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.






Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On hiatus


Thanks to all of you who have been following my blog.  Apart from the whole being-away-from-my-family part of it, I truly enjoyed the challenge of Commissioned Officer Training and I'm looking forward to going back to Maxwell AFB for JASOC in July.  Until then, my blog is on hiatus (though I may post now and then if there are any developments in my military career - or if I have any particularly cute pictures of Joaquin to share).  Thanks for all the love and support!

Me and Joaquin at my grandma's 90th birthday party last summer.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Epilogue

A series of strange but beautiful events marked the end of my time at COT, starting right after our last meeting in the flight room.

I asked if there was a way that I could buy some additional OTS challenge coins before leaving.  According to legend, challenge coins (or round metal objects ("RMOs"), as they must be called at the O-Club lest you end up buying a round of drinks) date back to WWII and the Army Air Corps (predecessor to the Air Force).  One wealthy pilot had special gold-plated coins minted for everyone in his unit.  One of the recipients valued his so much that he kept the coin in a leather pouch around his neck. He later was shot down and crash-landed behind enemy lines.  Captured by the Germans, he was searched and stripped of all belongings save the coin, which they did not find.  While being transported to a POW camp, the downed pilot was able to escape during an Allied bombing strike.  He evaded capture and made his way to the French, only to be taken for a German saboteur posing as a civilian.  Threatened with death, he produced his coin.  One of the French soldiers recognized the unit marking and stalled the execution long enough to confirm the pilot's identity.  From then on, it has become a military tradition to carry a challenge coin at all times.  And I wanted to have some extra ones, just in case.

The Airman's coin - given to all Airmen upon the completion of basic or officer training

The OTS coin, side 1

The OTS coin, side 2

So Snake Eyes took me into the snake pit.  If I wanted more coins, I had to buy them from Captain G, one of the other flight commanders.  To the flight commanders their network of cubes was cube city.  To us, it had always been the snake pit because you were bound to get bitten by a snake if you decided to wander through the cubicle maze.  Best to take a direct line to the cube you seek, report in with one knock, a reporting statement, and a salute, and leave by the most direct route possible when dismissed.  If you wandered around, some flight commander would catch you and you'd better have a good explanation for that confused look on your face.  But here I was, on a Sunday stroll with Susan in tow, cakewalking into the heart of darkness.

We went to Captain G's cube.  He greeted me with some kind words, said he was impressed with my performance, and proceeded to give us recommendations for restaurants to try in the area since we were sticking around until the following day.  Did we want Thai?  There's a great place near the Embassy Suites called Lek's Thai.  More in the mood for steak?  For that we'd need to head out to Exit 9 and follow the signs toward the mall.  Only after about ten minutes of friendly banter did he set me up with the coins I needed and we left.

I knew Captain G was a nice guy, but this was out of control.  And it didn't stop there.  It was a lovefest in the snake pit.  I swapped pleasantries with three or four other flight commanders and got into an in-depth conversation with one about his plans for medical school, law school, or both.  This after spending five weeks in abject fear of forgetting to salute these men or say good morning, good afternoon or good evening (or, god forbid, say good morning when it was already afternoon or evening), and just avoiding all eye contact whatsoever with them.  It was like I had stepped out of my trainee husk and back into my normal skin, and we were just shooting the breeze, a bunch of Air Force officers bumping into each other in the hallway.  It was strange.  And beautiful.

The next strange thing happened about an hour later, when I was back in my dorm room for the last time.  I had gathered up the last of my belongings and shed the service uniform I'd been wearing all day.  While packing I had absentmindedly pulled out some civilian clothes to don for the final ride off of Maxwell AFB.  It wasn't until I was fully clothed in my civilian threads that I realized I had picked out the exact same outfit I wore when I arrived at the dorm the first day of COT.  Blue Manny Pacquiao t-shirt, diesel khakis, grey Patagonia pullover.  And grey New Balance sneakers, which I had yet to don.  As I stepped into those and began to tie them, I thought about being told that first day to tuck in my shoelaces.  It seemed a strange request at the time but I had since been told that it is a safety issue:  the Air Force doesn't want people tripping over their shoelaces, so you tuck them in.  I had done just that with every pair of shoes I wore for the last five weeks.  But I was a civilian now.  At least I felt like one.  Looked like one.  So I decided to leave my shoelaces untucked, just as I had for the first 32 years and five months of my life before arriving here.  I felt free as I stood up to gather my bags together.  And about three steps into my newfound freedom, I pinned a shoelace under my left foot and my entire right shoelace came undone.  A sign?  Perhaps.  At the very least, an eerie coincidence.  I chuckled to myself, retied my shoelaces (both feet), and tucked them in.

