This is it. You’ve made it though the US Air Force’s MEPS, you took the oath, and went off to basic training.
You weren’t one of those types who just thought you’d sort out a job when you got there, oh no. You always knew what you wanted. You wanted to be with the best, be part of an elite team.
You signed a USAF pararescue contract.
You were able to pass the pre-qualification test with a recruiter, a little run-swim-calisthenics workout that showed that you were up to the challenge. And now basic training is over, and it’s time to get it on. So you begin the USAF Pararescue Indoctrination Course, a selection course of 10 weeks long that is considered one of the toughest schools in the military.
Class attrition rates are often over 80%, sometimes 90%. There have been classes of one. There was a class of zero. And you are now a cone, a conehead, the informal nickname of the trainees of USAF pararescue.
It’s time to start whittling down that pointy conehead until it’s fit to don the maroon beret of the USAF pararescueman. And you’re here now, and you know what you’re getting into. You told yourself that, no matter what, you would never quit.
So now what?
0415 hours. The alarm clock goes off. You struggle to your feet, trying to clear the cobwebs, and enter the dark hallway of the barracks where dozens of other young men are going about their morning ablutions.
You finish up in the bathroom and get your PT gear on. Your ALICE rucksack, heavy with gear and food, is flung onto your back. You muster downstairs. It is still dark out; the birds are not yet chirping.
It’s time to form it up, the first of many. The formation begins its jog to the morning chow hall about a half a mile away. The cadence comes quietly, as does the response. You get your food and eat, even though you aren’t hungry. You’re never hungry in the morning but you eat nonetheless. You need fuel, fuel to take you through the day.
Again, the formation outside. The moving freight train of young men moves through the darkness across the field. You arrive at a concrete pad in front of a large warehouse building. This pad has seen thousands of men before, and there are thousands yet to be seen.
In front of the building are some various motivational training aids, including a 40 foot iron rail and a who-the-hell-knows-how-many-pound log. The training aids enclose an enormous pair of green footprints painted on the pad. You do your ins, ten pull ups on the bars mounted in the ground, plus one for pararescue, hooyah. You circle up and begin stretching, as your bodies shiver from the cooling sweat. The command is passed to get to the pool. Time for outs. Fifty pushups in formation, plus one for Pararescue.
0600 hours. You arrive at the pool. There is a name for the pool, some generic tag along the lines of “main annex pool” or “training tank”. You don’t remember because you don’t look. It could be named after some long dead airman of the past. His final honor, a pool named after him that terrorizes young men.
But you only know it as The Pool.
You arrange your rucksack neatly outside and take needed items to the pool deck. Mask, fins, snorkel, booties. Arranged just so, no mistakes. You have been taught this ritual from day one. While your were waiting for your class to begin, you attended daily PT with the rest of the trainees waiting to start class.
Washouts from previous classes explained to you all of the customs and procedures to be followed at Indoctrination. Failure to comply means paying the man, and paying the man is to be avoided at all costs.
You circle up again in the field outside the pool, as dawn starts to poke its head out. Several trucks pull up. Men in black training gear and annoyed faces exit the vehicles. The instructor cadre is here, and they do not look happy. They never look happy.
Someone sings out, “team, a-ten huuuuutttttt!!!!” Yyou cease stretching and immediately brace into a position of attention. Seconds tick by before the grumbled “carry on” is passed from one of the instructor cadre in black. They are stretching out now, laughing amongst themselves.
You really hate them in that moment, because they can be relaxed and have fun. You have no fun on these days. you just get by.
The cadre all fall neatly into their determined roles. There’s the Evil One, whose scream can deafen a man. There’s the Silent One, who catches every slip up. There’s the Psychologist One, messing with your head. The Asshole But Funny One, who is tough but hilarious.
Together, they pick apart every aspect of the individual to see what gets to him. They are exceedingly good at their job.
The announcement comes to form it up. You have no idea what kind of run you will go on daily. It could be to the track, for sprint PT, to the O course, or just a fucking long ass run from Hell.
Here you go. The formation, the freight train is off…. and running at an incredible pace! The cadence struggles to keep up; gasping replaces words. You know that you cannot keep this pace up and you curse the cadre mentally as you struggle to breath you motherfuckers slow the fuck down goddamit this is ridiculous until it seems that the lead instructor has heard your thoughts and the pace slows to a mere 7:15 per mile pace.
The jack hammering in your heart, while not going away, has wound down just enough to get that coppery taste of blood out of your throat. You think you know the route of this particular run, as you have seen this one before, and after an hour you finally see The Pool back in the field of vision, thanking god that your legs haven’t gone out on you.
