On September 10th, 2012, I woke up and went for one last run around my neighborhood. I had spent the few weeks prior saying goodbye to my life in Albany, Oregon, and that run through small town suburbia was part of the goodbye; I was going to miss the fields with the horses and cows, the pleasant little houses, yards, trees, and gardens. Albany is a pleasant place to live, and in all honesty, I didn’t really want to leave. When I arrived back at the house… I was locked out. My parents had gone into town, and locked the front door. My strategy on these occasions had been to climb in through my bedroom window… but apparently my mother had discovered the unlocked window at some point, and locked it, as well.
So, I paid a visit to my aunt and uncle down the road, until my parents came back. I sat in their dining room and watched Ultimate Spider-Man. It was an entertaining cartoon.
When my parents got back, I took a shower, and then my mom rode with me to drop my cat off at my friends’ house; my mom didn’t want the cat to stay at their house when I was gone. Leaving her with my friends was one of the two times during the process that I teared up; the other time was saying goodbye to my girlfriend via skype. She started crying, I started crying, everyone was grimacing with scrunched up, tearful faces.
When my parents drove me down the road, I realized too late that it would be the last time for a long time that I would see the house I grew up in; I turned around in time to see it for a split second, disappearing down the road, obscured by trees. Then, we drove through Albany, then up I-5, and onto 205, to the airport and MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station). We ate at the Olive Garden that night, and I had some kinda lemonade drink. It was pleasant. Then, my parents sat with me in the lobby of the hotel I would be staying in for ten more minutes, reminiscing about the time that they dropped me off at Yellowstone to work for the Summer a few years back. After that… they left, and I was by myself.
That night, I stayed in a room with a kid who was much younger than me, but clearly of a much more ideal disposition towards being in the military; this would become a theme throughout BMT (and Tech School, and the Operational Air Force, for that matter). Seemed like a nice kid, fairly confident, unfazed by leaving everything behind. Talked about having a bunch of friends and family “crying on him” the day before, and being fairly indifferent about it. We had some low-scoring football game on the tv, until we both decided it was time to get some sleep. The next day would be a very long one, after all.
At some ungodly hour, everyone getting processed through MEPS that day got up, got breakfast, and got lectured in the lobby (another recurring theme throughout my Air Force career). Everyone got on a bus, and we all went to MEPS. There, we had to go through some physicals or another, again (all recruits go through a similar day at MEPS months before shipping off to BMT, or Basic Military Training). Then, there was paperwork, and talking to a bunch of different people. If at any point I wanted to back out of joining the Air Force, the first part of this day was my last chance to do so. I did not. Eventually, I got through all the paperwork and the talking, and I went into a nice-looking room and was sworn into the US Military by some officer or another (I forget what rank he was).
Next, some other guys and I were ushered into one of the rooms where we’d been lectured, and we were given our orders. Because I was the oldest,I was put in charge of everyone else. This was when it finally sunk in that, “…oh hell. I’m in the Air Force now. I could be in a world of trouble for losing a piece of paper, now.” After that, we were all given tickets-for the plane, and for purchasing a couple meals throughout our travels. Everybody else had their cellphones still, but I had given mine up to my parents, and instead had a few calling cards for calling back home. While everyone else was just sitting at the terminal, my as of yet undiagnosed anxiety disorder was kicking in full blast, and I began pacing all around the sitting area. At one point, I kicked something on the ground, but when I looked, I didn’t see anything down there, so I just started pacing again.
“Excuse me! Excuse me, that was my stuff!” An irritated lady informed me.
I muttered some awkward apology as she gave me a death glare and walked away.
This would end up being par for the course during my time at BMT, as far as luck and awkwardness went. Eventually, everyone got on the plane, and I nervously went over the notes for stuff I was supposed to have memorized by the time I got to Lackland AFB, TX (Home of BMT). A really nice lady sat next to me during this flight, and offered me encouragement as I sat there, freaking out. Towards the end of the flight, the pilot announced that us recruits were on board, and everyone clapped for us, the lady next to me making a point look right at me and smile as she clapped. It helped put me at ease, at least a little bit.
For a couple of hours, we were in the Dallas Fortworth Airport waiting for our next flight, so we got some dinner. We also met the people who were coming to BMT from other parts of the country; a tall, friendly dude walked up to greet us. We walked past him to get our dinner; no time for introductions right then, apparently. By this point in the night, I wasn’t really the leader in any sort of capacity anymore; the other guys discussed and decided what we were going to do. I didn’t really mind. However, I was still carrying around everyone else’s orders with me, so I was still nervous about that.
