By Randy Roughton
Some recruits spend the 30-minute bus ride from San Antonio International Airport to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, in conversations about their expectations for Air Force basic military training (BMT). Others make last-minute calls home on their cellphones. Some blankly stare out the window. However they spend the trip, each recruit knows their life is about to change.
Most aboard the bus expected to hear shouting from the moment the first military training instructor stepped onto their bus at the BMT Reception Center. But the yelling didn’t begin until after they boarded a second bus and arrived at the 326th Training Squadron, their home for the next eight and a half weeks.
Technical Sergeant Coi-Yonne Anderson stepped onto the bus and told the trainees to line up outside, where MTIs, or military training instructors, Staff Sergeant Jonathan Roberts and Technical Sergeant Darryl Lyles were waiting to introduce the trainees to their new environment.
“Run!” Roberts yelled as each trainee stepped from the bus onto the sidewalk. Once they were lined up, Lyles took over his new flight and taught them how to stand in formation and at attention before taking them to the dorm for their first night in basic training.
A few weeks earlier, Rayne Villarreal took the same bus ride from the airport and had her own introduction to life in BMT.
“As soon as you step off the bus, it’s like stepping off into a bubble,” Villarreal, a third-week trainee said, reflecting on her first night. “They want to strip everything civilian about you to remake you into what the Air Force wants you to be. A lot of trainees probably had never been yelled at like that before. You need to learn early on it is not personal. It is a training tool to make you into what they want you to be.”
The yelling didn’t faze Villarreal, 28, who worked as a correctional officer in Vacaville, California, before enlisting for an Air Force Reserve position at Travis Air Force Base in her home state.
Adjusting to life in a BMT dorm was a different story. Zero Week was a week of firsts, as it is for all trainees. After meeting her instructor, Villarreal experienced her first night sleeping in a BMT bed and her first 4:45 a.m. wake-up call.
“You’re up with the best alarm clock ever,” Villarreal said. “You’re getting yelled at and are really motivated to get out of bed and get ready quickly.”
After physical training, trainees have their first dining facility meal in view of the “Snake Pit,” the tables where the instructors sit. Then there’s their first BMT-style haircut.
“When you get your head buzzed, you know you’re in it for the long haul,” said first-week trainee Damean Pereira. “When your hair hits the floor, it’s done. You’re in now.”
The first two weeks are a time of confusion, Pereira said. Trainees are in civilian clothes during Zero Week. After they’re issued their airman battle uniforms, the trainees continue to wear tennis shoes until their feet become acclimated to marching. Pereira recalls feeling like he and his flight couldn’t do anything right, especially as they watched flights further along in training march more crisply in their ABUs and name tags.
As trainees adjust to their surroundings, some need additional emotional support, and when they do, they can talk to one of four BMT chaplains. A chaplain at a typical Air Force installation may handle between 40 and 60 counseling sessions a month, said Chaplain (Captain) Curt J. Cizek. That number is doubled for chaplains working with trainees from BMT. The dominant issue discussed in these sessions is homesickness.
“When you go through one of the hardest things you’ll ever go through in your life, a lot of people will discover or re-discover their faith,” Cizek said.
“We help them to understand this is all part of the growing up process. It makes it a little more difficult since they have less contact with their families, at least initially,” he said. “But about midway through, they start getting letters and making phone calls, so probably by about the fifth week, they start building cohesion with their flight mates and depending on each other, rather than necessarily going to mom and dad for support.”
Trainees gradually become more accustomed to eating meals quickly, making their beds with hospital corners, folding socks and marking time by the next meal.
“The days drag, but the weeks fly,” third-week trainee Joseph Bittick said. By the second or third week, trainees begin to settle into BMT life, especially as they are introduced to warrior skills, such as M-16 rifle assembly and basic rifle-fighting techniques. MTIs Technical Sergeant James Brant and Staff Sergeant Joshua Lipp watched one group of trainees from Flight 545 practice rifle-fighting tactics on a dummy while another group ran and crawled through a 25-foot area to avoid simulated sniper fire.
“Why would you leave your wingman behind, young man?” Lipp admonished one trainee who started early. “You gotta wait for your wingman.”
Trainees motivate each other in a variety of ways, sometimes by competing with each other. This often surfaces early, when they’re learning to break down and reassemble their weapons.
Two days after Flight 546 learned how to dismantle and reassemble their weapon in their second week, Samantha Gauthier was taking her M-16 apart in 39 seconds and putting it back together in 29 seconds. But even in competition, skilled trainees often still look out for other trainees in their flight who need help.
“We help people in our flight who can’t do it and help them break it down step by step,” Gauthier said. “We explain to them why things work, why the firing pin comes out this way, and then we let them do it while we guide them before we step back and watch them do it.”
The best advice a trainee can receive from someone further along in the program is to focus on the MTI’s message and not the way it’s delivered. There are also moments when the instructor finds unusual motivational techniques—particularly in “Airman’s Time,” as seventh-week trainee Steven Gurtin learned early in his training with Staff Sergeant Michael McMillian. Airman’s Time is when the instructor shares real-life experiences and airman and warrior concepts.
“I call them intense times because you can hear a pin drop when he starts explaining his real-life experiences to us,” Gurtin said. “It’s just one of those experiences you can take away and always appreciate when it comes to basic training. You’ll see us as a flight when we’re a little discombobulated, but when we have that mentor time, it puts everything more in perspective and gives us an appreciation for where we are on the path to achieving. We realize we’re so close and come out of there recharged and motivated to keep going.”
The Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training (BEAST) course in week six gives trainees the opportunity to apply what they learned in the first five weeks. Throughout the week-long BEAST, trainees participate in 16 exercises that give them a taste of a deployment environment. The 123-acre site is divided into four zones—Reaper, Sentinel, Vigilant and Predator. Each compete against each other. For the first time, trainees are basically in charge of their own training, which includes responding to simulated air and ground attacks.
Around the sixth week is also when MTIs often notice a change in their trainees. They like to say they didn’t create the change, but just helped the trainees discover the hidden airman that was there all along.
“A lot of it is very much something that comes from within,” said Staff Sergeant Benjamin Dartez. “We’re more of a guide to the change. A lot of them just don’t realize what they’re capable of, and with our guidance, they’re able to pull it out of themselves. You see a lot of it in their interaction, not with just us and them, but with each other. You see how they interact with other trainees and even mentor each other, and you see that maturity really starts to blossom in the latter weeks as they’re helping us mold the other trainees.”
After trainees conquer the BEAST, they spend much of their remaining two weeks in classroom training on subjects like Air Force history and drill and ceremonies.
As trainees reflect over their journey that began with that bus ride and their first night in the dormitory, they look forward to their new lives as airmen. On graduation day, after more than eight weeks of training, they share pride in their growth during the past two months with their instructor and their families.
– Randy Roughton writes for the Air Force News Service and Airman Magazine.
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