Air Force boot camp is not as physically intense or demanding as marine corps boot camp or army boot camp (or at least it wasn’t when I was there, back in 2002). After all, an airman is usually not infantry. With most airmen, if they ever see combat, it means we’re in big trouble. However, airmen are expected to carry more of the mental brunt of military work, so it’s fitting our bootcamp was full of Air Force Mind Games.
The mindgames were endless, but they can roughly be broken down into two categories. First is the threat of being “washed back”. That means being sent back to zero week, to join a new flight and start over from scratch. Actually, in my flight nobody got washed back, and I wonder if washing back is even possible. But at the time, each and every one of us was dead certain we were a moment away from that terrible fate. In a later week, when one of my flight mates got in some *serious* trouble, I remember feeling some guilty relief deep inside, thinking, “well they can’t kick me back if they don’t kick him back first”. There were variations on this mind game, like the dreaded “fat camp” around which so many rumours were spawned, where airmen were sent who failed the pushups/situps/run requirements in third week.
The other mind game was the Air Force Anti-Martyr. This is where instead of punishing you for a transgression, the drill sergeants punish the entire flight *except* you. Think of the donut scene from “Full Metal Jacket”. It’s easy to be a martyr, someone who takes a hit for the team. Heck, it’s romantic and makes you feel all warm and good about yourself. TI’s know this, so if you’re thinking of being a flight hero, think again. Placed in such an adverse environment with 60 or so other guys, the bonds of comaraderie grow quick, and it really sucks when you make some minor slipup and have to stand there while the rest of the flight does pushups. The idea isn’t to torment you, but to shame you; the torment is mental and automatic.
A common example is the frozen pushup. Usually when pushups are assigned as punishment, you have to go down when the drill instructor says “down”, and up when he says “up”. So you screw up, your instructor makes the rest of the flight get in position and says “down”. Now you’ve got 60 men, arms straining, frozen halfway into a pushup, and the drill sergeant starts assaulting you with rhetorical questions. “Did your mom raise you to be a crackhead? I bet she worked real hard, working overtime, to buy you that Playstation. You wanna take a time out and go play Playstation now, you little crackhead?” Meanwhile your flightmates are groaning, arms trembling violently from exhaustion.
Besides the mind games, first week was when we started learning drill. Well, we started it in zero week, but first week was when things started getting serious. That’s when we began daily drill practice, really getting on first name basis with the drill pad asphalt. I wasn’t very good at marching. I’m more of an independent person, it wasn’t easy for me to keep my feet in perfect synchrony with everyone else in the formation. I also had great difficulty in an unexpected area: under the blazing Texas sun, my face would get sweaty and my glasses would start slipping, ever so slowly, down my nose. Obviously I couldn’t reach up to adjust them, my arms carefully swinging in choreography.
If you wear contact lenses, you should know that you won’t be allowed that luxury in Basic. Nor will you be able to wear your normal glasses: you’ll be issued the thickest, ugliest, biggest glasses known to man. We call them Birth Control Glasses. And there’s nothing optional about them.
An average day would begin sometime around 6:00am or so. Reveille would blare, and 60 airmen would scramble out of bed before the first note even ended. The morning rush was so frantic that every second was precious, and most airmen would lie awake at 5:59 ready to leap out of bed instantly. A few would even get up around then to “go to the bathroom”, to get a few minutes’ headstart. And then there were the sliders: airmen who would very carefully “slide” in and out of their blanket, to discrupt the bed as little as possible. Cuz that’s the worst part of the morning rush, making the bed.
The Air Force wants airmen who pay attention to details. Instead of beating us with pullups or grueling runs with 80-pound backpacks, we were beaten with sheets and pillows. Beds had to be made to the most exacting, ridiculous standards. Every angle, every inch of sheet had to be perfect, and the slightest wrinkle would fail the whole bed. If they were allowed, I’m sure a lot of airmen would just sleep on top of their blanket, or even sleep on the floor, leaving their pristine beds untouched. But obviously that wasn’t permitted, and even if you could somehow pull off the flawless slide, once a week you had to take everything off for laundry anyway.
