Students at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, Colo., learn how to get in proper formation. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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Saucedo (Mike Morones / Staff)
Matthews (Mike Morones / Staff)
Flowers (Mike Morones / Staff)
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — For many airmen, basic training is the most grueling part of joining the Air Force. And some might consider it nuts for anyone to go through basic not just once, but three times.
But that’s exactly what 53 enlisted airmen enrolled in the Air Force Academy’s preparatory school are in the process of doing. Those prior-enlisted “preppies” make up 22 percent of the academy’s 243 cadet candidates who hope to join the class of 2019 next year.
“When I told my commander I got accepted into the academy, he said, ‘Congratulations, you’re the craziest person I know for wanting to do three basic trainings,’ ” said 21-year-old Jake Saucedo of Smyrna, Tennessee, who was a security forces senior airman at Moody Air Force Base’s 820th Base Defense Group in Georgia before coming to the prep school. “ ‘Hopefully they give you oak leaf clusters on your basic training ribbon.’ ”
Saucedo and two other prep school prior enlisteds said in a July 24 interview that basic training at the prep school is more physical and intense than the basic they went through when they enlisted.
“I’ve done more abdominal workouts here in the last week and a half than I’ve done in the last year,” said 21-year-old Jared Flowers of Monterey, California, who was a senior airman and a geospatial imagery analyst at Hickam Air Force Base’s 8th Intelligence Squadron in Hawaii.
Saucedo said the training seeks to hone minds as well as bodies.
“They care about their future leaders being in a lot better shape,” Saucedo said. “And they also make you think a lot more in this one, as to where the enlisted basic training was more taking orders — this is the exact specific way, down to the minute detail, it better get done. [But] here, they’re like, amongst yourselves figure out what needs to happen and decide.”
Flowers said by giving cadet candidates chances to solve problems on their own, they practice thinking creatively, which will be important when they take command.
“They need you to step up and lead, to figure it out amongst yourselves,” Flowers said. “They want to grow the future leaders of the Air Force, so they want us to lead and figure out how to do things for ourselves, how to get our dorms clean, from the smallest things to the biggest things.”
Most of the prep school cadet candidates do not have military experience. Some are recruited athletes, and others are “diversity students” who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as poor school districts, said Col. Jerry Szybist, prep school commander. Those disadvantaged students have “grit” and could excel, Szybist said, and just need the opportunity to beef up their academics during their 10 months at the prep school before becoming full-fledged cadets.
The prep school begins with three weeks of basic military training, where cadet candidates learn discipline, values and the foundations of military life, and gain self-confidence. But the prep school also tries to “pull them together,” he said. Some may not have worked side-by-side with a black person or a woman, he said, and the prep school has to get them used to dealing with people from different walks of life.
The prep school tests students — mainly in English, mathematics and science, particularly chemistry — to see where they need help.
“We are building leaders for our nation,” Szybist said. “We want those leaders to pull from a variety of locations, a variety of demographics, to really represent our country ... so we don’t have a population of leaders who are only from one background.”
Those who attend the prep school have a good chance of becoming full-fledged cadets. About 75 percent of last year’s 236 cadet candidates, or 177, were offered appointments to the academy, and all but four accepted and joined the class of 2018. But graduating from the prep school doesn’t guarantee an appointment. Last year, 12 of the 189 graduates did not receive appointments.
Drawing on enlisted experience
Flowers said he always wanted to be in the military, but after enlisting, realized that being an officer would provide more opportunities to lead. He hopes to earn a degree in geospatial sciences and become an intelligence officer, providing information to troops downrange.
Saucedo said a mentor encouraged him to come to the academy and use his prior enlisted experience to make the Air Force better. He hopes to become a combat search and rescue Pave Hawk pilot.
Other prior enlisted basics, who already made it into the Class of 2018 and were in the second phase of their basic cadet training, had different motivations.
“Being enlisted, I saw what a bad officer could do to a squadron as a whole,” said 20-year-old Manuel Figueroa, who was an airman first class before he came directly to the academy as a Class of 2018 basic, bypassing the prep school. “I wanted to come here and be a good officer and go back. My goal is to be a maintenance officer, and go back and take care of the maintenance world I left behind.”
When asked how an officer’s mistakes can hurt the enlisted under his command, Figueroa said his squad was once ordered to work 12-hour shifts, including weekends, for a month. The second lieutenant in charge of that shop decided that was too much, he said, and without getting permission from his superiors, took the squad off that schedule — even though the punishing hours were only going to last a few more days. But when a senior officer found out, Figueroa said, he ordered the squad to work another month-and-a-half of 12-hour shifts and on weekends.
That second lieutenant’s heart may have been in the right place, but because he didn’t think through the consequences of his decision, his airmen suffered, Figueroa said.
Andy Millan, a 21-year-old prior enlisted basic in the Class of 2018, who was a boom operator, came to the prep school in July 2013.
“I loved the camaraderie, I loved always trying to make a difference,” he said. “Every day was something new. Going around the world, that was a great time. You can learn a lot from meeting different people.”
But Millan said one of his biggest challenges was learning to allow the prep school to humble him.
“A lot of priors come into BCT and think they’re better than everyone else,” Millan said. “They’ve done this two times or three times, and they’re just headstrong about all their knowledge, and they want to do everything for everyone. But you have to embrace it, because it’s a whole different experience. Instead of being enlisted, it teaches you to be an officer.”
Millan said one time he learned to humble himself was when the training cadre — who were either his age or younger — told him he was doing something the wrong way. “Even though I knew how to do something, I’d have to do it their way to get through, [not] just sticking to my way, kind of lone- dogging it,” he said. “You have to bring up your own team to succeed.”
The prior enlisteds say they mentor the younger cadet candidates who don’t have military experience
“They didn’t know what was going on,” Flowers said. “I was happy to help them, because we have to get through this together. But we had to teach them how to make their beds, clean things.”
The prior enlisteds help the younger cadet candidates get through homesickness and unease in a new environment, because they faced those feelings just a few years ago. But they sometimes have to check themselves.
“When [instructors] say stand at a position of attention, and I see a person move, I want to scream at them, but I can’t, because I’m not in that position of power,” said Paul Matthews, a 20-year-old prep school student from Newcomerstown, Ohio, who was an airman first class at Offutt Air Force Base’s 55th Aircraft Maintenance Group in Nebraska.
And the cadet candidates laugh that going through basic training over and over again will leave them with finely honed skills.
“I’m going to have the nicest-made beds in all of the land,” Saucedo said.