I am not a military guy. I never grew up dreaming about serving in the armed forces or had a family lineage to follow. I had none of the often noble, often personal inclinations that might possess a young man to join the military. Yet 9 years ago when I was 18, I joined the Air Force and entered basic training.
Despite the physical and mental toll it took to mold me into a member of the military, there were some lessons I learned about myself and others that were more nuanced than marching in line, saluting, and following orders.
1. Some people immediately regret their life decisions
The second you get off the bus from the airport to the base, you realize they aren’t going to ease you into this. The first night is long and hellish as everyone, still in our civilian clothes, is yelled at and ushered from facility to facility without having a clue about what is supposed to happen or when it ends. That first night when I finally made it to my bunk, I just sat in the darkness trying to fall asleep to the sounds of young men quietly sobbing.
One cute girl from Michigan I struck up conversation with on the bus was discharged a week or so later for slitting her wrists because she wanted to go home. I remember one guy in particular saying, very matter-of-factly, that he not only needed to leave but that his case was special. The thing about basic training is nobody is special.
2. Nicknames stick even if they don’t make sense
Some people get military haircuts before going to basic training, others keep it real. You don’t get a haircut or a uniform until the second day of training so for a little while you pretty much look like a gaggle of teenagers wearing canteens.
One guy in my group had long hippie hair. So naturally our Training Instructor, the Air Force’s version of a drill sergeant , latched onto that obvious trait and called him Jesus. Another somewhat portly guy had a full beard and was very quickly nicknamed Santa Claus. They were called this every day until we left which was especially funny cause Santa Claus had a baby face without his beard and looked more like Pugsley from the Adams Family than St. Nick.
3. There are moments of humanity to be found in everything
One of the head training instructors was a monstrous female sergeant who was six feet tall and looked like James Hetfield. One day we were in class and she was sitting behind us. She was sick and sounded like she needed to blow her nose. Finally she sneezed. I was near her and despite everything in my body telling me not to draw attention to myself for any reason, I said, “Bless you.”
Rather than fly off the handle or intentionally ignore me to keep the game going, she politely thanked me and smiled slightly, her eyes watering from the cold. It was only for the briefest of moments, but in that small gesture, there was finally evidence that somebody around me was a normal, vulnerable human being.
4. Texas in mid July is hell
We woke up around 5:30 every morning and would go out for physical training before showering or eating. Even during the summer the sun wasn’t up yet and despite the darkness, I was sweating profusely in the humid still air. I hated it. But worse than exercising in that humidity was standing at attention. Being in full BDUs (battle dress uniform), holding your arm out perfectly straight for undetermined amounts of time, the sweat drips from the tip of your elbow to the underside of your arm. But like so many parts of basic training, you eventually stop noticing it.
5. You can adapt
Like I said in the last sentence, about 3 or 4 weeks in, you stop caring what’s happening to you. Whether it’s running in the heat, or breathing in tear gas, at some point I was able to put most of myself on auto-pilot. One of the things everybody tells you before you go off to training is that it’s either fun or not that bad but every week you’re in training it feels like the hardest thing ever and you kind of feel like they lied. But honestly, I hadn’t even left the base yet before I started thinking, well that went fast.
6. You can’t be perfect
Everyone had their strategy for getting through training. Some guys volunteered to lead. Some guys screwed up constantly. I tried to just do what I was told and not draw attention to myself. Unfortunately one particularly humid day we were standing at attention and my sleeve was just a little too far over my wrist. It bothered me and as the minutes went by standing still it started to really get to me. So, in a line of perfectly uniform bodies being inspected person by person, I extended my saluting arm to adjust my sleeve.
I don’t know if I thought I could do it subtly but what ended up happening was something between raising my hand in class and a Nazi salute. I could only stand there and take my yelling like a good idiot. If you’ve never had somebody yell at you in complete, justified rage mere centimeters from your face then what you don’t know is that it’s either scary or funny. In this case I was trying not to laugh.
7. It’s always possible not to lose yourself
Through all the yelling and all the pushups and all the long nights and early mornings, I began to transform. I had good posture, I could easily run for miles, I rarely got yelled at. I had become in some ways, the cog in the machine that you are supposed to be. That’s what training is ultimately about. They stripped me down of all my old self; my clothes, my hair, my family, my friends, my free time and replaced it with rules and consequences.
In order to make it through, I had to fall in line. But I still kept myself. One of the last few days we were there, all our training completed and all our tests passed we had some time to sit and talk like normal people for once. The entire time we were in training we were known only by our last names. Trainee Martinez. Then Airman Martinez. But the last week I went around to the group of people in my flight and started asking them, “What’s your first name?”
I don’t know why it was so important to me but doing so felt good because we had gone through a lot at that point and we still knew nothing about each other. Unexpectedly, some resisted.
One kid told me that he had earned the right to be called Airman at that point and it was disrespectful to call him by his first name. At first I was a little annoyed by it but I just threw up my hands and moved on. We were the same. We had done the same things, learned the same things and knew exactly the same amount (which by the way was practically nothing still). But he had left himself behind at some point. I never wanted to.