Updated: Jan 30
The year is 2014. It's June, and I'm in Colorado with my family. Today, we're at the Air Force Academy, only steps away from the alumni HQ building. We stand underneath a plastic tarp lawn tent. Some Air Force Three-star General is giving a speech. It's supposed to be motivational, but if you ask me, it's rather lackluster. But that doesn't matter. I'm excited to be here.
My eyes scan the crowd. All the others my age are my future classmates. We're here in Colorado because I'm about to begin college. But unlike every other kid in America, my school is a military service academy. It's one of five in the U.S. and trains Air Force officers. The others do the same but for the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps guys and girls. But in my heart, I knew the Air Force was the branch for me.
For as long as I can remember, I've always wanted to serve in the military. Since before high school, it's been my dream. The service academies are exceptional if you've never heard about them before. I don't mean to brag, but sometimes I can't help myself—today's a big day! From everything that I've heard, these institutions are leadership schools. We're going to develop the intangibles here and lead soldiers. Well, in truth, the term is "Airmen," not soldier, but that sounds lame.
As I scanned the crowd once more, I knew that my classmates had shared the same dream. They, too, wanted to serve in the military. Or at least enjoyed the free ride that came with it. But the promise of adventure was irresistible. Who wouldn't want to be the next Jack Ryan, James Bond, or Tom Cruise? Plus, the allure of war permeates all aspects of life—from literature to movies to school. Was there anything more noble or great than to fight for freedom?
Even in middle school and high school, I devoured military literature. I remembered the stack of books on my nightstand. They ranged from the latest Navy Seal non-fiction memoir to history books. On occasion, I also read Tom Clancy's work. Each inspired me to serve, like the others sweating in the shade next to me. But now was not the time to reminisce. No, those treasures were safely tucked away in boxes at my parent's house.
No, now was the time to listen and get in the zone for Basic Cadet Training. So, I try to refocus, listening to the Three-star talk about how this school, the Academy, prepared them. They were a career military officer and pilot in the Air Force and recalled when they flew in a combat zone. 'If I die in a combat zone, box me up, and ship me home.' They say. I smile. An excellent Tim O'Brien reference. Impressive how they worked it into the speech.
Now, I'm not sure what they are saying. I'm not sure what they are conveying other than the Academy produces good pilots and officers. 'Thank goodness, right?' My brother whispers to me. He's right, I thought. But then, a sudden and terrible thought pops into my mind, 'how the hell did this person become a Three-star general?' They aren't especially good at giving motivational speeches. But I was making a crucial mistake. I viewed the world as a civilian would—judging someone based upon perceived value. This is not how the military operates. Whether someone is good or bad at giving a speech or doing whatever the task may be, is irrelevant to respect. Rank trumps opinion.
But I didn't learn this lesson right away. No, instead, I would learn this in the hallways of Cadet Squadron Tiger Ten as I held a mattress over my head. Oh, and I was squatting and counting off at the same time for the upperclassmen. Yes, the image is as ridiculous and as funny as it sounds. But at the time it felt like hell. There is this terrible, immutable streak in me; defiance. Let me tell you, defiance, especially in a place like the military, isn't smart.
Also, as someone who didn't grow up in a military household, I didn't know better. As a civilian, you're unacclimated to the dangers of, if you will, being a trainee in Basic Cadet Training. Plus, as a Doolie, the term for an Academy freshman, the cadre prize obedience over everything. So forget critical thinking; you check it into the cadre when you come to the Zoo. After four years here, you're lucky to get it back, too. Plus, all those freedoms you enjoy—long hair, fun workouts, and how you phrase words—go away.
But as I stood in the shade, I didn't know what the future held. All I knew was that once the General finished talking, I'd get two timed minutes to say goodbye to my family. After that, I'm supposed to walk across the Challenge Bridge. Once I'm on the other side, a bus will be waiting for us. It'll shuttle us to the main campus. Once I get on the bus, my life as a civilian ends forever. No longer will I be a consumer of military literature but someone who was there, and that's a scary thought. It's scary because I knew how the storylines would end when I read all those books and watched all those movies. Some would die, some would live. But I got to the end. The thing is, when you put on the uniform, you no longer have control over the plot of your life. Plus, you may not be the protagonist either. Sometimes you're the villain in another person's life. Or a casualty.
The General stops talking. An Air Force cadet in a blue uniform puffs up his chest, almost yelling, 'Two minutes starts now.' I follow what everyone else does, hugging mom, dad, brother, and sister goodbye. My stomach twists inside. As trite of a name as the 'Challenge Bridge' is, the name summarizes my exact feelings. No longer would I be free, for the most part, to do what I wanted. Instead, those next steps signaled a new beginning—my journey to becoming an Air Force Officer. If I became a pilot, the commitment would be sixteen years from today. Or, if I did a job without as big of a commitment, it would only be nine years. But I couldn't let the total number of potential years shock me. They were too far away from now. My only job was to focus on this moment and be present.
The two minutes finish. 'Say goodbye, walk across the bridge.' Fear and self-doubt creep into my mind as I leave them behind. I look back once and can see them wave and cheer. But I don't know if I can do this, and what if the admissions office made a mistake? Could I still turn back?
I followed the single-line procession. A black guy lets me cut in front of him. He gave me an up-nod. We traded glances knowing that we would be Basics for the next six weeks. A word that synonymies servitude and unimportance. We had seen the YouTube videos and read the pamphlets. No matter how much someone tried to sugarcoat the process, we knew we were lower than dirt. But, we were at the mercy of the cadre. And, we supposed they were not going to be merciful.
For the next six weeks, we are Basics. The word synonymies servitude, and unimportance. But during Basic Cadet Training we'll learn about the Air Force and the Academy, in particular. At the time, I didn't grasp the difficulty of our time on the Hill or in Jack's Valley. I had heard stories from Summer Seminar cadets last year. Matt, my element's leader, said 'if you want something bad enough, don't worry, you'll be fine.' But even though I had imagined starting Basic Cadet Training many times before, I begun to sweat.
Like others, I join the faceless masses of young adults hoping to prove ourselves wholly. Not only to the Upper-class Cadets but also to who we hoped to become. None of us wanted to show weakness. How terrible if someone called us a mistake—an Admission's Committee error? But this fear contrasted with the knowledge that we would always be in the wrong. This notion complicated our survival over the next six weeks. Plus, never mind that the upperclass cadets can sniff out weakness, like bloodhounds.
No, if we were going to survive, we needed to be strong. We couldn't show our true selves. But I supposed the upperclass cadets knew precisely how we felt. They lived through everything only a few years before. This tradition, for good or for bad, fused us together. This was our heritage. So, as these thoughts coursed through my mind, I looked down and realized I had already crossed the bridge. There was nothing I could do now. I was on the other side. A cadet with sunglasses pointed us towards the idling bus.
We walk over and remain in a single-file line. Outside the bus are a few older cadets. They wore blue carpet pants, short sleeve shirts, berets, and black wraparound sunglasses. Even the females in the group seemed menacing. I had seen clips on YouTube of this bus. It was famous. We're about to get the berating of our lives. Then the madness will start. I guess the familiarity of this scene comforted me. The guy behind me whispers 'those are the cadre.' Yeah, no shit, man.
I keep my lips flat. I didn't want the cadets see me talking and put a target on my back. 'They ours?' I asked. But the guy behind me had no clue. In terse exchanges, I tried to portray self-confidence. But fear's innate. How could we not be afraid or timid or unsure on some level? But we also had no choice. We couldn't turn around and go back over the Challenge Bridge. That would be embarrassing. Plus, I doubt my family's still there. We didn't dare speak as we approached the bus and did the only thing we could: board.
As I walked by one male cadre member up the stairs to the bus, I saw my reflection in his lenses. He didn't say a word. Neither did the others. They gave us the UCLA sorority girl treatment—pretending as if we didn't exist. But they weren't relaxed. No one in their group was joking around. As we found our seats, the rising, palpable tension heightened. Having seen enough YouTube videos, I knew what came next.
"EYES!! Sit at attention. Cup your hands. Get your back straight!" Bam! The Cadre seated at the front of the bus jolted up. They tore into their rehearsed monologue. Luckily, I sat by the window. So, there was a buffer between me and this maniac ranting in the center aisle. I went from staring out of the window and admiring the scenery to locking my eyes forward. Somewhere in the middle of the talk, the cadet said we were only allowed 'Seven Basic Responses.'
THE SEVEN BASIC RESPONSES ARE:
1. YES, SIR
2. NO, SIR
3. NO EXCUSE, SIR,
4. SIR, MAY I ASK A QUESTION
5. SIR, MAY I MAKE A STATEMENT
6. SIR, I DO NOT UNDERSTAND
7. SIR, I DO NOT KNOW
Ås the bus pulled to a stop, the cadet in the center aisle of the bus, yelled, 'GET OFF MY BUS.' And, boy, did we scram. We hightailed it as fast as we could. To put it another way, there is nothing as motivating to get you to move like someone shouting in your face. We grabbed our bags, raced down the steps, and into the Colorado sun. The light burned our retinas.
Once off the bus, we got ambushed. Two lines of cadets on either side formed from the bus's mouth to these painted footsteps. The footsteps lay in the middle of a parking lot courtyard, near the Vandenberg dormitory. I had stayed in that building last summer in their eleventh grade outreach program. The footsteps were also closed to the Core Value Ramp, which used to be the Bring Me Men ramp. Both names derive from the inscription in metal letters that face us. The Core Values are 'Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do.'
