When everybody around you is holding M-16 assault rifles and a nearby structure starts burning, don't yell "fire!"
Now I know this.
Some lessons in life you just have to learn the hard way. That statement probably best summarizes my three days at the Charleston Air Force Base two weeks ago. For 72 hours, I stepped into the world of U.S. airmen and women as I underwent expeditionary combat skills training, or what the Air Force refers to as ECST.
Everything in the military is abbreviated. Meals aren't meals, they're MREs. Bombs are IEDs. Instructors are CADREs. I'm pretty sure that if the military could figure out a way to abbreviate
abbreviations, they'd do that too.
In ECST, you are taught the basics of survival and combat — things like how to shoot a rifle, how to put on a gas mask, how to shoot a rifle while wearing a gas mask, how to explain to your superior officer you accidentally shot his Dodge Neon because your gas mask apparently was on upside down. Things like that.
The bottom line is: ECST is mentally and physically exhausting, but it's really important. In fact, it's a matter of life or death. That's because all of the men and women who go through this class are about to get stationed overseas. In my particular class, 52 people were going to Iraq, Afghanistan or Qatar. Some are leaving in a few months. Some already have left.
The reason they have to go through this is because the harsh reality is that any one of them could end up having to fight for their lives in a hostile land. ECST prepares them.
Lock and load
Being in ECST is a lot like the first day of school. Nobody knows each other. You have assigned seats. I'm unpopular.
The only difference between ECST and middle school is that your lunch isn't a ham sandwich but a veggie burger on bread that looks and tastes like plywood; and your courses aren't subjects like math and English but the rules of engagement and how to identify explosive devices.
As the clock reads 7:19 a.m. on a Monday morning, the man in charge, Master Sgt. Stephen Fraley starts things off by giving a basic overview of the class. This probably would have been helpful, except I was too busy trying to figure out who he looks like. He explains to the group that I am a journalist and that I will be going through the same rigorous training that everybody else (STEVE PERRY FROM JOURNEY, THAT'S IT!).
After giving us an idea of what to expect, Fraley turns the reins over to Staff Sgt. John Foster. Foster's job is to teach us how to fire, as well as take apart, our very own M-16. In true military fashion, he keeps morale high by saying things like, "You're the best class I've had today." (We're his only one.)
Once we're done reassembling our weapons — some of us, I won't name any names, had a tougher time with this than others — we are directed to the firing range where our marksmanship is tested. When I finally get all my gear on and arrive at Firing Bay No. 5, my main concern isn't whether or not I'll hit the required 19 of 50 targets but rather why my gun is missing its trigger.
See it through
That night as I lay on my bed, gunfire continued to echo in my head. I couldn't help but think about how personally demoralizing Day One was. Sure there were positives: I qualified on the M-16 (21 out of 50) and I was even able to convince Fraley to sing "Don't Stop Believin'," but for the most part I was terrible at everything else. But if there's one lesson my dad drilled into my from the time I was a little boy, it's: When the going gets tough, quit.
Just kidding. He told me to see things through. So with that in mind, I bucked up and set my alarm for 5:45 a.m.
Lost in translation
Day Two begins with Staff Sgt. Kandice Caputo telling us to get ready for a MOPP 4 scenario. Unlike Day One where I would have been completely lost, this time I look Caputo square in the eye and without the slightest hesitation say, "I have no clue what that means." Shockingly, she's prepared for this and quickly explains that I'm to put on my chemical protective overgarment, or CPO.
Even though it's only 9:14 a.m., it's already 84 degrees outside with about 600 percent humidity. Before I can even start to complain about how we have to wear a full chemical suit, gloves, gas mask and hood for almost an hour in the summer heat, Caputo reminds me that compared to the desert — where most everybody here will be going — this is a cake walk.
It's a stark reminder that this isn't a game. For many of these men and women, this will be the most thorough demonstration they'll get. And it could very well end up saving their lives.
After a much-needed lunch break, we're back in the classroom where Staff Sgt. Fernando Olivas and Staff Sgt. Jim Lynch teach us the proper way to low crawl and high crawl. On the way out the door, we trade in our real M-16s for fake ones. They are just like real M-16s except that they are made out of plastic, don't fire live ammunition and are fluorescent orange. As I follow the group out the door, I am told that what we're about to experience is the hardest part of the whole course.
At risk of speaking in hyperbole, the low crawling exercises we did in the woods on Day Two were the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
With pyrotechnics exploding all around us, we are sent in groups of two through a gauntlet of scenarios requiring us to run, crawl and squeeze over, under and around obstacles. For 45 minutes we drag one other, cover one other, but most importantly, encourage one other. Staff Sgt. Moses Ellis, who is going to Iraq, shouts encouragement to anyone around. Capt. Josh Watkins, who is headed for Qatar, spends half his time keeping an eye on me just in case I need help. (And I do.) And Staff Sgt. Lynch, well, he yells at us a lot. But you can tell it's supportive yelling.
Afterwards, as I sit in the dirt, covered in sweat, I can't help but think to myself: Thank God there's just one more day of this.
On Day Three there are no obstacle courses, no classroom exercises, and most importantly, no gas masks — it's all about putting everything you've learned together.
At exactly 11 a.m., a bullhorn sounds, signaling the beginning of simulated combat. The way this works is all 52 of us are led into a small base in the woods. It's up to us to protect it from any possible threats. We will do this using paint-tipped ammunition.
In order to fire these special rounds, our M-16s are retrofitted with parts designed specifically for what are known as "simunitions." These rounds travel about twice as fast as your average paint ball round. When they hit you, it doesn't take long to find out just how religious you are.
The entire group is broken down into six squadrons on two separate teams. I'm in "Two Charlie." After a few minutes of talking strategy, I realize that my squad mates are counting on me — using all the skills I've acquired over the past two and a half days — to completely get in the way. And I don't disappoint. After several hours of sitting inside the base, I get the call from Sgt. Fraley to go out on a reconnaissance mission. While patrolling the outskirts of the base, my team and I hear some noise coming from a nearby thicket of trees. Three seconds later, I take a round to the left shoulder and then the back of the head. Just like that, my ECST is over. Well, first I shout every single word of profanity I've ever learned in my life, then it's over.
But for these other men and women, long after the final bull horn sounds and they get their certificates of completion, things are only just beginning. In less than eight weeks, each and every one of them will be sent overseas into a foreign, and quite possibly, hostile country. And while most of them will never have to fire a weapon, the sobering truth is that war isn't a formula. Bombs get dropped. Shots get fired. People get killed.
So all you can do is pray for them. Pray that if push comes to shove they will be ready.
I believe they will.