Life in the Military: The Phase Program

I had waited several months to finally get into the military, I completed my basic military training, and then I waited an additional four weeks at my basic training squadron for the approval of a waiver.  Needless to say, at this point in my military career, “Hurry up and wait” was deeply ingrained in me, and if I had not been patient before, by then patience had become necessary for my sanity.

I had finally gotten onto that bus to tech school.  When it stopped, we all got out in front of a big gray building and lined up by career field.  Many of us were still deeply rooted in our basic training discipline, and so we waited quietly.  I remember hearing one voice that rang out above all the rest of the sounds.  She was telling nobody in particular the same thing we all were thinking: “I’m just glad to finally be out of basic training.”  I turned to look and saw a young woman in BCGs and BDUs with a dark complexion and flecked greenish blue eyes.

At the direction of several sergeants who wore braided blue ropes on their left shoulders, our career field lines filed into the building one at a time.  Before long we were crowded into a small room, getting our initial tech school briefing.  We learned that the blue-roped sergeants were MTLs–military training leaders.  They were in charge of all the students’ health, discipline, and welfare, similar to the TIsfrom basic training.  In many cases, MTLs had more room to be pleasant and approachable, but many of them were also cranky or passive-aggressive.

This is a pretty typical picture of day one of tech school. The ones with the blue ropes on their shoulders are MTLs.

We met the MTLs and learned how to render them proper respect by coming to attention, then dropping to parade rest before addressing them by rank and name prior to speaking.  We also learned about the phase program,which was a gradual loosening of the strict standards of basic training for tech school students.  They probably still use it now, although it changed while I was in it, and it may have changed since.  Either way, we started off in two weeks of Phase I, which meant we would wear uniforms all the time, pass regular room inspections and uniform inspections, and we were more or less treated like basic trainees.  We were only allowed to use personal electronics like MP3 players and cell phones in our dorm rooms.  Ironically, Phase I was even more restrictive than being a BMT holdover.

We were briefed about what we’d already been told in BMT: This was to be our first school in a training pipeline that involved several additional schools.  Once we finished at this first school, we would move on to the next.  Our phases would follow us to each new school.  When we were finally allowed to ask questions, I raised my hand to ask if I could be advanced in phase since I had been finished with basic training for almost a month.  The MTL answered me with genuine pity in his voice, telling me that I would have to do my full time in each phase.  Another bit of bad news was that we would continue wearing BCGs until we finished our first week.

The first week of tech school was what happens every time we go to a new assignment: in-processing.  Every spellchecker I’ve ever typed “in-process” into has hated it because it’s a purely military concept with no civilian equivalent.  It means we go to every base agency and make sure we fill out a bunch of paperwork and get added to their databases.  Additionally, we set up living arrangements, accounts, post office boxes, and all other necessities.  And then we attend countless briefings.  We learn about chapel services, base facilities, the local community, financial responsibilities, and my personal favorite: the Public Health briefing.  The Public Health briefing almost always involves a Powerpoint slide show of people’s diseased and rotting genitalia as a gory scare tactic to promote safe sex and condom use.  Google “blue waffle” and you’ll see the kind of thing I’m talking about.  It’s disturbing, so if you’re eating or squeamish, don’t let your curiosity get the best of you.

Among our in-processing items were an introduction to our dorm facility.  There was a desk in the front where the CQ (Charge of Quarters) operated.  CQ was a military reception desk for the dorms.  They passed messages to and from the MTLs, updated bulletin boards, ran errands, and checked phase cards after curfew.

The bulletin board they kept would inform us of uniform of the day, either BDUs or a dress blues combination.  Also, it would have a list of names of people who needed to see the MTLs, either for disciplinary reasons or to pick up new phase cards after phase promotion.  Finally, there was the class list.  Just because we were at tech school didn’t necessarily mean that we could start class right away; if we weren’t in class, we were assigned to do details. After in-processing was complete, I still didn’t start class for another week.  On the up side, I was finally allowed to ditch my bulky BCGs for my lighter black plastic framed emo/hipster glasses.

Daily life involved early rising at roughly 4:30 a.m.  Reveille still played over base loudspeakers, but it didn’t play over the indoor sound system as it had in BMT, so we had alarm clocks to wake us up.  We would form up outside the dorm at 5:00 and march over to the track for stretches, calisthenics, and running.  Afterwards, we marched back to the dorms to shower, and then we had to form up in groups of four or more to march to the “dining facility”.  If you called it the “chow hall”, as we had in basic, then the airmen who worked there would angrily correct you.  Afterwards we had our duty day until 4 or 5 p.m., and then we had limited free time, which was on base restriction for Phase I.  For the first two phases, student leaders wearing green, yellow, or red ropes the same way the MTLs wore blue ones would do bed checks at 10 p.m. to make sure we were in place at the right time.  To me, lining up outside our doors for bed checks forced me to stay up an extra hour or two beyond when I naturally wanted to fall asleep.

Green Rope
We called the airman leaders “ropes”. Green ropes were the lowest level, yellow ropes were above them, and red ropes held the most responsibility.

The tech school accommodations were much different from what we had in BMT.  We no longer lived in bay-style dorms, but instead we had carpeted floors and furnishings that were similar to my dorm in college.  It was two to a room, and each room had its own bathroom.  My roommate was a large black man who was a phase ahead of me.  In Phase I we weren’t allowed to personalize our rooms at all, but in later phases we were allowed to have pictures, books, and decorations as long as they were neatly organized.

The disciplinary system primarily consisted of the AETC Form 341.  It was a small slip of paper filled out with your personal identifying information that included a space for comments.  If you committed any error, an MTL, an instructor, or a student leader could take your 341, note the discrepancy, and turn it in to the MTLs to append to your records.  Although we had the forms in BMT, they seemed like a much bigger deal in tech school, since they used them for everything from tracking PT attendance and room inspections to noting disciplinary problems.  They were occasionally taken as a reward for displays of excellence, but this was rare.  Throughout my whole time in tech school, I had one pulled for discipline and two pulled for excellence.  I never heard back from the MTLs about any of them.

For my first week, I was on details.  If you’ll recall from my previous story about being in holdover, details were cleaning and maintenance tasks that amounted to pointless busy work.  We swept sidewalks that didn’t need to be swept, mopped floors that had already been mopped, painted doors that had already been painted.  Occasionally, the MTLs would call for volunteers for special details over the CQ intercom.  At first I thought it would be terrifying to volunteer and have to face the ill-tempered MTLs, but after a while I decided anything would be better than busily accomplishing nothing.

The first time I volunteered, I was sent to a secure facility to shred classified documents.  Every airman has a security clearance, and some are higher than others, depending on the career field and need-to-know.  My extra time in holdover had allowed for my clearance to be fully processed by the time I arrived, so I got to work at that job for a few days.  It was mindless labor, but at least I could see the progress as towering stacks of paper shrank and bags of paper-dust accumulated.  The security officer who oversaw me and the two other airmen assigned to the detail told us not to look at any of the papers we were shredding.  From what I could see, I didn’t understand any of it anyway.  The day after we completed that detail, I got to move office furniture in one of the classroom buildings.  I say “got to” again because it was better than busily accomplishing nothing.

Finally I started class.  Our instructor was a joke-cracking technical sergeant who wore a huge rack of medals on blues day.  His supervisor was a joke-cracking master sergeant who would often walk into the classroom very officially and begin like he was calling us to attention: “ROOM, TEN–”  Then he would finish by uttering a punchline in conversational tone after half the airmen in the room had jumped to attention: “. . . is this room ten?” or “–[tem]perature’s pretty good in here.”  One time though, he walked in and really did call us to attention with the base commander, a brigadier general, in tow.

In class we studied and memorized a lot of dry data, and we took air force style tests, which usually involved memorizing definitions with unusual technical wording.  In between lessons, we took frequent breaks for videos of accidents, plane crashes, and Brian, the dog from Family Guy, singing “It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time“.

