Back to Basics

A look inside Air Force basic military training

Story By Randy Roughton
Photos By Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr., 3rd Combat Camera Squadron

Staff Sgt. Joshua Power marches his flight after their initial haircut and clothing issue.

Military Training Instructor Staff Sgt. Joshua Power, center, marches his flight after their initial haircut and clothing issue.

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.

Trainees Chris Dugan and Tyler Holloway sit in the front of a bus full of recruits on their way to BMT. Military training flights typically have 50 to 60 trainees.

Trainee Tyler Holloway, right, sits in the front of a bus full of trainees on their way to BMT. BMT flights typically have 50 to 60 trainees.

“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.”

Tech. Sgt. Christopher Sullivan directs trainee William Farr during breakfast in the dining facility.

Tech. Sgt. Christopher Sullivan, a military training instructor, directs trainee William Farr during breakfast in the dining facility. Basic trainees learn the importance of discipline and focus by having strict guidelines in the dining facility.

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 start the Airman's Run with a run over a bridge at Lackland.

Trainees start the Airman’s Run over a bridge at JB Lackland. During the 1.5-mile run, family and friends line up along the streets to see their future Airmen for the first time in eight weeks.

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.”

Airmen raise their right hand to recite the oath of enlistment during a BMT graduation ceremony.

Airmen raise their right hand to recite the oath of enlistment during a BMT graduation ceremony. Airmen recite the Airman’s Creed and the oath of enlistment before they’re released for a weekend of celebration with family and friends.

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.

Nat McKinney hugs her son, Airman 1st Class Joshua Ricksy, after he graduated from BMT.

Nat McKinney (center) hugs her son, Airman 1st Class Joshua Ricksy, after his BMT graduation.

“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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/larry.d.grey Larry Deuane Grey

    I remember it all too well. Those were some of the best times (after BASIC of course)… It seems like an eternity ago. GO USAF.

  • lowflyer

    I do have to admit, I would love to go back to the final 2 weeks and live it again……Nothing sooner though! I think my favorite part was the comedy of it all, I catch myself thinking about it all the time!

  • http://www.facebook.com/aburke1 Austin Burke

    ah, TSgt Sullivan…4 weeks of fun and games with him earlier this year in flight 406.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004020777156 Boyd W Wicks Sr.

    feb ’69 – 6 weeks of charm school … memories of cleaning the new barracks’ white tile floor with toothpaste. :)

  • Chuck Davis

    I went through basicJune-Aug 1953 in Oakland, Ca. The AF does a fine job. Of taking a bunch of rag tag civilians into a unified group of Airman. Fond memories. I would not hesitate to do it all again. Proud to have served

  • OSCAR GELVEZ

    Aprecio a las fuerzas armadas de U.S.A. por su pelea de mantener la democracia y el justo equilibrio de las fuerzas militares. Y perseguir y anular al terrorismo. Y ver a los muchachos enrolarse y convertirse en soldados, ello me alegra. Atentamente. Oscar

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SKBFOHNFOZ3RDT5MDB36MFI6BY Otis

    Indeed..Flight 702, summer 1974. TSgt Lovelace and SSgt Koon. Quite a time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ken.kohler2 Ken Kohler

    to tell the truth I kinda liked basic , took mine at Sampson AFB New York, Sampson is on Lake Geneva, my basic was in july , cold at night there, but still didn`t mind basic that much, by the way that was in 1952

  • Tony Rotz

    It was 1962 it seems like a long time ago. It wasn’t a great time of my life, but it was necessary. I had some great times in the Air Force.

  • Tony Rotz

    I should say that some of the finest people I have ever met were Airman.

  • Jim Purvis

    Texas in 1961, remember it well. Enjoyed every day of my time in the Air Force.

  • RogerS

    Graduated BMTS in ’74 and retired after 21 years. Basic was 6 weeks back then with only 2 days for M16 training. Some things look the same and a lot more is different.

    • http://twitter.com/pistolpete57 Pete

      Same thing in 1970….2 days at the rifle range.

  • http://www.facebook.com/felicia.avendano.7 Felicia Avendano

    I still can’t believe I went to Lackland four years. Eight weeks I would never want to do again, but met some of the greatest people I would trust my life there. Here’s a call to Flight 220 324th Squadron. Knights Ready for Battle!

  • J. Wilson

    Just graduated April last year…….i think about it all the time………..still proud of myself for making it through…………my favorite was graduation weekend though…………never been so happy.

  • Anonymous

    I went through BMTS in ’65. Almost 50 years later, I can vividly remember the rude awakening getting off the bus at the Reception Center. There was only one bus ride back then. From the article, It’s apparent that a lot has changed. Our flight’s TI, SSgt. Villareal, was one of the best guys I met through my whole USAF hitch.

