plus Leadership and CPR (Fifth Week), Even More Drill and Combat Training (Sixth Week), Air Force Trivia and More Combat Stuff (Seventh Week), Graduation Ceremony and Happy Sappy Stuff (Eighth Week).

3. Is Air Force Boot Camp hard?

Yes. It might be harder than anything else you’ve gone through in your life so far, at least if you’re anywhere near as sheltered as I was. This is not a vacation.

4. What’s the hardest part?

Obviously that varies from person to person, but for most people, the worst part is psychological. In other words, mind games. Never ending mind games. You’ll wish they’d just make you do push ups and call it a day. Push ups? Paradise. You’ll be insulted, humiliated, torn to shreds in front of all your flightmates, spat at, cursed at, and generally made to feel like scum of the earth. You’ll constantly believe you’re a hair’s width away from flunking back to zero week.

5. How hard is the first night?

It depends largely on the dorm guards. On the first night (and throughout the first week) your dorm will be guarded by trainees from a more advanced flight from your squadron. If you’re lucky, they might give you tips and advice. If you’re unlucky, they might yell at you and give you a hard time. Much later, you’ll get a chance to return the favor to a new flight.

6. Are there any requirements for BMT?

Yes, and they’re identical to the requirements for enlisting in the first place, so if you manage to enlist, you’re golden. The biggest hurdle is weight: you can’t weigh too much or too little (I had to pack on some pounds because I was actually in danger of being too scrawny). If you have asthma, you’ll probably have to make due with attending Boot Camp vicariously through this blog. For more details on requirements, ask your recruiter– this is one area where even the sketchiest recruiter will generally tell you straight facts, because if they send someone to MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) who doesn’t make the initial cut, it makes them look bad.

7. What’s the food like for trainees at Lackland?

Surprisingly good. You might have seen comic strips where miserable privates skin mountains of potatoes, but actually Lackland employs civilian contractors to do the cooking (don’t worry though, you’ll get plenty of chances to do other manual labor). The food is served up school cafeteria style, the main course varies day by day and is always pretty decent. With every meal, you’ll be required to drink at least one glass of water and two glasses of a lukewarm gatorade-like beverage. There are rumors that the gatorade is laced with drugs to temporarily kill your sex drive, and if that’s true, you’ll probably be grateful, since Basic isn’t a very easy place to find action. On certain days, you’ll eat “Meals Ready to Eat”, aka MRE’s, which is what real soldiers eat on the front lines. These are highly advanced rations engineered for compactness and efficiency, and they’re also pretty decent.

8. How soon can I ship out if I sign up today?

If you’re in a rush, I believe the only constraint is that you’ll need to wait til a new flight (i.e. class) is ready to form. You don’t need to worry about securing the exact date, MEPS will take care of that. If you’d rather not ship out right away, you can put it off for up to six months with the DEP program (Delayed Enlistment Program). You won’t be paid or gain rank while on DEP, but it’ll count toward the mandatory 8-year commitment (regardless of how short your active duty contract, you must remain inactive reserve for as many additional years as necessary to make 8 total years), and you can still change your mind and cancel the enlistment up until the actual ship out date.

9. How does training differ between active duty, national guard, and reserves?

As for Boot Camp, the answer is not at all (well, technically it might influence how many stripes you can sew onto your sleeves in graduation week– see further below about stripes– and how much you’re paid during training, but neither of these make any difference in the training itself). Big differences will arise after BMT, when you proceed to tech school, where national guard and reserves are given many blatantly unfair advantages over active duty.

10. How does training differ between males and females?

I was obviously never a member of a female flight, so I can’t say very precisely. What I can tell you is the sexes are strictly separated. In BMT you will never even speak to a member of the opposite sex, unless either they’re one of your superiors or else a drill sergeant is directly ordering you to speak to them. One guy in my flight got in enormous trouble just for talking to one of the dry cleaning ladies! Girls do have slightly easier physical fitness requirements than guys, despite whatever you saw in G.I. Jane.

11. How does it differ between officers and enlisted?

Officer Training School (OTS) is completely different and I have absolutely no experience there.

