Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Deja Vu Again: AFBMT pt. 3

Six Little Words (pt.1)
Three Strikes (pt. 2)

Do you ever get deja vu?

Perhaps you do when you are standing back outside that strange, alien building again, holding all of your worldly possesions in a duffel bag. Five weeks ago - a swiftly receding eternity ago - you were standing here facing the unknown along with 45 others just as scared and sleep-deprived as you. Now you are facing the prospect of meeting 49 new "others" who have been getting used to showering, eating, and learning side by side for three weeks. You are going to be the outsider, now. You are the "Recycle."

For five weeks you lived under the constant threat, which the leadership was always careful to say was not a punishment. "Recycling an airman is just a way of ensuring that everyone gets the training that they need," is the official explanation. You watched carefully when they brought Recycles into your flight; simple boys with slack jaws and glazed eyes who obviously didn't know ass from elbow or shit from shinola. To be fair, you don't know what shinola is, either, but you're pretty confident you could pick it out of that line-up.

Of course, you also thought you could learn to fold your underwear well enough to pass an inspection.

Do you ever get deja vu?

Perhaps you do when you are staring up the stairwell at the door to your new flight, and the only difference you see between it and your old one is the number on the wall. Five weeks ago, you were pretty sure the worst year of your life was behind you. The hard luck, the cruel woman, the indignity of returning to your parents' house and realizing that you were pretty much to blame for the whole mess was giving way to a new life. And in five short weeks you have burrowed your way to rock bottom.

You choke back a hysterical giggle as the dorm guard crisply and efficiently goes through the entry routine - the same routine you watched your old flight botch time after time, sending you here as a result. Well, to be fair, it was that and the underwear. Then you are inside, being greeted by a guy with flinty eyes and the kind of jaw you generally associate with Batman. He is your new dorm chief.

Deja vu never lasts, fortunately.

Dorm Chief is the student commander, usually chosen at random from the ranks of each flight. Your old dorm chief was a soft-spoken boy from West Virginia whose name was quickly corrupted into "Muffins" behind his back. He had always seemed a little overwhelmed. This new guy's name is Shocke, and he exhudes authority. If it weren't for the trainee name-tag and the telltale stubble on his head from his "Welcome to basic training" haircut, you would have guessed he was one of the TIs.

You're actually glad it's him greeting you instead of the TI. This flight belongs to SSgt Perro, a tiny woman with a huge presence. You remember hearing her march her flight and you shudder at the thought of that shrill, vicious voice, yelping like an insane, steroidal chihuahua. No one messed with her. One foolish airman - obviously a defensive lineman from some inner city high school - made a snide remark in her hearing during PT. Something about female airmen being allowed to do the pushups "on their knees." There is nothing as chilling as watching a skinny, five-foot woman bringing a six-foot, 200+ pound black man to tears so quickly.

Shocke seems to be as no-nonsense as SSgt Perro, and wastes no time in orienting you to your new environment. "We're going for Honor Flight," he begins. "I don't know what you did to get recycled, and you don't have to tell anyone, but if you do anything that threatens our chances to win, I'll make sure you disappear again." He manages to say this without sounding confrontational or threatening. "If anyone gives you any trouble, tell your squad leader, or come straight to me and we'll deal with it."

You are shown to your new bunk, and given a general introduction. You can't help feeling like a bug under a microscope, even though no one is paying particular attention to you. All you can do is unload your duffel and put your wall locker in order. When you finish, you turn to find the squad leader, Larsen, has been watching you, and you offer a wan smile.

"You seem to know what you're doing," he says. "Do you have any questions, yet?"

You shake your head, and start to make up the bed. He helps you get the sheets on, but when you spread out the faded olive-green army blanket - known as the "dust cover" - he blanches. There are coin-sized white spots all over it, which you assume to be bleach stains.

"Oh, crap!" Larsen squeaks. "Don't use that!" He calls Shocke over, and takes away the bedding.

"I'm sorry," Shocke says, briskly. "We were supposed to get you clean linens. The guy that used to be in this bunk got sent to the Med Center for psych evaluation yesterday. The guard caught him...um..." he fumbles for the right word, and blushes a little "...pleasuring himself." He strides off with the wad of offending linens, and the rest of the group offers apologetic mumbles to you.

Other than that, things go pretty smoothly.

After a day or two of handling your duties competently and staying out of trouble, people start to accept you. You let them believe you were recycled solely for failing inspections, and they offer to pitch in to help you pass the next one. Oddly, you pass with very little help.

Since you already completed all of the mandatory training for week four, you find yourself left alone to guard the dorm while the rest of the flight visits the rifle range and attends classes. You become a minor celebrity with your foreknowledge of the different activities they've heard so many rumors about. You resist winding them up over the number of shots they'll get (only four), and the supposed violation they all fear from some rumored medical exam (no cavity searches), and tell them all about the obstacle course. Excuse me, the Confidence Course.

You are even accepted to the point that your squad lobbies SSgt Perro to allow you to re-do the Confidence Course with the flight rather than stay in the dorm, much to your relief. Not only were you incredibly bored with that duty, but you were starting to have trouble staying awake - a fate worse than Recycle awaited the sleeping dorm guard.

And no way were you going to ask her yourself.

The next morning, when your new flight enters the chow hall for breakfast, you spot a familiar face working behind the food line. The new flight had just finished a week of KP before you got there, and now, it is apparently your old flight's turn to do Kitchen Patrol.

You aren't supposed to talk in line, but you risk a greeting. You old flight mate whispers a quick hello, and leans forward: "They aren't treating you bad, are they man? 'Cause if they're picking on you at all..."

"No," you say, "They've been great."

And then Shocke is there. "Is there a problem?" You tell him who the KP guys are, and his eyes narrow. "If they're picking on you at all..."

It's touching, actually. Fourty-nine people on each side of the line are actually concerned about your welfare. Ninety-eight people ready to jump to your side if you need help. You coast the rest of the day on a cushion of comraderie.

There's only one real problem brewing: you are getting sick. You don't let on that you aren't feeling well, for fear of being recycled again. This close to freedom, you aren't about to risk it; there will be time for illness AFTER week six. But the long days spent on your feet guarding the empty, overly air-conditioned dorm, alternating with the marching in the 104 degree San Antonio heat are taking their toll on your immune system.

After keeping up for a couple of days, your body has had enough; while standing in line in the chow hall, you collapse.

When you come around again, you're sitting on the floor with your head between your knees. SSgt Perro is asking you questions, and you hear yourself answering from ten miles away. "Are you alright?" Yes, ma'am. "Can you get up?" No, ma'am. "Why didn't you go to sick call?" I didn't want to get recycled again.

"I respect your tenacity, airman, but you need to take care of yourself!" She is speaking kindly, and she doesn't sound like a mad chihuahua. She sends you to the clinic, where you get a nap, and some medication. You feel better in the morning, and the last week cruises by.

So now, you've done it. You made it through Air Force Basic Military Training.

In some ways, you aren't sure what you have learned from it. Attention to Detail? Trust in Authority? Rely on your Teammates? Maybe it is all just a screening process to keep out the fatally insane, and the obvious nut-jobs, like the unmourned Reames. All you known is that you are proud, and that you are excited about moving on to the language school.

And that new, proud feeling is the opposite of Deja Vu.

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