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Getting tough: How the Air Force primes its future officers

The future leaders of the Air Force stood at attention on the Air Force Academy’s main pavilion on a bright July morning, ready for 11 days that would change their lives.

Most of them were 18-year-olds fresh out of high school — who likely had their pick of colleges to attend. Their choice was a life of military discipline, pre-dawn wakeups, and hours upon hours of physical training. With them were 61 prior-enlisted airmen, now cadets, who have chosen to become officers, and yet a third round of basic training.

The 1,160 basic training cadets of the Class of 2018 are the next generation of Air Force majors, colonels and, chances are, even generals. Academy graduates make up 23 percent of the Air Force's overall officer ranks, and 46 percent of the service's general officers. Seven of the 11 current Air Force four-star generals — including Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh — graduated from the academy, as did three previous chiefs of staff.

Over the next nearly two weeks, the cadets would endure the second phase of basic cadet training, nicknamed Second Beast, and learn — much like their enlisted counterparts at basic training — what makes an airman. The difference is, these officers-in-training would combine their grueling physical training with lessons on how to lead, motivate and discipline the airmen they will soon supervise, in times of war and peace. Their training would include things as simple as memorizing each others' names and figuring out how to set up tents together, to more challenging problem-solving courses, to besting the dreaded assault course.

"Second BCT is all about developing the warrior ethos in the basic cadets," said Cadet 1st Class Nate Peeler, a 21-year-old rising senior and basic cadet training cadet group commander, who oversaw the entire training effort. "It's putting them in these stressful situations where they can lead each other, but also a challenge where they can take pride in what they've accomplished."

When the basics' field training concluded Aug. 1, all but 13 returned to the main campus. But getting to that point would be a hard journey.


It was 4:45 a.m. on July 22 — time for reveille — and Bravo flight, Barbarians squadron was about to be late.

The cadet cadre leaders — upperclassmen who lead the basics — milled around in the pre-dawn chill of Jacks Valley, quietly chatting with one another. Then, on cue, they blew whistles, sounded a bullhorn siren, and began yelling for the Barbarians to fall out of their tents and begin their second day of field training, also known as Second Beast. "Get your [tent] flaps up!" one cadre member said. "Pants on, flaps up!"

Their neighbors in Aggressors squadron were already up, dressed and on their way to their morning physical training. Some of the Barbarians were also ready, but others weren't. The cadre ordered the already-up Barbarians to get down in a front-leaning rest in the dirt hallway between rows of tents and begin chanting, to guilt the stragglers into hurrying up and joining them: "SIR, WE ARE WAITING ON OUR CLASSMATES. SIR, WE ARE WAITING ON OUR CLASSMATES."

It worked. The remaining Barbarians soon emerged in their airmen battle uniforms and joined their squad mates for pushups. Their cadre leaders then had them start counting off, one by one. When they reached 18 — to mark their class year — only a few weakly muttered their class slogan, "Fight to win." A few cadets later, someone jumped straight from 26 to 28.

"26 to 28?" one cadre leader said.

"They missed a count," another said. "Start over."

This time, Bravo flight didn't miss a number. And when they reached 18, all 30-some members hollered a full-throated "Fight to win!" Satisfied — for now — the cadre allowed them to get up and head to the mess hall for breakfast.

"Bravo flight, that took way too freakin' long," one cadre said. "It better not take this long next time."

It was a tough start to these Barbarians' day. It was about to get a lot tougher.

The challenges accelerate

The first phase of basic cadet training began June 26, when the basics arrived at the academy and started learning the simplest parts of military life, such as how to properly march, salute, wear their uniforms, interact with officers and enlisted personnel. They were assigned to one of eight squadrons — Aggressors, Barbarians, Cobras, Demons, Executioners, Flying Tigers, Guts and Hellcats — and then to one of five flights within each squadron, Alpha through Echo.

The blue-bereted cadre leaders also drilled knowledge into the basics' heads, over and over — inspirational quotes from everyone from Robert E. Lee to Muhammad Ali, facts about different aircraft, Air Force history, the names of every basic in their squadron and cadet leaders, and even poems such as "Invictus."

Parts of the academy's basic training resemble enlisted airmen's basic at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas. Both have strenuous PT, obstacle courses, weapons training, and an emphasis on military discipline.

But some of the61 incoming freshmen who were prior enlisted said the academy's basic has a greater emphasis on memorization, to train their minds to remember large amounts of information, developing critical thinking skills, and both how to lead others, and take their orders.

"When you're enlisted, you're taught to follow, and do what you're supposed to do," said 21-year-old basic Andy Millan, who was an enlisted boom operator before coming to the academy. "As a cadet, they teach you how to follow and lead at the same time. To be a great leader, you have to be a good follower."

"The enlisted corps is very good about taking a task and getting it done," said 22-year-old basic Sam Taylor of Executioners Bravo flight. "Officers are more tasked with communicating the vision."

Taylor said that while he may not be able to keep up with some of the basics who are four years younger than he, he hoped his experience would be able to help his fellow basics keep their cool under pressure.

"Some of these younger men and women can really kick my butt on the PT field, but I guess I have more patience with some things," Taylor said. "I don't get frustrated very easily. I think they look at that and say, 'Taylor's not upset, maybe things are OK.' "

After about three weeks, basics got their traditional first — and only — day off on July 19, known as Doolie Day Out. The basics were sent to spend the night with families in the Colorado Springs area and recharge. Basics typically caught up on sleep, watched movies or relaxed in other ways, said Cadet 1st Class Chris Dylewski, the cadet wing command chief, but they all knew it would be their last chance to relax before Second Beast began.

Second Beast is 11 arduous days of field training that began the morning of July 21, when the basics and the training cadre assembled on the academy's Terrazzo pavilion. The academy marching band struck up a tune, the cadets passed by and saluted Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson and Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. Stephen Williams, and began marching 4 miles along closed roads to their new home — the roughly 3,300-acre Jacks Valley.

As the drummers beat their snares, the cadet leaders called cadence to keep the basics in step, and the jody calls began to fill the air: "You can't ride in my little red wagon/the wheel's all broken and the axle's draggin'."

The basics, carrying rubber rifles and wearing their class' red ball cap, mostly stayed in line at first. After about a half-hour, the training cadre ordered basics to sling their rifles over their right shoulders. They were supposed to keep their left hands cupped, but one basic from Demons squadron was later spotted letting his hand hang down. "CUP HANDS, BASIC!" his cadre leader hollered, almost in his ear.

The bills of the red caps started to drift around.

"Stop looking around," one squadron leader said.

"Keep your heads up," said another. "Be proud. Stay together as a unit."

As the basics marched past a B-52 Stratofortress on display, family members waved signs and cheered them on. The basics turned left and entered Jacks Valley.

After an opening ceremony with Johnson, the squadrons headed to a clearing ringed by towering Ponderosa pine trees, where they found their first challenge: setting up the tent city where they would sleep for almost two weeks, as the upperclassmen stepped back and let them figure it out.

It didn't go well at first.

It took more than one try to set up the tents, sorting the short poles from medium poles proved more challenging and time-consuming than expected. Leaders began to emerge as the teams worked together under pressure.

"It's an exercise in patience," said Cadet 1st Class Julian Rojas, the director of operations for Barbarians squadron. "It can even take the whole day. First, they have to figure out how to work as a team. And then they won't set it up right the first time, so we'll go in for corrections."

First command

The basics weren't the only ones learning in Jacks Valley. The upperclassmen who made up the training cadre also got some of their first experiences commanding other airmen there, so when they become second lieutenants, they will have known what it's like commanding others.

Full-fledged officers could be seen from time to time, but mostly hung back and let the cadre run the show. When asked what he planned to do for the day on July 23, BCT deputy commander Lt. Col. Sloan Hollis said, "Hopefully nothing."

"We focus on the cadre — it's their training" as well, Hollis said. "If their training goes good, it works out for the basics. It's four years of a leadership laboratory."

Prospect of failure

The rest of the first afternoon was spent squaring the tent city away — getting their cots, lanterns and foot lockers from the warehouse, setting up the tents, digging trenches with pickaxes to keep rainwater from flooding the tents, and lining the hallways with sandbags.

Basics also decorated their areas as best they could. Some made squadron flags out of empty sandbags, markers and large tree limbs. Executioners squadron made a skull-and-crossbones emblem in the dirt out of small rocks. One Flying Tiger basic drew an intricate tiger in a beret with a marker on a flat stone outside her tent.

As the temperatures reached well into the 90s, cadre leaders PTed their flights. Basics kicked up clouds of dust as they ran. Within a few days, inhaling the valley's dust would leave many of them with the so-called "Jacks hack" — a hacking, rasping cough that is a signature of Second Beast.

Cadre leaders quizzed individual basics or entire flights, ordering them to recite cadre leaders' names, or quotes. Those who couldn't answer had to do more PT. A group of female basics made the mistake of referring to a female cadre leader as "sir," and were made to do flutter kicks on their backs while counting off and chanting "MA'AM, YOU'RE A MA'AM, NOT A SIR, MA'AM, 59, MA'AM."

And the basics nervously anticipated the infamous assault course. They passed rumors around about what it would be like, but aside from expecting something like what they'd seen in the movies, most weren't sure exactly what was in store.