12. What’s the best time to go to BMT?

Probably Autumn or Spring if MEPS will let you. San Antonio can get quite hot during the Summer and quite cold during the Winter. Myself, I was there in the Summer, and it was terrible. The only benefit was that when the thermometer got really high, they occasionally canceled the day’s drill practice.

13. What are showers like at boot camp?

There’s a large shower area, adjacent to the toilet-and-sinks area, with about six showers (no walls separating them). The only explicit rules the TIs gave us were that we had to wear shower sandals, and we had to wear towels when exiting the latrine. Besides that, theoretically you’re free to take a nice leisurely hot shower… theoretically. In practice, your own flight mates will agree to much stricter rules. This is because of two things: first, there’s very little time to waste, and everyone has to get a turn showering; second, your own flight is responsible for keeping the shower area absolutely clean. In my flight, we took very short, cold showers, to save time and avoid producing steam (steam is very tough to clean after).

14. Will I be able to write letters home from Lackland?

Yes, but only during free time, of which you’ll have precious little. Getting caught writing letters while “on duty” is one of the most common infractions, and your sergeants will not take kindly to it. The only exception to that is, they turn a blind eye to dorm guards writing letters while pulling night shift guard duty. Make sure to take postage stamps and envelopes with you when you ship out!

15. How can I get in shape for Basic?

The three fundamentals are: push-ups, sit-ups, and running. For the push-ups and sit-ups, it’s better not to train at all, than to train using incorrect form and have to correct your form later: so if you’re gonna work on them in advance, be sure your form is flawless! If I recall correct, girls are allowed some weaker form for push-ups, but double-check this with your recruiter. Also ask your recruiter about specific details on form or on how many reps are required: I don’t remember the exact numbers and they’re always changing anyway. As for running, train for distance, don’t bother training for sprinting.

I’d recommend you try weight-lifting if you aren’t already. It’s not required for boot camp, indeed you won’t even have access to weights there. However, it will strengthen your immune system, which is extremely important since everyone gets sick sometime in boot camp; and you’ll feel better overall, giving you a much-needed morale advantage. Heck, lift weights whether you’re joining the military or not! If you enter the DEP program, supposedly it’ll give you access to the base gym on any military base, but I never tried this.

One thing you might consider is doing a 30-Day Workout-Every-Day Challenge. Follow that link to read about the first one I did.

See also my article: Progressive Training.

16. Besides getting in shape, how else can I train?

Having good self-esteem and a positive attitude will go a very long way. You can strengthen your self-esteem and make your attitude more positive using Positive Affirmations. If this idea seems silly at first, just remember, you’re reciting these positive affirmations so you can kill people and break their stuff ;)

Be sure you know how to tie your shoes, and if you’re a guy, how to tie a tie. Know what size shoes you wear. If you’re a guy, ignore any advice your recruiter gives you to the contrary, and get a short haircut or even a crew-cut beforehand. It’s not actually necessary, but if you go in with long hair as a guy, you’ll catch lots of flak for it.

17. What can I bring with me?

Try not to take much luggage: most of it will get stowed in a closet until the very last day of camp. There’s no need to take more than five days worth of clothes, because you’ll soon be given standard issue, and then all your civies will join the rest of your luggage in the closet; the only exception is underwear. The clothes you take should be plain and ordinary, not because that’s actually required, but just because you want to stay out of the spotlight as much as you can. Do take postage stamps, envelopes, paper and pens/pencils, if you want to write letters home (you probably will). Take some cash; $10 should be plenty. When I went through, it was vitally important to bring plenty of quarters to operate the pay phones, but I’m not sure whether that’s still the case. Take a pair of sandals or flip-flops to use in the showers on the first few nights, but note that you’ll probably have to throw them away after the first flight shopping trip because your flight will want to have matching flip-flops after that. If you have glasses or contacts, take them even if you never wear them, because having the lenses will simplify the eye doctor appointment (but note you’ll be required to wear standard issue glasses very soon after arriving); heck, take the actual paper prescription, if you have it. Take a good toothbrush, razor (if you need one), toothpaste. Make sure the razor would get through airport security (this is sort of required anyway unless you actually live in San Antonio). Obviously take a picture ID, and a birth certificate and social security card if you have ‘em.

18. Will I get paid during boot camp?

Yes. You’ll start in pay grade E1 (“Airman Basic”), unless your contract states otherwise. You won’t get your first payment immediately, you’ll get it at regular intervals just like every other service member, so they’ll issue you a temporary debit card with some money on it which will be taken out of the first paycheck. If Mexico invades Texas, and San Antonio becomes a battlefield, you’ll theoretically get the combat zone bonus. When I shipped out, they even gave us about $100 each to spend on dinner at the airport (but you don’t get to keep the unspent portion). However, you will not get any sign-on bonuses until you reach tech school. (Who the heck needs $6000 at Lackland anyway?)

19. Do you have to swim during basic military training?

No. You might fall into water during the obstacle course, but it is shallow.

20. What happens if you get sick during training?

If you inform your drill sergeant, they’ll arrange for an escort to take you to the squadron clinic, where (if your experience is like mine was) you’ll enjoy the company of some very cheerful and friendly medical staff. Beware: if they find a medical condition which you hid from MEPS, you’re in big trouble. A guy in my flight got kicked out completely, all because he hid that he had once had a broken arm.

21. Are hair cuts necessary?

For guys, certainly. They’ll shave you almost bald. For girls, I’m not sure of the exact rules. I don’t remember; I drank so much of that drugged gatorade that for once in my life I wasn’t checking out all the ladies around me ;)

22. What if I have glasses?

Sometime during zero week, you’ll see an eye doctor (whether you have glasses or not). If you need glasses, they’ll give you a prescription, and within a few days, you’ll receive a pair of the thickest, ugliest, nerdiest glasses ever created. These are combat glasses, about as hard to destroy as Robert Patrick in Terminator 2. We call them Birth Control Glasses, or BCGs, and no, they aren’t optional, you’ll be wearing them until tech school.

23. Is there any free time?

There are a few minutes of free time every day. What free time you don’t spend writing letters, you’ll probably spend trying to get your locker straightened out for room inspections. Occasionally, the flight will be awarded with extra free time, a “patio break” when you’ll have access to candy vending machines and pay phones, usually for 15 minutes or half an hour. These are rare. On the final days of training, you’ll get tons of free time: hours of on-base leave on Friday, and, miracle of miracles, hours of off-base leave to explore San Antonio on Saturday. Most airmen have their parents fly in to spend time with them during these final hours, ‘cuz whatever you think of home before you ship out, you’ll probably feel the harsh pangs of homesickness.

24. Know any Boot Camp jokes?

“Did you iron that uniform, dirtbag?”
“Yes, sir!”
“Did you turn the iron on first?” :D
(or…)
“Did you iron it with a rock?” :D

25. Tell me about AF Drill Sergeants.

They’re technically called Training Instructors, or TI’s for short. They wear distinctive black hats (hence the nickname “black hats”), which your subconscious mind will come to associate with dread and terror. They wear special metal bits on the bottoms of their boots so you can hear them coming from a mile away.

No Air Force regulation actually requires that TI’s be such heartless mothaf’ers. That arises out of necessity. You’d be a bit irritable too, if you had to herd 60 fresh high school graduates to an appointment across base in exactly 14 minutes and some idiot didn’t know how to tie his boots. Think of it as tough love. VERY tough love.

The truth is that the drill sergeant’s power is illusionary. He or she is actually more vulnerable than you are. If a trainee pens a written complaint against a TI, it’s a permanent black mark on the sergeant’s record, but nothing the TI can do to you will endure past the bus ride to tech school. A TI is really only one step higher than the new airman, in the bigger hierarchy. She lacks the power to flunk you or kick you out of the military even if she tried: the squadron commander (lightyears above the TI) handles those things.

26. What are the Core Values?

See here.

27. Tell Me About Life After Boot Camp. Can you go home?

No, you can’t go home right after BMT. You’ll go on a bus to your technical school. You can read about my tech school experience, which was relatively long and grueling and hopefully yours will be easier, here. You’ll be able to take leave after tech school, or possibly during it if you’re there long enough to hit the Christmas season.

28. Does the experience change people?

Profoundly. For many, it fills that gap where our ancestors used to perform coming-of-age ceremonies. In other words, I went in as a boy and came out as a man. In a certain sense, the hellish and unrelenting nature of Basic is great: it distracts you from the deeply raw emotions which would otherwise accompany such drastic and abrupt personal upheaval.

