Thanks for checking in!

I started this blog to keep in touch with my family and friends during my time attending Commissioned Officer Training (COT) and the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course (JASOC) at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Now I'm done with training and back in the "real" world, but I'll keep updating this blog with any interesting developments from my JAG career.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)

One thing that I've learned quickly in my time here at COT is that the Air Force loves PowerPoint presentations.  I mean they LOVE them.  Every single class, whether taught to the 15 people in our flight or to the entire 133-member class, is built around a PowerPoint presentation.  They all stick to a basic structure - introduction slide, overview/summary slide, body slides, recap/summary slide, and a final slide that says "Questions?"  But there are some differences.  Some instructors spice up their slides with great or interesting quotations, others use pictures.  Some use silly sounds at transitions - or loud ones that jolt the tired post-lunch crowd awake.  Others use movie or tv clips, which actually are pretty effective at illustrating the leadership and teamwork principles we've been studying (or illustrating the lack thereof).  So far I've seen clips from Remember the Titans, Crimson Tide, Behind Enemy Lines, The Office, Talladega Nights and Star Trek (the original series).  That's just off the top of my head.  But there is another category of video that is in pretty heavy rotation here at COT:  videos showing how awesome the Air Force is.  The clear favorite in this category is the video below, which I've seen at least three times in three different classes.  Be forewarned:  if you do not like violently patriotic country songs, musically synchronized bombs exploding, cartoon illustrations of bald eagles and the statue of liberty beating up terrorists, puppy dogs and flags, you're going to hate this. (UPDATE - May 2016: It looks like the old video I posted here was removed from YouTube, so I have substituted a different video that is about 73% as awesome as the old one. Sorry, but it's the best I can do!)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Week 2 (Day 10): Project X and the OODA Loop

Last week we learned about the OODA Loop.  OODA stands for Observe (the information before you), Orient (analyze the information and brainstorm), Decide (on a course of action), Act (on your decision).  The “loop” of these four actions in sequence was created by an Air Force Colonel nicknamed “40-second Boyd.”  During the Korean War, he knew that his fighter planes were no match for the Korean Migs they were up against, at least when it came to mechanics.  But he thought that his men could outsmart the Korean pilots by making decisions more quickly and putting themselves in a better position.  He thought that they could run through a structured decision-making process—the OODA loop—in fewer than forty seconds.  And he was right.
On Wednesday, the day after the PFB, we went to the Leadership Reaction Course (LRC) on campus to employ the OODA Loop and do an exercise called Project X.  The LRC consists of 22 (I think) obstacles.  Each obstacle has a 20-minute time limit, and we tackle them in teams of 6.  For the actual LRC exercise we do closer to the end of COT, we’ll do 15 obstacles; each member of our flight will serve as team leader for one obstacle.  Our flight commanders watch our decision-making process, keep an eye out for penalties (e.g., stepping on a “mine field,” touching “acid,” making too much noise).  If we complete the obstacles we get bonus points, but the focus of the obstacles is to see how we work as a team.  Project X was our introduction to the LRC; we did four obstacles (none of the ones that we’ll do later at the LRC exercise) so that we could practice the leadership skills we’ll need to tackle the full LRC exercise later in the course.
We didn’t complete any of our four obstacles within the 20-minute period.  But we did get better with each one.  I was team leader for the last obstacle we did, which was fortunate because I had the benefit of having observed, or been involved with, the prior three obstacles.

We stood with our back to the obstacle.  When an air horn blew, we turned around and ran to the obstacle, ending up against a concrete wall, behind a red line, looking at a big wooden slab about 15 feet wide and twenty feet high, tilted up at about a 75-degree angle.  As we ran up to the obstacle, I saw another slab of equal size on the other side of this one, with a gap in the middle about three feet across.  We were briefed on the scenario, which went something like this: 
You and your team returned to a prior safehouse to find that the enemy had discovered it and destroyed the house.  They also placed mines all around the house and put some traps around the collapsed roof, which is the only remaining part of the house.  You had some equipment inside the house that you think is still salvageable.  You need to get your people from where you are to the other side of the house—and you need to retrieve your equipment from inside.
[NOTE:  I deleted portions of this post after making this blog public so as not to give away the solution to any future COT trainees.]

Having watched or participated in the prior three obstacle challenges, I knew that our Flight Commander (Snake Eyes) was watching us to see how we reached a decision.  The most important thing up front was to ensure that everyone understood the objective.  So I repeated it three times for everyone.  We need to get up this side of the roof, get our equipment, and get all of us and the equipment down the other side.  Everyone understood.  He also wanted to see how we put the OODA Loop to use, and he wanted to see how I involved every team member.  So my first step was to gather information.  I asked my team for input.  There are mines right in front of us but we may be able to touch that fallen roof from here.  The sides of the roof are painted red, so we have to make sure we don’t touch there or we’ll get a penalty.  The angle of that roof is too steep for us to run up it, and it’s too high for us to jump – plus there are no handholds.  And so forth.  After a few minutes of that, it was time to move on to the orient/brainstorm phase, and then the action phase.