But now The Pool is passing you, and you’re not stopping. You scream in frustration inside, cursing the cadre with all of your might…you sons of bitches you did that on purpose to fuck us I hope you all die slowly shitheads die die dieeeeeeeee….. but again your telekinesis reaches the cadre as the freight train comes to a halt and the men in black decide to begin some morning PT.
Then, the word.
A simple word, but one that every student hopes they can go at least a couple hours without hearing. Immediately the students come into the leaning rest position in the cold, gravelly texas soil. You move about on your hands and feet forming ranks.
The cadre are among you now, screaming, cajoling, ridiculing, and doing all of the things that every fighting man in United States military history has heard cadre doing before. The calls come form the front of the rank.
The new second lieutenant, at the front of the formation is calling the exercise and the cadence as the team leader. He is being berated by at least two of the cadre, you cannot see for sure. Of course, the lieutenant gets the worst treatment out of all of you.
The pararescue community does not want to see their officers fail this course. They have been weeded out, for the most part, by attending their own, very special private selection course run by senior enlisted personnel prior to the indoctrination course. Some of the stories of the beat downs that have come out of that course, known as “Phase II,” are legendary.
Finally after an eternity the command is given. On your feet. Form it up. Always with the forming it up. You run again, back towards the direction of The Pool. You arrive sweating, mentally preparing.
The lieutenant lets you know you have three minutes to be changed out of the PTs and into the black speedo swimsuit and standing by at the pool deck. There is chaos by the row of rucksacks. Men are running back and forth into the bathrooms to change, running back out to stow gear.
You hurry and complete your change and sit in front of your pre-placed gear at the pool. The building is enclosed, glass walls that make the humidity from the hundred sweaty bodies unbearable. you sit on the pool deck, feet in the water, hands on your knees, backs straight. The cacophony ceases. The instructors enter, as the the call to attention rings out. with the “carry on” given, the “hooyah, sergeant” booms and echoes from the glass walls.
0730 hours. The command to enter the water is given, and a hundred bodies splash into the pool.
And so begins the endless pool drills.
The underwater laps, the mask and snorkel recovery, the underwater knot tying. Do it right or you get to do it a second time. And a third. Hell, you’ll just keep going until you get it right. The water is freezing, and you sometimes piss yourself in the pool just to get a second of warmth on your body.
The quitter’s air horn, decorated as the class sees fit, is standing by at the edge of the pool. It is carried with the team to every training event. It will be used almost exclusively here in this building.
The old adage for the pararescue school house is “nobody quits on land.” You hear the horn going off time and time again while you are underwater, but you are concentrating on the task in front of you. You are never sure who has quit until after the 4-hour session, as the quitters are immediately remanded to the custody of an instructor and ushered away, back to a different life, back to wherever it is they came from.
You don’t pass out underwater today. You see the instructors drag someone from the pool, unconscious. They circle him, applying oxygen, yelling for him to wake up. The student wakes in a daze, wondering where he is. The cadre ask if he’s ok. Affirmative. They ask if he wants to quit. Negative.
Ok, so what the fuck are you doing lying on my pool deck? Enter the goddamn water.
And so it goes, on and on, task after task. More underwater swims. Drown proofing, where the wrists are bound behind your back and your ankles bound together.
You are pushed into the deep end to execute drills. Dive equipment ditch and don; tank tread. Finally, the order is given to don fins and set to fin PT. Actually not too bad, as you are left mostly alone unless you’re dogging it.
You might do a distance fin. Sprints. Relays. Weight belt swims. It’s different every day. Maybe you will be the one slower than the rest and get to pay the man. Your hip flexors will be like steel cables from the tens of thousands of meters you will fin throughout the course. You fin, and fin some more. You are completely smoked.
1200 hours. Finally, the order comes from the student leader. Clean The Pool, you’ll be leaving in five minutes.
The day’s pool session is mercifully over, at least for now. Gear is gathered, and stowed in the rucks. Garrison BDUs are donned.
Your garrison uniforms are carried in ziploc bags, to withstand the inevitable water that the ruck will encounter, in so many ways. Thrown into a pool in disgust by the cadre. Hosed down. Wading through creeks in the woods, crawling through mud. You must care for these uniforms every day, as some of the cadre are fond of impromptu uniform inspections.
But for now, it is safe. The instructors are gone.
You return to the concrete pad of the school house. You are exhausted. Upon arrival at the school house, you do your ins on the pull up bar. Ten pullups, plus one for pararescue, hooyah. Then, the outs, fifty pushups plus one for pararescue, hooyah. Then it’s a form it up to run across the field to the chow hall.
Time to eat a massive amount of food. Anything you can get your hands on. It doesn’t matter, you will lose weight. A guy on your team loses 60 pounds. This is not uncommon.
There are less of you now, as you take stock of survivors. The stories pass, of those who witnessed the carnage filling you in on the gory details. How the quitters sounded the horn and said the words, how they tried not to cry, and how they failed.
But you cannot shed tears for them, you have your own ass to worry about.
Lunch is over, back outside. Form it up and get the cadence going. Here comes the freight train, steady eddy.
1330 hours. Back to the school house. Of course, the ins, one for pararescue, hooyah.
You file into the classroom.
There will be a class for an hour. One day it will be anatomy and physiology. Another day it will be dive medicine and dive physics. There is always something to start preparing for.
Your eyes feel heavy from the food and the work, but God help you if you fall asleep.
The schoolhouse is a large, warehouse-like building. In the giant first entry room is a huge floor of mats, enough to PT a hundred men. Pull up bars line every wall.
Against one wall is an enormous series of wooden plaques chained together, denoting various PT records set by students. Several of your instructors’ names are on them. The records must be attempted during one of the weekly official PT tests and noted by the cadre.
All save the record for the longest underwater. For this, you go to the cadre and they take you to the pool in the last week of the course if you want to try to break it.
Don’t even bother if you can’t go at least a hundred and fifty meters.
At the entryway is a student to man the phones. He’s a cone that broke something or failed somehow in the previous class and is now in limbo waiting to heal up and start back up with a new team.
His life sucks.
Behind him are rows and rows of binders, all containing the cartoon of the day. Yes, every day there is a new cartoon submitted by the class. Woe be to the poor student who has to be the cartoonist. Better make it funny, cone. There is supposed to be immunity from cartoons mocking the instructor cadre, but somehow that rule is always cast aside.
So the class is over and you really are never sure what will take up the rest of the afternoon. It could be a ruck run through the woods and creeks that surround the base. It could be an afternoon sweating it out on the mats with hours of PT. Grass drills, football style drills done in boots and utes are a popular pastime with the cadre.
Whatever it is, you can count on the event being two things: long, and shitty.
You now realize what a great place San Antonio is for a selection course: freezing cold in the winter, and hot as shit in the summer. So the PT begins anew, whatever you do. If there is one thing that the cadre is exceedingly good at, it’s coming up with hours and hours of heretofore unthought of PT.
So you do what needs to be done. Every single one of your muscles has gone into rebellion and seized simultaneously. But you keep going.
1700 hours. You are outside on the concrete pad, covered in mud and freezing cold.
You hear the sound of “retreat” being played on the loudspeakers. Everyone, including the cadre, form it up and face the sound of retreat, standing at attention and saluting while the national anthem plays.
The sound slowly dies away. You are lucky today. The cadre has tired of you and has mostly started to go home for the day. You will get out hoses and clean the day’s mud and dirt from the concrete pad so that it is spotless, ready for a new round tomorrow.
You finish cleaning, and form it up on the pad. Time for outs. 50 pushups, one for pararescue, hooyah. You form it up again for the last time of the day. You are finally running back to the barracks.
Everyone who has made it through the day is high on surviving again. You reach your barracks room with your roommate. Time to strip the filthy clothing and wash up.
Some will immediately go to chow, some will stay to do their laundry first. Uniforms must be washed and pressed. Boots must be cleaned of mud. Food must be consumed.
You eat and do laundry and eat some more. you carefully pack your ruck again, being sure not to forget any of your necessary equipment. Oh, that would be such a long, bad day for you!
You have time to watch a little TV. The men are bullshitting in the halls, laughing, reliving the day’s events. As always, it’s easy to find humor well after the fact, and everyone is trading stories of punishment taken and noble deeds accomplished. You are in bed now, more tired than you have ever been and your body drained.
2000 hours. You fall into a black sleep. You do not dream.
Of course, this was an ideal day. Timelines were predictable, and were not changed or lengthened by a displeased cadre. There were none of the common punishments so casually meted out on a daily basis.
No student had to do five hundred eight count body builders by the end of the day. Nor 1000 pushups on the blocks in front of the school house. There were no middle of the night inspections or PT.
There was no need to “pay the man” well into the darkness of the day, for both real and imaginary transgressions. There was no weekly PT test or water confidence test, for which failing any one event twice in a row will be mean washout. There was no “alternate” water confidence training, which is so terrible that this author cannot possibly do it justice by transcribing it to print.
I leave it up to you, dear reader, to imagine it for yourselves.