29. Can you fail BMT?

Yes, but most failures are for medical reasons, for serious illegal activity, or for continued inability to pass the PT test. The TI’s will make you feel like you’re on the verge of failing because you didn’t make your bed correctly (and you’ll probably still think that despite reading this very blog), but that would be highly impractical. Remember that the whole point of the Air Force is not to make beds or make life hell for new airmen. The point is to kill foreigners with napalm. You don’t do that by paying young men and women to make beds and then sending them back home.

I was so certain I was going to get washed back to zero week. I failed the sit-ups part of the PT test, and then I failed it again at the make-up PT test. I felt absolutely terrible, because my parents and brother had already bought non-refundable tickets to visit me in graduation week, and I thought I’d have to disappoint them. A couple TI’s dragged me aside that evening and pulled me into their office, where they gave me a completely out-of-regulation third try, totally ignoring my terrible form near the end. In other words, I should have washed out, and the very TI’s who had me convinced they wanted me gone, stuck their necks out and bent all the rules to save my butt!

30. How can I send mail to my son/daughter/family member at Lackland AFB?

Very early in zero week, your airman will be given a form letter to send you. This will contain his or her mailing address. Also, check the form letter to see if your airman maybe added any secret messages to it, say, by circling or underlining certain characters. Feel free to share it with anyone else your airman would like to hear from. Your letter will arrive at the squadron with all the other letters to other trainees, and your airman’s TI will deliver it to your airman in the evening. Believe it or not, receiving letters is a kind of status symbol in the twisted world of the AETC. I’ve heard that some trainees, distraught at the lack of incoming mail, will actually send a letter to themselves, just so their mates don’t see them as That Guy With No Loved Ones. Of course, the TI’s always notice where the letter was mailed from, and when they see a self-addressed letter, that trainee will never live it down: so don’t let your airman go unloved!!

31. Tell me about the footwear they issue.

There are actually two trips to the clothing depot (no point issuing fancy dress blues to an airman early on if he’s going to get caught smoking in the bathrooms in the third week, kicked out, and never wear the things). The first trip, you’ll get one pair of combat boots and one pair of civilian running shoes. You should be very certain of your shoe size before shipping out, because poorly-fit boots will torment you for many weeks to come (random history trivia: in Nazi concentration camps, cigarettes were worth more than gold, and decent shoes were worth more than cigarettes). Of course you’ll also get a bunch of camouflage gear (BDU or Battle Dress Uniform) and other clothing, but for some reason, a lot more people ask me about the footwear. The second trip, you’ll get a pair of fancy dress shoes called Low Quarters. One activity that’ll chew up a ton of your time at boot camp: you’re gonna learn how to shine shoes!

32. What’s with those stripes on some trainees’ sleeves?

Some people get clauses in their contracts saying they get to enter at pay grades higher than E1: E2 or E3. This can be for any number of reasons. I got E2 coming in, because I had 15 units from community college. A lot of people get E3 right off the bat because they were JROTC in high school. If you’re ballsy, the guys at MEPS might have certain leeway to haggle over the contract, and if you insist on getting free rank or you won’t join, it just might work. Anyway, that’s all the stripes mean. Near the end of basic, if you have rank, you’ll be allowed to go get stripes sewn on. One stripe for E2, two for E3. Go early in the day if possible– the seamstress closed her shop on me and I couldn’t get my stripes sewn on til tech school (which, technically, was a violation of the UCMJ… wearing an improper uniform…) If you’re E1 (“Airman Basic”), you get zero stripes, which, ironically, can actually make you look like an officer, since they wear their insignia on their collar/hat instead of their sleeves.

33. How does Air Force basic training differ from other services?

The old stereotype is that Marine Corps Boot Camp is hardest, then Army, then Navy, and Air Force is the easiest. I never went through any other service’s pipeline, so I wouldn’t know. I do think that the stereotype is based largely on the physical components, ignoring the incessant mind games of AFBMT (though, of course, every branch will have some mind games). I’ve also heard from some sources that the new, 8-week, Air Force Boot Camp is actually harder than the army… but don’t quote me on that ;)