[Fast-forward to the end.]

The 20-minute air-horn blew with me still inside the house, one teammate on the other side, and two of my team at the top of the first roof section.
It was a great learning experience.  Afterward, Snake Eyes told us that he saw a lot of teamwork and that we had the textbook solution and plan within the first three minutes.  What killed us was the penalties.  Still, we had a lot of fun.  We’ll have a chance at redemption at LRC in a couple of weeks.  And that time we’ll be able to take pictures, so stay tuned!

Week 2 (Day 9): The PFB

Much has happened this week.  After the nice three-day weekend, we started out the week on Tuesday with our Physical Fitness Baseline (PFB) test.  The PFB test is intended to let us know how we will perform on the twice-yearly Air Force Physical Fitness Test (PFT).  Both the PFB and PFT have four parts:  (1) how many pushups you can do in a minute; (2) how many situps you can do in a minute; (3) how fast you can run 1.5 miles; and (4) your waist measurement.  There are 100 possible points, and the points are scaled depending on your age group.  Because I’m an old man, I fall into the 30-to-35 age group.  80 points is a passing score.
I scored a 94.  I feel pretty good about that.  I knew that doing all that CrossFit with my friends at CrossFit Monrovia would get me in shape for this, and it was satisfying to know that I would have no problems meeting the Air Force fitness standards.  Thank you, my fellow rats!  One of these weekends I’ll have to try and get off base to work out with one of the CrossFit boxes in Montgomery, because the regular workouts we’ve been doing here are not that challenging (plus the instruction we get on proper form is all wrong – you can’t do a full squat while keeping your hands on your hips!)
Not everyone in Echo Flight did so well.  We had three people fail the PFB, which means that they are going to have to kick it into another gear and get right so that they can pass the real PFT, which we take the week before graduation.  Two of the three are our two chaplains (there are only four chaplains in the entire class, and Echo Flight has two of them).  So we’ll need to work with them a lot to get them stronger and faster in the next few weeks.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Joaquin goes to Disneyland and plays the piano!

Here are the latest photos of our little guy.  Susan took him to Disneyland this week.  And he also had some fun playing her new electonic piano with George.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Days 6, 7 and 8: Finally, a Respite From the Onslaught

Friday night (after Day 5) was a huge relief.  We still had to get up at 7am on Saturday (Day 6) for breakfast, and then take our first test (on knowledge of the OTSMAN, which we’ve been reading all week)—but there is a huge difference between getting up at 6:15 am to get ready for breakfast and getting up at 4:15 am to get ready for class.  Plus, the weather cleared up today and that cold front moved out, so no more freezing temperatures—at least not outdoors.  Just as it started to heat up outdoors, our A/C decided to kick in again at full blast, chilling our room back down to the low- to mid-50s.
One of my flight mates is notorious in our flight for being temperature-sensitive.  He’s always begging us to wear our parkas, gloves, and watchcaps in the morning, but it isn’t that cold.  And we all have to be standardized, so he can’s just wear whatever he wants.  Anyway, I told him tonight that our room had turned back into an igloo, and he came up with a pretty brilliant plan:  cover the vent with masking tape.
We did that, and it worked like a charm.  For about two hours.  By that time, the air pressure from the vent had overcome the tackiness of the tape, and we were back down to the chilly mid-50s.  Then my cold-sensitive buddy had another idea.  Remove the grate completely and stuff a pillow in there!  I was skeptical at first, but he was right on!  Here’s a photo of Father John with our improvised vent blocker.

Finally, something to stop the A/C!  (That dark rectangle above Father John is a camoflauge pillow stuffed in our vent.)
The funny thing is, the air was blowing so hard that when I put the pillow in there for the first time, it shot right back out because of the air pressure.  But I re-stuffed it and it held through the night, so I think we’re going to be okay. 
Just because it was a long holiday weekend doesn’t mean we had it easy.  There was a ton of work to do over the weekend, and since my Air Force computer is still not functioning, I had to spend 6 hours of my Sunday in a computer lab.  But that said, it was great to catch up on some sleep after all those nights of sleeping from 12am to 4am.  And the weekend did afford me the opportunity to go to a Catholic service on base.  Father John participated in the service, which was pretty cool.  Here are some pictures.

The next thing up (on Tuesday morning) is the Physical Fitness Baseline (PFB) test.  There are four components to the Air Force fitness standard:  (1) waist/BMI size; (2) how many pushups you can do in a minute; (3) how many situps you can do in a minute; and (4) time for a 1.5 mile run.  I should do alright because of all my CrossFit training, so I’m not sweating it.  Plus, it’ll just be nice to get out there and get moving.
Happy Martin Luther King day, everyone!

Latest Photos of Joaquin

More cuteness.  This is what keeps me going!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Day 5: E-C-H-O, Act-Like-You-Know!

