Air Force launches a big change in basic training

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A group of 324th Training Squadron basic trainees perform formation and parade drills for their graduation from trainees to Airmen on Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in this 2009 photo. DESIREE PALACIOS/U.S. AIR FORCE
A group of 324th Training Squadron basic trainees perform formation and parade drills for their graduation from trainees to Airmen on Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in this 2009 photo. DESIREE PALACIOS/U.S. AIR FORCE

Air Force launches a big change in basic training

by: Sig Christenson | .
San Antonio Express-News | .
published: February 09, 2015

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Tribune News Service) — Years after the Air Force increased the length of basic training by two weeks during the Iraq War, commanders have scaled back the core program and added a week of character development to raise awareness about sexual misconduct.

Recruits just starting out at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland will be the first in memory to not finish training with a formal graduation ceremony on the parade grounds after 7.5 weeks.

Instead, they'll receive five extra days of instruction designed to help them cope with the stresses of life as fledgling airmen.

"Capstone," as it's called, will emphasize core values and skills the Air Force believes airmen will need in their personal lives and careers. It is part of a makeover in basic training prompted by a scandal at Lackland that sparked an Air Force investigation and congressional hearings.

"I think it is truly revolutionary, what we're doing," said Col. Michele Edmondson, commander of the 737th Training Group at Lackland, the home of Air Force basic training. "It's a totally different form of learning for these airmen, it is an investment in their future as airmen."

The recruit class began training in earnest last week. After physical and other training ends the members' first stage, they'll begin studies in mid-March in 16 focus areas, starting with core values, morals and ethical decision making. The week will end with a low-key graduation ceremony on March 20.

Capstone program manager Kevin Adelsen said the final week would be different from the rest of basic military training, or BMT, which he described as "relatively constricted."

The trainees will be taught by a select group of military instructors and civilian contractors. They will focus on subjects ranging from warrior ethos, the Air Force's honor code, and respect and concern for others. Recruits will learn how to manage finances, balance their personal and professional lives and how to protect themselves against sexual harassment and rape.

"Our goal is to get these airmen to open up, to talk about what's stuck with them through the BMT experience, the first 7.5 weeks, what the questions are, where the gaps are, and just see how we can kind of bridge the gap -- if there is a gap -- between our core values and the mission of the United States Air Force," Adelsen said.

Col. J.D. Willis, deputy operations director for the Air Education and Training Command, echoed Adelsen and others who have high hopes for the new program. He said Capstone "has the potential, certainly, to be an historic change from BMT and really for our Air Force in how we shape our airmen."

The scandal

Capstone is among the changes made at Lackland after more than 30 instructors were investigated for misconduct with 68 recruits and technical training students. Most of the cases were in recent years, but some investigations uncovered crimes more than a decade old. In a trial last month, a former training instructor, Master Sgt. Michael Silva, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping a recruit in 1995 and his then-wife in 2007. Another instructor convicted of rape, Luis Walker, committed suicide in prison last year.

The widespread allegations of misconduct resulted in a Pentagon investigation of Lackland training that found a leadership gap at the base helped fuel the crisis. Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward found leaders were insulated from training, and that barriers "at nearly every level" limited the flow of information about instructor misconduct.

Training flights often were supervised by a single noncommissioned officer with little or no oversight. Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, blamed personnel cuts for the problem.

Boosting Lackland's instructor corps, cutting back working hours and adding more female trainers was a big part of the makeover. Today, 460 military training instructors are at the base, below the requirement of 504. Every flight has two instructors, however, and the Air Force has exceeded the number of female trainers it sought, with 137 on duty.

Woodward called on commanders to eliminate "white space" in basic training -- downtime that slowed the indoctrination process. The Air Force compressed training to 7.5 weeks by eliminating course curriculum gaps and consolidating functions, fitting Capstone into the final, eighth week.

Doing it required tweaking the training schedule and Lackland's physical plant. In one case, an obstacle course that had been on the main campus for 60 years was relocated to Medina Annex, where field training is conducted. Basic Combatives Training and pugil stick application were moved to Medina as well. Adelsen, the Capstone program manager, noted that moving the obstacle course helps save transit time for recruits.

Basic training was extended from 6.5 weeks to 8.5 weeks in fall 2008 to toughen instruction, but some changes had taken root earlier. Former Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters said efforts to better prepare airmen for rugged field environments as overseas commitments expanded before and after 9/11 led to more rigorous training, including a field exercise once called Warrior Week. It's now Basic Expeditionary Airmen Skills Training, or BEAST.

In making those changes, however, there was no time left to formally indoctrinate airmen into the core values or help them prepare for life at a base. While the Air Force has had a first-term airman's school in place that briefed young troops on some of the same issues, Capstone aims to go farther.

"Capstone isn't about the here and now, Capstone is about the future, and we have the ability to fundamentally shape the future of our enlisted force over the next 10 years," said Col. Trent Edwards, commander of the 37th Training Wing. "In order to change behavior, we have to change the way our airman think about professionalism, themselves and the Air Force."

The Government Accountability Office reported last fall that the Air Force needed to do more to reassure trainees there would be no adverse consequences for reporting abuse and that an oversight process is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of efforts to combat sexual assault.

Terrified of being held back in basic training or punished, recruits often said in court they didn't dare drop comments in boxes because they would be seen, and then harassed. To deal with that, comment boxes now dot the base to make it easier for recruits to report abusive behavior without being detected -- a crucial development.

Debate continues

Retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, said he hoped the program would help but said nothing would change until the military justice system is fundamentally altered -- removing commanders from the legal process.

"Training programs are important, but they will not fix an inherently unfair system. In the military, your rapist's boss decides whether or not a sexual assault allegation is investigated," he said. "This puts commanders in an impossible position and is why more than 85 percent of troops continue not to openly report the crime."

Neither the debate over how to fix such problems nor the idea of instilling core values into airmen are new. Indoctrination into military culture always has been a part of early training, which aims to recast free-thinking civilians into troops prepared to follow orders and execute them. Capstone will offer a more detailed curriculum than the airman's school, with top Air Force leaders saying it ought to better better prepare young airmen for what is ahead.

Gen. Ronald Fogleman, an Air Force chief of staff in the mid-1990s who instituted the service's core values of integrity, service before self and excellence, said he hopes to see a follow-up to Capstone as airmen hit career milestones that include leadership and NCO schools for those rising in the ranks.

"At that point in their careers, you are going to have people say, 'Well, I've had some first-person experience with this thing,'" Fogleman said. "This is how you build an effective, long-lasting program to me. It can't be, 'Hey, I'm going to finish basic training and do this and then once I've done that,' that's it for the rest of their lives."

sigc@express-news.net

(c) 2015 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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