"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Formative Years - AETC, ROTC, Jump School, and a Heart Break

Disillusion. It's a right of passage for officers who care in the United States Air Force. It's a part of growing up, I suppose, as the world we live in is far from perfect and organizations are made of fallible human beings. Mine came fairly early and the epicenter was firmly located in my ROTC Field Training experience. It's amazing that fifteen years later as a combat pilot, this experience in Air Education and Training Command (AETC) still strongly resonates with me. I wish I could say it was just a childish blip in my experience but unfortunately I can't say that. This post is going to be a bit long and much more personal than usual. So now on to my formative years...


Field Training is the four or six week summer camp that ROTC cadets attend and is something akin to boot camp. There are Military Training Instructors (MTIs), room inspections and hospital corners for bed sheets, and demerits for socks not being rolled up properly in the drawer. Making it through Field Training successfully meant you were on your way to becoming a commissioned officer once you get your degree. When I went through in 1994, those who had done ROTC during the first two years of college went to a four week camp. Those who joined ROTC late in the game went to a six week program, the rationale being that they needed more training.

Despite the fact I had done ROTC from the beginning (in fact the only reason I even went to college was to join ROTC in hopes of becoming an Air Force pilot), I requested to go to a six week camp. My rationale was that I would have a better chance of graduating as a Distinguished Graduate (DG) from the program since the others there wouldn't have as much training as I had. Make no mistake, I was dead set on getting DG from the program and bringing that award back home to show my father, an active duty Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt) in the Air Force.

I was in a pretty good position to do so. I had done drill team for two years and I was a member of the Arnold Air Society (AAS). Beyond what the AFROTC program had to offer, only two weeks prior to showing up to Field Training I had completed Army Airborne school at Fort Benning, Georgia and had been awarded my jump wings. How I pulled that off is a little bit of a story since getting to go to Benning as an AFROTC cadet was a big deal. The program only sent three cadets nation wide each year so you had to be a shining star to secure that slot. I was motivated and dedicated but I wasn't in the running so I secured my slot using a little "outside the box" thinking.

While a cadet in college I routinely participated in Army ROTC activities because I thought they were much more interesting than what I encountered in the Air Force program. I went on Field Training Exercises (FTX) and learned how to clear enemy bodies for hidden grenades, land navigation, how to repel, ran with the Ranger Challenge team, and even learned how to make BDUs into flotation devices after jumping from a high dive tower into a pool. I loved being one of three Air Force guys to regularly be in the field with the Army cadets and liked the fact that they called me "Air Force." I really enjoyed my time with the Army and I met some incredible guys and saw some leaders at a young age who I really respected. One was a backup kicker for the Florida State football team. Another was a guy named Ed B. who was the son of an Air Force O-6 who chose the Army and who brought a mouth guard with him when he went out to the bars. He had done a proper MET-T even back in those days and mitigated the risk of frequent bar fights with that device. I got to watch him fight at a party on one occasion after the Noles won a national championship and I've got to admit I thought it was great. Before mixed martial arts and before guns, knives, gangs and those who don't know the meaning of a "fair fight," a simple and safe fist fight was an essential ingredient to a proper American upbringing. Ed was a fantastic leader in the field from my young cadet perspective. As a gung-ho familiar face from the other side of the hall, I was regularly recruited by the Army officers but I told them there was nothing I wanted to do more than fly for the Air Force.

The truth is I wanted to be Army but there was one small hitch...they didn't fly fast jets. I had wanted to be an Air Force pilot since I was a little kid. Literally. I used to order the Air Force Academy catalog every year in elementary school. My parents didn't even know I was doing it. I loved the fact they would send it to me free and I loved seeing the first page showing a cadet with the falcon perched on his arm. Each year I would justify my mediocre B grades saying, "third grade doesn't really matter, they don't really look at grades until the fourth grade." Then the rationalization was it didn't count until middle school and so on. Somehow my 3.0 grades persisted throughout my academic career but my goal to fly for the Air Force was still paramount. But I also loved the idea of combat and heroism and I highly respected the Army.