The third thing that happened was a surprise final visit from Kevin, the aforementioned unofficial mascot of OTS.  As I crossed the street from OTS to walk over to Susan's hotel (she was staying in on-base billeting), I saw a tiny shadow out of the corner of my eye.  Kevin was crossing the street, too, about twenty feet away from me.  I smiled.  Good old Kevin.  I got all the way across the street and turned the corner around a fenced-in dumpster area, and there he was.  Sitting at the corner of the fence.  Watching me with disinterest, as always.  I decided that I needed to grab one last picture of him to prove that he came to see me off.  Nobody would believe me otherwise.  So I stopped and balanced my bags, then stealthily pulled out my blackberry and switched it to picture mode.  Kevin didn't move.  Not then.  Not until I got within ten feet and slowly started to raise the phone did he turn tail and nonchalantly trot off around the fence toward the entrance to the dumpster area.  I followed him around, a little desperate and cursing my luck.  As I circled the fence, I spotted Kevin appearing, disappearing, and reappearing through slats in the fence that offered me only acutely angled views.  He was next to the dumpster.  Then behind.  He was looking at the ground.  Then up at me.  And then I lost him.  I moved back a few steps to see if he was still visible from the last angle I'd had.  Nope.

My immediate thought was to go into the dumpster area and flush him out of hiding.  But I thought better of it.  If Kevin doesn't want to be seen, who am I to force him out of cover?  It was enough that he came to see me off.  He didn't need to pose for a goodbye snapshot.  And maybe I would barge into the dumpster area only to find that he had already left through some secret exit known only to him and other scavengers and nighttime marauders, or that he was never there at all.  No, better to leave things as they were.  See you in a few months, little buddy.  I put away my phone, grabbed my bags, and walked off into the pale afternoon sunshine.

Week 5 (Days 27-33): Graduation!

The last week of COT is called the character phase of training.  This basically means that all of the graded measures are completed and the trainees are evaluated solely on the basis of whether they have the character to be Air Force officers.  In other words, now that we have privileges (for example, to wear civilian clothes and go out to dinner and have a few beers), are we going to go crazy and screw everything up, or are we going to act like reasonable and responsible adults?

We did alright.  I'll admit it was weird to get off base for the first time and see my flightmates in civilian clothes on Saturday night.  I still felt like checking my clothes for loose strings and sitting at attention while eating.  But that wore off after a while, and we had a great night.  And on Sunday we got to go out again and watch the Superbowl, which was a nice bonus we weren't expecting.  (Our curfew would have had us back in the dorms an hour before the game ended, but the OTS staff leadership gave us an extra hour.)

The rest of the week was a build-up to graduation.  We had three or four blocks of intense parade practice, mixed in with some outprocessing briefings as well as lectures on standards and accountability.  It was hard for all of us to stay focused given that we were all looking forward to our family members' arriving and to graduating on Friday, but we managed.

Susan and Joaquin's arrival on Wednesday night was like clouds parting after a hurricane.  It was really wonderful to see them, even though I only had about thirty minutes to spend with them before I had to head back to my dorm.  It felt easy, and normal.  Well, normal despite the surroundings.  Joaquin knew me right away, which did a lot to alleviate my fears of having to earn his love anew.

I spent Thursday morning running around campus before participating in a retreat ceremony.  Retreat usually marks the end of the business day and consists of the playing of Retreat while lowering the flag and folding it up for safe storage overnight.






After the retreat ceremony we were released to have lunch with our families.  My mom, dad, and Papa Lopez had all arrived as well, so the six of us headed out to Dreamland barbecue, a fantastic place in downtown Montgomery very near the base.  Joaquin had a ball dancing with some of the waitresses to the soul music--of course!--that provided a soundtrack for our midday meal.  He then ravenously and hilariously dug into some world-class banana pudding with two spoons.






Thursday night was the Dining-Out, a formal military dinner used to celebrate important events.  I put on my monkey suit--aka, mess dress--and Susan joined me and the rest of Kelly Class at the Officers' Club.  It was a highly entertaining evening, complete with skits poking fun at our experience, a grog bowl, and numerous toasts.  To my surprise, Echo Flight won the table-decorating contest, as judged by the esteemed guests at the head table (assorted Brigadier Generals, Colonels, and Lieutenant Colonels).  Our tables were decorated with green army men (in honor of our flight commander and G.I. Joe lookalike) and plastic bugs (for the Echo Flight Exterminators).  But that's only part of the table-decorating competition.  The other part is the chants and jodies we burst into each time the head table guests came around.  Here are a couple of the chants and jodies we said:

Flight Chant
EXTERMINATORS!
We don't hesitate
We exterminate
Bugs, rats, spiders, mice
Falcons, Griffins, other flights
chirp chirp chirp chirp SQUASH!
EXTERMINATORS!
Yooooo Joe!


Jody
Echo Flight Exterminators
Stompin' all you bugs and haters
If you try to step to us
We'll just make you eat our dust
E-C-H-O, act like you know!
E-C-H-O, that's how we roll!

And we won without doing our signature jody, which I put up against any other jody voiced by Kelly Class over the last five weeks:  the Nine flights jody.  This one came to me in a half-sleep state and I woke up at midnight to scratch it out.  Here's how it goes.


Nine flights fought for fame and glory
Eight flights fell, here’s the story
Alpha took a shot at us
We ran them over with a bus
Bravo came a sniffin’ round
We put ‘em six feet under ground
Charlie tried to pass us by
We stopped ‘em, dropped ‘em, made ‘em cry
Delta wanted a little taste
We rearranged their pretty face
Foxtrot came and threw a punch
We blocked ‘em, clocked ‘em, ate their lunch
Golf had violence on their mind
But simply didn’t have the spine
Hotel tried to take us down
But found out we’re the toughest ‘round
India was last to fall
They found out winning takes some guts
Nine flights fought for fame and glory
Echo won – end of story!

Three flight commanders sent to the grog (Snake Eyes is on the right)

Echo Flight men

Echo Flight ladies

They were sent to the grog bowl for wearing "party shirts"


The day after the dining-out was graduation day.  We started off with an awards ceremony.  I was pleasantly surprised to be named a Distinguished Graduate along with two others in my flight.  That means that we were all in the top 10% of the class based on our graded measures.

Getting my award from Col Stout
After the awards ceremony, it was time for the parade.  We had been practicing all week for this, and our egos bore the scars of many a tongue-lashing from the training instructors tasked with whipping us into shape for parade.  To our great relief, it went off almost without a hitch (there was one time where a group was off step, but I'm sure it wasn't noticeable to the audience).




 




My salute isn't straight enough - dang!
At the end of parade, we took the oath of commission as some F-16s did a flyover.  It was pretty awesome.  Then it was picture time on the parade field before heading back to our flight room one last time to get certificates and challenge coins from Snake Eyes.  And before it could all really sink in, it was over.  I was done with COT and thinking about getting back to California.  The past five weeks felt like a year, and in a blink it was history.  Amazing.




My roommate, Father John

Another happy member of Echo Flight

Snake Eyes was a wonderful instructor

Week 4 (Days 24-26): Final Countdown

Week four closed with a flurry of activity and graded measures.  After the excitement of Blue Thunder (despite the obscenely long wait for the Ropes Course), we were hit with back-to-back-to-back tests.  First up was the second consolidated written test (CWT).  Like the first CWT, this test covered specific lessons from broad subjects like the Profession of Arms, Leadership Studies, and Warfare Studies.  I turned things around this time and didn’t miss any questions.  That was a nice surprise.
We also had a not-so-nice surprise.  Normally, the flight commanders meet with the flights after the test to immediately get test results and go over any questions.  But Snake Eyes was nowhere to be found.  Instead, another OTS staff member came to our flight room and informed us that he was at the hospital with some kind of illness.  We all had the same thought as soon as we heard that—spending six hours thirty feet in the air at the top of the Ropes Course, exposed to the high wind and bitter cold we had experienced, would have done anyone in.  We just hoped that he would be okay.  As it turns out, he had the flu and strep throat—and we were going to be without our fearless leader for the rest of the week.
The afternoon after taking the CWT #2 and reviewing it with the temporary Snake Eyes replacement, we did our informative briefings.  With Snake Eyes out, two different OTS staff members judged our briefings.  As noted in my last post, my 5- to 9-minute briefing was about the conflict in Mindanao (the southern Philippine islands) between Islamic terror groups and the Catholic majority government.  I was feeling just okay about it—not great—because we simply didn’t have that much time to prepare and I had spent most of my spare time studying for the CWT #2.  But I did pretty well and came away with a good score. 
The last two days of the week were devoted to the Leadership Reaction Course.  This was described to us as our final exam—a last test of our ability to incorporate and apply the leadership principles we’ve been studying for the past month.  Each member of Echo Flight acted as team leader for one obstacle over two days, and when not acting as team leader you were assigned to be a follower/participant, a safety, or a timekeeper.
Thursday was bitter cold.  We shivered and chattered our way through eight obstacles.  When we finally finished for the day, I was a human popsicle.  My brain was iced over; my hands and feet nonexistent.  Never in my life was I so glad to have a last name that started with a letter towards the back half of the alphabet.  The last obstacle of the day was led by Lt McGuire—which means that instead of having to break myself out of a solid block of carbonite like my man Han Solo, I got to march home, defrost, consider everything I saw from the other team leaders, and sketch out a plan of attack for my obstacle, which would be tackled first thing on Friday morning.
It was a blessing to have the extra time.  Not only was Friday warmer by about ten degrees, but Snake Eyes was back to judge my obstacle and get us pumped up.  I had a fresh team and a morale boost, so I felt pretty good about my chances for success, despite a steady pounding rain that beat down on the corrugated tin roof of the course, making it difficult to communicate.
Alas, it was not to be.  We did a pretty good job on my obstacle, but we didn’t execute as well as we needed to get my entire team to escape over a five-foot wall using a four-by-four wooden beam, a four-foot steel pipe, and ten feet of rope.  But we took a great shot at it.  And the completing the obstacle isn’t really the point of the LRC; we are graded on our leadership ability—things like delegation of duties, holding people accountable, encouraging information sharing and brainstorming, and motivation—not on whether we get a mission complete.  My team worked well, and I was happy with my score.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a mission complete at all over the two days.  We were close on many of them; if only we had 21 minutes instead of 20 I think we’d have finished three or four, including the one that I led.  But we all really enjoyed the challenge of the LRC and we learned a lot from it.  We also laughed a lot, given the Leeroy Jenkins moments that kept happening when team members decide on their own to just go for it, screw the consequences.  (If you don't know about the cultural phenomenon that is Leeroy Jenkins, watch the video below.)


We were all exhausted by the time we finished up with LRC on Friday.  It was the kind of satisfying exhaustion you feel after final exams.  All of our graded measures are done.  Only one week remains, and we’re spending most of that week at parade practice.  We breathed a collective sigh of relief. 
Echo Flight had acquitted itself well over the past month.  We were overall flight of the week (FOW) for the Guardians squadron each of the three graded weeks; we took academic flight the first two weeks and athletic flight the last week.  Unfortunately, we never won honor flight out of the entire class; that kept going to Golf Flight, which was stacked with scholar/athletes.  We all masked our jealousy of Golf with outward loathing, but it was a thin disguise.  I was close with a lot of the members of Golf, and they were, despite my best efforts, hard to hate.  Good for them.

Week 4 (Days 22-23): Blue Thunder!

