Some recruits spend the 30-minute bus ride from the San Antonio International Airport to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, in conversations about their expectations for Air Force basic military training. Others make last-minute calls home on their cell phones. Some blankly stare out the window. However they spend the trip, each recruit knows their life is about to change.
Most of a new group of BMT trainees expected to hear orders shouted at them when the first military training instructor stepped onto their Blue Bird bus at the BMT Reception Center. But the yelling didn’t begin until after they boarded a second bus and were taken to the 326th Training Squadron, their home for the next eight and a half weeks. Tech. Sgt. Coi-Yonne Anderson stepped onto the bus and told the trainees to line up outside where military training instructors Staff Sgt. Jonathan Roberts, Senior Airman Dcoridrion Hicks and their flight MTI Tech. Sgt. 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.
The introduction to the BMT environment can be a similar experience for trainees. A few weeks earlier, Rayne Villarreal took the same bus ride from the airport and had her own introduction to her MTI and 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 28-year-old Villarreal, who worked as a correctional officer in Vacaville, Calif., before she enlisted for an Air Force Reserve position at Travis Air Force Base, Calif.
Adjusting to life in a BMT dorm was a different story. Zero week, the week Villarreal arrived, 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. wakeup call the next morning.
“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 under the overhang, trainees have their first dining facility meal in view of the “Snake Pit,” the tables where the instructors sit, and 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, so they’re called “rainbows.” 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 the BMT environment, 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 (Capt.) 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’re here so they can exercise their First Amendment rights.
“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 quickly eating meals, 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 M16 rifle assembly and basic rifle fighting techniques. MTIs Tech. Sgt. James Brant and Staff Sgt. Joshua Lipp watched one group of trainees from Flight 545 practice rifle-fighting tactics on a dummy while the other 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. One of the earliest examples of this kind of competition shows up when they learn how to break down and re-assemble their weapons.
Two days after Flight 546 learned how to dismantle and assemble their weapon in their second week, Samantha Gauthier was taking her M16 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 further along in the program, like Villarreal, might give is to focus on the MTI’s message and not the communication method. There are also moments when the MTI motivates trainees in an unexpected way, particularly in “Airman’s Time,” as seventh-week trainee Steven Gurtin learned early in his training with his MTI, Staff Sgt. 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 course in the sixth week of training gives trainees the opportunity to apply what they learned in the first five weeks. The BEAST also gives trainees a taste of a deployed environment in 16 exercises throughout the week. The 123-acre site is divided into four zones – Reaper, Sentinel, Vigilant and Predator – which 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.
“A lot of trainees don’t understand why they have to fold T-shirts and socks and have that attention to detail until you get them out here,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Orlando, a BEAST cadre instructor. “I was the same way when I first came to basic training. But when they come out here, they see how it applies to a real-time environment, and it really opens their eyes.”
It’s about this point in their training when MTIs often notice a change in their trainees. MTIs like to say they didn’t create the change themselves 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 MTI Staff Sgt. 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 time in the final two weeks in classroom training on subjects like Air Force history and drill and ceremonies. They also look forward to getting their town passes, when they finally see what San Antonio is like outside the base gate.
As trainees think back to their progress since that bus ride and their first night in the dormitory, they look forward to their new lives as Airmen. On graduation day, after eight weeks of training, they share pride with their instructor and their families at their growth in the past two months.