Late in my sophomore year of college I had an idea. I had heard that the Army ROTC program gave away jump school slots like candy and people turned them down not too infrequently. So I talked to one of the Army officers and said, "Sir, I understand that if you can't fill all your jump school slots that you get less the next year. I'd like to help you out by volunteering to take one of those slots if you need somebody to fill in this summer." He laughed at me and sent me on my way. The very next day I got a call saying they'd send me to jump school. I officially enrolled for one Army ROTC class to make it official and I had my slot. I was ecstatic to get the opportunity to do something real in the military.

I went to Army Airborne school and had a blast during "zero week" which is the week where you are farmed out to different units on Fort Benning and utilized as cheap labor before actual training starts. We still had muster in the morning and I learned the core Army principle of "hurry up and wait" and I got to form up with my Army brothers and guys from the SEALs, Marine Recon, and others who were not like me. By like me I mean, as the Airborne "black hat" instructors called us, being a "cadidiot." I cut grass, organized supply items, and did all sorts of manual labor in the hot Columbus Georgia sun and a couple of Army cadets I hung out with taught me how to dip. I liked it so much I decided to pick it up as a habit. Unfortunately during that week the Army discovered a problem. They had booked many more slots for training than they had room and some people would have to go home. The rumors flew. Some said cadets would be the first cut because they didn't have a mission. Others said cadets would stay because the training programs had paid money for them to attend the training. In the end I was told I was going home. I was devastated. I thought about handcuffing myself to a pull-up bar and saying I wouldn't leave until I was admitted to training, I thought about challenging the notorious black hats and telling them there was no way they could smoke me and I could outrun them all hoping their egos would make them want to admit and destroy me. I ended up appealing to a crusty Sergeant Major and he told me that he would guarantee me a new slot in two weeks and even got me plane tickets. I returned home to Tallahassee and discovered my storage unit had been robbed while I was away and my entire Christian music collection (dear to me) had been stolen along with other personal items.

But all was well because the Sergeant Major made good on his promise and I was on a plane headed back to Columbus a couple weeks later. The same thing happened after zero week...too many people, not enough slots, but I was able to attend training. I wore Army BDUs throughout the program but hung around a great deal with some USAFA cadets who were also in my company. I let them know that I was just pretending to be Army but I was really an Air Force guy. They were a good bunch of cadets and I enjoyed hanging out with them and some of the guys from West Point. The Zoomies even arranged to have me go with them to see a live fire demonstration at the local range where an Apache and an A-10 tore up some range targets while we watched from bleachers. I was very happy to be there. On graduation day I threw on my Air Force service dress and received my blood wings behind a building since blood wings were not PC at that time. It was fun to see others surprised to see I wasn't actually an Army cadet.

So a couple week later I was ready for Air Force Field Training. I had been running at jump school and I had a nice set of jump wings on my chest. I realized some of the Cadet Training Officers (CTOs) who would be over me at Field Training would be people who had wanted to go to jump school themselves but who had ended up being CTOs instead. From stories I had heard, something as little as that might bring you grief at camp. Oddly enough I discovered that my having jump wings at camp wasn't noticed just by cadets. More on that later.

During Field Training I worked hard and volunteered for every leadership position I could in order to set myself apart. My flight of cadets had some great people in it and most were new to the military life. Four weeks into the program, things were going well. My flight seemed to like me, I was a flight commander at one point, and I was the guy who would sing the jodis as we marched since I learned quite a few at jump school. We alternated between the PT test or a 1.5 mile run each morning and I had gotten my run time down to one of the top times at camp and set a personal record of running it in 8:34. Each week the flights would nominate a cadet for the weekly "Camp Warrior" - for having a warrior spirit or something along those lines. The nominations were compared against each other and each week one cadet was selected. I was selected one of those weeks which meant the four or five of us selected throughout the weeks got to participate in a field training exercise with miles gear as a reward. That was cool.

But around the fourth week things started to go downhill. Things were getting a little monotonous so my roomie and I decided to "spice things up" with some silly idea. The idea was we would post a riddle on the doors of other flights and give them a suspense to answer it within a few days. If they couldn't answer it we would then ransack their flight rooms. We pitched the idea to our flight and everybody thought it was be a good idea. In Field Training there weren't any Xboxes so this kind of thing passed as fun. We put together newspapers and got a marker and wrote down the riddle. "What is it that makes some men blind, yet makes other men to see?" was the riddle. We decided to post the first riddle on the CTOs door. The problem was how to get the riddle into the office and up on their door. We asked the guy who was sitting CQ from our flight if he would put it up. He would have to man the office area overnight so we figured he could put it up during the night. He agreed but then later chickened out. So we had to come up with another idea. Finally we just decided to do it during the day in plain sight. We folded the riddle like a flag and marched it into the office and posted it up on the door in a military fashion. Surprisingly, nobody saw us. We didn't expect that. We definitely didn't expect the reaction it would generate an hour later.

