The changing face of basic training


I have had the (mis)fortune of attending some form of basic military training twice now in my life. The first time was the Coast Guard Academy’s Swab Summer + 4/c year at the Academy in New London, and the second time was just recently, attending Air Force BMT at scenic Lackland Air Force base. Swab Summer was 15 years ago, and in the intervening decade and a half, kind of a lot has changed. Now, it’s not fair to compare the trainings on a 1:1 basis, because the Coast Guard and the Air Force have different missions and cultures, but there are some interesting differences that are worth talking about. 

The first, and most important difference is the level of physical intensity. Swab Summer was FAR more physical than AF BMT. At that time, our cadre could put us on our faces pretty much whenever they wanted, with very limited restrictions on when and how they could PT us. I remember two incidents with tremendous clarity: runnin library hill at the Academy until swabs were puking, and doing push-ups to absolute exhaustion on my 18th birthday. There was also mandatory PT 6 days a week. Air Force basic takes a more restrained approach, with mandatory PT six days a week as well, but with strict limits on when and how Military Training Instructors can use physical training as a “motivational tool” on flights. 

Another huge contrast is the way cadre/MTIs speak to swabs/trainees. At BMT, MTIs are expressly forbidden from cursing at or insulting trainees. At Swab Summer 15 years ago, cadre weren’t supposed to curse at us…but that certainly didn’t stop them. They also made us perform tasks that would currently be viewed as hazing. A great example is being forced to stand in your room turning the lights on and off over and over while repeating “I’m Tom Bodet from Motel 6 and I leave the lights on” as punishment for leaving the lights on. That wouldn’t fly today. 

Interestingly to likely only me is that Air Force training placed a much higher emphasis on the learning environment than Swab Summer. Obviously the actual Academy places a huge emphasis on class work, but in general I found that the Air Force seems guinely interesting in using BMT as a tool to enable airmen to think. 

It would be easier for me to look at the surface differences between the two experiences and say that the military has gone soft. But I also think that’s exactly the kind of lazy thinking that gets us into trouble and ignores both the incredible changing culture and the constantly evolving way we fight our wars. Yes, 18 year olds entering the military today are different than they were 15 years ago. But I don’t know if they’re any softer than they were when I was there. They’re just different. The Air Force has to create a training environment for a generation that has grown up with access to the world’s knowledge at their fingertips. Having access to that kind of info has created a generation that needs to know why they’re doing something, and for whole the simple answer of “because it’s your f***ing job” simply won’t suffice. While I can imagine that the aforementioned attitude is maddening to MTIs, it also means that the resulting AF is smarter and more capable of adapting to evolving threats at a small unit level. As these young airmen become senior enlisted and officers, they can hopefully bring that change and adaptability to the Air Force at higher levels. 

So sure, 15 years ago things were physically harder. But I honestly think the training is better today. You can’t take a 19 year old that’s had instant access to answers their entire life and simply expect them to shut up and color, and the military has had to adapt to that. That’s honestly not a bad thing. I think a lot of the criticism that people drop on the changing nature of BMT is simply “everything was better in the past” syndrome and not the result of honest examination. Because I can tell you in explicit detail how classroom work benefits new Airmen, but I have a hard time coming up with how suckfest PT smoke sessions at the Academy made me better at anything other than push-ups. 

22 thoughts on “The changing face of basic training”

    1. When I’m really honest about it I’d have to say no. While 33 year old Caleb thinks that a lot of these 18 year olds are undisciplined and crazy, he’s also certain that 18 year old Caleb was an even worse shithead than most of these young men and women.

  1. After reading your views on the different approaches the Coast Guard has as to the Air Force it brings back memories of my Basic Training experiences in the U.S. Marine Corps back in 1968. Not to go into a long rant about how tough it was, right after boot camp I was talking to a Sailor who had also just completed the Navy basic training. He was telling me how the first night they had to put their heads in foot lockers and yell! I told him he should try sticking his face in the sand and crawl backwards in the 100 degree summer of MCRD. Our Drill Instructors could awaken us in the middle of the night and take us on a long run or PT us until morning chow.
    I understand why they were so harsh on us, I mean after all not just anybody can be a U.S. Marine. Now days the powers above have learned there are more humane ways to ‘weed out’ the ones that are better off not being in the military. I will say that the ones of us that graduated from boot camp had a feeling of accomplishment the would of not been possible without being pushed into doing things that we never thought possible.
    Oh, one more thing…..”Thanks for your service” and that goes out to all who took the time out of their lives to serve our great country.