Today was Friday, the last day of our first week.  It feels like I’ve been here for a month already, what the constant stream of instruction and work.  One instructor told us that COT is like drinking from a firehose, and I could not agree more.  It is intentionally that way.  We are judged not just on how we perform on tests and physical challenges, but on how we react to the stress of having much more to do than we have time in which to do it.
I took my turn as flight leader today.  The flight leader is responsible for getting the flight sized up correctly (taller people in the front and on the outside) and marching the flight everywhere on campus.  The flight leader also checks in for the flight at all academic classes by calling the room to attention when the instructor breaks the threshold of the door, TENCH-HUT!, saluting, and saying Sir, Echo Flight is accounted for and ready for instruction!  There are other procedures for closing the class and entering/exiting the chow hall, all of which are in the OTSMAN—but reading it and doing it are two very different things.
I was a little apprehensive about being flight leader.  The two prior flight leaders (on Wednesday and Thursday) both had served as enlisted personnel before, so they were fairly comfortable with all the reporting and drill instructions.  I, of course, did not have that experience.  But I felt pretty good about my command of the flight leader’s duties, and I knew how to march so I thought it would go pretty well.
It’s funny how things never go exactly as you plan.  The first class we had (at 0500) was an inspection class.  That means that I had to call the room to attention when the instructor (our flight commander) entered the room, report that the flight is accounted for and ready for inspection—rather than instruction—and then stand like a statue while he looked over my entire uniform to make sure that I’m wearing it right.  I had practiced opening an inspection class a number of times the night before, but when he got three inches from my face and was staring me down just as I began to report, the words just flew out of my head.  Thankfully, they came back after a second and we got through the inspection alright.  I later learned that one of our flight commander's nicknames is Snake Eyes, and I can only assume that it’s because of the way he can stare right through you and send a shiver down your spine.  (His other nickname is Duke - because he looks like the famous G.I. Joe leader.)
The rest of the day went well.  I did a pretty admirable job marching the flight around.  We had our first PT session, which wasn’t all that taxing.  After some stretches, pushups, and situps, we went on a light self-paced run.  Echo Flight decided to stick together on the run, staying in a group as we ran around the track.  As we did so, we decided to give the other flights a scare, yelling EXTERMINATORS!! together at the top of our lungs.  That’s the name we picked for ourselves.  The Echo Flight Exterminators.  None of the other groups had it together enough to express some team identity.  We Exterminators stick together!
On the march back to the dorm from the PT track, I had the flight chant a jody that I made up while we were running.  You’ve probably all heard a jody even if you didn’t know what it was.  It’s a chant that soldiers say while marching, and it sticks to the 1-2, 3-4 beat structure.  It is intended to boost the morale of those marching while also keeping them on beat.  Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page about jodies:
Here’s how my simple jody goes:
E – C – H – O, ACT – LIKE – YOU – KNOW!
E – C – H – O, THAT’S – HOW – WE – ROLL!
Nothing too clever, but we were the first flight to bust out a jody, and I’m proud of that.  It really showed our team spirit.  Once we got back to our Flight Room, Snake Eyes gave us some advice and encouragement.  He told us that we were doing really well and that we are far ahead of where flights usually are at this point in COT, and asked us to make sure we build on our momentum and not let ourselves slip up.  That means enforcing all of the rules even when no staff are around on the weekend, doing the prep needed to perform well on our exams, and encouraging each other at all times.  We were all pumped to get what we considered to be unequivocally positive feedback.  Despite all the lack of sleep and stress, I’m having a blast.

