When I was in BMT, fourth week could be described as “barrier week”. If you were seriously going to get washed back in basic, fourth week is the week when it would happen. TI’s loved to threaten to wash you back for every little infraction, but really they don’t want to wash you back; it’s worse for them when that happens than it is for you. But in fourth week, there are several legitimate ways to get held back. (Note: AFBMT has changed recently, and the week numbers will be all different for you if you go there today. So keep that in mind!)
First, there’s an academic test. Throughout all the prior weeks, us trainees had been studying textbooks about Air Force doctrine and history, whenever we had to wait around as a flight. Waiting for your turn to go into chow hall? Textbook out, time to start reading. We didn’t really have any time specifically devoted to study, because we were mad crazy busy with other stuff all the time. The material wasn’t very difficult: ranks and insignia, chain of command, Air Force history, doctrine, core values, and so on. The only difficulty was that our only study time was in brief intervals while waiting in lines.
In university, if you tell students that the test is in three weeks, a good proportion of those students are gonna put off studying for two weeks and six days. There’s no such temptation in basic training. See, one of the things the sergeants like to do while they’re chewing you out is quiz you on stuff in that textbook. In hindsight, I understand they were just doing this to “encourage” us to study hard when we did have time. At the time, it just seemed like they were arseholes. But really they had our best interests in mind. Man though, every one of us was terrified of those drill sergeant pop quizzes. We studied our butts off, when we could.
Besides the academic test, there are dorm inspections which actually matter. In your “living space” (which I put in quotes because, of course, you’re in a dorm with about 60 other guys) you have your bed (a bunk bed you share with another guy), a tall closet, a shorter closet, and two or three drawers. The bottom drawer is your “personal” space and the only requirement is that you don’t put anything there that’s supposed to go in the other areas. For everything else, there are exact regulations that you have to follow to absolute precision. They’ll literally examine every button of every article of clothing. You don’t know when the inspection which “counts” will come. It comes by surprise sometime while the flight is out, and you’d better hope you pass. As for me, I barely passed.
Then there’s dress inspection. You may have seen these in movies. Our drill sergeant assembled us into dress formation, and the squadron commander came to inspect our uniforms. This is where all those hours of shoe shining were really put to the test. The way it worked is, our main drill sergeant went one airman ahead of the commander and had around 30 seconds to make any last minute adjustments to us while the commander was inspecting the previous airman. I don’t think there was much real danger of failing this inspection, as long as your uniform wasn’t really messed up– and believe me, if your uniform was messed up, the TI’s would pounce on your ass long before you got within sight of the squadron commander.
And finally, the last big event of fourth week was the physical fitness test. The three components were the mile run, pushups, and situps. With the pushups and situps, you could cheat, at least when I went through: there weren’t enough sergeants to count each airman’s sets, so you paired up with another airman and counted for each other. I know there were cases of airmen lying about each others’ numbers to help each other pass, but it really felt dangerous. And the sergeants who were there were definitely making their presence felt. As for the run, there’s no way to cheat that. We did it in the early morning, before the deadly heat of daytime struck. I was a little surprised that the course wasn’t the track we usually ran in our morning workouts– we actually ran through the main area of Lackland AFB, including running over some bridges. I passed the run with time to spare, but immediately afterward, I felt like I was gonna die. I shouldn’t have been running in my condition: I was still sick as a dog from all the stress. But it’s not like you got much choice, unless you felt like paying fat camp a visit.
There’s a reason all this testing stuff was taking place in fourth week. We were preparing for fifth week, which would be very different than the first four weeks: fifth week was “warrior week”, when we’d go sleep in tents, eat MRE’s, fire rifles, play war games, and so forth. We had to get past all the tests and inspections because they wanted to make sure we were ready for this change.
Part of fourth week, and third week before it, was spent in classrooms, where we were lectured on the academic aspects of the Air Force. These were broken up with lots of standard briefings: suicide prevention, anti-drinking talks, driving safety, finances, and so on. If you’re joining the Air Force, get used to these generic briefings, ‘cuz they sure aren’t gonna end with boot camp. At the time, though, the classroom environment was a nice break from the usual labor of BMT. We weren’t able to put down our guards by any means– we were still always having to sit at attention, we couldn’t fidget or look around or anything– but it was easier than making beds or marching in the heat.
I actually got something like full marks or 99% on the test– I can’t remember which. I remember it because it was just about the only time in boot camp when I managed to excel at something. I remember we were sitting in the common room shortly after the test. We were sitting on our butts on the floor (not sixth week yet, so the chairs weren’t for us) and for some reason I had my back to the desk where the drill sergeant was. He said something like, “Airman Alexander, you’re good for something after all.” I responded with “Yes sir”, by pure habit without thinking about it. And without standing up and facing him or anything. I kept my back to him! I should’ve been *reamed* for that! I guess he was just exasperated enough, and the context was such that, he cut me a break for it.
I had a slight disadvantage in getting my personal area in order, because I was put out of commission for a couple days by the kitchen duty I wrote about in weeks 2-3. But more than that, I suspect I was a victim of sabotage. Maybe it’s because I was perceived as one of the “weaker links” in terms of Honor Flight calculations, and other airmen wanted me to be washed back. Or maybe some airmen wanted to make themselves look slightly better by messing with others. In any case, I had my personal area mysteriously messed with while I was sleeping, presumably by the dorm guards. And I wasn’t the only airman who experienced this. In our flight, we agreed that night dormguards would walk around and help airmen with their personal areas while they slept. Therefore, there was no suspicion when you got up to use the bathroom at night and saw the dorm guards rummaging around in someone’s closet.