I was at a merciless disadvantage in the morning because it took me so long to tie my running shoes or boots. Remember in zero week when we picked up our uniforms, I discovered I’d forgotten the art of the knot. Well, the night after clothes-day, when I should’ve been asleep, I “went to the bathroom” and took my boots with me to get my knots under control. I could tie them, but it took several precious minutes, putting me at a giant disadvantage. More often than not, I had to get someone to help me make my bed. I’ve never been very good at doing specific detailed handwork, and I was really suffering in the morning rush.
Dressed in sweatgear, we took our flashlights and our wallets and headed to the drill pad to form up. From there we marched to the track field, a line four men wide and fifteen long, each carrying a glowing cone of light in the morning darkness. We were grateful for the earliness of our trek. A workout in the daytime heat of San Antonio would have been unbearable.
The actual workouts were pretty mild. First there were warmups (carefully synchronized to a sergeant or officer calling commands) and then standard stuff like jumping jacks, pushups, and situps. In a sentence, it was like junior high P.E., but without as much socializing or games. After calisthenics, we hit the track, dividing into A, B, and C groups depending on how fast you could run. A was the fastest, C the slowest– if you were in C group, you’d be harassed a lot by the TI’s, so you wanted to try and stick to at least B group.
Despite the less-than-encouraging conditions of bootcamp, everyone was pretty gung-ho about the run, at least. As I know, people did their best to keep to the fastest group they could. On rare occasions, the squadron commander, a lieutenant colonel, would join us and shout lots of encouragement. He was a fast mo-fo, and would often create an ad-hoc “commander group” faster than A-group. If you could keep up, it felt really good- patriotic, somehow- to run with the commander. The reins of power generally give you the luxury of being the “good cop” while you can make everyone below you play “bad cop”.
After the run, we’d cool down (again, carefully synchronized) and form up to march back to the squadron. Released back into the dorm, the morning rush started again, this time it was the mad dash to shower and get your uniform on.
Our flight organized a really good system for showering. See, for an individual airman, the temptation would be too great to hog a shower for longer than necessary. The shower room had four showers in a square, no walls between them or anything. We arranged so an airman (a member of the “latrine crew”) would shout out orders to move. You’d start at one shower, and each time the order to move was shouted, you’d move to the next one. So you’d hit all four showers, giving you a total of about two minutes under the water. The water was cold, incidentally. That wasn’t mandated by the drill sergeants, but it was our own decision, because hot water produces steam and steam makes the bathroom much harder to clean, and believe me we had to have that place spick-n-span.
I had to do everything even faster than everyone else, just because it took me longer to tie my boots. The morning rush was so exhausting, it really felt like I was punched in the gut. I would’ve loved to just crawl back in bed and forget everything, but of course that’d be tantamount to suicide. We had a little “free” time, since not everyone would finish showering or get their uniform on simultaneously, but this was no time to slack off. Each moment was spent working on making sure everything was folded right, everything was clean, our uniforms were perfect, and so on. Anyway within a half hour we were forming up outside again, to take a short march to the squadron chow hall.
Amidst all the chaos and stress of boot camp, one redeeming feature is the food. We were fed handsomely. Granted, there was a strict protocol to follow to eat. In formation outside the dining facility, we were called in one by one. We’d sign our name on a sheet just inside and then take a tray and get in line for our servings. It was somewhat like a school cafeteria, except we had to be silent and stare straight forward while moving. Straight forward here means, straight forward toward the servers, and moving here means, sideways while sliding our tray along some rails.
We were given food generously by the servers- they were civilian contractors and a lot nicer than the mean ol’ drill instructors. Once we had our trays filled we advanced to the back of a line waiting for tables to be free. One airman from the flight had the job of watching at the head of this line and directing us which way to go. When we finally got to our table, we had to stand there at our seats and wait until there was a body behind each of the four seats. The fourth person to reach the table would say either “Trainees, be seated,” or “Airmen, be seated,” depending on whether or not there were any sixth-weekers at the table; if there was even one sixth-weeker at the table, the whole table had to be addressed as “airmen”, since sixth-weekers were no longer called trainees.