Day 4: Tight Meals

Here’s a leadership problem for you:  how do you get 134 people fed in under an hour, three times a day?  If you’ve ever tried to organize lunch for ten people or more, you know that it’s like herding cats to get everyone on the same page at the same time and to stick to your timeframe.  But the military does it all the time.  How?  The tight meal.
First of all, you start with a disciplined population that will follow orders.  That’s what we’ve been learning every second of every day since getting here.  Then you assign different groups different dining priorities (i.e., eating times); the three flights in my squadron eat at five minutes after the hour—breakfast at 0705, lunch at 1205, and dinner at 1705.  The other squadrons have dining priorities on the hour and ten minutes after the hour.  The flights march to the chow hall early enough to make their dining priorities and check in with a mess checker, who determines whether they have arrived on time.  If a flight is on time, it can eat at the chow hall.  If not, those trainees get MREs.  (See my prior post about MREs if you want to know what I think of them.)
Once the trainees get inside, the tight meal starts.  Here are the rules, off the top of my head:
1.  You stand at attention while waiting in line to get your tray.
2.  Once you get your tray, you proceed through the service area to get your food.
3.  You never talk in the service area except when ordering food or saying excuse me.
4.  As you proceed through the service area, you bring your heels together after each step.
5.  After paying for your food, you enter the dining area and proceed to the furthest table.
6.  When you arrive at your 2.5-foot square table, take position 1, 2, 3 or 4, in that order.
7.  Position 1 faces the service area.
8.  Position 2 is to the right of Position 1.
9.  Position 3 is across from Position 2.
10.  Position 4 is across from Position 1.
11.  All trainees stand at attention behind their chair until the table is filled.
12.  If 20 seconds pass without another trainee joining the table, the trainees there may sit.
13.  Once the table is filled, the person at Position 4 says be seated.
14.  All trainees remove their jackets and sit down at the position of modified attention.
15.  Modified attention means sitting up straight on the front third of the chair, hands in lap and heels together.
16.  Once all parties are sitting, Position 3 hands a napkin to Position 1 and takes one for himself/herself, and Position 2 does the same for Position 4.
17.  Position 4 ensures that everyone gets a moment of silence for prayer.
18.  Once prayer is over, Position 4 says enjoy your meal.
19.  The trainees eat without talking, keeping their heels together.
20.  During each meal trainees must drink three full glasses of water, juice, or milk.
21.  Once the table is finished (which should be not long after the table seated immediately prior to your table finishes), Positions 2 and 3 pass their dishes and trays to Positions 1 and 4, who stack them.
22.  Once the trays are stacked, all parties stand up and put their jackets on.
23.  Positions 1 and 4 pick up the trays.
24.  Position 2 picks up the napkin holder.
25.  Position 3 wipes down the table with a napkin and then puts the napkin on one of the trays.
26.  All parties exit by proceeding away from the service area to the back of the room and walking clockwise to reach the exit.
27.  On the way out, Positions 1 and 4 stack the trays in a large receptacle, from the bottom up.
28.  All trainees exit and form up with their flights to march to their next class or to the dorm.
That’s a heck of a lot of rules, right?  When I first read about tight meals in my OTSMAN, I was floored.  All this just to get people to eat?  But after doing it a couple of times I understood the purpose of the tight meal.  To get a huge group to eat efficiently, you have to establish rules.  Moreover, having these rules allows the OTS staff to reinforce the discipline and training we are learning by marching everywhere.  It’s an extension of the same concept, really:  to move a large group of people from one area to another efficiently, the group needs to be disciplined, focused, and follow certain rules.  To get that same group to eat efficiently, the group needs to be disciplined, focused, and follow certain rules.
Of course, it can’t be healthy to eat as quickly as I have since getting here.  I estimate that I’ve spent only about 6 or 7 minutes eating each meal since I arrived.  That includes downing three full glasses of water with each meal, which I often do in one fell swoop at the end, leaving me with a stomach ache.  But those are the rules.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Day 3: Father John Phan

It's about time I introduce you to my roommate, Father John Phan.  He came to the United States from Vietnam when he was 16.  After growing up in San Diego, he moved to Chicago and went to a seminary there, eventually becoming an ordained Roman Catholic priest.  He is joining the Air Force reserve as a chaplain because he wants to serve this country that gave him and his family so much opportunity that they did not have in Vietnam.  

Father John's dad served in the South Vietnamese army during the Vietnam war.  In 1975, after the U.S. pulled out, his father was taken by the North Vietnamese and put in a prison camp.  His mother was three months pregnant at the time - with Father John.  So Father John didn't meet his own dad until he was released from prison when Father John was six years old.  I find his story heartbreaking, but he tells it to me perfunctorily, like I would recite my own history.  Grew up in Santa Barbara.  Went to UC Davis, then Stanford Law School.  Didn't meet my father until I was six because he was in a North Vietnamese prison camp.  I guess that, being a priest, Father John has found some reconciliation and come to peace with what happened to his dad.  Amazing.

Another thing about Father John - he is a total crackup.  I never knew that priests could be so funny, but he really is.  I suppose when you spend 24 hours a day with someone you see every side of them.  And Father John is just a funny guy.  He has a pretty dry sense of humor and he has this infectious laugh that kind of bursts out of nowhere.  You can't help laughing with him. 

And he brings a lot of other things to the table.  Intangibles.  Like the ability to bless the pendant that I got for Christmas from my Dad and Paula.  Not everyone can do that, of course.  The pendant has a picture of St. Christopher on one side and Air Force seal on the other.  I wear it every day.  Here are some photos of him giving the blessing.

And here's a photo of me doing my daily shave.  The Air Force (like other branches, I'm sure) has a requirement that men be clean-shaven every day.  I hate shaving every day because my sensitive Filipino skin gets irritated.  But you do what you gotta do.  So this is what I look like every night (I shave at night to save time in the morning).

Day 2: First MRE

I had my first MRE today.  We were in between some inprocessing and getting our uniforms, and we had fifteen minutes to eat the MREs we'd been lugging around since breakfast.  It was freezing outside and since I didn't have enough time to figure out  how to heat my meal up, I ate it cold.  Chicken, tomato and feta was the entree.  It might have been good hot, but cold it was terrible.  I also had a package of cornbread stuffing that tasted like dirt.  Also some Reese's pieces (I ate half the bag).  And some instant cappuccino that I threw away.  Oh, and I also had a "Ranger bar" that sounded perhaps chocolatey and yummy.  But it tasted like chalk.  Yum-o!

Everything in the MRE is packaged like this.  This is my chalk Ranger bar.
Funny thing is, I was talking to someone else later in the day about the MREs and she said Mine was pretty good.  I had the chicken, tomato and feta.  I was taken aback.  Did you heat it up?  I asked.  No, she said.  I didn't have time.  She was a prior service trainee, which means that she'd been in the military before as an enlisted member.  If she thinks that MRE tasted good, I don't want to try any others.

