When I was 17 years old, I had to escape my family. It’s not that my family life was particularly bad, or anything, it’s just that I felt judged. I felt like every day I was under scrutiny. That gets old. When you wanna get out of the house at that age and there’s no circus in town, the usual options are university or military. (There are other options, but they’re more daring and most people don’t consider them) If you have lots of muscles, you join the marines. If you have lots of money, you go to university. If you have lots of brains but no money, you go Air Force, and that’s the route I took.
After a grueling day of paperwork, medical exams, briefings, signing things, and swearing oaths, I headed to the San Diego airport with a dozen other new recruits. The military entrance processing station (MEPS) gave us each about $100 for the meal at the airport- I’m not sure why they allotted that much for one meal, but it was the last meal I’d have as a free man for almost two months. A while after midnight, we touched down in San Antonio, Texas, home of Lackland Air Force Base.
A bus took us onto the base and to in-processing. In-processing seemed to take hours. Sitting in a room silently while a couple lowly personnel airmen did paperwork, occasionally calling us up by social security number. If I was hoping for a depersonalizing experience, induction into a machine, then that’s what I got. If I was hoping for freedom from the scrutiny I’d endured back home, then I was sorely disappointed. It’s true that Air Force boot camp is less physically strenuous than the other services (though, it’s since been extended with an extra couple weeks of field training, to make it more comparable to the Army and Navy). What is lost in physical strain is made up for with mind games upon mind games. I was in for one of the roughest six-and-a-half weeks of my life.
ZERO WEEK: HAIRCUT, SHOELACES
Contrary to the stereotypes, my recruiter was a pretty honest guy and the things he told us were generally correct. He did give me one piece of gravely wrong info, however. Whether as a joke or just not knowing any better, I was told I shouldn’t bother cutting my hair before boot camp, that it didn’t matter because they’d cut it anyway. Certainly the Air Force was going to cut my hair, but scrimping and saving one civilian barber trip was poor advice in my case. See, I walked into Lackland AFB with a beautiful head of shoulder-length curvy wavy brown hippy-hair.
Yeah. That didn’t go over very well with the training instructors.
An Air Force drill sergeant (technically called a “training instructor” or TI) is an interesting creature. At the time, we didn’t understand it, but his or her power is all illusionary. While they’re shouting at you, face scrunched up and turning red, fists clenched, body tense, and you’re afraid they’re gonna eat you alive, the truth is they’re little better off than you are. In the bigger hierarchy of a training squadron, the individual drill instructors aren’t terribly higher up than the trainees. Their threat is really quite hollow, indeed a trainee poses a much greater threat to a TI, the threat of writing a written complaint to an officer. But of course we didn’t understand that at the time, and for all I knew my E-4 training instructor could’ve been the secretary of defense.
At first, our flight wore civilian clothes. We sure seemed out of place, marching along in civies while nearby flights wore camos or blues. At around the end of zero week, the 60 or so men in Flight 671 (that’s my flight) marched our way to the clothing depot for our first set of standard issues.
If you’re going to Air Force basic training, I highly suggest you learn and memorize all your clothing sizes before you leave. In the high-pitched chaos of the clothing depot, that’s no place to not know your sizes. I learned that the hard way and payed for it until I got my butt out of boot camp and into tech school where I could buy some better fitting boots with my own money. In boot camp there’s a lot of crap to do and we were constantly in a rush to finish one thing and move on to the next. Not knowing my shoe size, I was in the unenviable position of trying on boots frantically, all under severe time constraints. Matters were made much worse by the fact that I couldn’t tie my shoes.
Yes, that’s right. I’d known how to tie my shoes before, as a kid, but for the years up to boot camp, I’d stuck to more comfortable footwear, sandals and velcros. I never saw the point of taking precious time every day to tie a pair of shoes when velcro works instantly, and I really still don’t see any point to it, but boot camp isn’t the place to make such social commentary. The thing is, I thought I remembered how to tie my shoes, from doing it as a kid. But it was so long ago, I’d forgotten. Only one word can describe my reality when I realized I’d forgotten that skill: Panic.
Picture this. A flight of 60 airmen in brand new, un-ironed camo’s, marching in sync under the merciless Summer Texas sun, each man burdened with 50 lbs of clothing in his pack, and one man among 60 has his shoelaces flapping free in the wind. There go my hopes for slipping through the pipeline undetected (as if those weren’t already shot by the hair). The sergeant’s explosion when he noticed the shoelaces turned into blinking surprise when I explained my embarrassing dilemma. Bad haircuts, those are routine. But this? This shoelace thing was truly a new experience for the young drill sergeant, something he hadn’t run into yet in his drill sergeanting. I had the unique experience of having a lividly angry drill instructor kneel down and tie my boots while I was standing in formation with 60 other trainees.
Zero-week was so-named, it seems, so that the Air Force could boast a quick “six week boot camp”, when in fact the boot camp is closer to seven weeks. (I understand that now, though, the whole thing’s been extended to include an extra couple weeks of combat training.) According to some sources, boot camp didn’t actually “start” until first week, but the truth is it started when our shoes hit the pavement at Lackland. We didn’t begin the (fairly easy) daily workouts or the real marching drill until after zero week ended, but the mental games began right away and wouldn’t stop ’til we were on the busses to leave.
Sundays were a special day in boot camp. They couldn’t deny religious freedom to the religious airmen, and thus Sunday morning was Church Time. You could go to a service or you could stay in the dorms and clean; you can probably guess that after a week of mind games and shouting, every airman, down to the most athiest athiest, went to church. Now that I’m looking back on it in hindsight, I wouldn’t be too surprised if it was rigged that way by some religious zealot in the upper ranks– “we’ve got ‘em under our thumbs, let’s proseletyze ‘em while we’re at it!” I’m sure quite a few Sunday Christians have been spawned in boot camp, the type of Christians with no real spiritual foundation, but they hate gays and vote Republican. Still, I was pretty grateful for the much-needed break; I wasn’t the only airman to shed tears of joy for the luxury of sitting in a pew listening to a cookie-cutter sermon (pretty much the same sermon every week) with no drill sergeant in sight.
This is the story of my time in Air Force Boot Camp. A boot camp is an experience that can really change your life; I learned a lot from the hellish experience. Here are the other parts of the story: