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From trainee to Airman (Career part two)

(U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Airman 1st Class Seraiah Hines)

(U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Airman 1st Class Seraiah Hines)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --

As I sat on the plane bound for a place where I imagined I would be challenged and pushed to my limits, I contemplated what awaited me at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. The next step on my journey to a new life.

I was on my way to Basic Military Training. Everything I needed, until my first clothing issue, sat under my chair.

“Just keep your head down and do whatever the drill sergeants, or whatever you call them, tell you,” my husband, Robert, told me. “You will do great. If I can graduate basic training, I know you will.”

After all his BMT stories and tales about tech school, I still had no idea what to expect. I doubted it would be as hard as the Army, but there was no guarantee. The only thing I knew for sure, is it was going to be a long eight weeks without him. Then I would be on my way to tech school, still without him.

“I’ll write you every day,” said Robert. “Even if I don’t always make it to the post office.”

Once I landed at the airport, I called my husband and parents to let them know that I had arrived safely. I made my way to the rally-point where I met the first people I had seen in the Air Force, besides my recruiters.

There were chairs lined in neat rows for us to sit and wait for the rest of the trainees to arrive. Slowly the newest batch of individuals hoping to become the next Airmen of the United States Air Force trickled in.

After everyone arrived, signed in, and got the packet of paperwork we were required to have on us, we were told to file one-by-one onto the bus that would take us to the base.

Thinking about how early I had to get up to make the flight to San Antonio, I was surprised I wasn’t exhausted. As I sit on the bus taking me to base, I had no idea how long this night would be.

Once we arrived on base we quickly, but orderly got off the bus.

I had no idea why but we were greeted by Military Training Instructors yelling, “Put down your bags! Now pick them up. Put them down. Pick them up!”

After five minutes of the screaming, we filed into the processing center to fill out still more forms. All the while we had MTI’s yelling at us to go faster, stand straighter, and be quiet.

We were escorted into a room, empty in the middle, which had heavy-duty plastic bins lining the outer walls. The first bin held a backpack, then everyday items followed; canteen, flip-flops, a jacket and a plastic container with toothbrush, toothpaste, pens, pencils and other random necessities. We walked in a single-file line grabbing one of each item until we sat in neat rows. Our backpacks sat in front of us, until we took inventory of all our items.

After we had all of our issued gear for the night, we were escorted into a large auditorium where we sat and waited for hours, until all of our paperwork was processed. Once complete, I was placed into a “flight,” the group I would spend the next eight weeks with.

I was placed in Band Flight. Band Flight is when on top of your regular training, you play instruments in preparation to perform for graduation. This was both a privilege and a challenge. Not everyone going through training has the opportunity to perform for all of your friends and family, but it also cut into time you would have spent on other training.

Since we didn’t receive our uniforms the first night we arrived, we had to march in civilian clothes across base to immunizations and clothing issue. I was so happy I chose to go through basic training during winter. I would have hated this long march during the summer.

At clothing issue we filed into a room, were given our uniform parts and then tried on the items to make sure they were the correct size. We then left the room to go wherever our MTI told us. Anytime we did anything, went anywhere, we moved with a sense of urgency, but also remained quiet and maintained “military bearing” at all times. If we had the opportunity to talk, we used the time to quiz each other for the final written exam given at the end of training.

Throughout training I had various responsibilities. Helping clean the dorms, stocking our cleaning supplies, and keeping the supply room clean were just a few of my duties. Even with all the research I had done, I was not prepared for how clean our MTI’s made us keep our dorms. To this day I still have certain habits left-over from standards enforced in training.

My flight had a female MTI, and the first couple of weeks it seemed like all she ever did was yell at us. But once we got our act together, we had some time in the evening to ask her questions of what to expect. She was always very honest, but positive in her experiences with the Air Force and working in a male-dominated environment.  

Despite being scared out of my wits the first week of training, I began to understand my MTI’s were only trying to make sure I would succeed, not just by graduating, but also becoming the best Airman I could be.

After the first week or two of training, a pattern arose of what the days would be: chow, classes, band practice, physical training and drill. I noticed improvements in my drill movements and I wasn’t so awkward.

Then came the final Physical Training test. I started doing extra physical activity at home before I left for training, but I had ignored sit-ups. I never realized that would come back to bite me. Even after having MTI’s drill it into us to work on our physical training, it seemed like there was never enough time.

In the initial test I failed the sit-up portion. Once I had completed the sit-ups portion of the re-test, I thought I had passed. My counter had to let me know that I had performed the last five incorrectly, and they did not count. As hard as I tried to keep my military bearing, I couldn’t stop crying.

My MTI’s were as considerate as they could be. I had to go back to the dorm, shower and pack all of my uniforms to move squadrons. I would have a small window to re-test and still graduate with my flight.

I did not pass in time. Now I would be placed in a new flight to graduate with strangers. I would not receive my Airman’s coin from either of my MTI’s and I would not be in any photos of my flight graduating. I did not know when I would be able to see my family. Would they be able to come down and see me even if I wasn’t graduating on time? Could they change their tickets? Was I going to lose the job I had lined up? What job would I get if I did lose the original one?

I thought I had let everyone down, my parents, siblings, my husband, everyone who believed I could overcome all the challenges would hear that I was defeated by sit-ups.

Once I was relocated to the squadron where they trained with you to pass the PT test, I was able to call my family and let them know that I hadn’t passed. I was told that they could come and see me, but I could not leave base and they would have to work around my training schedule.

Although I was crushed, I did connect with some individuals in the squadron who were training with me and they helped me pick myself up and use this to push myself to become better. I would never ever let myself fail a PT test again.

I re-tested and passed in time to graduate two weeks after my original graduation date. I was overwhelmed with relief that I had only been in training an additional two weeks. I would keep my job and continue to the base where I would receive my job-specific training and wait for class to start. I put all of my energy into being ready to graduate and be ready for the next step in my journey.

Despite not being able to get my Airman’s coin from my MTI’s, when I was in drill practice for the graduation ceremony, my head MTI spotted me. He walked up to me, shook my hand, and told me he was proud to see that I had overcome the challenge and that he believed I was going to make a good Airman. That meant more to me than I could ever tell him.

Another challenging and emotional moment in training was after the coining ceremony when the drill pad was flooded with everyone’s friends and family, proud of their loved ones for earning their Airman’s Coin.

You have to wait, standing at parade rest, until someone you know comes and taps you, at which point you are allowed to go and spend time with them. None of my friends and family were able to make it down on such short notice. I had no one in the crowd to come and find me. I didn’t think that it would matter that much, but looking out at all of the families I struggled to hold back tears.

My new flight mates and I had a plan. After a member of my flight was tapped out, they would find me and do the same. This is a common practice for any graduates who don’t have friends and family able to attend their graduation.

While friends and family members came and tapped, hugged and congratulated Airmen all around me, I stood at parade rest, resisting the urge to turn my head, scanning with just my eyes, looking for my flight mates.

A friendly mother saw me standing by myself, at parade rest, and approached me.

“Are you all alone?” she asked. I nodded. “May I tap you out?” she said. I nodded again. “Ok, is it alright if I hug you now?” We laughed and hugged.

This was the first encounter where I realized the military is one ginormous family. I didn’t have to worry about being alone, I had brand new brothers and sisters now, and in this instance, their family took me in as one of their own.

In spite of the vast crowd, I found the flight mates that had agreed to “adopt” me for the weekend so that I would be able to go out and enjoy San Antonio.

Although my training was far from over. I was ready to tackle anything that came my way. I learned that even when I fall, I can use failure to grow stronger and overcome future obstacles.