More Joaquin Photos

Here are the latest and greatest photos of Joaquin that Susan sent me.  I miss him so much!

What I Look Like Every Day

Here you go, finally.  This is what I look like every day.

Sir, Echo Flight is accounted for and ready for instruction!

Me at my desk.  We have to wear the Camelbak everywhere.  I think the idea is that we don't get
dehydrated.  But also that we just do what we are told to do.

Day 3: If You Can Dance, You Can March

The high from the blue line ceremony didn’t last all day.  Pretty soon we were back in class.  A lot of people had failed to arrive on the first day because of the weather, so new people were arriving which created more inprocessing headaches.  I felt sorry for them because they probably would never get to experience the blue line ceremony.  It’s something you have to witness in person to truly appreciate.
The best part of the day was drill instruction.  It was great because we got to see the MTIs really come to life.  They separated the trainees into squadrons (groups of three flights; my squadron—Guardian squadron—is made up of Delta, Echo, and Foxtrot flights) and tried to teach us how to march.  It felt like a line-dancing class, albeit a pretty complicated one.  You have to count the beats, 1-2-3-4.  Left foot is one, right is two, and so on.  You take a 24-inch step each time.  You follow the person in front of you.  On a left turn, I call “column left, march!” and you execute a 90-degree pivot to the left using your right foot.  After that, you fall into 12-inch steps.  These are called half-steps.  Once the entire column has turned, I will give the command “forward, march!” and you will resume a normal 24-inch step.  When I call half-turns, such as “column, half-left, march!” you execute only a 45-degree pivot on your outside foot and continue with a normal 24-inch step.
Sounds complicated, but you know, it really was a lot like dancing.  There is a rhythm to it, and I quickly grasped the idea.  And I started to see this other side of the MTIs.  Sure, they have been in our faces since we got here, yelling at us to fall in line, get in step, salute, and greet senior officers.  But above all, they are passionate about drill.  They are dedicated to teaching us not only discipline, but pride in our military bearing, the crispness of our movement, the snap in our execution.  And I think I’m pretty good at it.  Others, not so much.  Our MTI explained why.  If you can dance, you can march.  You just have to follow the beat.  But I know some of you can’t dance.  In fact, I’ve seen you for three days now so I’m positive that some of you can’t dance.  But you still have to march the best you can.
He's not really that scary.  He just wants to dance.
I never thought I’d say this, but marching is kind of fun.

Day 3: The Blue Line Ceremony

Today it really felt like we were getting started.  All of the administrative in-processing was done.  Well, it was mostly done.  There are about twenty people who are supposed to be in our class but who haven’t shown up yet because of the inclement weather.  (Yes, it is still freezing here.)  But there was a marked transition from a chaotic administrative mess to an actual military leadership school.  It was the blue line ceremony.
We all showed up for our first class of the date at 0500 (yes, every weekday our classes start at 5:00 a.m.) in full ABU uniform.  It was a class on how the PT would be run.  Finally, some PT was coming our way!  I stayed awake—but I’m a morning person.  It’s the afternoon sessions that I’m worried about, especially if I keep getting only four hours of sleep each night.  At the close of class, some MTIs at the back of the class started yelling at us (of course) to get up, put our jackets on, grab our gear, and file outside a side door in the auditorium.  Seeing as how it was still shortly before 6am in January, it was still dark.  Very dark.  I found myself trudging (well, more like hustling given the constant stream of verbal correction from the MTIs) across a grass field staring at the feet of the person in front of me to make sure I didn’t trip.  It seemed to me that we were somewhere near Welch Field – the parade area on which our graduation ceremony will be held.
I glanced up and saw the column of trainees filing into a line to my right, facing a kind of outdoor amphitheater with steps and a raised platform.  It was lit up dimly.  There were men and women in uniform on the steps and platform, including one who was standing next to a podium.  And there were flags.  The American flag and the Air Force flag.  As I filed in line facing the podium, the MTIs were yelling at all of us to squeeze in to the right and get shoulder to shoulder and stay behind the line.  There was a clear plastic ropelike tube, about one inch in diameter, in front of the podium.  I walked up to it and squeezed to my right as instructed.  The MTIs were still yelling.  Step to your right!  Tighten up!  Oh, look at all this room we found!  Get in line!  We shuffled around and finally got in tight enough to each other to satisfy the MTIs.  The girl next to me was shivering something terrible.
In front of the long line of trainees I was standing in were nine people, evenly spaced out, facing us.  I recognized them as Officer Training School (OTS) training staff—not MTIs, but the people who had been shuttling us through all of the inprocessing the past two days.  Behind them were three other OTS staff members, again evenly spaced out.  And behind them, in the dim half-light, I made out Capt Swavely.  He had introduced himself as second-in-command of the COT program in one of our first lectures.  That meant that the man behind him and up on a raised section of the amphitheater, next to the podium, must have been Lt Col Ackerman, the head officer in charge of our COT class.
We were all at the position of attention.  Heels together making a 45-degree angle, shoulders back, chest out, hands cupped and pinned to the sides of our thighs, chins up, looking straight ahead.  The only sounds I heard were the chattering of teeth and the slight rustling of jackets as the chill shook people all around me.
From off to the right I heard someone shout Sir, Alpha Flight is present and accounted for!  The next sounds came at the speed of a whip crack.  Sir, Bravo Flight is present and accounted for!  Sir, Charlie Flight is present and accounted for!  Sir, Delta Flight is present and accounted for!  Through my peripheral vision I could see that the people speaking were in the first row of nine OTS training staff facing us.  From my right to my left, they were executing a crisp about-face, saluting, and reporting.  Once all flights had checked in (Alpha through India), the reporting continued with the next row of three people.  Sir, Falcon Squadron is present and accounted for!  Sir, Guardian Squadron is present and accounted for!  Sir, Griffin Squadron is present and accounted for!  Then Capt Swavely whipped around and reported Sir, COT Class 11-02 is present and accounted for!
After watching myself and my fellow trainees struggle to maintain any semblance of a military bearing the last couple of days, this was impressive.  All the movements were crisp.  Their voices were clear and loud.  They stood as still as statues after reporting.  Then Lt Col Ackerman turned around to face the flag, and the national anthem started.  Everyone saluted.  Us trainees were packed in so tight that we had to angle our arms forward to be able to raise them to our temples.  And we’d had no actual instruction on how to salute, so I know that a lot of people—especially those with no prior service, like me—felt that we were doing it all wrong.
When the national anthem stopped, Lt Col Ackerman and all of the OTS staff turned around to face us again.  Lt Col Ackerman spoke.  I don’t recall exactly what he said, but he gave a pretty long welcome speech.  Long enough for me to wonder if some of my classmates were going to drop dead from the cold.  The abridged version goes something like this:  Welcome, COT Class 11-02!  We salute you and commend you for your patriotism and we look forward to the next few weeks of your training.  This is your blue line ceremony.  In front of you, on the ground, is a blue line.  On those words, as we all glanced down at our feet, the clear rubber tubing directly in front of our feet turned into a bright blue rope of light.  That line symbolizes the commitment you are making by entering the United States Air Force.  If you are ready and willing to take that commitment, step over the blue line.  We all stepped over (of course, not in unison).  The first row of OTS staff reported.  Sir, Alpha Flight has stepped over the blue line!  Sir, Bravo Flight has stepped over the blue line! And so on, until all flights had checked in.  We had all stepped over.  Lt Col Ackerman continued, speaking to us of commitment and integrity and self-sacrifice.  He closed by having us recite, with him, the Airman’s Creed:
I am an American Airman.
I am a warrior.
I have answered my nation’s call.
I am an American Airman,
My mission is to fly, fight, and win.
I am faithful to a proud heritage,
A tradition of honor,
And a legacy of valor.

I am an American Airman.
Guardian of freedom and justice,
My nation’s sword and shield,
Its sentry and avenger.
I defend my country with my life.

I am an American Airman.
Wingman, leader, warrior,
I will never leave an Airman behind.
I will never falter,

And I will not fail.

And then it ended.  We were rounded up and marched to the chow hall, where we were yelled at more for failing to greet OTS training staff correctly and not sitting at attention while eating.  I didn’t really pay attention that much to all of it, though.  I was thinking about that ceremony.  It was pretty darn cool.  I felt happy and proud, despite being frozen to the bone.  Pretty darn cool.

This is a picture I found online from another blue line ceremony.  Ours was better than this because we were all in uniform and the line was straight.  But this gives you an idea of it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Day 2: Welcome to the Military

Today was a whole lot more of administrative red tape with a heavy dose of in-your-face instruction on the courtesies we are required to extend to the training staff and any other higher-ranking officers.  We have to salute (if outside), give the greeting of the day (“good morning” from 0000 to 1159, “good afternoon” from 1200 to 1659, and “good evening” from 1700 to 2359), and start every sentence with “sir” or “ma’am” unless we are either (a) answering a yes-or-no question, or (b) closing a conversation with them by asking “will that be all, sir/ma’am?”  I’ve said “sir” and “ma’am” more times in two days than in my entire life before arriving at Maxwell.
The most interesting thing to report about today was that the entire base was conducting a security exercise that tested the base’s ability to respond to a threat like the U.S. Army Major who killed 12 people and wounded 30 others in a November 2009 shooting spree at Fort Hood.  The exercise had nothing to do with our training, but we happened to be in the middle of a urine sample collection (for drug testing) when the entire base went on lockdown mode.  All 130+ COT trainees were in a small conference room, taking turns going to the restroom with enlisted personnel who would watch us “give” the sample.  About twenty-five trainees (me included), had been unable to do the deed the first time around (must have been stage fright), so we had spent about 30-45 minutes “hydrating”—aka, consuming the entire contents of our camelbaks (which we are required to wear everywhere until instructed otherwise), then refilling them with more water and drinking that as well.
I finally got the job done.  But there were still about twenty people in line to give samples when a security officer for the base came in and put the room on lockdown, meaning nobody could leave the room—including the go to the restroom.  I felt horrible for them.  After about twenty minutes one of them screwed up the courage to ask to be let out of the room.  The security officer told her she couldn’t.  He then got behind the podium and said I understand that some of you need to use the restroom.  I’m sorry, but you can’t.  We’re on lockdown and nobody leaves this room until the exercise is over.  You need to hold it.  Welcome to the military.  Oh, it was excruciating watching those poor people hold it for almost an hour!  Thankfully, everyone made it through with their dignity intact.
Welcome to the military.  No bathroom breaks for you.