There was an O-6 running the Field Training course who we really didn't see very much. His number two was the guy we dealt with, an O-5 who had previously been a B-52 pilot. I'll call him Lt Col H. He was fond of preaching to us cadets that there was no such thing as situational ethics. That's about the only thing I knew about him at the time. He came running to our quarters building yelling and cussing at the top of his lungs for our flight to "get out here!" We emptied our building and formed up in a line at attention. He had the riddle wadded up in his hand and after a few profanities said, "Who did this! Step forward!" My roomie and I stepped forward. He then said, "Who knew about this, step forward!" Everybody in the flight stepped forward except for one guy...the guy who had initially agreed to post it during CQ until he chickened out. Lt Col H then began yelling about how it was a "spirit mission" and that spirit missions were strictly forbidden during Field Training and emphasized, "don't think I won't kick every single one of you out of here!" After a tongue lashing he dismissed us. At least one girl was in tears muttering that she couldn't afford to be kicked out of the program.

Back in the building I called a meeting to discuss the issue. I told my flight that this was all a big game and they wouldn't dare kick out every member of a flight for posting a riddle to senior cadets. It was ridiculous! I read them the part of the "warrior handbook" that we had to keep on us at all times on "spirit missions" and pointed out that spirit missions were done after lights out and that this didn't count (thanks to the CQ kid chickening out). Some of the cadets, and particularly the one girl, were very worried that the threat was real. I said, we're here to learn about teamwork...do you think teamwork means seeing who can run out to the flagpole and form up the quickest each morning? That's not teamwork. Teamwork is forged by sticking together in times like these. At that point a prior enlisted guy gave his perspective about how we should just play the game and go along to get along. After that meeting the flight was essentially split with several siding with him, and several siding with me.

Another interesting thing happened during camp. One day during our lunch where we had to cage our eyes in front of us and square our corners when eating, I was sitting at a table with three other cadets. The fourth seat directly facing me was empty until a Major sat in it and mumbled my name from my nametag. He said, "Yes, I heard about you. I see you've got jump wings on your chest. How did you get them?" I told him the Army sent me. He said, "I see. You know who I am?" I said, "No, sir." He said, "I'm the AETC guy in charge of all training programs for the Air Force including slots for jump school. You know who wrote your Warrior handbook?" I said, "No, sir." He then looked at a cadet next to me and said, "Johnson?" Johnson, or whatever, his name was piped up with, "You sir." "That's right, I did. And you know who sent you to camp?" Johnson again piped up, "You sir." "That's right, and I also send guys to jump school and while I'm sure you're sharp, I would have sent somebody much sharper than you." And then he left. I had thought camp was just a game but I started to wonder if perhaps AETC actually lacked perspective.

You would have thought I had driven a motorcycle through the Air Force academy dining facility with that riddle. Everything went downhill fast from there and over this one insignificant instance, Lt Col H had me in his crosshairs. The other cadets thought it was funny, outside half of my flight of course. I got nominated by the cadets to be the Mr. Vice for the Dining Out. There were tryouts held where they would give us some topic and we had to come up with some witty poem or something about the topic within a few seconds. I made it to the last tryout where it was between me and one other cadet for the position. Then it came down, Lt Col H. said it couldn't be me so the run off wasn't even conducted and the other guy got the job. The cadets on the planning committee later were choosing who would host the Skit Night graduation event. They gave that job to me as the "runner up" from the Mr. Vice competition but again, from Lt. Col H, I couldn't be given that job either.

