During my second semester at Iowa State, in the early weeks of 2002, I came to realize that I wasn’t able to live up to the expectations of a university environment. Ever since September 11, I’d been floundering academically, and although I was an Air Force ROTC cadet, my major in Journalism ensured that I wouldn’t get the scholarship I needed, as they were only going to math, science, and engineering majors. Without that scholarship, my debts only continued to mount, and I was rapidly reaching a tipping point. Something needed to change. With all of this–and more–in mind, I chose to drop out of school and enlist in the Air Force.
My mother was not pleased with my decision. It was something I had considered for quite some time, and I felt that it was the best decision I could make for myself at the time, so it was dismaying that she didn’t understand. Of course, I had expected the process of enlisting and leaving for Basic Training to go a fair bit faster than it ended up taking, so I ended up waiting at home for several months. Since I had chosen to drop out of school, my mother insisted that I start paying rent until I actually left.
In order to try to meet this obligation, I ended up going from one dead-end job to another. Many places refused to hire me when I revealed that I had already enlisted and was waiting to leave in August, six months down the line. I soon stopped revealing that on applications, but still had trouble keeping a job once I had it. This was, frankly, my own fault. My heart really wasn’t into delivering pizzas, flipping burgers, detasseling corn, building grain and feed silos, or any of the other jobs I took while I was in Iowa, after having gotten laid off from my position as a copy editor for the Ames Tribune nearly two years earlier. Even before I’d enlisted, I frequently wouldn’t go to work if I didn’t feel like going that day; in short, I was incredibly irresponsible. I had begun to give up on life, because I couldn’t see the point to anything I did. As a result, I rarely held a job for longer than a month. I had become a deadbeat, and I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror anymore.
Fortunately, August soon rolled around. The last few weeks before I left for Basic Training were difficult: our dog, Tootles, developed a brain tumor, and as she quickly deteriorated, it soon became clear that our only recourse was to euthanize her. This was very hard for all of us, because Tootles had become as much a part of the family as anyone, and especially so for my niece, Elizabeth, as she was especially close to the dog. Not long after losing Tootles, I would be leaving, too. It was difficult to explain to her, as a five-year-old, why I had to leave. In typical, stubborn five-year-old fashion, she refused to give me a hug good-bye, perhaps in the belief that I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t get one, or perhaps because she was simply mad at me.
I had to leave, regardless. After flying to San Antonio, Texas, a bus carried me and dozens of other recruits to nearby Lackland Air Force Base. As the sun set on Wednesday, August 20, 2002, the bus pulled through the main gate. A heavy feeling began to descend into the pit of my stomach. Was this really what I wanted? It was too late to turn back. I steeled myself for what was to come. I needed this. I knew that I was an irresponsible layabout, and this was the best way I knew how to turn my life around.
With the expected sturm und drang, we were ushered off the bus and divided among the base’s training squadrons. With trepidation, I looked around at the place that would be my new home for the next two months. It was already late evening, so we were marched over to the trainee dormitory, and assigned our bunks in one of the two 30-person bays assigned to my flight.
The next day, our inprocessing began in earnest. Marching from one end of the base to another in order to make a variety of appointments, our first lesson was one of the most basic facets of military life: hurry up and wait. We were given debit cards for the Base Exchange, whose balance would be deducted from our first paychecks, so we could obtain basic supplies that we would need for our training: running shoes, toiletries, towels, and more. We filled out paperwork to get our military paychecks started. We received baseline medical examinations.
On Friday, our second full day of Basic Training, we received our haircuts. In reality, we were placed in an assembly line of head shaving… and it, too, was charged to our debit cards. Nothing was actually being “given” to us, we quickly discovered. Our meals were paid for by a set deduction from our monthly food stipend, called BAS, or Basic Allowance for Subsistence. The cost of our first set of uniforms was offset by a clothing allowance, which was taken from our checks just as quickly as it was added. After that first haircut, my hair had never been that short, before or since, and it quickly earned my first nickname for me: Doctor Evil. Yes, it looked that good on me. After our uniforms were issued to us, our civilian clothing was all locked away in a closet until the end of Basic Training. With that task completed, we received our first military ID cards. We marched back to our dormitory, where a group of Airmen, about to graduate from Basic Training themselves in a few days, were waiting for us to act as dorm guards for the night, as they had the previous two nights. This time, however, my cousin, Paul, was among them.
