Basic Military Training enters new ‘real life’ era

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U.S. Air Force photo/Robert Rubio

The 8½-week journey from recruit to Airman will no longer end in a regimented march on a Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland parade field.

Beginning March 23, 400 recruits will take part in that rite of passage after 7½ weeks of Basic Military Training (BMT) — then turn back around for a five full days of interactive classroom instruction focused on character development.

Civilian facilitators and hand-picked military training instructors will lead newly minted Airmen through role-playing exercises and real-life scenarios devised to drive home the Air Force Core Values of Integrity, Service Before Self and Excellence In All We Do.

“What we expect of Airmen as professionals can be dramatically different from the life they’ve come from. We’re going to talk about resiliency, sexual assault, professional relationships, ethics, how we treat each other with dignity and respect,” Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said.

Recruits already will have received condensed instruction on these and other topics during their initial 7½ weeks of basic. But the transition, or Capstone, week will act as a reset button for trainees emerging from what Cody calls “the fog of BMT.”

“Everybody’s heard about the fog of war. You get done with the battle and can’t remember what happened,” Cody said in an interview with Air Force Times. “BMT is a very fast-paced process. There’s so much going on. [Trainees] don’t have a lot of time to reflect and internalize and take a deep breath before we put them in the technical training pipeline.”

Transition week will give recruits the time to consider how they’ll incorporate the service’s values into their lives as Airmen, said Kevin Adelsen, Capstone program manager. “They’ve taken the information into their brains. We need to move it 12 to 19 inches to the heart where they can truly embrace it.”

Capstone week represents the most significant change to BMT since 2008 when the Air Force tacked an additional two weeks onto what was then a 6½-week course. It is also marks a years-long reinvention of how the Air Force turns civilians into service members — a reinvention that began in the midst of a professional and sexual misconduct scandal that ensnared dozens of Military Training Instructors (MTIs) in late 2011 and early 2012.

A five-month investigation ordered in June 2012 by then-head of Air Education and Training Command Gen. Edward Rice produced a list of 22 deficiencies in the BMT program — and 46 recommendations to fix them.

Almost all of the recommendations have been implemented, from how MTIs are screened, selected and trained to beefed-up security and reporting avenues for vulnerable trainees, said Col. Michele Edmondson, commander of Air Force Basic Military Training.

Shorter shifts and tours of duty cut down on MTI burnout. Mental health professionals are embedded in the training corps.

“We have incredibly robust procedures for tracking any kind of misconduct,” Edmondson said.

There is no longer the opportunity to look the other way even in the face of minor infractions. In fact, MTIs are self-reporting their own slip-ups, such as using profanity, which is forbidden.

All the changes are constantly tracked through surveys and metrics, and they seem to be working. There have been no new reports of MTI sexual misconduct in more than 30 months.

A more professional training environment has emerged, Cody said, one that has moved away from the idea that it’s necessary to tear down a recruit in order to build him or her into an Airman.

“While that might have been a philosophy expected in the past, it is not conventional wisdom today. There’s no reason to break them down. We’re taking them as who they are and where they’re at, we’re acknowledging that, and we’re building them up,” Cody said. “We are still renowned and recognized around the world as the most professional enlisted force anywhere. That doesn’t just happen.”

Capstone week, Cody said, is “a culmination of steady progress.”

It was born in part out of recommendations in the 2012 BMT investigation report that training be shortened by a week and MTI manning increased. The effect, it said, would be twofold: eliminating “white space” in the schedule when some of the misconduct was found to have occurred and reducing manning requirements for MTIs who at the time were working 16 hours a day, six days a week.

But even before the publication of the report, Cody said, he had a conversation with Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh about how to reduce downtime in the BMT schedule — and get the character lessons from basic training to stick better.

Ultimately, the Air Force decided to condense the traditional training schedule into 7½ weeks and bring Airmen back for a Capstone week.

“We brought together a team of folks to give us some thoughts on how do you bring people in and help them connect as a team, to get that ownership from the beginning and start realizing it’s their Air Force right from the beginning,” Cody said.

A group of experts from across Air Education and Training Command decided what should be covered during those final five days of Capstone, Adelsen said.

Ethical decision making, warrior ethos, wingmanship, respect, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, leadership, accountability, self-discipline and self-motivation topped the prioritized list. If there’s time, Capstone will also cover military bearing, technical competency and finances as well as discuss Airmen’s roles in the mission and balancing a personal and professional life.

Capstone week does not come at the expense of traditional training, Edmondson said. “The standards and graduation requirements remain as high as they were in the past.”

If you think that adding five days of character development will make basic training easier, think again, AETC commander Gen. Robin Rand told reporters Feb. 12 at the Air Force Association’s 2015 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida.

“It’s not easier. Heck no,” he said. “Generationally, everyone probably thinks that. I think that our basic military training is as professionally done and as tough as we’ve had it and these Airmen are as prepared as they’ve ever been.”

The new schedule provides a more efficient use of time for certain training events, Adelsen said. For example, an obstacle course basic trainees are required to complete used to be a stand-alone, daylong experience that required busing recruits to a relatively remote location. Now that will take place alongside basic expeditionary skills training — BEAST for short — on a single day.

“Things like that saved a substantial amount of time,” Adelsen said.

After the graduation parade, after newly pinned Airmen have been reunited with teary-eyed parents overcome by their child’s transformation in the two months since they saw them last, there is Capstone.

Opening day begins with a video on the significance of the oath of office. It reminds the new Airmen of the tens of thousands who have preceded them since the founding of the Air Force 68 years ago.

When the video concludes, said 37th Training Wing Commander Col. Trent Edwards, “out from behind the screen walk the MTIs in their campaign hats. They take them off, walk up to the trainees and shake their hands — not as MTIs but as equals.”

Now is the time to “grow them, to mentor them, to solidify that foundation,” Edwards said. “It’s like orchestrating a movie and you have to get it right. It’s the wow factor. You’ve got to capture them on the first opportunity on the first day. This is different. This is not BMT.”

In fact, the Air Force has taken pains to ensure it is not, he said. “It’s a less stressful environment.” Dormitories and the dining facility are different.

Instruction will be a dynamic experience, Adelsen said. Airmen will be challenged with scenarios they may face in the coming months and years. What would you do, for instance, if a fellow Airman asks to borrow your prescription pills because he or she forgot to get them refilled? Or if a fellow Airman posts negative comments on social media about a shop supervisor that Airman blames for having to work on what was supposed to be an off-duty day?

While some of the lessons will come in the form of lectures, those, too, will be interactive.

“If we put PowerPoint in front of these young women and men, we have failed them and we’re going to lose them. We want to hear from them, get them talking, find out what’s made an impression and what questions they have,” Adelsen said.

“If we do this right, Capstone … can impact our Air Force and the character of our Air Force 10 years from now,” Edwards said. “This is not about the here and now. It’s about the future.”

(Jeff Schogol contributed to this story.)