When doing details, we would get assigned to different areas every day, so I never got time to make friends.  Once class started, that changed, and I got to know several of my classmates.  Every morning I would form up in a small marching element with David, Brian, Sophie, Mindy, and Megan, and we would make our way over to breakfast, and then to class.  David was thin and wore wire-framed glasses that always had a sharp glare.  He had an unpronounceable Polish surname and a mild twitch.  Brian was tall and thin with an aquiline nose, a Mormon who had learned Polish while on mission, and thus, could pronounce David’s surname.  Sophie was the same young woman I mentioned earlier with the dark hair and the greenish blue eyes.  She no longer wore her BCGs, but instead had contacts.  Mindy and Megan had both done the college thing like I had.  Mindy had ruddy features and bright blue eyes, and Megan had short brown hair, a fair complexion, and small wire-framed glasses.  These were the people I hung out with in class, and later on, I hung out with them outside of class, too.

Although our class had other students, I can only remember these five and some senior airmen and staff sergeants in our class who were retraining from other career fields.  Our class leader I remember in particular:  a tall, blond, fair-skinned staff sergeant.  I frequently dozed off in class because our demanding schedule didn’t afford me much sleep, and since he sat right next to me, he would elbow me to wake me up.  Years after we graduated and moved on, I met him at another assignment, and he ended up mentoring me through on-the-job training.  But that’s another story.

After two weeks in Phase I, we were able to apply for phase promotion.  The MTLs reviewed our records, made sure we had the proper number of passed inspections and the right amount of time in Phase I, and then we moved to the next phase.  Phase II was considerably better.  For the first time in months, I was allowed to wear civilian clothes off duty.  At first, it felt weird to walk outside without a hat to cover my head and my feet shod in lightweight sneakers.  The civilian clothes were the biggest difference, but we also had fewer inspections, I was allowed to use my phone outside of my room, and we were allowed to travel off base in blues.  I opted not to, since there were plenty of places to hang out on base, and I had gone off base each weekend during my weeks of holdover.  I went to the chapel-sponsored hangout, The Refuge, where there were comfy furniture, TVs, videos games, a pool table, a snack bar, and a few computers with internet access.  I checked my e-mail and–don’t laugh!–MySpace to reply to an overwhelming backlog of messages from friends back home.

My typical duty day in Phase II remained unchanged, and my class leader still had to nudge me pretty often so I would wake up.  I was always exhausted because of our schedule of getting up ungodly early and staying up until as late as 10:30 or 11 p.m. waiting for student leaders to finish bed checks.  The tech school cafeteria wasn’t as good as the one at BMT, but I still ate pretty well, and by the time I reached Phase II, I was putting on more weight from eating a lot and building muscle at PT.  As a skinny guy, the extra pounds were an improvement.

We finished our class after a few weeks.  We out-processed, which meant we got our names taken out of all the databases, and closed all of the accounts and living arrangement we had made during in-processing, and then we went to our next tech school in the training pipeline.  The day we left was the day that we all would have applied for Phase promotion to Phase III, and our cantankerous MTL told us that the MTLs at our next school would allow us to promote after they reviewed our records.

Despite being told in several briefings that traveling in uniform marked us as easy targets for terrorists, the tech school program required us to travel in our dress blues.  With government-issued plane tickets in hand, Brian, Sophie, Megan, and David loaded into a white government van with me and a few other airmen who had graduated in previous classes.  A CQ airman drove us to the airport.  If you’ll notice, Mindy didn’t go with us.  Her next class start date was a few weeks later than ours, so she got stuck doing details for a few more weeks before she was allowed to leave.

At the airport, Megan and the other airmen got on one flight, and Brian, Sophie, David and I got on another.  We played gin rummy at our layover, and boarded another plane to our final destination.  There, another CQ airman picked us up in a blue government van and we met our new MTLs.  They got us rooms and linens, and reviewed our records, but they didn’t allow us to phase up.  That was when we learned an important air force lesson: always double check to make sure your paperwork is right.  But that’s a story for next time.



2 thoughts on “Life in the Military: The Phase Program

  1. Ugh I shouldn’t have clicked on blue waffle, but I did. Good thing I’m not dating anyone, because there’s no way I’ll be able to get in the mood after that. Blech.

    Your memory still amazes me.

    Good cliffhanger!

    1. Yeah, sorry about that, but I had to recreate the experience for you all. 🙂 Seriously, though, I don’t know why they always do that at Public Health briefings. I guess I’m no better, showing my kids pics of people with scurvy when they won’t eat their veggies.
      As for the cliff hanger, I had to cut it off somewhere for my own sanity’s sake! 🙂

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