The food was delicious. Unfortunately I can’t remember specific dishes (it’s been half a decade since I was there) but I remember we were, to a man, struck by the quality. With each meal, we had to include one glass of water and two glasses of ambiguous colored beverage which we assumed was a nasty warm gatorade. Rumors, probably false, flew around that the “gatorade” was drugged. Usually, the rumors would go, the gatorade had something in it to make us more compliant, or to keep us from getting horny, or so on.
When everyone at the table was finished, the table would stand as one, and push the chairs in together as one. We’d take our trays, marching one-by-one, to a trainee who was doing kitchen duty. It wasn’t uncommon for a trainee to drop glass or something at this point, to be shattered on the floor. When that happened, TI’s would immediately flock around, shouting, “Don’t touch it! Do not touch it!” Basically, the Air Force doesn’t want its airmen to get cut picking up broken glass. There are civilian contractors to come sweep it up when it happens. It goes to show that even though we were being treated like scum, Uncle Sam actually did care about our well-being. (Well, if a trainee cut her hands picking up glass, she’d have to go to the infirmary and it would all boil down to lost time and lost money)
After breakfast, the day would become less predictable, that is, we did different things on different days. Besides generally getting the crap beat out of us mentally and physically, boot camp was also a place to do lots of in-processing and stuff. Basically, the Air Force got a bunch of guys from all different paths of life, all different upbringings, all different experiences, and the job of the training squadron was to uniformize us and make us grow up a lot. There were checkups: medical, optical, and so on. There were finances: every airman had to have a bank account with direct deposit (yes, they do pay you money in BMT– and before your first paycheck, you get a temporary government credit card), and if they didn’t have it when they came in, they had to get it there. There were briefings of all sorts: suicide prevention, driving safety, law… the list never ends. We were busy, and now that I can look back in on it, I really feel for our training instructors who had to “babysit” 60 guys through the ten thousand steps to becoming a soldier.
Lunch and dinner were similar to breakfast. Some time after dinner, we’d meet for the evening briefing in the flight common room. This room was lined with fairly nice chairs along the walls, but we all sat on the floor: the chairs were for sixth-weekers, not “trainees”. During the evening briefings, a drill sergeant would tell us about what was scheduled the next day; about boot camp and the air force in general, especially filing us in on what we’d have to do in the coming weeks; sometimes during these meetings we’d even get the occasional story or even, god help us, joke; but for the most part the sergeants were too pissed off for that. One thing we did get during those meetings, was mail.
If you’re going to Air Force Boot Camp, I recommend you tell everyone you know, to write to you. Got an aunt you met once or twice in your life? Have her write! Basically, whether you realize it or not right now, when you’re under all that stress, it really helps to get encouraging letters from home. Of course before you get to your flight, you won’t know your address there. Early on in basic training, you’ll send a form letter to your parents or whoever, with your address on it. Arrange in advance for them to disseminate that address far and wide to anyone with a pen. Trust me, you’ll appreciate those letters when you’re feeling like the world is collapsing all around you.
After the evening meeting, and after the evening showers (which were only slightly longer, and no warmer, than the morning showers) we’d actually get- gasp- some genuine free time. Like, a whole half hour of it. Of course, we were in a dorm, with no computers, no TV, no cell phones, no nothing. The number one activity during free time was reading and writing letters. If you weren’t doing that, you could talk to other airmen or work on further cleaning and organizing your already thorougly clean and organized stuff. The second most common activity, behind mail, was polishing boots.
When the trumpets played announcing bedtime (at the late, late hour of 9:45pm) we jumped into bed like our beds were paradise. Finally some sleep to free us for awhile from the horror of our being– and let’s hope you don’t have two hours of dorm guard duty that night. As our bodies hit the mattresses (or, in the case of the “sliders”, slid under the blankets like serpents) the de-facto leader among us trainees, a big tall guy from the south, would call: “Another day down, boys!”
I was changed a lot by Air Force boot camp. This is my story from those six-and-a-half grueling weeks in Lackland. Here are the other parts of the story: