“Whatever you do, do not make any excuses. For anything. Even when they set you up.” This was the advice of a friend’s brother who had successfully navigated US Air Force basic training at Lackland, AFB in San Antonio. He’d passed through a few years before. I was due to arrive a few weeks later. I was 17, and had heard what a mental clusterfuck Air Force basic training was.
At the time, his advice didn’t mean much. But as soon as the barber shaved my head upon arrival, it’s all I could think about. The thinning of the squadron started that first night. By the end of the first of our six weeks, we’d lost 10% of the guys who got off the bus. Sent home. Mostly for making excuses for things they’d done wrong, or were entrapped for. “Even when they set you up.”
My big test came in week four. I was called into the barracks from out on the parade deck where we’d spend hours each day in the blazing Texas sun practicing synchronized marching. Until this moment, my Training Instructors (aka Drill Sergeants) didn’t even know my name. My boots were always shiny. My sheets tight with hospital corners. I never spoke. Upon entering the barracks, I saw three TIs standing around my foot locker, “MITCHEM WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?” I ran over to where they were standing and snapped to attention with my eyes straight ahead. Sweating. One of the TIs held up an undershirt that was folded incorrectly. I knew it wasn’t me. I wore the same two undershirts, underwear, and pairs of socks the entire six weeks to avoid having even a tiny wrinkle on the items in my locker. “DID YOU THINK YOU WERE GOING TO JUST SKATE THROUGH BASIC, MITCHEM?” One of the TIs yelled. “THIS IS WORTHY OF A TRIP HOME. ARE YOU READY TO GO HOME, MITCHEM.”
“SIR NO SIR.” I replied with gusto – continuing to stare at a fixed position on the cinderblock wall, with my fists holding a fictional roll of quarters at the end of stiff arms alongside my body.
“THEN WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE FOR THIS BULLSHIT, MITCHEM?”
“SIR NO EXCUSE SIR.”
“SURELY YOU HAVE AN EXCUSE. DID ONE OF YOUR BOYFRIENDS DISTRACT YOU WHILE YOU WERE IRONING?”
“SIR NO SIR. I HAVE NO EXCUSE SIR.”
After a long pause, another one spoke, “Well, you’re on latrine duty the next 72 hours for this fuck up do you understand?”
“SIR YES SIR.”
I swear I heard one of the TIs chuckling as I marched out of their presence.
I passed the test, I thought. Two weeks to go.
So it turned out to be sage advice. But it made me wonder why it was so difficult to understand. Or why it was necessary for them to use this tactic to determine who would make the cut. By the time our squadron graduated the mentally grueling 6-week program, only 50% of the guys I arrived with made it through.
I learned soon after basic training why they pushed us so hard mentally – we were going out into a world where lives were at stake. Not to mention working in and around aircraft and equipment that was worth millions of dollars. People who make excuses don’t take accountability for their actions. Perhaps no place in American culture is the concept of teamwork more important than the US Military. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and all that.
As for why the idea of accountability was so difficult for so many of my peers to understand – I’m still perplexed by this. But now that I’m decades removed from service to our country, I see lack of accountability everywhere. Yes, admitting you are wrong is a bitch. It requires humility. And humility is just something we don’t put a high priority on these days.
I often say that the lessons I learned serving my country have stayed with me. Concepts like discipline and timeliness are how I’ve been able to effectively work remote since 2003. But accountability is by far the most important lesson I learned that still hold close. Even when it’s not my fault. Because you can’t solve problems when everyone is blaming others.
(Yes, I used the image of Ronald Lee Ermey from “Full Metal Jacket” at the top of this post because he was a former Marine Drill Sergeant and his depiction of how it was in the movie was as real as I’ve ever seen.)