On Monday and Tuesday this week we got out of the classroom for the Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) field exercise.  I was the officer in charge of this two-day extravaganza.  I forget now how I ended up in that position, but I remember being asked whether I wanted to be the class social officer or the officer in charge of the AEF field exercise, and the phrase “AEF field exercise” sounded pretty cool so I went with that.
As it turns out, it would have helped to have some kind of medical background.  The AEF field exercise combines a number of separate events centered around a Medical Readiness Indoctrination Course (MRIC).  The MRIC is a three-hour simulation of an actual combat field hospital.  It is a required part of COT instruction—I guess because the Air Force wants its new nurses and doctors to have some exposure to real-world conditions before shipping off to Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the officer in charge of the entire exercise, I had to handle the logistics for getting every member of the class out to the exercise location (still on base, but away from the Officer Training School) with all of the required equipment and assigning people to tents.  I also set a shower schedule.  But my most important job was to figure out what role each member of Kelly Class would play in the MRIC.
This is where my prior medical training, had I any, would come in handy.  Lacking that baseline knowledge, I leaned on other people to come up with a roster that seemed to work.  We had doctors and nurses assigned to various departments, including triage, OR, ER, ICU, dental, mental health, and med/surge.  I assigned lab techs to radiology.  My pharmacists ran the pharmacy.  And all of my other medical service corps personnel were doing patient tracking or overall operations control.  Non-medical personnel—i.e., the jags and chaplains—staffed all the other positions needed for the simulation, such as patients, manpower (patient transport), and security.
The roster complete, we had an MRE breakfast (I had maple sausage, which wasn’t half bad) and headed out in school buses.  The drive to the other side of the base took all of ten minutes.  Once there, we assembled underneath a huge overhang.  Echo flight ended up sitting in some bleachers at the back of the overhang and to one side, where were fully exposed to the chill wind and ice-cold drizzle it brought.  So we were happy to get up and participate in the bag drop.  Each of us had been given a list of what to bring for the two days, including a spare ABU, towel, shower shoes, two MREs, running shoes, boots, and a pad of paper and writing instrument.  That done, we all got cots and moved into our tents.  Each flight had two tents—one for each gender.
Enjoying some MREs
Echo Flight arrives at Blue Thunder
 The rest of the morning we spent learning how to build the tent shelters used in the field and how to use a litter—i.e., a stretcher—to carry wounded personnel.  After being instructed on how to use the litter, we took our “wounded” patient through a litter-carry obstacle course, testing our skills.
Practicing our litter carry skills
Mmmm, more MREs!
Our litter carry team, self-dubbed "Echo One"
Then, in the afternoon, it was game time.  Being nonmedical, I didn’t really have a job during the MRIC.  But since I helped organize the thing, I was able to stay inside the mock field hospital and observe, rather than being sent to act as a patient or run around playing security forces.
It was really and truly amazing.  The patients came fast and furious—food poisoning, IED victims, burns, broken bones—while the staff threw other environmental stressors into the mix, such as mortar attacks that required everyone to take cover until the threat ended.  I came away well and thoroughly impressed with what goes on in places like Balad Air Force Base in Iraq.
Tired from a full day of events outside of the classroom, we had a hot dinner and then retired to our tents.  Our second—and last—written test was on Wednesday and we also had to present a 5- to 9-minute informative brief, so everyone spent Monday night studying or catching up on sleep.
I had been tasked with waking up the entire class at 0430 on Tuesday morning.  That, of course, means that I woke up at 0130 and again every thirty minutes thereafter, all the while dreaming in my semiconscious state that I had totally blown the wake-up call and that it was well after 0600.  But that was just a dream.  I did get up at 0420 before getting dressed and stumbling into the equipment hangar to play Reveille over the loudspeakers.  It was actually pretty cool—I felt all-powerful as I hit that button and heard the first few notes blare out over the campground.  Bump-bump-ba-da-dump Bump-bump-ba-da-dump . . .
We tackled the Ropes Course and the Confidence Course after breakfast.  Well, “tackled” is probably too strong a word.  Alpha through Echo flights were told to do the Ropes Course—a series of wire/rope obstacles of increasing height that ends in a zip-line back to the ground—first, while Foxtrot through India went to the Confidence Course.  Being the last flight sent to the Ropes Course, we had to wait until all the others finished before we could start.  And wait we did.  For about five hours.  Five hours of standing in the bitter cold.  Five hours of watching other people tackle the course.  Some went right through in impressive fashion.  Many others inched along, trying to conquer their acrophobia.  One guy had to be rescued at the half-way point when his fear got the best of him.  Eventually we realized how long it was going to take for us to get on the course, so we stopped waiting and started quizzing each other, preparing for that last written test.  But we could only do so much of that.  All in all, the wait was terrible.
We finally made it onto the Ropes Course at around 1100.  I flew through as quickly as possible, loving every second.  At the midway point I said hello to Snake Eyes, our flight commander—he spent the entire morning high up on one of the obstacles, advising each trainee and acting as a safety.  I felt sorry for him because of the high winds and bitter cold.  But he’s a trooper, and he pumped me up as I moved through.



Me and Eldridge on the course
McGuire was my wingman for the Ropes Course

Echo Flight all geared up

This poor guy had to be rescued off the Ropes course
From the Ropes Course we went to the Confidence Course, which is a huge wooden tower with a rock-climbing wall on one side; you rappel down the other.  At the top of the tower you walk out onto 30-foot telephone pole called the toothpick because of how narrow it seems when you’re walking on it.  After failing in my first attempt at the rock wall I made it to the top on my second, albeit by climbing the “easy” side of the wall.  I then went up to the toothpick.  I felt pretty confident all day, but I have to admit that it was a little scary up there, mainly due to the high wind that made everything seem to shake and that threatened to blow me right off and send me to my death.
We’re now done and back in the dorm, studying for tomorrow’s test.  I’m also working on my brief, which is about the conflict in Mindanao (the southern Philippine islands) between Islamic terror groups and the Catholic majority government.  And on Thursday and Friday we have the Leadership Reaction Course—a return to the obstacle course we did two weeks ago, with each flight member serving as a team leader.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Week 4 (Day 21): Getting Ready for Inspection

