TOO EASY: BASIC MILITARY TRAINING - 5/10/2023
The following is a personal memoir that does not reflect the opinions and policies of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.
“This sucks,” I thought to myself as I stood amongst hundreds of other trainees on a crisp, January morning just after 6 a.m. Morning formation had begun at the 320th Training Squadron as stragglers fumbled down the stairway still half asleep and doing their best to heed the commands of their Military Training Instructors (MTI’s). Water bottles were scattered on the ground next to our dormitory’s jumbled formation of what were supposed to be four even lines. In total, over 600 soon-to-be airmen were gathered. We would do our best to recite the Airman’s Creed in unison in the echo chamber of an atrium the size of a football field as the words “excellence in all we do” towered over us. An American flag over 100 feet long waved in the breeze. It was time for another day in Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base to begin.
My perspective entering Basic Military Training (BMT) was different than most. At 24, I was slightly older than the average trainee with a plethora of professional experiences and codified life principles. As a journalist, wilderness educator and volunteer firefighter I’d already gone through phases of trauma and adventure bonding with young heroes who would become my best friends. For many, BMT would be their foundation for new relationships and values. For me, it would feel a bit like deja vu.
In attempting to articulate my experience to friends and family following my graduation, I found myself attached to two major themes: the curriculum of the program and the environment it is fostered in. Additionally, the strange dichotomy between the seriousness of a commitment to the U.S. Air Force and the hilarity of BMT’s educational methods.
The curriculum can best be described by the MTI’s themselves. “Too easy,” one hears multiple times per day. “Stand in this straight line. Right face. Left face. Stop talking. Hurry up!”
The U.S. Air Force preaches values of integrity, service and excellence. It teaches trainees how to eat the right foods, how to exercise properly, how to manage finances and how to demonstrate respect towards others. As with any education, the end goal is to prepare someone to do a job. In BMT, those future professionals would also be equipped with the stoicism of “military bearing.”
There are, of course, those other skills typically associated with a basic military training; marksmanship, enduring a gas chamber and navigating a mock deployment environment. These skills are the Air Force’s second priority. The first is that it wants to be sure it's making a good investment in its recruits.
In the meritocracy of BMT, the education is formulated to help the lowest common denominator student succeed. It's not about breeding the commandos that get featured on recruiting posters, but airmen who the Department of Defense can send to a technical training from which they will emerge a government asset.
There are those right out of high school, still 17 years old, who are standing in front of the biggest challenge of their life. There are those pushing 40, possessing the wisdom granted by raising a family, now leaving them behind to support them with military benefits. The sea of diversity in between reflects all corners of the United States, with some trainees only recently becoming citizens themselves.
While the U.S. Military is an all-volunteer fighting force, there are still caveats to recruiting. A significant portion of trainees had no choice but to be there, run out of all other options and support at home. I found there to be a rift between national guardsmen and reservists compared to their active duty counterparts. Those pursuing the guard and the reserves often had other opportunities, be it education already in progress or steady employment, and were therefore free to limit their dependence on the military. As a journalist, I had no way of qualifying this observation with data in real time, but I found it to be a healthy privilege and perspective check so that I may more accurately illustrate military stories in the future.
As the training process began, I did my best to follow often frustrating instructions. Sometimes it was with a positive attitude, sometimes with angst. It was uncomfortable, especially coming from a working environment that provided me with adult freedoms. I consoled my temporary frustrations in my intentions; those being to explore military storytelling and communication with richness, both as an enlisted member and future officer in the Air Force’s Reserve Command. In those moments of doubt I had to frame my perspective to reassure myself that I was still on the right path.
Entering the military, I was excited to be a part of a culture that embraced discipline and purpose-driven work. However, there were oddities I needed to humble myself to as the stereotypes of military culture were represented to the extreme. It was as if the MTI’s were putting on a performance. There is very little room for self expression. Almost no talking is allowed outside of the dormitory setting. Salutes must be perfect. A reporting statement, “Trainee Rodgers reports as ordered,” must be given when addressing any superior. Any travel on foot is conducted in perfect drill. It was humiliating at times, and that was where the challenge of the environment would reveal itself.
By the end of week one of training, sensory deprivation began to set in. The prison-like environment strips freedoms that individuals take daily comfort in. It makes a simple task twice as difficult when your mood is inconsistent due to an inability to exercise, eat and sleep the way you would normally choose to.
In BMT, the physical training is designed to support the most physically inexperienced trainee. The resulting program was facilitated as a group bodyweight training circuit and stretching routine. My hunger was also constant as we were limited to three, 10-minute meals a day.
As the weeks of training wore on, I felt the hard-won strength of my lean frame fading away. Even as many pushups as my more fit peers and I conducted during the day could only partially supplement what was to us, a relatively sedentary lifestyle. It prompted a healthy discussion with myself about my own body image. This was one revelatory lesson produced by the training environment: I need to do a better job of working with my body in an effort to address what I have previously seen as a shortcoming in the extreme challenge it is for me to gain weight.
Under this layer of physical and social suppression, my peers and I craved opportunities to reveal elements of our spirit and individuality. Rebellion began to form and after a few weeks of learning the rules, we began to play a game.
