Picture this scene: A large group of airmen, living in a tent city near an improvised airstrip, eating field rations and staying alert day and night, placed under stress and kept constantly on guard for any number of unpleasant surprises, which could be anything from air bombardment or missile attack to infiltration by an enemy force.
Air Force veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, and numerous smaller operations would find nothing unusual about the situation.
However, these airmen probably did not ever step into this kind of environment until they entered an actual combat zone. For today’s new recruits, it is becoming a routine part of Basic Military Training at Lackland AFB, Texas.
It is all part of what Air Education and Training Command calls “Warrior Week.” The full seven-day program opened officially Oct. 1 and incorporates an earlier Field Training Experience, called an FTX, which lasted 36 hours. Trainees in their first five weeks of service life learn to pitch tents, handle an M-16 rifle, and carry out their duties in a stressful environment.
The environment, for some, can be dangerous. In a tragic turn of events, an 18-year-old trainee at Lackland died on Sept. 12, two days after collapsing near the end of an FTX. Micah Schindler of Cincinnati was the first Air Force recruit to die at Lackland in five years. Lackland has been conducting FTX training for two years. Col. Stefan Eisen Jr., commander of the 737th Training Group, said Schindler had given no indication that he was in trouble before collapsing as he stood in line to wade through a waist-deep stream near the end of the FTX’s 5.8-mile march. The Air Force has initiated a review to determine what happened.
Warrior Week is an unusual type of training for members of the Air Force. Traditionally, USAF has made only limited efforts to teach enlisted members some basic soldiering skills. Since most were expected to maintain advanced weapons or support air operations, USAF saw little need to prepare the troops for combat conditions. It offered physical conditioning and instruction in close-order drill but concentrated on preparing airmen for technical training and later duty in the high-tech world of modern aerospace.
That was then–before the end of the Cold War.
Now, the services have rewritten their job descriptions to include humanitarian deployments, contingency operations, and peacekeeping. Moreover, the Air Force over the last decade has closed many of its overseas bases and redesigned itself as an Expeditionary Aerospace Force, comprising packages of units that can be assembled for a given purpose and moved quickly to world trouble spots. The Air Force estimates that 85 percent of all airmen entering the force today will deploy to a world hot spot at least once during their career. And as recent events have shown, it’s no longer just aircrews that can find themselves in harm’s way.
“Change the Culture”
Gen. Lloyd W. “Fig” Newton, head of AETC, recently declared his command will play a major role in the Air Force’s transition into the EAF, beginning with Warrior Week.
“We need to get new airmen into the deployment mind-set right from the beginning of their military careers,” said Newton. “We need to change the culture, so when these airmen get to their first duty stations after technical school they will already know the deployment basics.”
The command now assigns high priority to giving recruits a fuller acquaintance with the basics of living in the field, said Maj. Terry Schuller, Warrior Week flight commander in the 737th Training Support Squadron at Lackland.
“We have gotten away from the forward deployed bases and we have moved more toward a contingency type of tasking,” said Schuller. “You have seen that in Somalia and Desert Storm and several similar operations.
“Many of our troops were going out there with no idea what a tent even looked like. So we’re trying to familiarize them with the operational living environment, living in tents, sleeping on cots. We need to qualify them in areas that will make them deployable immediately following basic training.
“They need training in self-aid and the buddy system, in anti-terrorism, basic defense tactics, and nuclearbiologicalchemical warfare. It’s readiness training. And they need at least familiarization with the M-16 and combat tactics.”
This sort of training cannot easily be adapted to a formal school setting. For that reason, Lackland has created the kind of tent city that airmen are likely to encounter when they are sent out on real deployments. For a week, they experience the life of a warrior up close.
“The biggest thing is taking the trainees away from the carpet and the cable television of the dormitory and explaining to them what they have just signed up for,” said SMSgt. Christopher Dobbins, Warrior Week operations superintendent. “Too many of the kids coming in today think that this is some kind of IBM computer training.”
Dobbins went on, “While education and benefits are great tools for recruiting, we have to be sure that the trainees leave here understanding that they’re part of a new expeditionary force. We want to give commanders an airman who is capable of being deployed, not somebody they still have to train.”
The Air Force was not alone in deciding that new recruits needed something more than drill and academic studies. In recent years, a number of review groups, including at least one Congressional committee, concluded that all services need more rigor in their early training programs.
