I arrived, along with nearly fourteen-hundred of my new classmates, in Colorado Springs during the first week of July 1985 for Basic Cadet Training at the United States Air Force Academy. My parents dropped me off earlier that morning at Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia, and to say that I was apprehensive was like saying I thought Christie Brinkley was kind of cute. I was borderline scared. My dad had been a cadet in the Air Force Academy’s first graduating class, and had shared with me a glimpse of what to expect. I was not looking forward to it at all. It was hard to say goodbye to my family, but what filled my mind were the unknown challenges that lie ahead for me. I was committed to going, but was not confident that I was up to the task.
Waiting for us at the airport in Colorado Springs were ‘ushers’ to herd us onto buses, and I remember sizing up my new classmates as we rode the thirty minutes from the commercial airport to the Academy campus. Were they all as nervous as I? Was I the only one who stewed about the unknown, felt more than a little queasy and half-wanted to get back on a plane and go home? Was I as good as all of them? Would I measure up?
Waiting for us at the Academy under one of the dorms was a group of sharply-dressed cadets who soon became known as the ‘cadre’, multiple versions of Satan incarnate for the next seven weeks and beyond. They confiscated our few personal possessions, lined us up according to some code that meant nothing to the shell-shocked, and gave us specific instructions not to talk, to stick with your group, and proceed from one location to another for uniform issue, room assignment, haircuts, receipt of identification cards, dog tags, and an endless supply of personal equipment. Initially stern, the cadre quickly increased the volume and intensity of the ‘instructions’ they passed on to us.
For me, one of the first stops was in an assembly-line type of barber shop where each of the male cadets heads were shaved, inspected, and re-shaved. With my eighteen-year old stubble, I was told that my pathetic excuse for a five-o’clock shadow was a poor shave, and threatened that it had better be cleaner the next time I shaved.
By evening, we were herded into groups they called flights, and I was with just over thirty other lost basic cadets as members of the newly-formed Dog Flight, G Squadron. As night set in over the Academy, we were brought into a large assembly room, surrounded by about a dozen sharply-dressed cadre who seemed to be perpetually inspecting us. An older gentleman dressed in Marine khakis stepped forward and started discussing the gravity of what we were doing, the important step we were about to take. He spoke of commitment, of those who had come before us, and of the solemn words we were about to utter. With that intro, he then led us in our own oath of service as the newest members of the United States Armed Forces, as Air Force Academy Basic Cadets. I did not know what it meant, but felt like I was starting something important. The fear of the unknown and the impending challenges were momentarily forgotten as I felt a part of something exciting, big, and important. With that high note, we marched off to bed for our first night in the Air Force.
Any illusions of excitement and greatness disappeared with a shout just after five a.m. the next morning. Our flight NCO, a cadet second-class (junior) with a voice of authority and look that was the perfect mix of professionalism and fierceness, entered into our room and yelled at us to get up and ready for group PT on soggy parade fields at an elevation of 7,258’ above sea level. With that abrupt awakening, my true indoctrination into military and cadet life began in earnest.
Over the next seven weeks, we learned skills that seemed to have no applicability beyond cadet life. We learned how to march. We learned how to stand at attention. We learned how to eat at attention, only able to see half of our plate. We learned how to salute. We learned about the seven basic responses (the only things we were allowed to say without further prompts from an upper classman). We learned how to run in formation. We learned Air Force knowledge and history. We learned how to shoot and care for a weapon. We learned how to fold clothes, shine shoes, make a bed so a quarter would bounce. We learned how to navigate an obstacle course called “Hell’s Half Acre”. We learned all of this so we could enter the cadet wing (the student body) and be college students. None of it applied to my upcoming class load, and it definitely was different from what my friends were doing with their summers.
We also learned about real teamwork, unit cohesion, about habits, manners and decorum. We learned that taking a bite of food too large to be swallowed within seven chews was on a par with robbing a bank. We were daily challenged both physically and mentally in ways that made me believe in the organization, in those around me, and in myself. With each challenge we overcame, we started to believe that we belonged in the Air Force and as cadets. Saying I liked our daily routine would be a lie, but I liked what it was doing for me. I liked the people around me, being part of a team for this shared misery, and I began to embrace the idea of a life in the Air Force.