'TAKE OFF YOUR BAG!' screamed a cadre. I look at him and slip off the shoulder straps. A girl before me is carrying it in her left hand. I do the same. It's strange we're not allowed to wear our bags. 'CLOSE THE GAP!' another cadre yells. She points to the distance between myself and the other female basic. I sprint-walk over but not too close because the bag's weight is distracting. I'm leaning to my right side to counterbalance the toiletries, clothes, and shoes. Before Basic Cadet Training, we had received a letter on what to bring. It was mandatory. Plus, most of the stuff were things we had.
I'm now at the footsteps. I look at an Asian American cadet. He points me to a corner spot. On Google, I had also seen these footsteps before. They were infamous. Online people got torn apart for the smallest mistakes when addressing the cadre. I thought they were dumb. But, today, for the first time, I understand why they made simple mistakes. My heart is palpitating—it's going to shoot out of my chest. Indoctrination Day is exhilarating so far, but also unnerving.
Once we all filled the painted footsteps, a man projected his voice. 'Put your bags down,' he commanded. The dude must be the group's leader. Over the next two minutes, he gave a short speech. He explained the position of attention and told us of those who came before. He gave us one word of encouragement, asked if we had any questions, we said nothing. Then the leader ordered the 'Cadre, fall out. Make corrections.'
They descended on us like vultures. They circled the weak first. But every person on the footsteps had someone yell in their face. I had someone, too. But the corner spot bored them and they joined three or four others who were targeting the poor girl next to me. I didn't dare move or show any emotion. They swarmed her. The cadets looked like Football team members—they were massive cornfed boys that looked like they were from the Midwest. Nobody on the East Coast was as big, and they knew it. They mobbed her and were unrelenting. To be clear, I was not jealous of her situation.
'What are the Seven Basic Responses?!'
'Why are you here, Basic?!'
'What's wrong with you Basic?!'
They wanted to make her feel like shit. No matter what she said or tried to say was wrong. She stammered through the Seven Basic Responses. I didn't know them either. I hoped no one asked me. They didn't. An alarm sounded. The leader informed us to get off his painted footsteps and run up the ramp. Another group must be arriving, I figured. Thank goodness we're free—saved by the bell.
As we jogged up the Core Values Ramp, I only saw a cadet at the top. No one stood on the ramp itself. Now was a perfect time to talk. Plus, even if they heard me, there were so many of us, I had plausible deniability. 'You alright?' I asked. Although she was behind me in the single-file line, she knew my response was for her. 'Yeah, I'm good. Tougher than I look. But man if that isn't a rush.'
Dang, she's a badass, I thought. I wouldn't have had the same reaction walking away from that interaction. If she could do it, I couldn't let myself not. Closer to the top of the ramp where one cadet stood directing us, a realization hit me. No one would step in to stop the cadre. My eyes widened as the idea dawned. An uneasiness crawled down my spine.
'Go right,' the cadet at the top of the ramp said. We followed a string of them making all sorts of twists and turns. We were running on the marble strips for the first time. Another rite of passage. In the Summer Seminar last year, the other prospective students and I did the same thing for fun. We had laughed then. But no one dared to even mutter words to one another now—not in front of the cadre.
We ran-walked another quarter or half of a mile, and descended down a stairwell. At varying points, Cadre told us, the Basics, to "Close that gap" or "Ease up". Someone even told a dude two people ahead of me to not be 'nut-to-butt.' Yuck!
Once downstairs, cadets directed us to makeshift rooms. Someone told us to draw out our manilla folder. In it, we brought our medical forms, vaccine card, and the Academy Letter of Appointment. It's weird but even though there are videos online of the bus and the footsteps, you never think of other stuff. Administrative tasks consumed the next few hours. We had our waists measured. We got shots. We had our hair shaved off.
Despite the factory-like precision, it felt like we were waiting in lines all day. But, in a few quiet moments, I talked to either the person in front or behind me in the single-file snake line. For the most part, I wanted to know what Basic Cadet Training flight they were in. I was Barbarians. Some said Flying Tigers. Others Aggressors. All alpha-numeric codenames for our academic year squadrons. Plus, in the Barbarian's flight, I knew that I was in 'Echo'. That meant that there were at least five parts of Barbarians.
But no one was in my group or flight. So, we wandered from room to room like cattle driven to slaughter, completing tasks. I supposed I would meet my flight mates later that day, and I did. The entire ordeal took close to three or four hours since crossing the Challenge Bridge. We had run and walked and jogged everywhere. Downstairs, upstairs, across the deco courtyard called the Terrazzo, or T-Zo for short, and back again. But after an eternity, I found myself in my assigned Basic Cadet unit: Barbarian's Echo.