The First FTX
The Air Force took its first step in that direction by adding the Field Training Experience to its BMT program about two years ago. The first FTX began as a 12-hour, overnight operation. FTX then grew into a 24-hour session of war gaming and recently was expanded to 36 hours.
“That gave the trainees a very small glimpse of what the expeditionary Air Force looks like,” said Dobbins. “We have built on that in constructing Warrior Week.”
Dobbins said AETC also “looked at what the other services were doing and took the best of the best.” He explained, “We went out to see the Crucible at the Marine Corps, the Army’s Victory Forge, and the Navy’s Battle Stations. We took some of the best ideas from our sister services and tailored them to what the Air Force does.”
What evolved is a seven-day exposure to some of the conditions members can expect in any deployment, culminating in a more rigorous taste of mock combat conditions. The environment of the main Warrior Week camp is only slightly more austere than that of Lackland’s, but the trainee’s life becomes more basic as the week wears on.
When they arrive on a Sunday afternoon, the tents already are erected. Both living and academic tents are air-conditioned. They have hardened latrine facilities with showers and shaving facilities. Much of the teaching of the academics is done with audiovisual equipment.
There are four distinct units-the Airey, Harlow, Kisling, and Barnes Groups, named for the first four Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force. The recruits will train for several days at the main encampment and, toward the end of the week, they ride the bus to another site for M-16 familiarization. From there, they march to the FTX area, which is a more austere environment simulating a forward deployed location.
At that camp, there are no air-conditioned tents, no running water, and no showers. There is also sleep deprivation. Trainees learn how to erect tents. The whole exercise will be built around an actual mission, defending the base from invasion by the enemy, a role played by the instructors. At the end of the FTX deployment, they perform a 5.8-mile march out.
Among the Elite
The trainees still will have a week to go in BMT, but Warrior Week is a major milestone in the training. A ceremony will mark the end of the ordeal. The trainees will receive their first US collar insignia and some token of their achievement. Back at the dorm area, they will eat a special “warrior meal” apart from other trainees, but the main mark of recognition will be a change of title.
“The ceremony welcomes them into the enlisted corps,” said Schuller. “Before that, they are known as trainees. From that day on, they will wear the blue uniform and be called Airmen. It’s a right they will have earned, not something that has been given to them. And we’ll make it a point for underclass trainees to see these upperclass members have moved into the enlisted corps. It will give them something to reach for.”
The newly designated Airmen will have special privileges for the final week of their training. After graduation ceremonies, to which parents are invited, they go on to technical schools for added training and then to operational units. If the new approach works as the Air Force hopes, they will remember Warrior Week as the turning point in their training, the event that marked their transition from recruits to full-fledged members of the force.
In earlier periods of Air Force history, members trained with a specific unit and usually went into combat with the same unit. In today’s expeditionary forces, that often will not be the case. “In the operational world right now,” said Schuller, “they may take 10 or 12 personnel from one unit, 10 or 12 from another unit, and 10 or 12 from a third and put them together. They come up with a package and send them out to accomplish a mission.”
He continued, “Our training attempts to mirror that. When trainees in-process at the Warrior Week camp, they come over to us as flights, people they have been with since Day 1 of basic training. When they get to us, we divide them up and move them out to different packages as we would in expeditionary forces. We want them to understand that they will not always be together as a 48-person flight everywhere they go. What we stress more than anything else is that we’re all part of the same team. It doesn’t matter what uniform you wear or what squadron you’re assigned to. That pretty much mirrors what’s out there in the real world today.”
To keep Warrior Week from extending BMT beyond the traditional six weeks, officials moved appropriate pieces of the curriculum from the Lackland campus to the simulated camp. Now, trainees will learn some of the Air Force’s history in the sort of environment where much of it was made. They will learn the importance of teamwork by applying it to everything from pitching a tent to halting an attack. And they will hear about life in deployed units from those who have experienced it and now act as instructors or visiting lecturers.
Dobbins said, “We’ve developed what we call an Air Force Heritage program. It’s similar to what we used to call Enlisted Heritage, where people such as former Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force came in during the fourth week of training and talked with the trainees. Now, we’ll have the Air Force Heritage briefing at the actual encampment area. We’ll have people who were deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo, actual real-life, no-kidding heroes who flew those missions and who supported the ground troops. We’ll also have people such as [former] CMSAF [Eric W.] Benken who have been out there and seen the operations.”
