The first class of new airmen to attend basic military training at an alternative location — which the Air Force is testing as a way to keep operating during the coronavirus pandemic — graduated on Friday.
Almost 60 airmen from the 37th Training Wing, Detachment 5, attended their six-week BMT course at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi due to COVID-19 safety concerns. It was part of a proof of concept test by Air Education and Training Command, to see if the Air Force could create new airmen at multiple locations during unusual situations.
It marks the first time any airmen have graduated from BMT at a site other than Texas’ Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland since 1968.
“These changes are part of our operational mindset to fight through COVID-19 and mitigate force health risks,” Maj. Gen. Andrea Tullos, commander of the Second Air Force, said in late March, when the Air Force announced the new location and other coronavirus-driven changes to BMT. “We continue to carefully balance the need to deliver mission ready forces to our operational commanders with the force health protection measures we must responsibly take to preserve the welfare of our families and the extensive network of communities across our nation we call home.”
Tullos said that the Air Force is also trying to spread out where it provides BMT, or boot camp training, to allow it to be flexible, ease the strain on its infrastructure, and be able to surge its training capacity when necessary.
AETC spokeswoman Marilyn Holliday said in an email Monday that officials this week will study the results from the Keesler test, and decide how to move forward. This is the only class of BMT trainees that has so far trained elsewhere, Holliday said.
Photographs of the graduation showed many participants following social distancing and safety guidelines, though not always.
Military training instructors and graduating airmen wore masks as they marched across the drill pad at Keesler’s Levitow Training Support Facility. Another photograph showed the airmen standing in formation with several feet between one another.
A photograph of a coining ceremony showed an MTI and airman both wearing masks. But as the MTI placed the coin in the airman’s hand, to recognize the airman’s achievement, neither were wearing gloves during the handoff.
Speakers at the ceremony — including AETC commander Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, who administered the oath of enlistment — also were not wearing masks in photographs, though they appeared to deliver their remarks from a distance.
AETC has also taken several steps to adjust the standard BMT courses in response to the coronavirus crisis over the last two months. That included shortening the course length from eight and a half weeks to seven weeks, cutting the number of airmen who report to each class from up to 800 to about 460, putting into place strict movement guidelines for trainees and dedicating time to deep-clean facilities between rotations.
The Air Force has so far recorded 449 positive cases of COVID-19 among uniformed airmen, as well as another 572 cases among civilians, dependents and contractors. One contractor is so far the only COVID-related death in the Air Force population.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.