Breaking Out of 'Empty Shells'

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Matthew J. Hannen
  • Torch Magazine
Near the beginning of the Iraqi War, an Army unit from Balad Air Base, Iraq, headed for Baghdad International Airport. Along the way, enemy troops ambushed the convoy. Armed with an M-16 assault rifle, a female Soldier returned fire. ... Suddenly, her weapon jammed!

She said because of the annual training she had received from the Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Combat Arms Instructor Course, she immediately fixed her weapon and completed the mission.

"She didn't get hurt, but she said she believes she would have been had she not been able to fix her weapon so quickly," said Staff Sgt. Jermaine King, a 342nd Training Squadron combat weapons flight instructor. "She credited going through the course as helping her get through the battle, fixing the jam, and ultimately saving her life and others."

It's stories like those that have evolved Air Force basic military training from one day of weapons training to handling a rifle from the first day to the last. In addition to actual live arms training at the armory, they carry a mock M-16 with them throughout basic, to include keeping them in their dormitories. The idea is to get used to the weight of the weapon, as well as its safe and proper handling.

"One of the horror stories we got coming out of the theater of operations was that our Airmen weren't prepared for what they were encountering out there," said Chief Master Sgt. Steve Sargent, superintendent of Air Force basic training. "They did not feel comfortable with the M-16. They were not proficient with it. They received just-in-time training as they were going out on deployments ... too little, too late."

When you give inexperienced people a weapon in a stressful environment, it could be a recipe for disaster.

"Inexperienced weapons handlers tend to break the first rule of firearm safety: 'Treat the gun like it is loaded at all times,' " said Tech. Sgt. Christopher Irving, NCO in charge of the 737th Training Support Squadron's field training exercise. "They'll put their finger on the trigger and accidentally fire the weapon. They demonstrate no situational awareness.

"Here if we see your finger on the trigger and you are not pointing downrange with site alignment ... then you are going to get corrected. We will not let that go. Because if you make that mistake, maybe you just put a round into the dirt. But, maybe, you put it into your wingman. If we can prevent just one friendly fire incident from happening, then my whole five years working here will have been worth it."

In November 2005, integration of training with M-16s began. Weapons training slowly evolved into part of the everyday life at basic.

"The progress made in the last six months compared to where we were last November is unbelievable," said Senior Master Sgt. Steve Colbert, 331st Training Squadron training superintendent. "When trainees handle a weapon for the first time, they go from apprehension and a scared look on their face to confidentally breaking down and assembling an entire M-16 in 2 minutes or less."

Trainees learn to identify all the parts of an M-16 in just a few short weeks, Colbert said.

"Just the look of it, the feel of it, just hearing the bolt being racked ... now it is very realistic to them," Colbert added. "You can't fake it with weapons."

That's important because many of the new troops have never even touched a gun before.

"Some didn't know what an M-16 looked like," King said. "With us they learn what each part of the gun does."

Now they handle the mock M-16s so much they are almost like having an extra appendage.

"I came in with very little weapons knowledge," said Airman Basic Ryan Bruce, a new trainee. "I had some experience with BB guns, but that was about it. So if I had been thrown into a heavy combat situation with all the stressors, I don't know how well I would have held up in that. That's why I'm glad to get more experience with the M-16 -- putting it together, taking it apart and shooting it."

It's a matter of getting that warrior mentality with the training to back it up. Basic training is "not like the program you and I went through," Chief Sargent said.

Perhaps King summed it up best: "The trainees realize quickly, 'OK, I didn't just join the Air Force; I joined the Armed Services" ... armed being the key."