The orchestrators of the game were the infamous MTI’s, experienced non-commissioned officers who have dedicated their lives to the Air Force either by choice or necessity.
A training squadron is composed of dozens of instructors, all with their own unique educational and motivational styles. All are required to impress intimidation onto their trainees through rudeness and intense military bearing. The instructors continually ask “why” of every single action taken by a trainee. It made me psychoanalyze my own decision making. Why did I take the step that I did? What was the subconscious thought driving my decision?
Some of them, with years of practice to get their one-liners just right, are hysterical.
“Stop looking at the ground. If there’s an earthquake I’ll let you know!”
“I’m tired of you staring into my beautiful, frickin’ brown eyes!”
“Stop showing me your teeth! These jokes are for MTI use only.”
“I’m sorry about all of that yelling. Y’all are just trying to stand here peacefully.”
This was a reflection of the hilarity imposed on top of the seriousness of our isolation and requirements of the job ahead. I was poor at maintaining a straight face in response to the jokes dropped on trainees to try to break their military bearing.
The best MTI’s approached discipline from two angles. The first step being to ridicule in public, screaming so that everyone can learn from someone’s mistake. The second step would be to pull the instigator aside with a wingman and explain in a more personal and supportive approach as to how they can improve. As someone who has had the opportunity to educate others in the past, and wants to continue to be an educator in the future, watching the MTI’s was illuminating.
In connecting with my peers in BMT, my biggest observation was in how people treat me in completely meritocratic environments and how I treat others. In the outside world, the people I spend the most time with are those who closely mirror my interests and values. In BMT, all of that would be hidden by the game we played until time revealed the more core elements of our identities.
There were a number of trainees that left impressions on me I will never forget.
The trainee who lost over 150 pounds to make the weight requirement for enlistment. Eating and exercising with the discipline of an olympic level athlete for over a year to pursue his dream.
The trainee who, through his wit, wisdom and positive attitude, will write great novels one day inspired by his own adventurous life.
The trainee who, by miraculous coincidence, I share a close mutual friend with. Our joy upon learning about this shared wonderful person in our lives sparked instantaneous friendship.
The trainee who lost a friend to a motorcycle crash and couldn’t leave our confined world to grieve. The smallest and youngest in our dorm, he would channel his experience into a fire that earned him the top PT score at the squadron.
The trainee who left behind two small children and a fiance to pursue a dream he’d always had. A former professional football player, there’s no doubt the MTI’s were terrified by his size behind their campaign hats. “Time goes by fast,” he would remind me in an evening conversation as we stood watch by the dormitory door. Everything he did was for those two little kids back home.
The trainee who spoke everyday of the same girl he regretfully never confessed his feelings for. His hopeless romanticism paired with qualities exemplified in true leaders revealed a heart full of resolution.
This group of people would find camaraderie through a silly yet wholesome ritual within the confines of our two-month game. All trainees are allotted time on the weekends to attend a religious service without the stressful presence of the MTI’s. The sabbath day of the 7th Day Adventist church falls on Saturday, which was the weekly chapel service we had chosen to attend. Knowing the rules we had to play with, going to service on Saturday gained us an extra afternoon of reprieve, as Sundays were already defaulted off. We would spend several hours with two older gentlemen who encouraged us to feed our souls as well as our bellies by providing lemonade and cookies. None of us followed the particular faith, but it was an opportunity to practice spirituality in reflection, writing and camaraderie. “Happy Sabbath!” we would exclaim with glee when reveille would rudely awaken us at dawn on Saturdays.
The ability to sit down and engage with these people in a zero barrier environment was something which I hope shapes me as a storyteller moving forward. Above all else, understanding how to look for qualities in people that stuck out from the sea of bad haircuts and poorly fit uniforms. There were almost no distractions. No news, no advertisements, no hobbies and limited contact with family. All we had was the opportunity to sit in intentional and thoughtful discussion. The scope of our attention was entirely dedicated to each other.
Stripped down to nothing, one of life’s most sacred truths reinforces itself: character matters most. How you treat people and the example you put forth outshines any amount of intelligence, ego or crafted appearance. In an environment where most everything you have is stripped away, it becomes your most cherished belonging.
The night before our graduation ceremony, I found myself in an empty parade field at Lackland with two fellow trainees. Scattered around it lay dozens of the Air Force’s most iconic aircraft from each point in history. As the horns of retreat played at 1700 the three of us snapped to attention and rendered the salute required of all service members in uniform. The type of plane that we happened to be standing directly in front of was the famous B-29, which dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. To our right were the B-17 and B-24, the other two most iconic heavy aircraft in World War 2. The latter being the airframe that my grandfather would work on as an Army Air Corpsman supporting the allied objective in northern Africa and Europe.
“Present arms,” I said softly as we raised our right hands to our eyebrows. As odd as it still felt to salute and stand at attention, even after eight weeks, it was a beautiful moment to share with two new brothers at the end of the experience. In that raw and vulnerable version of myself, I was proud of who I saw. The time to put the more accessory pieces of myself back together had begun, and forward we would go.
A B-17 "Flying Fortress" rests in the parade field at Lackland Air Force Base.
Flight 187 student leaders on graduation day.