Air Force rookies meet mental hurdles

The ranks of Air Force recruits move as one. Shaded from the sun by their raised dormitory, they glide eerily sideways in response to unintelligible commands. An officer approaches, and they freeze in place. Their eyes are forward. Their faces have no expression. Only a few weeks ago these rookies were as different as the 50 states. They arrived here wearing a riot of colored T-shirts, their hair styles everything from rock star to honor student. Now their clothing is all green, and their hair is all gone. Shaved sideburns glisten in the south Texas heat.

``Day one seems like a year ago,'' sighs recruit Rico McIlwain, a North Carolina native, during a short break for lunch.

Since 1969 the only Air Force basic training center has been here at Lackland. Every year some 60,000 men and women enter this giant assembly line of a base and in six weeks emerge at the other end as standardized Air Force airmen.

The aim of this training is not so much to meld a physical fighting force, as it would be with the Army or Marines. By yuppie health-club standards the exercise involved is not too tough - recruits must be able to finish a 1.5-mile run before graduation.

Instead, Air Force basic keeps up mental pressure designed to instill organization and attention to detail. After all, the enlisted ranks trained here will for the most part be technicians. ``We're sending these guys out to work on airplanes,'' says Maj. Michael Asher, commander of the 3701st Basic Military Training Squadron.

Within a day of climbing off the bus at the reception center, recruits have been stripped of their rainbow of private sector clothing and issued service greens. ``Clipper cuts'' have shaved their hair - an event that can be traumatic, as it shaves off much of their physical individuality. (Female recruits, 20 percent of the total, are allowed to keep more of their locks.)

Then they are grouped in training flights of about 45 persons, and given a place in one of Lackland's giant dorms. The dorm becomes the center of their universe. The buildings are raised on stilts so recruits can perform drills in the shade underneath, and have dining and laundry facilities; flights can go for weeks without leaving their dormitory's bounds.

Living areas are military-traditional neat. Twenty-year-old metal door sills gleam like mirrors; beds are made so tight the mattresses appear squeezed. Underwear, folded to a prescribed surface area, is stacked in a prescribed locker corner.

Strangely, there is one item of glaring dissonance - sneakers. The Air Force used to issue standard running-type shoes but finally noticed that the personal sneakers that recruits were forced to ditch were often $95 multi-feature Reeboks and such, far superior to anything the government would pay for. Trainees can now bring their own.

The day begins at 0500 hours (in military slang, O-dark-hundred). Between exercises, drill, classes in basic military skills, and such events as the obligatory dental hygiene briefing, there is hardly any personal time before lights out at 2100 hours.

``They're in a total overload condition,'' says Major Asher.

Not that there is much they could do with free time if they had it. In their early days a prime reward is liberty to lounge on their own dorm's patio. Freedom to walk around the base is awarded on their 15th training day.

The somewhat claustrophobic nature of the training has a purpose, of course. Officers say it's to instill in recruits the ability to live and work as a team. A number of the recruits say this is the hardest thing they had to learn about military life.

``Adjusting to living with 44 individuals was tough,'' says Miles Griffin, a soon-to-be airman from nearby Houston.

Of the 44 that begin in Mr. Griffin's unit, four have already washed out: three for medical reasons, and one who was recycled to a unit just beginning its training. Overall basic washout rate, the Air Force says, is 5 percent.

[According to recent press reports, two training sergeants at Lackland have been charged by military authorities with mistreating recruits. A third instructor is under investigation.

Testimony given at a July 27 court-martial charged one of the sergeants, David O'Neal, with poking a recruit with a flag pole and banging his nose into a mirror. In a pre-trial interview with Associated Press, Sergeant O'Neal complained that training at Lackland was no tougher than ``a Boy Scout camp.'']

Ask why they joined the military and Army soldiers usually mention something about adventure and frequent camping. Navy seaman often reply they joined up for world travel. For Air Force recruits here, education seems to be the key - many cite the chance for valuable technical training as their reason for joining up.

But surely all has not gone easily for them the past few weeks. What do they miss the most about civilian life?

``My family,'' says one.

Silence falls.

``I'd like a pizza,'' says another.

There is more silence. They appear nostalgic.

``A nice thick steak,'' says a third.

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