Tara's Take: My Air Force Boot Camp Experience

By: Tara Wheeler
By: Tara Wheeler

I spent my college days in the Air Force Reserves as a cadet at Penn State... here's what I learned from my bootcamp experience.

The Air Force paid for $27,000 of my education and provided me with the best leadership development training out there. I was set to commission into active duty as an Air Force Space and Missiles Officer when I found out that, because of an injury I had sustained playing ice hockey, and because of the stricter medical review due to "force shaping" (too many 2nd Lt's commissioning my year), I would not be able to serve my country as an active-duty officer. I was honorably discharged from the Air Force Reserves in 2006.

<---That's 18-year-old me!

My time as a cadet gave me an incredible appreciation for the discipline and devotion it takes to be a soldier. I grew up in a military family; my dad was in the Army and we moved around A LOT. I went to a different school every year from 3rd grade on and then two different high schools. I thought I was used to military life, but it's a whole different story when you're the one going to boot camp!

Between my sophomore and junior year of college I joined my fellow cadets for "field training" (ROTC boot camp). I was so nervous as I prepared to leave for Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. I remember my dad giving me words of advice as he helped starch my BDU's in the kitchen and shine my boots as we sat on the couch and watched a movie. The next day, I tearfully boarded a plane and headed across the country.

When I first got to field training, I was yelled at ALL THE TIME. I cried whenever I was alone and tried to think of any way to quit without shaming myself. I thought there was no way I was going to make it through, let alone do well... I ended up completing field training in the top group of my flight and earned the opportunity to fly a trainer jet in Lackland, TX. What I learned was: you'd be surprised at what you're capable of, if you give yourself the opportunity to do it. Don't quit right away when things get tough. As Jimmy Dugan said in A League of Their Own "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great." Completing field training was one of the proudest moments of my life.

After that first week, I realized that the CTA's and Field Training Officers weren't yelling at me to be mean... they were trying to teach me how to keep cool and concentrate even in a stressful situation. At war, you have to be able to remain calm and make the right decision even when everything around you is scary and hectic. I still keep in contact with my flight's FTO, Major Danas, from the Virginia Military Institute. After we all got used to the chaos, lack of sleep, and and physical fatigue we became numb to it and could really take in the whole experience. My flight mates and I formed a bond like nothing I've ever felt.

You know, when you're not allowed to laugh... everything around you instantly becomes that much more hilarious. I'll never forget sitting next to my flight-mate Cadet Shelton at chow one evening. We were hungry and exhausted and eating as fast as we could while the timer on our meal ticked down. Shelton was our safety officer. He was pale as a ghost with flaming red hair. He was in charge of making sure everyone had sunscreen on. There were just seconds left to eat when Shelton decided to cram a slice of bread covered in a thick layer of peanut-butter into his mouth in one bite. Have you ever tried to eat peanut butter fast? It just can't happen. Well, one of our CTA's saw the situation and walked over to stand between Shelton and I... Shelton began to sweat and gag trying to eat his peanut butter masterpiece. In the midst of his panic, the CTA slowly squatted down and calmly said "That's a lot of peanut butter... Shelton".  I LOST IT. For some reason I thought this scene was the most hilarious thing I've ever been a part of. My lack of bearing didn't please the CTA but there was no way I could keep from laughing.

Over the course of our training factors that were once awful: sleeping in the grass, not sleeping at all, marching for miles, eating MREs... all became things we embraced as badges of honor that made us better soldiers and better people. During one particularly tough day our flight had to perform a timed run through a rugged obstacle course together. We finished arm and arm, supporting the weight of those who were too tired to lift their boots any more. An Arthur Ashe quote comes to mind: "True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost."

Thank you to all of the Veterans and everyone serving our country today. You are all my heroes and "grateful" doesn't begin to explain how I feel towards you.


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