One thing that I never really thought of before getting to COT is uniform inspection.  The first class each day in our flight room is generally an inspection class.  That means that the first thing we do when the instructor walks in is call the room to attention so that the instructor—usually Snake Eyes—can look over our appearance.  He comes within inches of your face.  As I think I’ve said before, Snake Eyes has this awesome stare that bores a hole right through you, and he puts it to good use during inspection.  What is he looking for?  Everything.  Pants bloused correctly.  Pockets buttoned.  Hair within regulations.  Rank correctly displayed.  But above all else, the tiny strings that hang off of every stitch and buttonhole.
The night before my first inspection class one of my flightmates with prior Navy service came into my room and told me to be sure to take care of my Irish pennants—the historical name for the tiny strings hanging from every stitch on your uniform.  I asked him where the name came from.  He didn’t know.  It turns out—as I suspected—to be a derogatory term, reflecting the view of early British sailors that the Irish under their command did not keep a clean and tidy uniform.  So we won’t call them that.  They’re just strings.


Going to work on my uniform.
There are some tools of the trade for taking care of them.  Small, sharp scissors are a must.  Nail clippers work in a pinch.  And a lighter is usually required to get the super-tiny threads—only don’t hold the flame to the thread for too long or you’ll burn the uniform.  (I found that out through experience; luckily, the black mark is tiny and virtually unnoticeable.)  The little buggers truly are demonic; you can spend an hour clipping strings and still find more little strings to take care of.  But you do it, because if you don’t, Snake Eyes and his laser-beam stare certainly will find them.



Week 4 (Day 21): Meet Kevin, Unofficial OTS Mascot

What are you lookin' at?

After the initial shock to the system wore off, I began to notice my surroundings while being marched to and fro.  And the most peculiar thing I noticed about the OTS campus is this tiny chihuaha that is always around.  We march to breakfast and he’s near the DFAC (Dining Facility).  We march to the dorm and he’s near the basketball court we pass on the way there.  Always there, watching us with a funny look on his face.  He has no collar but he appears to be well fed and healthy.
We finally got some more information about him from one of the flight commanders.  He told us that the dog is named Kevin, that he’s been around the OTS campus for years, and that nobody has been able to catch him.  So they just put out food for him and let him wander around, the unofficial mascot of the Maxwell Air Force Base Officer Training School.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Week 3 (Day 20): Kelly Class

We got a new name today.  Instead of COT Class 11-02, we’re now known as Kelly Class.
One of the first tasks we were given by our flight commanders was to come up with a flight exemplar – someone who we thought exemplified who we were and who we wanted to be as officers in the Air Force.  We chose Maj. Dick Winters, the officer in charge of Easy Company, the WWII unit made famous by the Band of Brothers miniseries.
Maj. Richard Winters
We then had to choose a squadron exemplar by voting on the three class exemplars in our squadron, and eventually we had to choose a class exemplar by voting on the three exemplars chosen by the squadrons.  Our exemplar made it to the final three, along with Brigadier General Billy Mitchell and Staff Sergeant John Kelly.  Mitchell was the easy pick.  He is considered the father of the Air Force because, as an officer in the Army Air Corps, he predicted the rise of air power and the need for a permanent Air Force.  He also predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor, recognizing our vulnerability to a sneak attack by air.  But he was almost too easy.  Our Dick Winters choice was more outside the box.
As for Staff Sergeant John Kelly, I had no idea who that was.  He served from 1976 to 1994.  After he served on a joint task force to clean up the Marshall Bikini Islands, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, and he beat it.  He later was diagnosed with testicular cancer.  He survived.  His Hodgkin’s Disease then came back, and he beat it back into submission.  In 2007 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live.  He battled the disease for three and a half years before succumbing in 2010.  The VA now admits that SSgt Kelly’s exposure to radiation in the Bikini Islands lead to his four cancers.
I didn’t know what to make of this choice.  It was truly a sad story, and I’m sure that Kelly was a man to be honored and admired but I didn’t know how he fit in to the class exemplar mold.  I voted for Dick Winters.
At our first hall call, Lt Col Ackerman told us that we would be known from that point on as “Kelly Class.”  I was floored.  Kelly Class?  It has a nice ring, but Dick Winters was the man.  Lt Col Ackerman then launched into the story of SSgt Kelly, which I had read quickly over email but hadn’t really absorbed.  I knew the guy had contracted, and fought, four kinds of cancer and had a rough go of it, to say the least, before dying last year.  But as I listened to the story, some puzzle pieces in my brain started to fall into place.  SSgt Kelly.  Kelly.  The name sounded familiar.  And then Lt Col Ackerman turned on the proverbial light bulb for me:  And we are honored to have Sergeant Kelly’s son here with us as a member of Kelly Class.  First Lieutenant Jerred Kelly, please stand up.  A blonde guy a few years younger than me about twenty feet away stood up.  People craned their necks to look at him.  I knew Kelly.  A JAG like me, we’d spoken a few times.  He is a bright and personable guy, and I instantly liked him when we met.  Lieutenant Kelly, your father exemplified the perseverance, dedication, and resolve that the Air Force values so greatly.  So it is fitting that your classmates have chosen him as the class exemplar.  I was choking up a bit.  The guy recently lost his father, an Air Force vet of almost 20 years, and here we were naming our class after him.  I could see that Kelly was struggling to keep his military bearing through it all.  I probably would have been bawling.  We are honored to look to him as our guide, and we will do our best to live up to his example.  COT Class 11-02, from this point forward you are no longer COT Class 11-02.  You will be known as Kelly Class.
After we were dismissed, I went up to Kelly, grabbed his shoulder, and shook his hand.  I didn’t really know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.  I just looked him in the eye, and he looked back and nodded.  And I felt like he was my brother.

