My Time in Air Force Boot Camp: Graduation Week

 

After we finished playing warrior and nuclear-holocaust-survivor in the fifth week of boot camp, the concrete bunker which was Wolfpack Squadron, Lackland Air Force Base, actually seemed inviting and welcoming. We were sixth weekers now, real airmen, the fame and envy among the training flights. These days, BMT has been extended a few extra weeks, with additional field training thrown in at the beginning, so the weeks in my account should be read with a grain of salt. This is the last chapter in the story of my time in Basic Military Training, though it would only be the beginning of my time as an independent adult out on my own, serving in the USAF.

If you’re ever in San Antonio’s airbase and want to tell which trainees are sixth weekers and which are just trainees, it’s in the uniform. We were practically sparkling in our fancy Air Force Blues, the non-combat side of military dress. This was very convenient, since the green battle-dress uniform we wore until this point, was totally trashed by Warrior Week, and taking some much-needed R&R at the squadron dry-cleaners.

In some ways, the final week was easier, and in other ways, it was harder. We had a lot more freedom, with a lot of the supervision passing down from the drill sergeants to our own airmen leaders. On the other hand, as near-graduates, there was a sense that we had no cushion for failure. All the routine things like marching, making our beds, reciting military trivia, these were things we were expected to have nailed down like they were built into our mother tongue. In fact, this was largely illusionary, but at the time, we were all on the edge of our nerves expecting to be held back at a moment’s notice.

We were also expected to set an example for the younger flights. I don’t mean this in a good way, either. One time, while trying to inconspicuously slip out of the chow hall undetected and back to the dorm, some blackhat I’d never even seen before halted me and started ripping me a new asshole in front of a bunch of new recruits. See, my tie wasn’t on right. The reality is, this TI wasn’t even really talking to me. He was talking to his fresh meat flight, and I was just a prop. My role was to hold my composure like I was made of stone, and after a month and a half of practice, I was very good at it. After awhile, he called one of his trainees over. “What do you think, does Airman Face Man look acceptable!?” this towering red-faced sergeant demanded of the poor girl. “S-Sir.. Trainee Smith reports as ordered.. n-no sir..” the girl was terrified to have the spotlight on her. “Ask Airman Faceman whether he ironed his blues with a rock!” commanded Sgt. Meathead. At this point he was just having fun, and I even wanted to break out laughing at what he just said, but I stood at attention like a robot. “D-did you iron your blues with a rock?” she asked me, copying the TI exactly. “No ma-am” I replied coolly, no trace of emotion. That’s the sort of crap we were having to do constantly so drill sergeants could terrify their flights.

The truth is, if you made it to the final week, the only way you’d get washed back would be for really seriously screwing up– like getting caught drunk or something– or for medical/beaurocratical reasons that you have no control over anyway. As much theatrics as the training instructors liked to make, they were really only one step above trainees in the bigger hierarchy, and, believe it or not, the USAF’s primary mission isn’t to torture new recruits. Every minute an airman spends in the “pipeline” is a minute not contributed toward putting pilots in the sky.

FLAG DRILLS

A lot of what we did in week 6 was drilling for the graduation ceremony. This consisted of a parade around a big grassy field with lots of spectators watching, while patriotic music plays. There are three types of parade flights. First, the band, which goes first. This is made up of airmen who play instruments. If you let the people at MEPS know you can play one of the band instruments, then it’s off to a special music squadron for you, and you’ll spend the entirety of bootcamp worrying about music, in addition to everything else. I don’t know whether they make other things easier to compensate. I didn’t go to that squadron so I don’t know. Behind the band come the flagbearers. My fellow Wolfpackers and I fell into this category. Fortunately that’s less intensive than the band, and we only had to do special training for the week prior to the parade, instead of the entirety of training. Finally, there are the “normal” flights, with neither trumpets nor flags.

We weren’t allowed to practice with the flags themselves. First time we got to see them was at the parade itself. Meanwhile, we practiced with the flagholders. A flagholder is kind of sash-sort-of-thing that goes around your waist and your shoulders, and out in front, has a “cup” to hold the base of the flag. You have to carry your banner in a specific way. Needless to say, you don’t want to screw this up, since a mistake with a giant waving stars-n-stripes is gonna be very noticeable.

I must’ve spent twenty hours marching around in circles with that empty flagholder in preparation of the grad ceremony. Me and the other sixty men I’d spent the last three fortnights with.

THE DORM GUARD DISASTER

When we first stepped off the bus at our new home, what seemed like a lifetime ago, our dorm was guarded by then-mysterious young men in blue who vaguely resembled ourselves. Now it was time to return the favor. That means we were now working with not one but two sets of guard rosters, one for our own dorm, and one for the babies of Wolfpack.

