Almost everything I needed to know about life and music, I probably should have learned from my time in the Air Force.
(the author receiving the United States Air Force Good Conduct Medal)
As I sit and reflect upon the meaning of this (and every Veterans’ Day), I can’t help but be reminded about the many life lessons imparted upon me during my four years in the military. Below are some of my take-aways on the experience, hopefully someone will benefit from these, perhaps my young sons when they reach the age of their majority.
- Don’t park the big blue government van with the US Air Force license plates directly in front of the strip club, or for that matter, in the parking lot of the hydro-colon therapy building 2 doors down. I think this one is pretty self-explanatory.
- Most awards are questionable, to say the least. We had one vocalist who received a commendation for saving the United States government over one million dollars for singing 30-50 cents below each note. Airman and NCO of the quarter was presumably chosen by the commanding officer looking out to see who’s car was still in the parking lot at 6:00 pm. Seriously, there are, of course, a handful of truly meaningful and poignant awards presented by all branches of the service, but a Master Sergeant/supply clerk getting a 20% discount on an anvil road case for set of timpani is not one. The people who deserve the awards are usually too busy actually doing their jobs to seek or care about them, much less take the time to self-nominate or apply. If you really want to reward people for doing a good job, leaving them alone is a decent start.
- If you do a poor enough job on a consistent basis, eventually people will stop asking you to do things and you will have less work to do.
- In basic training, the following exchange will not result in a favorable outcome for you, the Airman:
- Drill Sarge: “Well, mister bugler, I bet you’re pretty good. I’ll bet you are first chair.
- “Tired/Bald/Sweaty Bugler “Yes sir!”
- Drill Sarge “Well, I’ve always wanted to be 3rd chair, can you tell me how to get there, airman bugler?!?”
- Tired/Bald/Sweaty Bugler “It’s 2 behind me. Sir!” — this is not a recommended method of communication with a drill instructor.
- Don’t volunteer for anything, ever. They tell you this before you go to basic (if you know someone already in the service). This is ironic, since you wouldn’t even be there if you hadn’t volunteered in the first place.
- The secret to basic training (and by extension, life), is walking around the base like you own it. If you project confidence, they leave you alone for the most part. Of course, you don’t actually feel confident, so you just have to pretend that part, but it works most of the time.
- Don’t forget and leave the Air Force bugle in the mess hall at basic training and don’t think for a minute that the dining facility manager, Mr. Gomez, is going to do you a solid the next day and help you find it. He is totally going to rat you out and take you straight to the snake pit (the table where all the drill Sgts. sit in the chow hall). When this happens, keep your mouth shut because nothing you have to say will aid your cause, especially if it’s sarcastic. You may hear terms shouted at you that include the phrases:
- “Uniform Code of Military Justice”
- “Air Force Fraud, Waste, and Abuse policy”
- “Court martial” ….. at this point, just be cool.
- When asked “Do you know how much that bugle was worth?”, the correct answer is probably not “about 250 dollars”
- Later in the conversation, you probably should NOT come out with the response: “You asked me what it was worth, sir, not how much it cost.”
- The drill sergeants are even more tired than you, and their marriages are probably on the rocks too. Use this information to your advantage.
- If you want to be left alone, walk around with an angry/frustrated look on your face as if you are looking for something important that you can’t find and it’s someone else’s fault. Have an item (that is not in plain view) ready to mention in case anyone questions you about what you’re doing.
- If you get sick in basic training and have to go to the hospital, be prepared to have your temperature taken in an invasive way with an instrument that has been stored for at least 48 hours in either a commercial grade deep freezer or in a package of internationally shipped Omaha Steaks.
- Maintaining your composure is job #1, especially when the shit goes sideways. This is why they yell at you, just to see if you can keep it together under pressure. This is huge.
- These are all real questions I was asked by a real drill instructor at Air Force basic training while I was holding a G bugle (imagine a VERY sarcastic voice):
- “So, Airman Belck. Can you swing? I mean, can you bop?”
- “Airman Belck, what would you play over a C#7 with a b9 and b13?”
- “So, Belck, what lab band did you make at North Texas?”
- There is going to be a person that outranks you, probably by a lot, that doesn’t do their job very well, and that person is going to be a complete asshole and they are not, for some reason that will forever remain a mystery to you, going to like one thing about you. You will find this person (and you will be lucky if it’s only one person at a given time) in the military, in academia, on the bandstand, and in almost every office in the world. You have two jobs – one is to work with/around/behind this person and two is to not become this person.
- Look the part.
- Rule #1) There is never any money for what you want.
- Rule #2) There is always money, your job, find it.
Do NOT salute a Senior Master Sergeant. Who is seated. Indoors. I cannot emphasize this last one enough.
In all seriousness, there has never been a day when I haven’t been proud to have served in the Air Force, and the experience has provided me with uncountable opportunities, friends, and experiences that I never would have had. I was 8 years older than my Drill sergeant, they called me grandpa in my flight almost 20 years ago, but on the last day of basic training, when we were in the barracks without anyone else around, he looked me in the eye, shook my hand and said “The Air Force will be what you make of it.” And thus was the secret of life revealed to me upon the completion of United States Air Force basic military training.