Joaquin's first haircut!

Here are the latest pictures of Joaquin!  Susan took him to get his first haircut so that he's nice and clean cut when they come out to Alabama for my graduation.  Check it out!





Week 3 (Day 20): Clear Blue Sky Forever

Today I had the honor of taking part in something that I hope I’ll never have to do again.  At the end of the hall call yesterday, Lt Col Ackerman told us that he was proud of us but that he unfortunately had to end the hall call on a somber note.  He had been informed that a young army specialist was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and that his body was coming home to Alabama through Maxwell AFB.  I was holding my breath as he spoke.  You could hear a pin drop.  He asked the entire class if any of us were willing to march out and line the road leading from the airfield to the base gate so that we could pay our final respects to Spc Lancaster.  Hands around me, including my own, shot into the air.  Lt Col Ackerman took about three seconds to survey the room, then reported to the back of the room, where Colonel Stout (the officer in charge of the entire 23rd Training Squadron) was apparently sitting, Colonel Stout, we have 133 members of Kelly Class prepared to pay their final respects.  We’ll be there tomorrow morning.
The next day, Saturday, was the most beautiful day since my arrival.  The weather was brisk but warmer than at any time in the past twenty days, and the brilliant blue sky, cloudless for the first time since my arrival in Alabama, stretched up and out and away forever.  I didn’t know if it was fitting or ironic.
We marched as a flight for about a mile to get to the road where we needed to be.  It was without question the best marching we’ve done since day 1.  Everyone understood the importance of what we were doing.  On the way there, we passed other groups of students—Basic Officer Training (BOT) trainees, Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) trainees—as well as hundreds of others in ABUs and civilian clothes who must have lived or worked on base.  Everyone took up a position along the main road heading off base, about a foot between each person’s shoulder and that of his or her neighbor.
And we waited.  We waited for what seemed like an eternity.  At first I waited at parade rest, but after twenty minutes or so I started cramping so I had to relax my arms.  Then my nose itched so I eased up for a second to swipe at it.  We were standing there for an eternity.  Eventually a Captain came by and told us to stand at ease and to make sure to keep our knees bent because someone already went down.  I glanced to my left and I saw a girl from Kelly class being helped up from the ground.  I bent my knees, relaxed my arms, looked straight forward, and waited some more, alternating between staring into the eyes of my fellow COT trainees across the street and glancing at the civilians and kids further down to my right.
It finally came.  I heard it before I saw it, due to the eclectic squad of bikers—veterans and nonveterans, scraggly beards and tattoos, clean cut, men and women both—acting as an escort.  Once they passed and the rumble of the bikes’ engines started fading to my left, I saw out of the corner of my right eye a rippling wave of salutes going up.  I stole a glance down the road, turning my head just slightly.  It was awesome.  By the time the hearse got to where I was (about halfway down the road), I was fully prepared.  Snap to attention.  Do a slow-motion (3 count) salute.  Wait until the last car passes you, then slowly return your salute and come back to the position of attention until the last car passes.  And just like that, it was gone.
We marched back to the dorm.  Nobody said a word.  And it was still the best marching we’ve done since getting here.
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‘We appreciate what he did for the country’
By Hamilton Richardson
Prattville (Ala.) Progress
The city of Millbrook, as well as many at Fort Campbell, Ky., have been in mourning since the death of Army Spc. Joshua Lancaster, who was killed in action Jan. 19 in Afghanistan.
Lancaster, who joined the Army in March 2008 and arrived at Fort Campbell in August 2010, was killed as a result of a rocket attack at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.
Lancaster was a Signal Support Systems Specialist assigned to the 723rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, 184th Ordnance Battalion, 52nd Ordnance Group.
During his military career, Lancaster had been honored with the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Army Service Ribbon.
The 22-year-old soldier was supposed to be home from overseas in early February and friends and family had been planning a welcome home party for him.
Al Kelley, mayor of Millbrook, said that he did not personally know Lancaster but that he knew that the city was mourning the loss.
“We appreciate what he did for the country,” Kelley said. “We mourn with the family.”
Lancaster is survived by his wife, Melanie Lancaster of Clarksville, Tenn.; his mother, Kimberly Irwin of Millbrook; and extended family in the area.

