VIEW FROM THE TOP: Back to Basic

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. -- At the beginning of this month, I accompanied a group of squadron commanders, chief master sergeants and supervisors from our wing to visit the Basic Military Training wing at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. As leaders, it is important to have an understanding of what our Airmen are learning during BMT so we can relate to their experiences and continue to build on those foundations once they report to the wing.

For most of the March service members on the trip, it had been between two and three decades since we'd been through BMT. In the case of the squadron commanders, most had never been through BMT at all. The trip "Back to Basic" gave us the opportunity to observe the values the Air Force is instilling in its newest and most impressionable members and we were deeply impressed by the vast distance our new Airmen cover from day one of BMT through graduation at the end of week nine.

But the trip didn't turn out to be all about learning about Air Force trainees. During our time at the Gateway to the Air Force, we were inspired by the idealism and precision that was all around us. In other words, we were "re-blued."

May 4, 2011
EXPEDITIONARY SKILLS TRAINING
After our in-brief at BMT, we tour the activity known as the BEAST (Basic Expeditionary Airman's Skills Training). It looks remarkably like an Operational Readiness Inspection compound, except this one is run entirely by week seven trainees. As we approach the compound, the guards are tested by a military training instructor acting as an opposing forces combatant. The recruits are fully decked out in MOPP4 gear and are showing excellent muzzle discipline as they control the approaching MTI with sure tactics and confidence. They are executing the basic building block of a worst case chemical environment deployment and it's impressive.

As we depart the compound, we walk the IED trail where teams of trainees are taught to recognize and act on the dangers inherent in the combat environment. There are controlled explosions when a team misses one of the IED training devices the instructors have planted. It is a sobering learning experience that demonstrates the serious consequences associated with the military arms profession.

From everything I see, these young men and women have grasped advanced concepts of command and control and the wartime environment. They know self aid and buddy care and MOPP, and they know their Airman's Manual inside and out. As we depart the area, I check with the senior enlisted members of the tour group and we agree this is far beyond our own BMT experience. There are brand new Airmen who are better prepared for the deployed environment than any of us had really understood.

LUNCH WITH TRAINEES
For lunch, the members of our group are paired with trainees who have been at Lackland for more than a month. They are veterans of the chow line and will now show us the ropes.

As we wait to begin, we see raw recruits standing under the overhang of the old 1,000-man dormitories in their civilian clothes. They are holding their luggage and meeting their new training instructor. This is a defining moment of discipline where they let go of individuality to become part of something larger that supports the greater good. They have yet to grasp how life-changing the next few months will be.

We enter the dining facility; there are BMTs on detail, but the lunch is prepared under contract. The line moves as rapidly as you'd expect and we are seated with our assigned airman basic. Mine has finished eating while I'm still adjusting my napkin.

As I talk to some of the Airmen at other tables, I'm surprised by how many of the trainees have some college and by the number of reservists and guardsmen we meet. They all seem very self-assured and, again, I am very impressed.

DORMS
After lunch, we tour the dorms. As you'd expect, the lockers, beds, floors and bathrooms are immaculate. This is a female dorm and there are trainees demonstrating their daily routine. What amazes me is the amount of information they've absorbed and their ability to follow complex procedures without hesitation.

May 5, 2011
OBSTACLE COURSE
I am looking forward this morning to tramping through the obstacle course, which has been in existence since the 1960s. Unfortunately, they have already declined my offer to participate...something about old people and liability.

As we arrive, a couple of flights of trainees are gathering to test themselves on the course. They are practicing the age-old call and answer, but with an undeniable Air Force flavor. I hear elements of the Airman's Creed and the Air Force Core Values in their calls.
As we get further into the course, I notice the trainees are strictly adhering to the Air Force's wingman concept. Trainees may finish an obstacle quickly, but they do not move ahead until their wingmen have completed it as well. The calls of "Where's your wingman?" ring out whenever an overzealous recruit gets too far ahead.

Here, the recruits face every fear, from heights to water. I see how the recruits support each other; where one is weak, another is strong; and how they focus on helping each other succeed. They are effective because they play as a team.

COIN CEREMONY
This is the next to the last day of BMT for these trainees. They are formed and march the parade ground to the cheers of their families and close friends. Every seat is full with standing room only around the bleachers.

As the honor graduates are acknowledged and the warrior flight is named, I hear proud family members shouting out trainees' names. It's a proud moment and I can't help but notice the pride and precision with which they appear to own the parade ground.

Each trainee receives his or her graduation coin, and transforms from trainee to Airman, joining the long blue line that stretches back to the early days of March Field and includes some of the notables who walked our own parade ground. The ceremony finishes with an amazingly loud and synchronized reading of the Airman's Creed. There are goose bumps on the arms of some of the old chiefs I am sitting next to.

LUNCH WITH INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS
Today, we eat lunch at the Gott Dining Facility with the international students. The multitude of military uniforms in the square makes it seem like there is a United Nations meeting going on. There are about 1,200 foreign nation representatives here who are learning the English language so they can then proceed to technical training. Some will go on to pilot training, while others will attend formal technical schools.

I'm told many nations expect their military members to use English language technical manuals when they return to their countries. I try to decide if I have the capacity to fix an aircraft using a manual written in Japanese.

We spend the afternoon at the Enlisted Aircrew Center of Excellence where loadmasters, flight engineers, gunners and flight attendants come to learn the basic blocks of their Air Force specialty code. It's immediately evident the school is a microcosm of the Total Force Initiative. There are reservist instructors embedded in almost every course of instruction. I meet instructors I've flown with at Westover and Andrews. As always, it's a small Air Force world.

May 6, 2011
PARADE DAY
It's the final day for the BMT class. Today, most will finish the hardest task they have ever set for themselves and they will graduate. Most have family in attendance. One of the MTIs says a trainee's mother just asked him, "What did you do to my child?" The mother had trouble recognizing her son whose posture was suddenly erect and demeanor polite.

The parade is crisp and terrific in its perfection. There are no mistakes and the formation is absolutely square as it passes in review. There is excitement and a feeling of renewal as this anachronism from earlier ages unfolds at the Gateway to the Air Force. I am refreshed by the knowledge these young men and women have passed through a rigorous training regimen that prepared them to join the world's greatest Air Force, but, closer to home, to join the culture of excellence at March ARB.

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