After lights out, Paul came to my bedside–trainees weren’t allowed out of bed except to use the bathroom–and we talked for some time. Paul admitted that, with my radical new haircut, he didn’t even recognize me at first. I was beginning to adjust to life in Basic Training; all I had to do was go where I was told, do what I was told, and do it quickly and without protest, and I was fine. Life in Basic Training was simple, and all my basic needs were taken care of: wake up before dawn, do PT for an hour or so, get breakfast, accomplish the day’s tasks with a break for lunch, get dinner, clean up our area in the dorm, go to bed, and repeat the cycle the next day. Time began to pass very quickly, and soon, I would graduate. In the interim, I had managed to eliminate ten minutes from my time on the 1.5-mile timed run, lose nearly twenty pounds to a lifetime low of 156 lbs., and, without realizing it, transform myself from a complete slacker into a responsible adult.
Most of my time in Basic Training seemed to blur together; one day was very much like the next. A few incidents stood out, though. Within a week, one of the other trainees in my flight completely lost it, and the dorm guards found him out of bed one night, huddled in a corner; he claimed he was trying to keep warm by the fire. Except there was no fire, and this young man, who had led a very sheltered life, had been pushed into enlisting by his family, when he wasn’t really ready for it. He was removed from the flight and sent for psychiatric treatment, and we never saw him again. I sometimes wonder if he was able to return to himself, and if he was able to complete his training, or if he just left the Air Force behind him.
On another occasion, my flight was assembled in formation while our Training Instructors–every branch calls them something different; for the Air Force, they were MTIs: Military Training Instructors, or, simply, TIs–quizzed us on our chain of command, which we were expected to have memorized. Unfortunately, no on who was getting called upon could answer any of the TIs’ questions, and they were getting understandably frustrated.
“All right,” one of the sergeants finally exclaimed. “I’ll give you sorry mama’s boys one last chance to redeem yourselves. This piss-poor performance has been one of the most pathetic spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. This next question’s not in your Airman’s manual”–a small book we were required to carry at all times, which had a wealth of information on basic Air Force structure and operations–“but if one of you can answer it, all is forgiven.” Great, I thought. No pressure. “Besides the wreath around the star on his rank insignia, what else is different about the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force’s uniform?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the faces of my flightmates fall as we stood at attention. Holy shit, I realized. I know this! I raised my hand. The TI’s head spun, obviously surprised. He called on me, swaggering over to stand in front of me. I gave my reporting statement, then answered,”Trainee Harlan reports as ordered, sir! He has an additional wreath around the U.S. insignia on the lapel of his Blues uniform, sir!”
The TI’s jaw dropped, just for an instant. “How the fuck did you know that?!”
I tried not to shrug. “I saw a photo of him once, sir.”
He grinned. “You know what we call that? Attention to detail!” Apparently, he decided this would be a perfect opportunity to test our ability to retain our composure. “That gave me a woody!” he announced to the other TIs nearby. He lifted the bottom of the front of his BDU shirt and thrust his hips forward. “Wanna see?” I think my flightmates were still too scared to risk laughing at his puerile antics, because no one took the bait.
The rest of Basic Training passed in a blur. Even our field training, in which we effectively went camping while simulating a deployed environment, is barely memorable beyond a run through a recently-constructed tear gas chamber, obstacle courses, forced marches through the Texas desert, and MREs–Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or, as I prefer to call them, Meals Rejected by Ethiopians–for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
One of our final “assignments” in Basic Training was our performance during our “pass and review” at our graduation. While marching past the review stand where our squadron commander was seated, we would be graded on our marching skills. According to our lead TI, who would march with us, getting a perfect score was extremely difficult, but if we did, he promised to do something special for us.
I had invited my parents, but neither was able to come out to Texas to attend. My brother was stationed in New Jersey and couldn’t come, either. My cousin, Paul, was still at Lackland for his technical training in Security Forces, but couldn’t get away. The day before graduation, during our one-day pass, which allowed us to leave the base and travel to San Antonio, I spent the day with my flightmates, as a few others didn’t have family who could attend, either. We visited the Alamo, the Riverwalk, and a few other points of interest before returning to what, incredibly, had become “home” over the past two months.
The next morning, we marched to the parade grounds for our graduation. We looked good, dressed in our Blues uniforms. We marched sharply past the review stand, our drill & ceremonies crisp and well-practiced. As we stood in formation among the other graduating flights, our commander praised our hard work and dedication, which had brought us this far, and would continue to serve us in the future. Soon, the ceremony ended. We dispersed. Many reunited with their families. I returned, eventually, to my dormitory.
That evening, our lead TI came into the dorm, carrying a large box. He gathered all of us in the common room, and announced that, not only did we achieve a perfect score on the parade ground, we were the only flight to do so. He reached into the box, and revealed the “something special” he had promised: a DVD player, several DVDs, and twelve hours with no interference from any TIs.
We had graduated, and were now Airmen. Several of us, myself included, already sported stripes on our sleeves, which we were now allowed to wear, at long last. Soon, we would be leaving Lackland behind, some as early as the next morning. Just as soon as I had grown accustomed to life in Basic Training, and had begun to achieve the goals set out before me, everything changed once again.