Schuller added, “We’re also focusing on such people when we hire staff from the MTI [Military Training Instructor] corps to do this type of training. Some of the most experienced people from deployments are the staff sergeants, the senior airmen, and the tech sergeants out there, and those are skills we are looking for. We ask applicants about their deployment experience.”
The Real Thing
“Another thing that adds realism to the training is that experts have developed everything about the camp, from the infrastructure to the visual effects,” said Dobbins. RED HORSE and Prime BEEF construction and engineering teams came in and practiced their deployment skills by putting up the encampment infrastructure and facilities. Nothing in the camp is fake.
As the officials are quick to point out, however, the program is not designed to produce the USAF equivalent of a foot soldier. Rather, it aims to lay the groundwork for future training.
Said Dobbins, “We try to do as much as possible to make the training real. We give a real-world intelligence briefing, touching on actual events, either very recent or ongoing at the time. There’s a constant update that we’ll get from our intelligence folks over at Kelly [AFB, Texas]. Those things are built into the curriculum to give them an understanding of the possibilities that they may encounter later on.
“But a key point we try to make is that this still is basic training. We try to give all these troops an understanding of what they may come across regardless of what AFSC [Air Force Specialty Code] they may go into. We’re not teaching just security troops or medics or civil engineers. We’re trying to give all these airmen that will graduate basic training a very basic understanding of what they could come across.
“We try to give them the basics, but what career field they go into and what kind of missions they go on will determine what sort of follow-on training they might get. The mission in Desert Storm was far different from that in Bosnia or what’s currently going on in Kosovo.”
Schuller added, “We’re trying to train a broad spectrum of different career fields, different troops. It’s to get them familiar with how to put a gas mask on, what a defensive fighting position is, and what a camp would actually look like. We present some of the conditions that they’re going to live in, sleeping in tents and eating MREs [Meals, Ready to Eat]. It’s just familiarization, so that when they arrive, it’s not going to be a surprise to them.”
Providing this taste of reality is a staff of roughly 50 permanent-party instructors and supervisors. Most are officers and NCOs specifically dedicated to Warrior Week, but a few of the faces will be familiar to the trainees. “Some of the Military Training Instructors from Lackland’s main training area will be involved during Warrior Week,” said the major. “We supplement with these ‘street’ instructors for a couple of reasons. For safety purposes, it gives us more personnel to watch for symptoms of heat stress and problems such as that.”
Leadership by Example
“It also shows a leadership-by-example mentality, just as it does for our instructors to get out during physical conditioning,” said Schuller. “It’s good for the trainees to see their instructors doing some of the rigorous activities with them. And, certainly, the street instructor is going to be involved in the culminating ceremony on Saturday morning. It’s a chance for their own MTIs to talk to them a little bit and spend a little time with them in a more relaxed environment. It’s more meaningful coming from the street instructor than it would be from an instructor that they just met in the fifth week of training.”
Much of the thrust of Warrior Week is directed toward teamwork. In today’s service, that means working with reserve as well as active duty members. “Every new Air Guard or Air Force Reserve recruit must go through basic training,” said Schuller. “They go through the same training, and unless you look at their records, you won’t know who is a reservist and who is active duty.”
The same thing holds true for the instructor cadre. USAF is trying to give trainees a cross section of what the Total Force is. Dobbins said that the Air Force plans to have Guard and Reserve instructors augment the Warrior Week staff so that the airmen see that there is no distinction, that they all wear the same uniform.
Dobbins speaks from personal experience when he talks about the Total Force concept. His wife is with the medical staff of a local Reserve wing. As Dobbins was preparing for the official opening of Warrior Week, she was getting ready to leave for a two-week active duty tour in Japan.
It’s too early to judge how well the new routine is preparing airmen for duty in the real Air Force, but Lackland does have feedback on its shorter field training. Most of it has been positive, said Schuller. “Almost every training critique that we get wants more of the field training experience,” he said. “Airmen say that’s why they came to basic training. That’s what they wanted to learn. Commanders and government commissions have indicated the same thing, that we’re going in the right direction.”
Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “To Be an Airman,” appeared in the October 1999 issue.