At the end of Basic Training, we entered the Cadet Wing as full-fledged fourth classmen, the bottom-feeders of the group of over four thousand cadets, but part of the fraternity. We started our academic year, but each day was further filled with Air Force knowledge tests, inspections of our rooms, uniforms, and overall bearing, and mandatory fun events on the weekends. I learned how to shine a floor, clean bathrooms, find dust where it did not exist, and iron shirts and pants well enough to be a part of a drill team. None of it had anything to do with my Calculus class, my Chemistry assignments, my Spanish lessons, or my World History readings. It was all just part of the drill. As the year wore on, I regularly heard cynical classmates and even upper-classmen voice their opinions about how the military haze had nothing to do with the ‘real Air Force’, with my classes, and with being a pilot. As I was living the constant pressure of it all, it was easy to agree with them in hopes that there was an easier way. But no easier way materialized.
Since graduation, I have marched fewer than ten times. I no longer keep a pair of underwear stretched over cardboard on top of my drawers. And I now sleep under the covers, no longer worried about remaking those hospital corners before I leave for the morning. Many of the ‘skills’ that I learned as a cadet have no place in my life, nor have they since graduation nearly thirty years ago. But what those skills, those habits, and those challenges did give me is still with me today, and is the foundation of who I am and what my capabilities are as a person. They gave me a baseline.
Through those drills, tests, and training sessions, I developed friendships with people I otherwise would have never met. We had each other’s back. Not at first, as we all showed up with varying degrees of selfishness and personal desires. We suffered for each other, suffered with each other, and learned to take hits for each other. We learned to stick our neck out for weaker teammates, for teammates who were not as giving as ourselves, and we learned to love them in a way that you only develop through shared hardships. Our shortcomings were made bare for all to see, and we were forced to either deal with them or be perpetually hamstrung by them.
Each of these skills taught me nothing that translated to my daily jobs over the past thirty years, and yet made me capable of handling anything that life threw at me. By learning how to march as a team, to grit it out on the obstacle course, to endure hours of yelling and pressure, I learned that I was good enough to be part of the team—any team. I gained confidence in my abilities as a person, as a teammate, and as competitor. I faced those glaring shortcomings in my own character and abilities, and their visibility helped me to work on them over the years. I found myself competing not with those around me, but with my own doubts and with that voice that questioned my abilities and my worthiness to be part of the team. While staged and controlled in a training environment, many of the challenges that were heaped upon us as basic cadets seemed life and death, success and failure, so acute in their demands that through each one I was forced to question whether I measured up, and whether I really wanted to put up with this hassle. No one was going to die, and failure at many of the tasks did not always add up to expulsion of a basic cadet. Still, the completion of each task, basic training, and ultimately my fourth-class (freshman) year created within me some foundational beliefs in myself, some core interactive skills that only a stress-related environment can produce, and some habits that have made even more challenging events seem easy. Because of these baseline skills, and the confidence I gained while learning them, I’ve been able to see success in others, teach, and personally survive times and challenges that otherwise would have sunk me.
Not everyone can and should be an Air Force Academy cadet. Different likes, different ‘callings’, and different opportunities will lead each of us down different paths. Relatively few of you will have someone waking you with banging doors and screams at five in the morning for PT, and that is fine. What each of us needs, whether self-induced or environmentally induced, is a series of challenges that helps us to create our own baseline.
Many learn foundational skills through the competition of sports, and the successes, failures and struggles that come with competition. Many others struggle and compete through academics, early jobs, and even difficult home environments. The importance lies not in the venue, but in our desires and ability to gain from those different environments. Few youth football players realize the dream of becoming a professional gridiron athlete. Victories over other little league teams, or high school courses, or even first-job projects are not remembered by anyone but ourselves. The victories and challenges of yesterday, while thrilling at the time, come to mean nothing if we don’t use them to build on who we are. Trophies, even for championship teams, slowly become nothing more than dust collectors and filler for yet one more box in the attic. The baseline skills, however, become part of our everyday lives. They become part of who we are.
Creating, then acting on a solid baseline reduces the variables in our lives. With the reduction in variables comes an increase in the certainties of life, a confidence in our ability to conquer the additional challenges that face us, and an increased capacity to help and lead others. Each of our own ‘basic training’ experiences can become the foundation upon which we are able to lead ourselves and then others.