Booting up: The eight-week journey for the USAF's new airmen

Moving on after a major sex scandal, the US Air Force trains 35,000 new airmen a year. CNET Road Trip 2014 visited Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to see what the Airman's Creed is all about.

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A new graduate Air Force airman is congratulated by his girlfriend at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- If you're a male who went through Air Force basic training since 1961, yours is probably among the million or so heads shaved by Lester West

Every week, between 400 and 700 fresh trainees arrive at Lackland Air Force Base here to begin the eight-week training required to be an airman in the US Air Force. Along the way, they'll go through rigorous exercises, long hours of classroom education, and torturous physical drills, and more. But it all begins with the haircut from West.

Though women get to keep (most of) their hair, the men have their heads shaved. And for 53 years, West, himself nearly bald, with thin-rimmed glasses, has been the main man on campus. "Back in the 60s and 70s, they had a little bit longer hair [than they do now]," West said in a thick Southern drawl. "After we get through [with them], they all look the same."

As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've come to Lackland, located in this south-central Texas city of 1.3 million, to see just how the Air Force breaks in between 33,000 and 35,000 new recruits every year. The timing is fortuitous. Just a few years ago, Lackland and the entire Air Force were rocked by a scandal in which a dozen instructors were implicated in the sexual assaults of dozens of female trainees.

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Lester West shaves one of the million-plus Air Force trainees he's worked on over since 1961. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

In the wake of the scandal, the commander of basic training was removed, and a number of instructors were charged and convicted. Now, the Air Force has instituted a range of new policies aimed at avoiding these problems in the future. Even as they are being implemented, the training goes on, week after week, as the service works hard to build up the ranks of what it boasts is the "greatest air force the world has ever known."

'Everyone starts losing their minds'

Outside a building marked with a sign that reads "Clothing Initial Issue," a few dozen trainees organized in what's called a "flight" are lined up, each with their hands at their sides and their eyes staring straight ahead. This is where it all begins for the 12 to 18 flights that commence training each week.

Inside, it's time for their first Air Force haircut. Led in by an MTI, or military training instructor, they're lined up, waiting their turn to meet West and the other barbers. But then all hell breaks loose -- though the average observer would never have noticed a single one of the trainees even move or change facial expression. "I go away for a minute and everyone starts losing their minds," the MTI shrieks. "Losing their freaking minds!"

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    When things calm down, they line up to be shorn. West is buzzing through them like a man on a deadline. I pulled out a stopwatch and timed him: a minute and 23 seconds to finish a cut. They may have long hair or already sport a buzz cut, but he does them all.

    Next it's time to get all the gear they'll need for the initial part of their eight weeks here. Already having received a military-green duffel, they shuffle past a group of more advanced trainees who hand them packages of socks, T-shirts, and underwear. An MTI barks at them, "never, never, do not put these duffel bags on your shoulder. If you do, items will fall out."

    The list of gear is as regimented as everything else in the military: four utility uniforms known as rip-stop battledress uniforms, or RABUs; four sets of shorts and T-shirts; one running suit; six pairs of socks; six sand-colored T-shirts; six pairs of briefs; one pair of gloves; two towels; two RABU caps; two pairs of boots; one belt; and the duffel. All told, it's $1,600 worth of equipment that weighs in at between 40 and 45 pounds. If they drop any of it, it does not go well for them.

    But they're not alone. They've already been assigned a "wingman," a fellow trainee who will be by their side nearly every moment of their eight weeks here. This is a new system instituted in part to protect against instances of sexual misconduct by trainees or instructors. In part it's for physical and moral support. As the trainees sit down to dress in their uniforms for the very first time, they bend over, pulling out socks, T-shirts and underwear from their duffels. "No man is an island," an MTI yells. "Help your wingman out if they are struggling."

    For now, it's all military-standard camouflage. In four weeks, far, far removed from the initial shock of arriving for basic training, they'll get their "blues," their non-battledress uniforms.

    New dorms

    Although most trainees still use Lackland's age-old dorms, cafeterias, and training facilities, a lucky few are already using the first of a set of new buildings and facilities that by 2020 will be available to every would-be airman.

    Picked up at the airport here, they are taken early in the week of their arrival to what is known as the Recruit Family Information In-processing Center, or RFIIC. Next week, a brand-new $23.5 million complex is scheduled to be operational, but during my visit, everyone is still using the ancient building that has seen as many incoming trainees as West. Everyone is excited about the new RFIIC, though. "The first thing they'll see is a brand-new building," an MTI tells me, "not some old Army post."