"We dread it," said Ben Anderson, an 18-year-old Hellcats Delta basic from Atlanta, who is following his colonel father into the Air Force and hopes to become a combat rescue officer. "That's been on my mind ever since Beast Two started. I wanted to get as physically prepared for that as I can. I know ... it's going to be the hardest thing I can imagine. It'll be an experience to remember."

Dalton Crozier, an 18-year-old Flying Tigers Bravo basic from Hernando, Mississippi, who wants to become a pilot, described grueling PT — or, figuratively, "getting beat" — during the first phase of basic training. But he noted with pride that no one from Bravo flight quit, and said he thought all the PT had left him as prepared as possible for the assault course.

"There's some times when you get to a point where your body just literally goes numb," Crozier said. "The repetitions can just keep coming. But Bravo flight came together as a team. Not knowing what's coming, you can never be truly prepared. But I believe we're all prepared, as much as we can be for what's fixing to happen."

While the assault course was indeed dreaded, it is a crucial tool to teach basics one of the most important lessons of basic training: how to fail, and pick themselves back up again.

That's vital because teenagers who choose to come to the Air Force Academy instead of a traditional college are often very driven young people who may not have faced that challenge before, Peeler said.

Peeler said he had to learn that humility as a basic himself.

"Everybody fails, and a lot of these basic cadets come from communities where they've never failed, and never learned what it's like to reach your bottom, but still realize that there's growth to be had," Peeler said. "I was top of my [high school] class [in York, Pennsylvania], class president, everything I did seemed to be right, and I was kind of cocky. I remember getting smoked. There was a point [where I asked], is it worth it? But learning that you can trust people, that trust factor was huge when I hit bottom, knowing my flight and classmates helped pick me up."

Christopher Delgado, a 20-year-old prior enlisted basic from Austin, Texas, agreed that facing the prospect of failure, and learning one can get through it, is crucial.

"Basic training is designed for you to lose," said Delgado, of Barbarians Charlie flight. "They give you so many things that it's near impossible to complete it all. Most of the people who come to the academy [are] used to succeeding in whatever they do — sports, academics — and so it pushes everyone out of their comfort zone, really forces them to accept defeat in certain areas. Accept the fact that you can't always be perfect at everything you do. But it doesn't really allow you to fully accept it, because they still expect the best out of you."

And no course at Jacks Valley rubs failure in the face of basics like the assault course.

'Ready to kill the enemy'

Nobody ever finishes the assault course — not the first time they try it.

"The reason we don't let them through, is because it needs to be chaos," said Cadet 1st Class Harrison Elliott of Roswell, Georgia, one of the assault course commanders. "This is the most warlike it's going to get at the academy. We're trying to make chaos, so they can stay calm in chaos. When we actually do let them finish it the second time, they've been in this course for six hours now. It makes them earn it."

Barbarians squadron arrived at the assault course at about 7 a.m. July 22, carrying their "rubber ducky" rifles and reciting "Invictus." "My head is bloody, but unbowed," they say. "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul."

But before basics even stepped on the assault course, the black-hatted course cadre drilled them for about 40 minutes on rifle maneuvers — parries, butt smashes and strokes, and thrusts — and made them do grenades, dropping to the ground and springing back up, over and over again. When basics didn't jump high enough after a grenade, or hold their knees at a proper 90-degree angle while aiming, or lost control of their rifles, displeased A-course cadre leaders grabbed their rifles and flung them across the field, forcing the basics to low-crawl 25 yards or so through the grass to get it back.

"Basic in the back, resting your elbows on your knees — I see you," a cadre leader said.

"Are you smiling?" another shouted.

One cadre leader ordered a basic to fake-fire his rubber rifle as if he was in combat — and was not happy with the sound the basic made. "What do you think this is, 'Star Wars?' Pew pew? No! Bang bang!"

"You, holding your rifle to the side, like you're going to shoot it like a gangster — low crawl," a cadre leader says through a bullhorn to a basic in the back.

By the time the warm-up was done, the basics were drenched in sweat, several had dirt and grass smeared on their face from low crawling, and they were breathing hard.

"You all look absolutely pathetic," a cadre leader says. "The course has yet to begin. It is three hours. That's a long time to exercise. You should be ready to kill the enemy. You look absolutely pathetic."

The assault course began all of a sudden, with loud booms from cannons and smoke grenades spewing acrid pink smoke through the air. But before the basics could even cross the starting line, beneath a sign that read "Only the strong survive," instructors blew whistles and ordered them to do grenade after grenade, dozens of them, hundreds by the time the morning would be over.

The rubber rifles felt heavier and heavier each time they went down and up, but finally, the cadre allowed them to move on to the next obstacle — a low crawl through the dirt under barbed wire. Next was a hurdle — basics had to jump on a tall log, land with both feet, and jump off. Then, the cadre made them do high knee steps in place while holding their rifle over their heads, and more grenades.

