Dumb and Dumber….of the Air Force

I joined the Air Force in 1987 and shipped off for active duty in March of 1988.

After I was gone for about six months, I received a frantic phone call from my mother back home asking if I was OK. I don’t quite remember how the call arrived, as there were no cell phones, or other of today’s communication methods.

The first question out of her mouth was, “Are you OK?” The young man’s answer to this question is, “of course…why wouldn’t I be?”

What had happened to stir her up was a couple of Air Force recruiters showed up at the house, in an Air Force vehicle, on a routine recruiting call. They must have had my name in a file somewhere as a potential “customer,” but were unaware that I had enlisted and was already on active duty.

So there was my mom, watching an Air Force vehicle coming down the street. We lived at the end of a dead-end block. This meant that cars rarely ever came to the end. When a car did drive all the way to our end of the street, everybody would look out to see who it might be.

So, picture the scene: official United States Air Force car coming down the street. Two Air Force members in dress blues get out and start walking towards the house. The neighbors, knowing darn well I was off in the service, are all starting to come out to see what the heck is happening.

My mom was on the porch in panic mode before those men made half way up the side-walk. It didn’t take her long to put the pieces together — and anybody who knew my mom knew she was not a women who played. I still feel sorry for those recruiters….a little bit. I’ll bet she had some fine words for them, but not before they scared the daylights out of her by just simply showing up.

Darn fools.


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The New Basic?


Note: I don’t mean to offend anybody here, and admit some of this is what we in the military used to refer to as “barrack’s talk.” This conversation also focuses, exclusively, on Air Force Basic Training. At the same time, I speak with veterans of all branches on a regular basis and hear similar opinions. Also, in no way am I taking anything away from those who’ve made the decision to volunteer for the armed forces. The things they are asked to do are…well… they put their asses on the line, for sure. Nobody can know what goes through the mind of another, and we cannot judge until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes…or, in this case, combat boots.

I happened to stumble upon a group of United States Air Force recruits while passing through San Antonio a few months ago. There they were: in single file lines; large manila envelopes in hand – looking a bit nervous.

Upon initial glance I wondered “what the heck are those kids?” Then it occurred to me, mid-thought, they could only be in transit to Lackland Air Force Base — home of Air Force Basic Training School. Yep. Had to be. There could be no other explanation. Young folks arriving from points far and near to begin the process of becoming airman….the same journey I embarked on many years ago in 1988.

I snapped a photo and posted it on various social media sites, and sent it to a few fellow veterans for a laugh – “hey guys, remember this?” To a man, each knew immediately the content of the photo of which I had sent. The photo received more than 1,000 likes/comments, and sparked off a serious string of “I-remember-this-one-time” stories. The reminiscing then evolved into a story about how much times have changed.

For example, the recruits in the photo were much more relaxed than I remember….joking and chatting with one another. Many of them had cell phones in use, and there were even a few “helicopter parents” hovering in the vicinity. I clearly remember that our conversations were held to an absolute minimum. I also believe that, even had cell phones been in existence, they would have already been taken away from us by this point. And parents? Really?

Some of these rainbows (a term used to describe recruits still dressed in civilian clothes) had the same nervous and apprehensive look about them but, overall, most appeared very casual….as if they were off to summer camp.

I met with some fellow veterans in San Antonio later that week and brought this topic up for discussion. I’ve also discussed it with other veterans since. We all agreed that, as is inevitable, times certainly have changed. However, we also agreed that some of the particular cultural changes in military basic training we are hearing about are detrimental to the readiness of our troops.

For example, some of my “Lackland sources” mentioned that two drill instructors must now be present during disciplinary sessions, and that the wording must be 100% politically correct. Really? The DI’s must now worry about the feelings of the trainees? All of the groups with which I’ve discussed modern basic training also indicate that there is cannot be any physical contact whatsoever.

Flashback to 1988: I remember some of the older guys talking about “Back when I passed through boot camp.” Well, in 1988 I do remember a one guy…how shall we word this? As my mother would have said, he got “what for.” I also remember he deserved “what for.” I never got hit, but I once received a pretty good shove. I also got yanked out of one of those big, industrial sized dryers by ankles once while on laundry patrol…..don’t ask. And not one of us made it through without being verbally lambasted and insulted – there was no holding back…none whatsoever. Some of us could hack it while others could not. A few guys, literally, broke down and started crying on the spot. Others sucked it up, got better, and progressed through the program. One day a guy was there. The next, just an empty bunk. I don’t remember the exact math, but let’s just say there were about 25% fewer airman in the barracks by the time graduation day rolled around.

We veterans are still talking about this topic and we’ve come to a few conclusions. We also understand that many folks, especially those who have never served, will most likely disagree. But isn’t one of the purposes of basic training to weed out those who can’t hack it? And another purpose to prepare troops for life in the military – which means, ultimately, the possibility of any wartime situation imaginable?

As this conversation continued to evolve, we started equating the high rate of suicides among service people and veterans to the relative ease of which troops, apparently, are now passing through the “screening phase,” e.g. basic training. What if drill instructors still verbally insulted the troops in ways of years past? Believe me, I learned many new words and insults during my time in basic training…and none of it was PC. And, occasionally, what if a drill instructor slapped a trainee on occasion? Heck – do they still have KP duty?!?!

This is the military, for crying out loud. It’s not orientation for a job at IBM. These kids could very well be in the line of fire in 90 days, or so. If they can’t hack being yelled at, or perhaps even shoved or slapped, how in the heck are they going to be handle what might come next?

Yes – this might be “just barrack’s talk,” but it’s also abundantly clear that the so-called experts in Washington D.C. don’t have an answer. The bottom line is that the military has been forced to relax recruiting standards to boost its numbers thus allowing the sub-standard troops join its ranks.

War is hell. How can the troops be expected to cope when we coddle them during what is supposed to be the indoctrination period?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

Update 24 OCT 14: This post has been active for about two weeks and I’ve received plenty of feedback, both negative and positive. Some folks told me there is no way there was any physical contact, and others told me stories of airmen who did, indeed, get shoved, or even hit. I can only tell you about my own experience. One guy did get hit, and I was once on the receiving end of a pretty good shove. And, for the record, the yelling was far from PC…very far.

Regarding the fact that our numbers were reduced throughout basic training, please allow me to clarify. Some guys, no doubt, simply could not hack it. I believe it was best for everybody that these people were weeded out early. Others became ill, or were injured, and were simply re-cycled into other flights. There were some who struggled with the tasks we were asked to accomplish, but weren’t bad guys. They, too, were re-cycled and given the opportunity to repeat some of the training. In turn, while empty bunks appeared from time to time, we also had a few new guys show up who had been re-cycled into our flight. The fact is that there were fewer of us at graduation then there were on Day 1. I don’t know why people wrote to me debating this point.

Of all the communication I have with military folks, it’s the MWR people with whom I have the most contact. I’m told that the military struggles with physical readiness the same as the rest of society. Not sure why this was such a shock to some people. Coincidentally, I was a unit PT monitor many moons ago. We had other names for the program such as “The Large Sarge Program,” and a few others. Funny enough, they still even use this term…kinda like chow hall.

Thanks again for reading.