I also got my uniforms today.  Tomorrow is our first day in the Airman Battle Uniform (ABU).  I’ll try to get a photo to post soon.  Still no PT (physical training) on the schedule, which is disappointing.  I'm starting to think I may end up gaining weight here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Joaquin photos

Susan is keeping me updated with photos of Joaquin while I'm gone, and I just had to share some of these.  It really makes my day to see these, and it makes the distance much more tolerable (though it does make me miss them to see these).  Enjoy!

Sitting in his new favorite mini-lounger, holding the remote and asking for POOH!

Riding the toy horse he got for Christmas from Santa

On the trolley with Mom

Day 1: Read your OTSMAN

Whoever it was that told me that I wouldn’t have a ton of time at COT to do other things, they were right.  Our days are long and chock full of meetings, drills and what the military calls “in-processing” – getting all of our paperwork in order, clearing all of us medically, and getting us outfitted with uniforms and whatnot.  The bulk of my time the past two days has been spent waiting in single-lines, be it to get my blood drawn, give a urine sample, or buy uniforms.  And the whole time I’ve stood in line, I’ve been reading my Officer Training School (OTS) Manual, known as the “OTSMAN.”
But before I get into the OTSMAN, I want to tell you what my introduction was like.  Since I arrived early to Maxwell I was ready to check in right at noon.  There were a few others early arrivers, and we all kind of ran into each other at the lobby for the Air Force Inn where I and some of them had stayed.  (The other early arrivers came in by car, skirting around the iced-over roads throughout the South.)  The Air Force Inn was ideal because (a) it is right across from the OTS complex where COT takes place (in addition to other officer training schools); (b) it has free wireless internet; and (c) it is indoors and heated.  (Remember how I said it was cold?  Yeah, it’s still cold.)  There was a nervous energy in the room, as most of us had no prior military service and didn’t really know what to expect.  I met one woman who proceeded to tell me how sick she was and that she had stocked up on five-weeks’ worth of Sudafed, Nyquil and Dayquil.  I promptly excused myself and doused my paws in hand sanitizer for fear that her handshake carried the plague.  Just what I needed.
So a few of them set off before me and I trailed them, rolling my luggage.  As I approached the front of Morehouse Hall (the dorm where all COT trainees stay), I ran into two female Military Training Instructors (“MTIs,” a.k.a. Drill Sergeants).  The one closest to me stopped me about thirty feet away and told me to go around the building, drop off my luggage, and come back prepared for in-processing.  Only she barked it at warp speed.  This is what I heard:
I politely said yes, thanked her, and did exactly what she told me to do.  Welcome to the military.  The rest of the afternoon went pretty much like that.  I checked in and got my assigned room and flight, got issued a parka and camelbak water hydration system, did some computer input, and headed out to the Army Air Force Exchange Store (AAFES) to buy uniforms.  But the most important part of all of that was that I got my copy of the OTSMAN.  It’s a small book (115 pages), about 6 inches by 7 inches.  When I was handed it, the training officer told me “This is your bible.  Everything you need to know about the next five weeks is in there.  You need to read it and study it at every available moment, and you need to keep it on your person at all times.  Do you understand?”  I of course said that I did.  And I kept that thing in front of my nose every second as I stood in line all day.  Others didn’t fare as well.  I overheard this conversation (it happened behind me and I was told to stare straight ahead so I certainly didn’t plan on craning my neck to watch):
Instructor:         Ma’am, are you here to waste time?
Trainee:            Sir?
Trainee:            No.
Instructor:         THAT’S “NO, SIR.”
Trainee:            No, sir.
Trainee:            Yes, sir.
Instructor:         THEN START ACTING LIKE IT.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I heard a lot of dressing-down having to do with not reading the OTSMAN.  So if I don’t post very frequently, know that it’s because I’ve got my nose buried in the OTSMAN.  Here’s a picture of it, along with the welcome folder from my flight commander.
Study your OTSMAN!!
And I forgot to mention one thing.  I was assigned to ECHO flight!  (You can see that in the paperwork underneath the OTSMAN in the picture above.)  A flight is a small grouping of 12 to 15 trainees.  Three flights make up a squadron, and there are three squadrons in the entire class (nine flights total).  The flights and squadrons compete against one another over the course of COT, both in academics and athletics.  And the flights are assigned letter designations, in this case A (Alpha) through I (India).  I happened to land in Echo flight, which is a great sign because my grandmother’s name is Ecco Ochoa!  At least I’m taking it as a good sign.  Might as well, right?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Breakfast of champions

After a great night's sleep (sure to be my last in a while), I woke up this morning with a rumbling in my stomach.  It seems that protein-bar dinner last night, while tasty, didn't have much staying power.  I had to get something to eat.  That, and I wanted to get a few things that I'd forgotten, like washcloths, gloves, and razors (I bought the wrong kind of replacement cartridges).  I check in at noon today, so I got dressed, repacked my bags, and set out for the BX, which according to the map I had was practically on the other side of the base.

