Leaving Basic Training behind and beginning the next step in my career as an Airman was surreal. I left Lackland Air Force Base, which had become my home over the past two months, at oh-dark-thirty. Stripes on the sleeves of my dress Blues uniform and a duffel bag in my left hand, it seemed strange to shake my TI’s hand and say goodbye.
This was the man who had yelled like a madman, centimeters from my face. The man who had pushed me to keep running when I was certain I couldn’t run any more. The man who created some of the most inventive vindictive I have ever heard in my life, while refusing to allow himself to use base profanities, for fear of accidentally using them near his young daughters out of habit. The man who sat us all down on the first anniversary of 9/11 and spoke to us frankly about what it means to be a soldier in time of war: that sacrifices will be demanded of us, and that some of us may not live to see old age.
I left Lackland on a bus very much like the one that brought me to the base two months earlier. I checked into the airport, checked my bags, and stood in line for the security screening. I felt like a target, standing there alone in my dress Blues, but I wasn’t allowed to wear civilian clothes again until later in my training. I tried to pass through the metal detector, and it went off: my dress uniform was absolutely covered in bits of metal. Just being in uniform wasn’t enough to draw attention; now alarms were going off and I was being told by the TSA screener to remove “anything metal” that I had on my person. Did this idiot have any idea how much of a pain in the ass it is to get that stuff all lined up properly?
I had removed my jacket, which had most of the uniform’s metal in the form of various pins and decorations, and was preparing to take off my belt buckle when the TSA supervisor waved me through and pulled aside the screener who had told me, in effect, to take off my uniform. Obviously, making a member of the armed forces practically strip down at the airport less than six weeks after the first anniversary of 9/11 did not look good, especially with hundreds of civilians watching. I thanked the supervisor, retrieved my uniform jacket, and got as far from there as I could before I stopped to put it back on. Once I was safely away from what, even then, I recognized as ineffective security theater, I looked for the USO lounge, where I could wait and relax in relative peace and quiet until it was time for my flight.
Before long, I was in St. Louis, Missouri, and boarding yet another bus that was to take me to a military base. This time, that base would be Ft. Leonard Wood, home of the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School, which was also used jointly by every other branch of the military. It was dusk by the time the bus arrived. I was ushered, along with the other new Airmen who’d arrived on other flights, off the bus by other, more senior, Airmen and shown to my room, which I shared with three other Airmen. As I began to settle in, I learned that, after PT the next morning, my inprocessing would begin.
The most salient part of my inprocessing concerned a phased reintegration process: over the course of four phases, new Airmen would gradually regain the privileges enjoyed prior to enlisting. The first phase, which began immediately upon arrival and lasted for about a week, was little different from Basic Training, and some of the notable highlights included a prohibition on the wearing of civilian clothing, restriction to base, and a 10:00 p.m. curfew. Upon reaching phase two, we could wear civilian clothing after returning home from our training at the end of the day, but we were otherwise still restricted to base and subject to curfew; this phase lasted about two weeks. Phase three, which was about four weeks long, no longer restricted us to base, so long as we were back in time for our curfew. By the time we reached phase four, we had been at the school for nearly two months, and we no longer had most restrictions, although normal military regulations still applied, obviously. There were multiple schools located at Ft. Leonard Wood, however, and one–Vehicle Operations–was so short they rarely made it to phase three before graduation (VehOps students were known, alternately, as “Beep-Beeps,” for obvious reasons, or “Pop-Tarts,” due to the, ahem, length of their school).
Also during inprocessing, I discovered that Ft. Leonard Wood, which was aptly nicknamed “Fort Lost in the Woods,” was an Army Basic Training base. Since the Army and Air Force BDUs were virtually identical, with only a few patches and the color of our undershirts being different, overzealous Army drill sergeants frequently attempted to treat Airmen like myself no differently than their Army recruits. This, naturally, was not well received, and became a frequent source of irritation, particularly if we ever needed to utilize the Army’s sick call facilities. The Army’s medical personnel regularly behaved similarly, and at one point I was even berated by an incredibly unprofessional Army dentist who accused me of being a liar when I tried to explain part of my medical history to him.
Once I settled in, however, things began to move quickly, just as they had in Basic Training. I’d get up at oh-dark-thirty for PT, grab a quick breakfast when it was over, then head off to class. The entire day was spent in class, with a brief respite for lunch and staying awake to absorb the information became a challenge I was only able to overcome by snacking during class… which earned me a second, unfortunate nick name of “Lunch Box.” The tactic worked, at least, and I managed to graduate with a 97% average (and a not-insignificant weight gain, unfortunately), which would have put me at the top of my class, were it not for a civilian employee who had recently retired after decades of doing the same job in the Army, and was now required to complete the same training in order to work for the Air Force.
Before long, thankfully, I received a new nickname. One of my classmates realized that my last name, Harlan, sounded similar to part of the word “Highlander,” and began calling me “the Harlander.” Eventually, the name caught on, and, years later, I would even adopt it as my online handle.
In November, not long before my 25th birthday, the orders for my first assignment in the “real” Air Force came in. During Basic Training, we had filled out our “dream sheets” of bases we’d like to get assigned to; in theory, it would help the people responsible for making assignments put us into a base where we’d like to be assigned. In practice, I think those people must be sadistic bastards, who enjoy making everyone’s first assignment as close to the opposite of what they’d requested as possible. My older brother requested West Coast bases, and ended up in New Jersey. My youngest brother, years later, requested California, and got Guam. I requested nothing but cold places in Europe: Germany, England–even Iceland!–and got… Las Vegas. Nellis Air Force Base, to be specific. While Vegas is an awesome place, it wasn’t what I was hoping for. My disappointment was tempered, however, when I discovered that two of my friends would be going there as well.
Soon, Christmas was upon us. We were all granted leave time, regardless of phase, and I hopped a ride with a friend who had a car and was passing through Iowa. Partway to my mom’s house in Ellsworth, which I hadn’t seen in nearly six months, we met with my mother, who would take me the rest of the way, while my friend went in a different direction. As 2002 drew to a close, I was back where I’d started the year, but I had been greatly changed by my experiences.