Inprocessing: Today's blur is tomorrow's memory

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
The Class of 2015 started their journey into the Air Force June 23. The young men and women probably won't remember many details of their first day, but they'll almost certainly remember stepping off the bus and finding a pair of footprints.

'Get off my bus!'

I spent a few minutes talking with Cadet 1st Class Zachary Crippen and Cadet 2nd Class Heather Nelson before the first group of appointees got on the bus that morning, around 7:30 a.m. They could have been any college student anywhere in the country, except for their uniforms: crisp short-sleeve blue shirts with ribbon racks and nametags precisely aligned, white gloves adorning their hands.

As the first group of 10 appointees boarded the bus, the cadets' faces transformed. They weren't just college students in uniform anymore -- they were all business. "Fill the row and place your belongings under your seat."

Basic Cadet Training began the moment the bus turned onto Interior Drive. Cadet Crippen explained the rules of engagement: "From now on, you will not speak unless spoken to. You will use a reporting statement: 'Sir or ma'am, Basic Cadet Your-last-name reports as ordered.' You will use one of seven basic responses: 'Yes, sir. No, sir. No excuse, sir. Sir, I do not know. Sir, I do not understand. Sir, may I ask a question? Sir, may I make a statement?'"

The cadence of the cadets' voices took me back to a similar bus ride from San Antonio International Airport to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. I only had to memorize a reporting statement, and I had a 20-mile bus trip to do it. These basics had to remember a lot more in a much shorter amount of time.

Unsurprisingly, a few of them didn't get it right on the first try.

"Cadet Figgins? You are not a cadet, Basic Figgins!" Cadet Crippen said, correcting one of his charges as the bus turned from Parade Loop onto Cadet Drive.

Like the first hours of Basic Military Training, the bus ride for BCT is just a warmup.

"If you want to choose mediocrity, do not insult my cadre or the Long Blue Line by exiting this bus," Cadet Crippen said. "If you are not a person of absolute integrity, stay on my bus. If you are not willing to sacrifice for your country, stay on my bus. If you accept the minimum as your personal standard, stay. On. My. Bus. But basics, if you are ready to dedicate yourselves to something greater than us all, to selflessly develop yourself as a warrior and to fight for this great nation, then basics, pick up your bags and GET OFF MY BUS!"

The speech is scripted, and the cadre must memorize it well in advance of Inprocessing Day, said Cadet Nelson, an Albany, N.Y., native who the day before had demonstrated the bus ride to "Basic Cadet" Mike Gould -- a three-star general and the Academy superintendent.

"I actually memorized (Cadet Crippen's) part for the tryout, but then I had to memorize the other part," Cadet Nelson said.

Footprints on the pavement

A different group of cadre cadets shepherds basics from the bus across a blue line symbolizing 57 years of Air Force Academy history and onto sets of footprints painted yellow, the basics' class color. Cadet 1st Class Daniel Scully was one of the higher-ranking cadre members in place to welcome the Class of 2015 to their new homes.

"Stick together! You will not successfully complete Basic Cadet Training on your own," Cadet Scully told the basics. He and his cadre illustrated how to stand at attention. A moment later, he said, "Cadre, fall out and make corrections."

He might as well have thrown chum into shark-infested waters. Cadre swarmed over the basics, tearing into anyone who wasn't "locked up" or who didn't know the reporting statement by heart.

"I don't care about your first name, I care about your last name!" one cadre member said when a basic cadet gave a reporting statement incorrectly.

Two minutes later -- give or take an eternity for the basics -- the cadre rushed their charges up the Core Values ramp to begin inprocessing. "Follow me, jacket man!" a cadre member instructed one of the basics.

The name "Jacket Man" will probably stick through the end of BCT. Some basics, though, are even less lucky: one, who rolled his eyes at a cadre member and either wouldn't or couldn't wipe a smile off his face, is told to stay behind.

Anyone who remembers their first few days of basic training probably remembers a similar experience. I remember standing in the basics' position, if not in their footprints, trying -- and failing -- to keep calm despite a military training instructor who, five inches from my face, assaulted my senses with both the volume of his voice and the odor of his breath.

Entering the system

The basics are much less likely to remember the inprocessing line. If they remember anything, it will probably be the few chances they had to let their hair down a little.

Basics drop off their valuables in their newly assigned dormitories, then head for Fairchild Hall, still in their civilian clothes. The inprocessing line starts in Fairchild Hall's second floor; it winds into the second floor of Fairchild Annex, downstairs, then back upstairs, before leading back through Fairchild Hall and up to Mitchell Hall. Along the way, men get a free haircut. Women learn how to tie their hair into a bun above their collars.

"They're going to need to tie their hair up without even thinking about it tomorrow morning," one of the female cadre members said. If it takes the young women more than two minutes or two tries, they get their hair cut to above-the-collar length.

Staff with the 10th Medical Group process the basics' records, get them up-to-date on immunizations and draw blood for testing. Next, an officer administers the oath of allegiance. Lt. Col. Alan Gladfelter, the chief of command assignments for the Academy's Manpower and Personnel Directorate, and Capt. Daniel Taylor, the executive officer for the 721st Mission Support Group at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, took turns administering the oath. After the oath, the basics -- aka "rainbows" in Lackland parlance -- trade in the blues, purples, beiges and reds of their civilian clothing for the olive and forest green of their Airman Battle Uniforms.

The Long Blue Line

Inprocessing is the beginning of the beginning. Basics take the oath of allegiance three times: once in Fairchild Annex, again on the Terrazzo the next day and a third time on Acceptance day. There are as many reasons to take that oath as there are basic cadets in the incoming class.

"I wanted a big challenge," said Basic Cadet Ryan Howe, a native of East Ridge, Tenn., who attended the Academy Preparatory School in 2010. "I want to see if I can overcome big obstacles, and the Academy offers big obstacles." The chance to serve his country is also a factor, he added.

"I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself," said Basic Cadet Meagan Gor, a Keller, Texas, native. "It's a good opportunity."

Much like its enlisted equivalent at Lackland AFB, Basic Cadet Training is a rite of passage designed to build warriors. It's hard: training starts at 5:30 a.m. each day and continues until 10:30 p.m. that night. Basics drink from a fire hose of military, academic and physical training daily for six weeks. Not all of them will make it: attrition is a fact of life, here as much as at Lackland.

I remember bits and pieces from "Zero Week," but I also remember that I survived it, as did most of the 100 or so young men who arrived in my flight that April evening years ago. And I remember the pride that swelled in my heart when our flight marched onto the parade field, raised our right hands and became Airmen.

A similar moment is only weeks away for the basics, who, after completing BCT, will have earned the right to call themselves cadets. Retired Chief Master Sgt. Bob Vásquez told one parent that he would notice the difference when he returned to see his son on Parents Weekend.

"He'll be completely different," Mr. Vásquez said. "He'll be a better man."

Anyone who's completed basic training -- here or at Lackland -- would probably agree. And despite the hardship, anyone who's finished the training probably remembers it fondly.