When you pull night-shift babysitting duty, you don’t just wake up when it’s your turn and march to the other dorm. That’s a big no-no because they can’t have airmen wandering around after hours. Instead, you head over shortly before lights out, and you sleep in a reserve bed in the baby dorm, until your two-hour shift comes up. Then you do your guard thing, and go back to sleep. Pretty smooth, right? But it didn’t go smoothly when my turn came up to go watch the newbies.

I was in a deep, weary sleep when the retiring dormguard shook me awake and told me it was my turn to take over in a few minutes. I acknowledged him with some zombie-like grunt and shut my eyes for what seemed like thirty seconds. I climbed wearily out of bed. It was standard, in this situation, that you didn’t bother undressing until you finished your two hours, so I was still in full BDU’s, boots and all. I immediately noticed the silhouette of a TI standing between me and the main hallway, arms on his hips. “Hmm, that’s odd…” I thought. There shouldn’t have been any stripes around so late at night!

With my sleep-deprived mind, I calculated the best course of action would probably be to walk wide around him to get to the hallway where I needed to sign in, trying not to bother whatever he was doing. That was, of course, the exact worst thing I could possibly do, pissing him off more than he already was. As he halted me and started hollering profanities at me (surely waking up every guy in the vicinity) I had no idea what was going on.

We moved to the hall, me and the other visiting guardsmen, and somehow I ascertained what the problem was. Deep in the administrative halls on the ground floor, a TI was stationed every night to make sure the dormguards were present in all the rooms. This was done by transmitting to a speaker near the door of each dormitory. When he tried to confirm someone was guarding the new guys, nobody responded, which is why I found myself under the spotlight of one very pissed off, very sleep-deprived drill sergeant.

After chewing us out visciously, he took down our identities (AETC Form 341) and steamed off. As for us dormguards, we were utterly puzzled. The dormguards who took the first nightshift, they reported they were giving some advice to some of the incoming trainees in the latrine room. And that’s why they didn’t hear the speaker. But then who shook me awake? Where were the other dormguards when the TI angrily let himself into the dorm? I might have overslept, but my predecessors shouldn’t have left their station until I signed in. More puzzling, if I did oversleep, why did I wake up exactly when that blackhat was standing there? Did he just stand there and wait until someone got up?

I’ll probably never know precisely what happened. But we were all absolutely certain we’d be washed back. The next morning, our primary TI was livid. He made us stand in the hall, arms held straight out in front of us, holding some heavy books or something at the end of our arms. If you try this at home, you’ll see that it gets difficult and painful rather fast. But we weren’t washed back, to our infinite relief.

THE PERSONAL DRAWER CATASTROPHE

It was Saturday morning and we were all very excited because the final Saturday of boot camp, you get “town pass”. You’re allowed to depart the confines of Lackland AFB and actually see some of San Antonio. With about an hour left until our brief flirt with freedom, catastrophe struck. Without warning, the squadron Senior Master Sergeant let himself into our dorm and announced a surprise personal drawer inspection.

A word about your personal drawer in BMT. It’s the lowest drawer in your locker and it’s unique in that there are no guidelines for how it’s to be arranged. Every other inch of the locker, is required to meet ruthless standards. That bottom drawer, meant for storing things like letters and stamps and pens and change, is only constrained by a few general rules. No contraband (drugs, guns, etc.), but that goes without saying. No food, cell phones, etc. And nothing which rightly belongs somewhere else in the locker, e.g., no clothes.

So this dickhead of a SMSgt had us all standing at attention by our beds, and he was going around the room with our main training instructor, yanking out peoples’ personal drawers, the one inspection we had never anticipated or prepared for. Thanks to the lax rules, most men got away with just some verbal abuse about being disorganized and being slackers, and the inspector had no room to actually formally complain about anything. But a handful of airmen had clothes stored away in their private space, a common BMT cheat to make organizing the other drawers easier. I never tried this cheat, so I thought I had nothing to worry about, but I had forgotten one little cheat. I’d stored a pre-tied blues necktie in there, since I had terrible trouble tying the danged thing. Sure enough, he found it, and that’s all he needed to own my ass.

By misfortune, the airmen who got caught with clothes stowed away, were exactly the same group who’d been doing dorm guard when disaster struck there. We were berated at great length about how we were slackers, how we were dishonor to the military, how we were crackheads, etc. etc. But still we were not washed back, not a man. What SMSgt Dickhead did do, though, was strip us of half our town pass, commanding us to report to him. And then with malice in his voice he intoned: “And if you or anyone you know complains about this, I’ll make sure you get washed back.”

Looking back on the situation now, I see the guy was completely bluffing, and that I could’ve gone straight to the commander and complained right away, and my tormentor would’ve been in much worse trouble than he could ever heap on me. Whether or not shortening my town pass was within his authority (and it probably was not), when he threatened retaliation if I complained, that was a giant no-no. I wish now that I had gone and made a stand, for the benefit of future airmen.