Eventually, we all got on another plane, for the short flight to San Antonio, TX. It was already dark by the time we arrived. As we exited the terminal, for some reason I don’t recall, I stopped to do something. Maybe it was to get a drink of water, maybe it was to use the restroom. Either way, when I got going again, the others had already checked in with the people from the base who were there to get us. This young, doofusy-looking A1C was lazily going over a list of our names as I walked up, and I thought, “this won’t be so bad.” Then he yelled at one of the guys, and the senior airman who was with him came over to yell at the guy as well, and I kinda froze up. Neither of these two asked for our orders. I don’t know if they forgot, one of the guys told them we didn’t have them before I could get there to intervene, or what. Regardless, we all got on a bus and rode for ten minutes to the base. I savored these last ten minutes before I believed “the fun” would begin…
Our first stop on base was some processing center, where we all sat down in an auditorium in front of some airmen who took a role call. I tried to give our orders to them, but they wouldn’t take them. Next, we went to some room where I guess our feet sizes and height were measured, or something. Then, we were given some lunch boxes to eat in the next 5 minutes, and told to sit quietly. The whole time, this didn’t seem too upsetting to be going through; these airmen who were processing us just seemed grumpy and rude, and only occasionally yelled at anyone. After our lunch break or whatever, we were ushered into a big room where we were once again made to sit in some chairs and listen to some kind of briefing (I have no recollection what this briefing was. Just that it was given by an angry NCO/SNCO/Officer/whatever.) Then, we were on a bus again, headed towards our new home for the next eight weeks…
I will always remember when our bus parked in front of the squadron, and four large, shadowy figures wearing campaign hats marched aggressively up to us. One of the guys on the bus uttered, “Oh, shit!” I’m sure he was saying what we were all thinking.
One of the campaign hats walked on the bus and began listing off our names. After the first few names, he was offended by how softly people were responding and yelled at everyone. From then on, everyone was yelling “HERE!” in response to their names. Having accomplished the role call, the campaign hat then demanded that we all got off the bus and on to the drill pad in some extremely short time period; like, thirty seconds, or something.
I did my best to stand like a statue, as the four campaign hats hovered around us, barking orders and lighting up anyone who didn’t do what they wanted him to do. We played the game where the campaign hat tells you to put your bags on the ground. I was warned about this game by my recruiter, and placed my bags softly on the ground, but apparently others hadn’t been told about this. We put the bags down and picked them up again about three or four times before we got yelled at for dropping them instead of placing them on the ground. Some kind of instructions were given after this game (I don’t recall what) and then we were all rushed up into our dorm.
Once in the dorm, we were to rush to a wall locker and put our noses on it, and then the campaign hats came around and yelled at people for not standing still enough. The key to our locker was either hanging on the bed post on a chain, or in the keyhole to the wall locker, I don’t recall which. I just recall another game of putting our hands on a thing as a campaign hat yelled it out, as quickly as possible, and getting yelled at again. We were then to put the chain with the keys around our necks, and tuck them into our shirt. The keys were never to be sitting out in front of our shirts; this became another game, where other trainees would yell “key check!” and everyone would quickly feel for their keys to make sure they were where they were supposed to be. We were called into the day room, and I apparently had my keys out… one of the campaign hats stopped me and start growling about cutting my head off or something. I quickly put my keys away and moved on.
Once in the dayroom, everyone was instructed to write down our new address on a card, to send to our loved ones so that they could mail us letters and such. Then, we were all given a thirty second phone call to tell our families we arrived at BMT safely. After this, we were rushed into the “latrine” to shave our faces (I think I cut my face a bit that night) brush our teeth and get into bed. All of this needed to be done in another ridiculously short amount of time, and once we were in bed, we were told that we must sleep at attention. I laid at attention for a little bit, and then just laid normally, because the campaign hats were obviously gone. At some point, I got up to use the restroom, and the two guys on entry control duty got after me for not having my flashlight (these two were trainees in like week six or seven, most likely. I didn’t realize that at the time.)
Then… the rest of BMT happened. There are some events that I remember somewhat clearly, but mostly, it just seemed very long. Also, highly stressful. In fact, there was probably some new nervous-breakdown-enducing event each day, each moment. That first morning, we met the first MTI (military training instructor) assigned to pushing our flight. A lot of people have been traumatized by Reveille, and have some sort of ptsd reaction to hearing it when first waking up in the morning. Personally, the sound that gave me that kind of reaction was hearing this man shouting us out of bed in the morning: “GET UP! GET UP! GET UP! GET UP! GET OUTTA BED! GET OUTTA BED!” This guy was both scary, and awesome at the same time. I actually ended up really liking and respecting him by the end; he pushed me hard, but he also seemed like he cared about me and tried to help me, and that really meant something to me. Unfortunately, we were one of his last flights.