Week 3 (Days 13-19): Wearing Blues and Little G

This week we had our first Consolidated Written Test (CWT).  It covered a number of lessons from three disciplines:  Leadership Studies, Warfare and International Studies, and Profession of Arms.  For example, the test included questions from lessons about the Principles of War, the Department of Defense, Problem Solving, Decision Making, Conflict Management, Team Building, and Situational Leadership.  Each lesson involved one or two readings plus a one- or two-hour lecture.  The lectures take place in either our Flight Room (with just the flight and our individual flight commander) or in Boyd auditorium, a 400-seat monstrosity of plush red seats affectionately called the “Big Red Bed” or the “Coma Dome.”  I’d tell you that I have yet to fall asleep in class, but one of the Air Force core values is Integrity First.
Mugging in the Coma Dome before class.

Me and Father John in the Coma Dome.  The wall behind us says Integrity - Service - Excellence, which reflects the Air Force core values of Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence In All We Do.
In any event, the CWT went pretty well.  I ended up missing two questions out of 40.  And I really shouldn’t have missed those.  Overall, our entire class did really well; we were told by the OTS staff that our class average on the CWT#1 was the highest in many years.  And Echo flight sure did represent!  Our collective flight average was enough to win us Academic FOW for the Guardians Squadron for the second week in a row, as well as overall FOW for the Guardians Squadron.  Unfortunately, we did not win any overall class honors, as Golf flight took home every single one – academic, athletic, and overall.  It was a great showing by them.  But we were still happy with our performance.  A lot of the competition is settled by chance; if you happen to have a lot of brainiacs or athletes in your flight, you stand a great chance of dominating one aspect each week.  If you have a good balance of both and no stragglers, you stand a great chance of winning honor flight.  Golf has that, and they’re going to be hard to beat.
This week we also got to wear our blues for the first time.  Below are some pictures.  We had official pictures taken, so I hope to scan and post those soon.  But the picture-taking also afforded other flights an opportunity to steal away our little guardian (affectionately dubbed “Little G”) – the prize for winning academic FOW.  It apparently is a time-honored tradition for flights to “steal” the prizes that other flights have won, and our bringing Little G to the flight photo session gave other flights an opening to do so.  Of course, there are rules of engagement, which they ignored.  If Little G (or another prize, like the longsword that Foxtrot won) is in a commander’s cubicle, it cannot be stolen.  If it is in a cupboard or otherwise hidden, it cannot be stolen.  But if it is just left out in the open or handed to another flight, that flight can steal it.


Little G was taken even though we put him in a cabinet in our flight room.  So somebody isn’t playing by the rules, and we’ll have to figure it out.  It’s a fun kind of cat-and-mouse game to play, but to be honest I couldn’t care less.  Whoever steals it must return it within 24 hours.  And I’m not here to mess around stealing other flights’ stuff, especially when we have so much real work to do.  We strongly suspected Delta, since they were shut out of the awards last week. 
On Friday before Hall Call #2, Little G turned up in our Flight Commander’s office along with a note reminding Echo flight to work on our “Situational Awareness.”  A pretty good joke.  And since I’m hoping we hold on to Little G for the duration of COT, there should be plenty more opportunities to have him stolen.