  • http://twitter.com/pistolpete57 Pete

    I went through BMT in 1970, and as others have stated, a lot has changed. Our training was 6 weeks long. And, it seemed like we spent more time in classrooms than anything else including PT. But, MTI’s never changed. My MTI, TSgt Spiegel scared the daylights out of me, mostly because of his size. One funny thing….after tech school, I went to Keesler AFB to train as a Morse Systems Operator. I did my first overseas tour in Shemya, Alaska. Nothing to talk about there. But, my second tour, I went to San Vito, Italy. I reported to work, and who is my new supervisor….TSgt Spiegel. I couldn’t believe it. We ended up being pretty good friends.

    • Ian

      Happened to be glancing at this site and saw your post. My Dad, Dennis Goodman was a Morse Systems Operator, went to Keesler in 1970. We were stationed in San Vito from 1976 to 1980, small world.

  • Anonymous

    went through basic in 1986. I always remember no one wanted to get salad in the chow hall because you had to go in front of the snake pit. They also made us drink 2 glasses of water before we ate. needles to say, the soda machines never got used either. made the Air Force a career and served 22 years. I loved the time I served and would do it all over again if I could.

  • 2nd Lt Chris Sullivan

    Glad to see I left a positive impression. Training Airmen left a strong impression on me as well. The three years I spent working on Lackland AFB taught me more than anything in the 10 years prior or since. I really miss that job…and my hat.

  • CMSgt William Medlin

    April 1986, a time in my Air Force career that I’ll never forget. The first night under the overhang and out walks SSgt Maughn and Sgt Weems, the two most intimidating people I had met in my life! You know they had an impact and made an impression when you can remember vivid details about your time in BMTS (Ah yes, the Snake Pit!) 27 years later. They were outstanding MTIs and I applaud all MTIs past and present who have transformed thousands and thousands of civilian knuckleheads into USAF Airmen.

  • CMSgt Jay M. Diamond

    I went thru basic in May-June 1960. I have forgotten my TI’s names, but they were very good at their jobs. Our chief TI was a TSgt and #2 was an Airman Third Class. About 3 years later I was stationed at MacDill AFB, FL. When I went to the chow hall for lunch, the TSgt was behind the serving line passing out beans and rice. He remembered me by face, and came to my table and we talked a few minutes. A great guy who really cared about his troops.

  • Patrick Burke

    Sep 1972 to Dec 1974 I was one of those yelling TI’s. I learned that yelling wasn’t all that was needed and treating a person as the individual they are worked better. I learned as much from them as I taught them

  • Panama Smith

    It was January of 1981 when I arrived at Lackland AFB for basic training. Standing there the first night and seeing the shadow coming down the stairs made me think about what I was doing there. SSgt Russell and SRA Brooks were both great folks and I will never forget them or how they cared about their recruits. Being a TI takes a very special person as they have to play the part of instructor, parent and friend all while training you. What great memories. I wonder were all the folks and my TI’s from my flight are today. They called us the F Troop.

  • Cris Hooker

    Flight 490 2003, Tsgt Hillagas and Senior Airman Mendoza

  • Andrew Polvino

    cant say i’d entirely wish to go back. it was amazing, but at the same time a tarnished memory… was quite interesting to read

  • Brenda Chartier

    I went to BMT on Sept 24,1981. I retired in 2002 I would do it all over again if I could. It was the best 21 years of my life.

  • Steven Reinwall

    I think about my experience all the time and wish I could do it all over again. I went in March 25, 2003 to flight 401 in the 331st Training Squadron. Its crazy how you can remember something like that. It was 6 weeks of training when I went in with the 5th week called Warrior week. I think that week was the best time I had during BMT. After all of us got off that bus from the airport someone puked all over the drill pad and I remember the plane ride there we all thought we were going to die, because the engine cut off for 10 seconds and we were free falling.

  • Delphi Omally

    3723 Squadron if I remember? Ssgt Wagner and Sgt Bouchek….the tiniest and yet cutest little girl that had the prettiest smile and yet was one of the TIs. Having a gorgeous TI sure made basic a lot more fun, although of course the expectations were no less. I attended basic in Oct 78 (6 weeks) and it was and remains the most awesome yet scary experience of my life. Being 18, fortunately I was accustomed to waking up very early to catch my school bus from Chambless, CA to Needles—a 3 hour daily bus ride. I stayed in Lackland for Security Police training followed by Camp Bullis combat school. I want the AF to know that I found out how outstanding AF training was when I attended CA Highway Patrol training after my discharge in 1984 as a Staff Sgt. Academy training was much easier, thanks to the strongest AF the world has every seen: my United States Air Force. Oh by the way, I had never tasted pecan pie until basic….true….