The first few days were this MTI leading us around to different in-processing places; the clinic, clothing issue, barber shop, etc. It was during this time that I realized that, while you were a trainee in BMT, most people were gonna treat you like shit. It was part of the process and kept the stressful environment up, but sometimes it seemed ridiculous and over the top. Also during this time, we had our first experience of standing in formation… which we were in whenever we were outside. We were standing there, waiting for lunch, waiting for the barber, waiting for whatever… in formation. We didn’t look around; we looked down at our little learning materials or whatever, or drank from our canteens. Moving or looking anywhere else was a no-no.
Somehow, for our marching formations, I was chosen as a front road guard. This meant that I didn’t get as much experience marching with the rest of the group, but instead wore some reflective vest-that always got super tangled up as I hastily put it on-and stood in position to stop traffic. A clear memory of marching was our MTI telling us to turn left, and me turning right (I easily get left and right mixed up) and our MTI yelling at me, “YOUR OTHER LEFT!! WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?!!” I also remember that he kept forgetting me name, and calling me “Hanson” or “Henderson” instead. I wasn’t the only one whose name he would forget, and this always got a laugh out of the “flight” (the group of trainees I was with).
The first week was okay, all things considered… the second and third weeks, however, it became noticeable how much slower and worse I was at absolutely everything than everyone else. I have to pity all the guys who were my partners in making our beds, because I could NOT do it like I was supposed to. It probably had something to do with the amount of time we had to do it in, and the number of instructions the other guy would hastily try to give me (which my brain could not process fast enough. I was always very tired and/or my anxiety was always acting up.) I was also terrible at marching, folding clothes, putting clothes on, organizing stuff, physical training, etc. So, as much as I didn’t want to stand out… I kinda stood out. Not for even slightly good reasons, either. People started losing patience with me fast, and I would get yelled at quite a bit (there’s nothing quite like being screamed at by a kid ten years younger than you).
They were also at each other’s throats constantly, though. Even the people who had started out really nice started getting really impatient and nasty with other people, really quickly. I might’ve made a comment on how this was a part of the plan, to have us constantly bickering… but I sucked at everything, so I didn’t feel I had any right to. In any case, at some point in those first few weeks, the Instructor Supervisor (our MTI’s boss) came up and talked to us… He was the most terrifying person I’ve ever met. His eyes seemed to stare into your soul, and his voice had a certain, unsettling harshness to it, no matter what he was saying.
He told us that there was no way out of this; that getting discharged at this point would take longer than getting through BMT. Up until then, I had thought that, if you felt you couldn’t handle it anymore, you could let the MTI know, and they would start your separation process or whatever. That night, laying in bed, I felt like I was hyperventilating… I also remember drawing Todd with a crazy expression on his face in one of my letters to someone back home, saying, “Heh heh… I’m gonna die in here!”
Eventually, our second MTI showed up; he was a blue rope, which meant that his flights were generally extra disciplined. Immediately, I worried about living up to his expectations, as he demanded that we stand perfectly at attention… and then yelled at us because we weren’t standing EXTRA perfectly at attention. He showed up for about ten minutes that time, and then went away again, so I thought that maybe we wouldn’t see him again… no such luck.
Eventually, he was there in the place of our first MTI for several days in a row, demanding far more of us than our previous MTI had. I was on his shit list pretty fast… At least a couple times, I was sent into the latrine to scrub it. Also, when we were practicing our marching, every time, almost immediately, he would kick me out of the flight. At one point he stated that he would have me out of the Air Force by that night, and also instructed all the other trainees to call a few other airmen and me “dirtbags.”
I was fairly convinced at this point that I was going to get washed back to an earlier week in training, and then get kicked out. I kept telling my parents not to buy tickets to fly out and watch me graduate, and every Sunday when I went to church, I just prayed to the Lord that I would make it another week through BMT, so that I could go back and pray again. My favorite time of the day was when we went to bed; that was the only time we really had to read or write letters, and also the only time that the insanity totally turned off for a bit. There were a few fire drills that happened in the middle of the night-one of which had me running around my bed in a circle a few times-and there were also times when we were put on entry control duty in the middle of the night… those nights sucked. There was also at least one time that I woke up, thought that we needed to get moving, and woke the guy up next to me, telling him that we had to go. After a few seconds, I realized I was wrong, but it took me several seconds more to calm him down and explain to him I was wrong.