It is freezing outside.  Not the kind of freezing you feel when you're up in Yosemite in winter and the cold air blasts you in the face as soon as you step outside.  This is more of a chill that creeps inside you the longer you stay outside, squirming its way into your toes, ears and hands before making its way deeper. 

As I set out for the BX I couldn't help but think about what was in store for me today.  The instructions I had said to report to Morehouse Hall between 1200-1600 for in-processing.  But I'd heard stories from my Edwards pals about arriving to a locked door, then wandering around the building to get surprised by a drill instructor barking orders at you to drop your bags and fall in line.  I guess if that happens at least I'll have been expecting it.  By the time I got to the BX, I wondered if I had frostbite anywhere.  And I wondered where all the people are.  I'd seen a couple of cars but the base seemed deserted.

As I turned the corner into the parking lot for the BX and commissary (they are next to each other at all bases as far as I can tell), I got a discouraging sign: not a single car in the parking lot.

Sure enough, both the BX and the commissary were closed.  And even the food court outside of the BX was shut down for construction.

Chuckling to myself at my luck, I turned around for the chilly walk back toward my room at the Air Force Inn.  The dining hall was near the Inn, so I figured I could get a meal there, at least.  On the way back I passed by the base thrift store.  I thought that I could maybe get some gloves there, and possibly some long underwear or something I could use to fend off this cold.  But as I walked up to the storefront, I knew I was out of luck again.

I started to think that maybe I was the only nitwit walking around the base trying to get a meal and some sundries today.  Maybe there is something going on that I don't know about, like a holiday.  Or maybe there are instructions to shut everything down the Monday that COT starts so that people like me don't show up early and try to pick up some things that they forgot to bring.  Well, I can live without washcloths and gloves.  And I can make my razor last a while longer.  My main concern was food.

My luck continued at the dining hall.  Because I'd waited until late morning to be sure that the BX was open (again, thinking with my civilian mind that it wouldn't be open before 8:30) before setting out, by the time I returned it was after 9:00.  And the dining hall was closed until lunch at 1100.

Rejected again, I thought about heading out to the Burger King that I knew was at the other end of the base.  But that was another long walk and I was pretty much frozen.  I remembered that there was a little vending machine at the front desk for the Air Force Inn, so I resigned myself to getting some sustenance there.  On my way back, I tried to cut through the gym, and I got at least a partial explanation for why the base seemed so deserted.

So things were shut down because of the weather.  It made me feel a little better to have some justification for my sense of how cold it is here - it's not just my delicate California constitution.  And I remembered hearing last night that a lot of classes that others were attending this morning had been cancelled.  So it wasn't just me experiencing this.

On my way to the front desk of the Air Force Inn, I finally found something that was not closed.

After adding in a Twix and a bottle of water from the front desk, I had a breakfast of champions going on!

I'm back in my room now enjoying this feast.  I may head back to the dining hall at 1100, but most likely I'll just check out and wait out the hour until reporting for COT.  After that I likely won't be able to post very often but I'll try to report back to you all with some frequency.  Talk to you soon!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Welcome to Montgomery!

Montgomery is cold.  I underestimated just how cold it is.  But it may be unseasonably so right now.  According to the news, there is a severe snow/ice warning for much of the South, including Montgomery, from tonight through tomorrow.  Apparently flights in and out of Montgomery were being cancelled, so I’m glad that I got in early.  And I hope the rest of my COT classmates arrive safely.
Tonight I’m staying on base at a really nice Air Force Inn, with cable TV and my own bathroom.  That’s all going to change come tomorrow when I move into the COT trainee dorms, so I’m really enjoying it tonight.  I didn’t have a reservation, but thankfully Maxwell has a lot of rooms because it’s where the USAF Air University is; virtually all of academic Air Force instruction takes place here, and every airman or officer in the Force comes through Maxwell at some point.  I rode to the base in a cab with four other servicemen and women who are attending other training programs over the next days or weeks.
Unfortunately, the dining hall is closed and I don’t know my way around the base—also, did I mention it’s freezing outside?—so my only option for food tonight is a protein bar that I’d forgotten was in my work bag.  Nothing says welcome to Montgomery like a Zero Impact Pumpkin Supreme bar!
After wolfing down that bar and catching the end of the Packers-Eagles game, I’m settling in for a night of studying.  I want to make sure I have a handle on the basics of military customs and courtesies before I report at noon tomorrow.  Of course, I’m sure I’ll screw up.  And I’m sure I’ll get yelled at for it.  But that’s just the way it goes.