  2. Caleb, I knew you were in the USCG but I didn’t know you were a CGA graduate. Very impressive. Also impressive, is as a prior military commisioned officer, you chose to enlist in the USAFR. Is there a short answer as to why you did this? Thanks and keep up the great work. P.S. – I was an MP in the USAR, got some great training and weapons time, but if I had a chance to do it again, I would go SP/SF in the USAFR/ANG. The AF trains and treats its troops far better than the Army.

    1. I probably should have clarified that bit – I didn’t graduate from the Academy, my Coast Guard career took a weird left turn, which would strongly influence my desire to go back to the military and serve in an enlisted role.

      But that’s a post for later…

  3. I was going to make a post about “if you think military training has gone softer in recent years try the Marines” or somesuch, until I realized my boot camp adventure happened near a decade ago and I’m no longer in a position to comment about current practices. And I feel old now, I blame you for that.

    At the time though it did seem like the AF was actually capable of doing things “smarter not harder” every once in awhile. Probably fewer ASVAB waivers.

  4. Are you still at Lackland and if you are and have any week end time off I live just 40 min North of you and I would be glad to treat you to a nice home grilled meal. I am impressed with what you have observed in your second go around. Thank you for all of your hard work.

  5. One of the reasons basic seemed easier is all the changes that happened after the TI SARC scandal from a few years ago. since then, basic has been under the microscope. Then again, I was back at Lackland about a year and a half ago for ECAC training and I was blown away by the size and quality of the new squadrons. Just out of curiosity, are you staying in the Jailhouse or the Firehouse?

      1. Heh, I stayed in there for the first 3 weeks of tech school, then they booted us out to other dorms due to asbestos in the walls. Real shame to, I liked the location.

  6. I’d like to ask a Marine or Army basic training graduate if they thought of their experience as “easy”. With the increased emphasis on hand to hand combat (due to more likely encounters with Al-Quaeda, ISIS, etc), I doubt they would think of their training as a cakewalk.

    1. I want to stress here that at no point did I say BMT was easy. It was less physical than I’d expected, however “easy” would cheapen the level of artificial stress that an E5 is capable of inducing in a 19 year old.

  7. Excellent writing and a intelligent perspective on the different approaches our military services take toward training our young people

  8. Perhaps I was totally mistaken but I was under the impression that both CG and AF have Door-Kickers in their ranks and yet the basic training pool from which these ‘persons’ are drawn seems to be a cake-walk when compared to other services

    1. We do, and the technical training/A-schools for those door kickers is a lot more strenuous than the basic training. In the AF, the vast majority of enlistees have jobs that do not have a ground combat function. Only SOWT, CCT, PJ, EOD, TACP, and of course Security Forces have ground combat as an explicit, defined part of their mission. The result is that (with the exception of SF) people who go into those AFSCs choose them because they want to be a part of that career field and they understand that their tech schools will be rigorous. Much like the infantry in the Army, AF SF is a mix of people who chose the career field (such as myself) and people who were “chosen” by the career field.

  9. Caleb, excellent report ! I went thru Lackland in June & July of l962. Only 5 weeks due to the cold war “push”. We finished our Basic while we were in tech school. However in those 5 weeks our flight dropped from 65 troops to 41. Profanity & slaps were pretty common ! I , already in good condition, went from 155 lbs (5-11) down to l39 lbs. I learned to eat a lot faster. Something I have to fight, to this day !!

  10. Caleb, here is a question, do you think the desirability of going to a service academy might have something to do with the difference? For example for every cadet that washes out of a service academy during the summer session there are dozens of people willing to fill the slot. Where as there are a lot fewer people trying to fill each recruit slot for BMT.

    What I am thinking that due to desirability the service academy can make it harder.

    Though I am not passing judgment if that is good or not, I don’t have the experience or knowledge to do so.

  11. I had to chuckle at your comments about swearing. My dad was a TI at Lackland in 1973-74. I remember him coming home one day swearing like a sailor (well he started his military career in the Navy) about the f’ing idiots who issued a gd order saying he couldn’t swear at his mf’n dinks so there was going to be a lot more tile grout scrubbing and running. This brings back memories of me as a 14 year old watching the new recruits get off the bus and watching them come out after getting their haircut. And sneaking through a fence and woods behind our cracker box housing down to the rifle range watching the training and sometimes with my new Browning 22 semi-auto praying I didn’t get caught. I actually learned a couple of things about the M-16 I could use when I got my first AR-15 40+ years later. Thanks for jiggling some old memory cells.

  12. Am I the only one that thinks the Tom Bodet thing is both hilarious and likely to be highly effective? That sure doesn’t seem like hazing to me.

    1. When it quite literally happened to me, I didn’t feel like I was getting hazed. I was embarrassed and felt stupid, but I also never did it again.

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