April 24, 2006, 2:43AM
With airmen dying in combat, trainees embrace a 'warrior ethos' to improve survival chances
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle San Antonio Bureau

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE - When a group of U.S. Air Force commanders visited Iraq two years ago, they made some disturbing observations as they watched enlisted airmen working in the war zone.

Many lacked basic combat skills and instincts. Some didn't know how to handle and load their weapons. A few even had their guns taken away as a safety precaution.

Within months, the high command mandated an overhaul of Air Force basic military training, which has been conducted here since 1942. Officials now say they've imposed the most dramatic changes in 60 years in the training's tone and curriculum.

Chief among them is a new, time-consuming emphasis on "warrior ethos," making every airmen capable of self defense in a service with a reputation for being removed from the front lines. The 38,000 trainees per year now spend less time learning to fold T-shirts so they can spend more time learning to wage war.

With 46 deaths recorded among airmen in Iraq — many of them in ground combat roles — trainees are embracing the new approach as a way of improving their survival chances in their almost-certain deployments to the war zone.

Trainee Primo Fiore, 19, of Modesto, Calif., is pleased to be among the first to get more combat training, a regimen started in November. After three weeks, she's proficient enough with her M-16A2 training rifle to demonstrate to reporters how it is quickly disassembled and reassembled. Before arriving, her experience with weapons was quite limited, she said.

"A BB gun when I was little. That's about it," Fiore said recently.

'Getting used to it'
That's more exposure to weapons than trainee Amanda Reed of Burlington Township, N.J., had before arriving for basic training, which now features rifle-handling from the outset.

"I'm getting used to it. We still haven't fired them — we do that next week," she said. Her family wasn't aware of the new push for combat training, but "when I told them I was learning to use an M-16, my younger brother was very enthusiastic about that."

Like many recruits, Reed joined the Air Force with the notion that it wouldn't be as perilous as other service branches.

"I still think that the Air Force isn't as dangerous as the Army or Marines," Reed said.

On his last day in basic, Alex Gaines, 20, of Portage, Ind., said he's ready to move on to training in electronics, but he's prepared to use combat skills if required. The former fast-food worker said he benefited greatly from the grueling training.

"I have a lot more confidence, a lot more discipline. We learned how to work as a team," although it was tough initially, he said.

"The first couple of weeks, we were like, 'What have we gotten ourselves into?' After that, it didn't get easier, but you adjusted to it," Gaines said. "They (instructors) pretty much want to see if they can break you down."

Trainee Jose Castro, 19, of Little Rock, Ark., agreed.

"You try your hardest to do everything right and they just never gave you enough time to actually do it right or finish it. I guess that was the whole point, to stress you out. That's what was hardest for me," he reflected, on the eve of graduation.

As the first in his family to join the military, Castro said his decision wasn't embraced. He portrayed the Air Force as a relatively safe experience to win his family's support.

"That's what I actually explained to my mother to make her at least accept it, because she wasn't too happy with it," Castro said.

Trainee Amber Huber, 21, a former waitress and bartender from Alma, Wis., said combat scenarios were among the toughest ordeals.

"Once you get used to that, it's not bad," Huber said.

She and other women make up one-fourth of today's Air Force recruits. Minorities make up one-third of the total. The average age of recruits is 20.2 years and about a quarter of them have some college training or a degree.

The vast majority of trainees — 93 percent — successfully complete basic training, and 84 percent do so on time in 6 1/2 weeks, the shortest basic training among the services. But with so much new instruction being crammed into the curriculum, next year the training will be stretched to 8 1/2 weeks.

All Air Force trainees are assigned to Lackland's 37th Training Wing. About 800 trainees arrive each week and about that number graduate to further training at Lackland or other bases.

"These young people that are serving our country are truly tremendous," said 37th Training Wing commander Col. Gina Grosso. "Right now about 75 percent of the folks coming in the Air Force have guaranteed jobs," she said. The rest are placed in jobs after basic training.

Cultural shift
The typical training day starts at 4:45 a.m. and ends about 9 p.m., after traditional drills like marching, classroom instruction and field exercises. There is a decreasing amount of time for "airmanship" skills, including T-shirt folding.

"Six months ago, we were folding T-shirts in 6-inch squares. We were folding our socks in thirds and trying to get the edges as even as possible," said instructor Staff Sgt. Jacob Chavez.

"But now we're into the rolling of the T-shirts and the socks. The reason is those M-16s downstairs. We want them to pay more attention to breaking down and actually working with these rifles," Chavez said.

Grosso said her goal is to "change the mind-set of the airman graduating from basic training. What we want is an airman who understands that they are in a profession of arms."

"When you look at historically what we used to teach at basic training, it's kind of amazing that it took us until 2005 to get to the curriculum that we got to," she said.

The first significant sign of change came in 1999, when "Warrior Week" was added toward the end of the training, but some viewed it as an ineffective.

"It was good that we added it. It just wasn't in the right place," Grosso said.

"Now we're doing war skills training up front. We're prepping to deploy. What we did was shave off as much time as we could from the airmanship skills, and we put that into war skills training," the commander said.