Each flight had a Flight Training Officer (FTO). Ours was a Captain with a background in intelligence. In our flight room he had us assembled and said he needed a volunteer to eat lunch with some VIP that was visiting. Each week they'd get a flag officer or somebody and a cadet from each flight would eat lunch with them and listen to whatever they had to say. I raised my hand and the Captain said, "No, sorry, it can't be you." I asked if I could talk to him alone and said, "What do you guys want from me? I'm in a training program where I'm supposed to volunteer for positions and do things to demonstrate my ability but how am I supposed to do that when I'm not allowed to do anything?" What he said to me was a real slam to my spirit and the source of a significant disillusionment. He said, "I know, you're doing a great job and what Lt Col H is doing is wrong, but they've got me by the balls." He had been previously passed over on his promotion board to O-4 and his second board was happening during our time at camp. He felt he had to tow a line otherwise he'd have to get out of the Air Force. I said to him, "Your job is to teach us leadership and here you won't stand up for me even though you know what's being done is wrong?"

He did help me out though. He "pulled some strings" and I got selected to organize the POW/MIA ceremony and was told if I did well that I would be considered for the Cadet Wing Commander position which was the highest position in the little game we were playing. I was glad to organize the ceremony and it went off without a hitch and I did get to be the last Cadet Wing Commander. That was a cool job because while the other flights were off doing one thing or another, I got to travel from location to location to speak to them and to organize the days events. I also got to lead the formation in the morning and had a little soap box with the other cadets assembled. I'm not one to turn down a soapbox and I tried my best to say something motivational. Some buddies told me that while I talked, Lt Col H was behind me shaking his head. Not surprising.

One day I got another blast from Lt Col H. He ran to our quarters yelling and cursing my name. I ran outside at attention and he said, "Why the F are the cadets not formed up on the parade grounds!" I told him I wasn't told to have them formed up there. He said, "The O-6 told you to have them formed at 1300!" I said, "Sir, he never mentioned that to me." "Are you calling me a liar! Come with me right now, we'll get this sorted out and then you are OUT of this program!" I followed him to the O-6's office and stood at attention while he said, "Sir, Cadet X here says that you never told him to have the cadets formed up at the parade grounds." The O-6 said, "I didn't." Holy God. "Well, sir, I assumed...." I thought of all the times in my cadet career I had heard about "assuming" and how that made an "ass" out of "u and me" and thought to myself that couldn't have been any more true at this moment. Of course I stayed silent. I was pretty uncomfortable.

But he wasn't the only real deal Air Force officer to teach me about the real Air Force. The FTO who was unwilling to stand up to Lt Col H informed us all that he was a civilian select. He wasn't promoted on his second board and he assembled our flight together and proceeded to tell us how he had been screwed over by that "skinny son of a bitch" who was the O-6 regional commander of his ROTC unit. He was livid. I thought it was interesting that he was unwilling to do the right thing for those in his charge, but expected those above him to take care of him. He was certainly providing us an education.

One of the cool things I got to do as the Cadet Wing Commander was walk around on my own from flight to flight and organize the days events and address the other cadets. In the final week I was told by Lt Col H to let all the cadets know about our upcoming base day where we would be let out on the Air Force base we were on to go to the BX or wherever and more or less live like regular Air Force people. The Lt Col gave me a strict lesson on diet and told me the cadets were not to have caffeine, etc, etc. I set out on my way to pass the message. I briefed each flight about the rules as I was instructed and then said, "But unless you have a chemical engineering or nutrition degree, how are you supposed to know if chocolate has caffeine in it or not? So go ahead and eat whatever you want and if that becomes a problem, tell them I specifically said you could do it." I was looking for a fight. I was pretty sure I was going to quit the program on the last day anyway, I had decided, and so it just didn't matter. If the Air Force wanted a bunch of yes-men who lacked perspective and didn't know what was important and what wasn't and who thought teamwork and loyalty were measured by who formed up at the flagpole first, this service wasn't for me. Nothing came of my dietary coup though.

I met with the FTO who told me my scores for Field Training. There would be no DG for me. In fact, I was rated below flight average. I knew my dream to be a pilot had been crushed and on the last night I strongly considered addressing the cadets the next morning during the formation and letting them know why I had decided to self eliminate on the very last day. But I didn't do that. Instead I resolved myself to do four years in the Air Force, get what I could from it, and leave it. I had become a careerist at that point because my focus was no longer on service but rather on what I could get for myself. Not a proud moment. Use them before they use you I would tell people. Of course I got a pilot slot a year later and that restored my sense of service but a large part of my spirit had been crushed by AETC.

2 comments:

  1. Wow. Very detailed.

    I just have to say this, I will do the best I can for those under me.

    ReplyDelete