    One of the first things they go through upon arrival is an automated foot scanning -- a system that takes precise measurements of their feet so that they can be fitted with the proper sized boots and shoes. By using this system, I'm told, the Air Force has reduced the number of lower leg and ankle injuries suffered by trainees by as much as 75 percent.

    The 737th Training Group, which oversees Air Force basic training is made up of a series of squadrons, within which are several flights. The 323rd Training Squadron, comprised of 24 flights, has already been housed in one of the brand-new dormitory buildings. This squadron, unlike the others in the 737th has both full-fledged MTIs and instructors-in-training. At any given time, there are between 50 and 100 trainee MTIs, though the soon-to-be airmen are not supposed to be able to tell the difference on a day to day basis.

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    Training rifles used by Air Force trainees during basic training. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

    Training is grueling and involves a wide range of tasks, from running to navigating an obstacle course known as "the beast," to learning how to break down, clean, and re-assemble an M-16 training rifle. There's also learning how to man a defensive fighting position, how to do a low crawl, and plenty of exercises, such as running in color-coded lanes -- signifying past speed results -- on a track aimed at providing peer pressure to do better.

    Of course, they have to make their beds perfectly, and their closets must be meticulously organized. Their shoes must be shined, and their training M-16 put away properly. Their wingmen and their MTIs are there to pressure them into always doing better. Even their socks must be perfectly rolled. "It sounds stupid," technical sergeant Brian Medley told me, "but if we can't trust you to roll a sock, how are we going to trust you" to do anything else?

    But unlike in the past, the MTIs no longer live in the dorms. This is just one of many changes the Air Force has instituted to guard against future sex scandals. Others include trainee feedback forms that invite complaints of sexual misconduct, and an on-base phone system that starts off when the receiver is picked up with a recording that says, "To report a sexual assault, press 1." Asking to speak with a chaplain is 2.

    It's all about discipline, and this can be challenging for kids, many of whom are just out of high school. They are prohibited from using social media while in training, and get only three phone calls to friends or family during their stay. Their cell phones are kept under lock and key. And they have no access to TV.

    Coin ceremony

    It's 8 a.m. on a recent Thursday, and at the top of a bridge here at Lackland, a stream of soon-to-be graduates appears.

    This is the beginning of the "Airman's run," a ceremonial march across the base, and the first chance hundreds of families and friends who have come to see them graduate will have to lay eyes on their loved ones since they arrived eight weeks earlier. "It's one of the most proud moments for the trainees," Master Sergeant David Drennon, the superintendent of instructors, tells me.

    The flights of trainees run down the bridge, singing "Jodies," or the call-and-response military chants you hear in the movies. "Rolling, rolling, rolling," an MTI shouts, with the trainees chanting the same in response. "If I die in the combat zone, box me up, and ship me on home."

    A little later, it's time for the Coin ceremony -- the first of two formal celebrations of the trainees' achievement. Here, they'll receive their Air Force coin, a memento many keep with them for their entire career. On one side, it has the Air Force logo, and the words "Awarded on the occasion of becoming an airman in the world's best air force." On the other, it reads "United States Air Force. 1947," and "Excellence in all we do. Integrity first. Service before self."

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    A tray of coins for graduates of Air Force basic training. Many will carry the coins with them throughout their careers. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

    One by one, the new airmen receive their coins, their families and loved ones cheering them on from the stands. It's a solemn moment, one they will likely never forget. Wearing their RABUs, they are still regimented, still stern-faced. Though their training is done, they are not yet graduates.

    That comes tomorrow, in the formal graduation ceremony.

    Dressed in blues, they once again appear in front of their instructors, their commander, and their families and friends. After marching around a grassy field, flight by flight, they take their places on the field, and together, recite the Air Force oath.

    There's only one more step: To recite the Airman's Creed, the words that form the soul of what being in the Air Force is about to these young men and women. Throughout their career, they might be asked at any time to say it out loud. Some colonels have been known to demand push-ups from anyone who can't.

    In front of the giant crowd, the hundreds of new graduates chanted it in unison: "I am an American airman. I am a warrior. I have answered my nation's call. I am an American airman. My mission is to fly, fight, and win. I am faithful to a proud heritage, A tradition of honor, and a legacy of valor. I am an American airman. Guardian of freedom and justice, my nation's sword and shield, its sentry and avenger. I defend my country with my life. I am an American airman. Wingman, leader, warrior. I will never leave an airman behind, I will never falter."

    Then, at the top of their voices, they all yelled, "And I will not fail!"

    Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.

     

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