SOURCE: Kathleen Petty. Published: November 2020
When COVID-19 forced businesses and schools to shut down this spring, the military—known for its well-established systems not swift to change—had to shift quickly. Pausing Basic Military Training for any extended period of time was simply not an option, says Chief Master Sgt. Learie R. Gaitan, superintendent of basic training for the 737th Training Group at Joint Base San Antonio–Lackland.
Instead, top leaders at Lackland reviewed every element of the training that prepares recruits to become airmen and made adjustments beginning in March as the rest of San Antonio started to shut down. Basic training was halted for one week to fully reset processes and begin the practice of bringing in smaller groups but since then has been running as close to normal as is possible. “The things you can’t control you can’t control,” says Col. Rockie K. Wilson, who took command in July of the 37th Training Wing, the largest training wing in the U.S. Air Force. “We’re focusing on making sure our processes and our mindset are consistent.”
Along with reconfiguring processing week, dining hall protocols, physical training and classroom instruction, the 37th Training Wing— which since 1968 has been the only site of Air Force basic training—also created a small squadron at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi that’s graduating 60 airmen a week while fewer trainees are in San Antonio.
Once a vaccine is widely available, some protocols will return to normal, but Wilson says they’ve also found efficiencies that have enhanced their mission and will remain in the years to come.
“We didn’t have a handwritten book before COVID came so how do we adapt?” says Col. Michael S. Newsom, who is over the 737th Training Group. “We’ve refined the process of what it takes to become an airman. The responsibility has been on our military training instructors and they have responded. This virus has really shown the resiliency of the organization.”
Trainees from around the country are tested for COVID-19 within 24 hours of arriving on base and then quarantined if positive, says Sgt. Tech James Jennings. All trainees spend their first 14 days in ROM (restriction of movement) having minimal contact with anyone outside of their group, including Military Training Instructors who teach from six feet or more away and demonstrate things like uniform folding techniques with their own sample items rather than touching students’ items. In April, this took place in temporary tents set up on the blacktop outside. Now, they’re contained in isolated dorms. Instead of traveling around the base to have their hair cut, their uniforms fitted and their paperwork completed, each of those processing activities comes to them—a shift that has saved time and helped contribute to the week the Air Force has been able to cut from basic training during the pandemic. “We’re doing the same amount of work but crunched into a shorter period of time,” Jennings says, explaining that airmen now graduate at seven-and-a-half weeks instead of just over eight.
Classroom instruction continues with fewer students in each room and some classes are now undergone virtually during self-study time that trainees complete in their dorms. Trainees sit two to a table at mealtime instead of four, eat only pre-portioned items during their 10 to 15 minutes at the table and are kept to their training group, or flight, at all times. Previously, flights would pair up to attend classes together.
Prior to COVID-19, students all completed physical training (PT) at the same time, rotating between running one day and strength training the next. The trainees continue to do PT without masks on but can no longer run or do pushups in close formation. Instead, about half of the trainees complete PT at 6 a.m. and the other half at 7 a.m. Instead of just two activities, they now rotate through four stations that take place in different outdoor spaces, including an all-new circuit interval training exercise that is similar to HIIT workouts civilians might do at the gym. Col. Wilson says the new activity was added to provide another option for spacing people out but has had an added benefit of improving trainees’ physical readiness. “We’ve seen injury rates go down and PT performance scores have gone up a little bit, so that will definitely stay,” he says.
During pre-pandemic times, future airmen in each training session were broken into 24 training groups, called flights, containing 50 people each. To keep capacity down during COVID-19, only 18 flights are currently completing training at any one time leaving more room in dorms and throughout the base. Flights were initially cut to 24 trainees each but by September were returning closer to normal levels of around 40 trainees each.
Chief Master Sgt. Gaitan, who completed basic at Lackland in 1994, says they want future airmen to learn a “military mindset” from the moment they step on base. “We have what we call ‘Operation Kill COVID’ and we’ve approached this like a war,” he says. “We recognize weaknesses and then we look at how to attack the enemy—whether in dry cleaning or cleaning handrails more often—and kill it.” Following orders, even if those now include keeping a mask on, sanitizing surfaces in the dining hall and classrooms, maintaining distance while learning formations and running and keeping to the group where you’re assigned, demonstrates the kind of discipline and leadership Gaitan says young men and women will need to succeed in the Air Force. Along with reconfiguring schedules during the first two weeks of training, students also complete their field training and initial weapons training—which occurs outside at a training annex nearby—in four days and three nights rather than the previous five days, four nights.
Graduation activities have been condensed into a Thursday instead of taking place throughout the weekend. Families now tune in via Facebook Live rather than celebrating in San Antonio and airmen—all six feet apart—are congratulated with elbow bumps from their superiors rather than handshakes.
With new recruits coming in on Tuesday and time needed to sanitize, each newly graduated airman is preparing to leave for their technical training assignment by Friday morning.
“The reason we keep doing (Basic Military Training) during COVID is because our enemies are looking, they don’t sleep,” Gaitan says. “If we take a knee during COVID operation they have found a kink in our armor. We must continue to keep this pipeline open.”
BY Kathleen Petty
Published: November 2020