SEWING ON OUR STRIPES — NOT

During one of our final evening meetings in the common room– where we were now happily permitted to actually use the chairs– a list was read of airmen who were promoted. In AFBMT, we were all paygrade E-0 (“Airman Basic”), but some guys had stipulations in their contracts that upon completing training, they’d be upgraded either to E-1 (“Airman”) or E-2 (“Airman 1st Class”). Me, I got a promotion to E-1, thanks to having over 15 units of college credit I took at a community college while I was still in high school. Talk about irony. There I was, I’d just been severely reprimanded for not one but two big violations of AETC pedantry. I’d barely “passed” the situps test (by which I mean they turned me a blind eye and let me slip through). I could barely hit the target at the rifle range. In the first week, I couldn’t even tie my boots! …And now, I outranked most the flight. ;)

The handful of us with contractually-stipulated promotions were permitted to take an hour to march to one of the many BX’s on base where there was a shop that would sew stripes on while you waited. Unfortunately, there was just one poor woman doing the sewing, and the shop closed rather early, so we weren’t able to get those stripes sewn on. But we did take advantage of our time waiting in line to buy some pizza, something they don’t serve in the chow halls of BMT.

FAMILY VISITS

In the final weekend, parents and family are invited to come for the big graduation parade. On Friday, each trainee got most of the day off for “base leave”, meaning we were free to go anywhere in the confines of Lackland, and if any family had come to visit us, we could be with them. On Saturday, joy of joys, we actually got the “town pass” which let us leave the base and walk around civilian San Antonio. And on Sunday, there were a few more hours of base leave. So that’s three days a trainee could spend with family.

Looking back on it now, as a 25-year-old who’s been living on my own for close to a decade, there’s a certain temptation to say, “what’s the big deal??” Why would you have your family come fly down to Texas just for a few hours with you? Bear in mind, though. For most of us, boot camp was our first extended time away from the shelter of our parents’ rooves. One and all, we were deathly homesick. It’s a lesson in how we take things for granted: to an exhausted sixth weeker, the idea of just chillin’ with family in downtown San Antonio seems like heaven on earth.

In my case, I definitely longed to see my family. My mother, father, and older brother flew down to visit me, and I was happy to the point of crying when I saw them. For mom, it was her first time ever flying in an airplane. (The three of them were coming from San Diego, CA.) On Friday, we hung out around the base. Looking back at it objectively, in a strict “compared to Disneyland” sense, they must have been pretty bored. But I was sooo happy to be with them! Saturday, we met in downtown San Antonio, explored the Alamo, ate at a nice restaurant, and generally just enjoyed being together. I’m still very touched that they came to visit. Throughout the whole second half of basic, whenever I was afraid of being washed back, it wasn’t just for my own sake, but because I would have half died if I had to tell my folks and my bro that they’d have to enjoy the Alamo without me.

FROM BOOT CAMP TO TECH SCHOOL

The fact that we were nearing the end of the nightmare only really sunk in when they took away our canteens. From day one, we’d all been lugging around those canteens everywhere. At first when we put on our blues, we carefully carried those battlefield water vessels, since they weren’t designed to be worn with a suit. But then they took ‘em away and that’s when it really sunk in: we’re goin’ to tech school!! It felt strange actually drinking from the flight water fountain, equipment which had hitherto been 100% decorational because no one dared add one more thing we’d have to painstakingly clean.

The last night in the dormitories, they flung open the closet with all the luggage we brought on the airplanes. Those who had them at the time (this was in 2001) were reunited with laptops and cellphones. A guy in the bed next to mine had a laptop and some movies, and we debated vigorously whether to watch “Fellowship Of The Ring” or porn. I think Tolkien won, but it didn’t matter much because we were all so exhausted we all went to sleep within ten minutes.

A question people ask a lot is: “Where do you go after Air Force boot camp? Do you get to go home?” For the second question, the answer is no. No rest for the weary, as they say. For the first, it depends where your tech school (AIT) is located, which in turn depends on your job. If you’re destined to a job with techschool at Keesler, like me, you get on a bus for one really long bus ride, Texas to Mississippi. Some jobs have their tech school in Lackland, in which case you take a ten-minute walk from one squadron to another. But no, you don’t get to escape Uncle Sam quite yet.

Air Force boot camp was a great learning experience for me. It really expanded my reality, forcing me to grow up a whole lot in just six-and-a-half weeks. You’ve just read the final chapter in my days under the tutelage of those kind, reasonable drill instructors. But the end of one story is the beginning of another…

Zero Week
First Week
Second & Third Week
Fourth Week
Fifth Week
Graduation Week