If I recall correctly, we were allowed exactly four infractions on a checklist of something like four billion things (I exagerate, of course). I got exactly four infractions, so I passed the inspections by a hair’s breadth. Since I was at the very border, I was called into the TI’s office and chewed out.
THE PHYSICAL FITNESS TEST
I passed the run with time to spare, and I narrowly passed pushups, but I failed situps. If you fail one of the components of the test, you can go try it again in a smaller group of make-ups. The idea being that maybe you could’ve passed (say) situps, if you just weren’t exhausted by the run and pushups. I went to the makeup situp test, and failed it again. I felt utterly defeated. I was a walking statue of lead, just waiting to hear which flight I was gonna be washed back into.
Later that day when the rest of the flight was in the common room, I was called into the TI’s office, where two drill sergeants from my flight were waiting along with another airman. They informed me they were giving me another chance. I got in position and the other airmen held my feet. One situp.. two.. three.. fifteen.. my muslces were burning, I couldn’t continue. I collapsed on my back. “Come on, push it out!!” the drill sergeant shouted. I screamed with exertion and somehow struggled through a few more situps. I had passed!
I’m not sure exactly what that was about. It seemed a little… how shall I put it… shady. Obviously I wasn’t supposed to get that third chance. What’s more, regulations are very clear that if you rest between situps, you must rest in the up position, hugging your knees. Resting on my back like I did, should’ve disqualified the situp that followed. In short, it seems for all the world like those drill sergeants really wanted me to pass, and didn’t mind eschewing a regulation here and there to pull it off. Would they have done the same for any airman in the flight? Was it something to do with how desperate the Air Force was for weather forecasters (the job I was enlisted for)? I’ll probably never know. All I knew was it felt like angels had swooped down and rescued my butt.
(By the way, in the past couple years I’ve become a weightlifter, and now if I had to go do the BMT fitness test again, I’d ace it. Nowadays when I do situps I do it while clutching extra plates to my chest. If you aren’t already lifting weights regularly, I highly recommend it, whether you’re going to join the military or not. There are a million benefits to working out, it goes much further than just physical strength and appearance.)
THE TI TORNADO
Whispered rumors among trainees foretold an event of apocalyptic magnitude. The TI Tornado. While our flight was out on various errands, we dreaded coming “home” to find our dorm ransacked. Legends spoke of flights coming home to find their dorms trashed. Beds kicked around so badly they had to literally reassemble them. Clothes everywhere. I don’t know how accurate these legends are. Our flight got a very weak “tornado”: we came back one time and some of the beds were moved around a little. But it was no serious problem. I’m still not sure what that’s all about. After all, the TI’s didn’t really want to screw us over. They only put on that image so we’d get our asses in gear. Maybe some TI really lost his temper once and trashed a dorm? I’ll probably never really know for sure about the true nature of the ‘nado myth.
You’ve probably been wondering how laundry works for trainees at Lackland. In each squadron, there’s a laundry shop run by civilian contractors. They did dry cleaning, which was pretty much mandatory. One of the great examples of fraud and waste while I was in the Air Force was that drill sergeants pretty much forced us to get our uniforms drycleaned with starch. Thing is, starch ruins some of the properties of the uniform. I don’t know the specifics. It could just be rumor. I seem to remember hearing that the uniforms were designed to thwart infrared vision, cloaking human body heat, and that the starch ruined that property. It sounds a little science-fictiony, but it could be true. Anyway, we didn’t have much choice about starching up all our gear.
If you wanted to simplify your dorm inspection and didn’t mind paying a little extra to do it, one sneaky method was to put almost all your clothes in for cleaning, and leave them as long as you could get away with. While your clothes are at the dry cleaners, they can’t be inspected!
The weekend of fourth week, we got our first real patio break. In the squadron, there was a little enclosed area with payphones and candy machines. The more advanced flights, if they were doing well as a flight, would occasionally be given fifteen minutes to a half hour of “patio break” when we were allowed to go to that area and relax. You could call up your loved ones on the phone, read or write mail, even buy snacks from the vending machines. (If you intend to do the latter, bring change with you to basic, as it’s hard to procure it while you’re in boot camp.) I can’t remember whether or not you were allowed to bring a cell phone to patio break. Obviously it goes without saying you can’t have a cell phone with you any time on duty at BMT.
It’s really interesting to see how, when your situation changes, something as simple as a fifteen minute “patio break” can seem like the coolest thing on earth. Really makes you appreciate the everyday luxuries of life outside BMT.
SAYING GOODBYE TO THE DORMS FOR A WEEK
I almost felt like crying for joy that I had made it to fifth week. There was a tangible feeling of nervous excitement throughout the flight just before we ascended to fifth week: Warrior Week, a week we’d spend away from Lackland Proper, away from the Wolfpack Squadron, out in tents. What new experiences and adventures would we face, and would we make it through that last hurdle before the coveted sixth week?
Air Force Boot Camp was a defining experience in my life. I’m glad I went through it, even though I was in hell at the time. This is the story of my time under the wings of Lackland.