One day, we went to the rifle range, had a couple hours of training, and then went out to shoot some targets. This was par for the course with other training we had; we had an hour of self defense training, an hour of beating each other up with sticks, an hour of going through a combat scenario, crawling through sand and hitting a dummy with our rifles, etc. We had twenty opportunities to shoot our targets. I hit mine twice. I thought for sure I would be washed back… but apparently, to pass the rifle range, you needed to fire your rifle once. You also didn’t need to hit anything.
As we got into fifth week, and I made it through some of the training exercises without getting washed back, I started to think that maybe I’d be okay (although I still told my parents not to buy plane tickets, yet). Then, we went to Beast Week… I was pretty worried about that particular week. We put everything in our duffle bags, road on a bus to another base, picked up MOPP (Mission Oriented Protection Posture) gear, and went to our camp site. The purpose of this week was to practice drills in combat situations, such as bombs landing in the vicinity, or some sort of gas being released in the air (which is what MOPP gear is for protecting against).
There were like four or so of these different scenarios that everyone cycled through throughout a day, and then at night, everyone watched training videos, took notes, “took a shower” (due to the volume of people trying to take one in a short period of time, some of use used baby whipes instead… also, our laundry crew didn’t do our laundry at any point while we were out there. As a result, we stank and were sticky.) After showering, we did our details, and after that, we had like a half an hour at night to just chill; this was much more time than we’d normally get back at the squadron. As a result, while I kinda hated the days at Beast Week, the nights there might’ve been my favorite times at BMT. While on Entry Control duty at one point, I even saw a lizard scurry over and sit next to me for a little bit, which is one of my favorite BMT memories.
However, this was the week that I was sure that I would be washed back… and then I didn’t wash back. That last day, I was standing at attention with everyone else as our first MTI handed us our dog tags. When he got to me, he asked with a smile, “Still alive, huh?” I was like, “Yes sir!” As this was happening, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” by The Angry American was playing, and a thunderstorm was rolling through; it seemed fitting, somehow.
When we got back to the squadron, it was the last week of training before graduation week. The biggest obstacle in my path still, I felt, was passing the physical training test. I had never been any good at push ups; before I’d gone in, I had been working on them every day, but I could still only do a max of like twenty-five, and the minimum requirement for my age group was thirty-three. At one point, during one of the pretests, I did not do the minimum number of push ups for that particular time, and I was almost washed back. I was called into the IS’s office, and he started off with his scary persona, growling at me. He then explained that I hadn’t been in trouble yet up until that point, and that they liked helping good kids who were trying hard, but struggling. Therefore, he was going to give me another chance before putting me in the flight where the out of shape people went.
The morning we did our actual pt test, our push ups came first. I was able to do exactly thirty-three (although I kinda suspect the guy counting for me might’ve given me an extra one). It was such a relief to have that out of the way. I then got my sit ups in, and ran the fastest mile and a half of my life, of like eleven minutes and fifteen seconds. From then on, I was just looking forward to getting out of there. There were a few more challenges along the way-an end of course test, the graduation march, etc.-but that pt test was by far the biggest obstacle. Unfortunately, by the time I felt safe about telling my parents to come out, it was too late, and they couldn’t get the tickets anymore.
At the coining ceremony, our second MTI had to coin us. He got to me, and was like, “Trainee Hellman…” (there was a long pause, there) “…good job.” Eventually, I would accidentally throw that airman’s coin away with an old wallet, but at that time, I clutched it pretty tightly in my hand, feeling rather proud about getting that man to tell me I did a “good job.” Also, at some point towards the middle of our time there, my flight decided that, even though I sucked at everything, they liked me, and wanted me to succeed. They cheered whenever I passed something that would’ve gotten we washed back otherwise, and when I got my certificate for passing BMT, they all cheered again. My proudest moment, though, was on the Sunday morning of Graduation Week, when I stood at the front of the congregation as one of the trainees who had just graduated. I fought back some tears as I stood there, because I hadn’t thought I would ever make it up on that stage.
And then… I got on the bus that would take me to my Tech School. On that ride, I realized that this wasn’t over; that my enlistment wasn’t just about getting through BMT. This journey was just beginning… I also never got those orders turned in, although I had tried a few more times. No one would take them. I had them for like a year before I finally brought them home and shredded them.