They moved on to practice their rifle parries and butt strokes, and then crawled through tunnels — but only after they did high knees to the cadre's satisfaction. By that point, many basics' ABUs were caked in mud.

Then, more hurdles and rifle maneuvers as the basics stabbed dummies with the barrel of their rifles, gouging out bits of foam rubber.

"Kill it! Kill it!" a cadre leader shouts.

One group of basics duck-walked up a hill, holding their rifles over their heads — only to be sent back down by a cadre leader once they reached the top. Another group high-crawled under netting, and some snagged their helmets on the net. Sweat gushed from one basic's forehead as he crawled backwards to untangle his helmet.

Some became overwhelmed quickly. After the first obstacle, one hyperventilating basic was pulled to the side by a cadre leader. His eyes couldn't focus, and a cadre leader calmed him down and brought his breathing back to normal.

Others did better. Cadre leaders picked basics, seemingly at random, and ordered them to do exercises such as pushups. One basic kept going as he passed 200 pushups, then 300 pushups, and finally ended at 400 pushups — a feat that drew rare admiration from the assault course cadre.

Basics then climbed over a wall, and low crawled on their back through loose dirt and sand that went straight down the collar of their ABUs, while trying to keep their rifles away from cadre members who were looking to snatch them.

"You're disgusting," a cadre said as a basic slid under barbed wire. "Absolutely disgusting. How did you get this far?"

After a high crawl through mud, another wall, and another low crawl through barbed wire, the sixteenth and final obstacle came in sight: A wall below a sign that read, past-tense, "Only the strong survived."

But nobody climbed the final wall that day. Basics who made it that far encountered cadre members who ordered them to do even more grenades, and then sent them back to the beginning of the course, to do the obstacles again and again.

Working together

Elliott said he was pleased with the basics' performance that day, overall. Some did well, others didn't. The ones who didn't do well might need some more help from their flight cadre, he said.

Usually, Elliott said, it's a mental barrier basics must overcome.

"Your body can go farther than you think you can," Elliott said. "Anyone can make it three hours of this. It's all mental."

Kait Barry, an 18-year-old basic from Naugatuck, Connecticut, in Barbarians Charlie flight, said she found a low-crawl up the hill to be the toughest part.

"Your body is already fatigued from the whole start of it, and then you have to give everything to keep your face on the ground, your rifle secure, use your whole body to go up" the hill, she said. "Using all your muscles when you're already drained, to keep going and going, knowing that there's something else to do after."

Delgado said the course pushed him farther than he thought he could go.

"Doing it with the team helps you keep going that extra distance," he said. "I know there were lots of points I wanted to stop, but everyone around me was still going, so I had to make sure I kept pushing myself, holding myself to the same standard as everyone else."

And after surviving the assault course, the basics said they felt a feeling of accomplishment.

"If we can push ourselves through this, what else can they really throw at us?" said Manuel Figueroa, a 20-year-old prior enlisted basic from Chicago, also in Barbarians Charlie flight. "As long as we stay working together, stay concentrated, stay motivated, there's nothing that we can't do."

Give up? 'No, sir'

After the assault course, Barbarians squadron took it easy for the rest of the day and drilled the 15-count rifle manual. That afternoon, Aggressors squadron ran a confidence course of lighter, team-building obstacles. Flying Tigers went through chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training, but Crozier was disappointed to hear they wouldn't get tear gassed this year. "Budget cuts," he said. "No fun."

Other squadrons received field medical training, firearms training, ethics courses, or ran a leadership reaction course that sought to teach problem-solving skills.

The morning of July 23, Executioners squadron assembled to run the obstacle course. The O-course cadre's tone at first could hardly have been more different than the A-course. An O-course cadre leader told deadpan jokes as the basics stretched and warmed up, and even led the basics in the "Cupid Shuffle" line dance.

Then the basics were off, climbing up a rope ladder and a reverse climb obstacle, weaving under one log and over another, rope-swinging onto a crossbar and then across a pond. Some unlucky basics fell in the pond, and then coated their soaked ABUs in sand as they low-crawled through the next obstacle. The cadre laughed, and said one looked like a sugar cookie. The basics cheered each other on and applauded when one made it to the top of a difficult obstacle.

After familiarizing themselves with the obstacle course, the basics ran through it a second time. This time, it was closer to the assault course's atmosphere. The cadre yelled for basics to do pushups and get down in front-leaning rests, and pushed them to finish the obstacles and move on faster.

On the last obstacle, which required basics to hang from a rope strung over a pond and work their way to the other side, a cadre leader in mirrored sunglasses became irritated at one basic's slow pace.

"Just give up," the cadre leader told her. "Just drop in."

"No, sir," she said in a strained voice, as she closed the last few feet.

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