Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas: It's 5 a.m. when the blare of bugles explodes from the speakers?my first reveille of Air Force basic training. Stirred by hollering drill sergeants, 50 airmen recruits with freshly shaved heads fly out of bed and hustle into formation for our first training mission: singing the official U.S. Air Force song. "Off we go into the wild blue yonder, flying high into the sun," we sing. The same drill sergeants prowl the ranks with eagle eyes on our lips, making sure we recite each verse in flawless unity, and with all of our patriotic hearts. "Here they come, zooming to meet our thunder, at "em boys, give "er the gun." A 6-foot-7-inch Master Sergeant (who I later learn is ranked fourth in kick boxing in Texas) stands inches from my face, the dark brim of his hat nearly denting my forehead. It's no use?I can't remember the lines, and he knows it. My punishment is an alarming barrage of spit and some very creative profanity. Lesson learned.
After six weeks of basic training it was clear to me that its primary goals were to strip all singularity from the individual and foster obedience to the sound of instructors? raving voices. It also was about marathon marching, toilet scrubbing, flag saluting, folding undergarments into pristine 8 x 11 inch squares, and making a bed so tense you could bounce a quarter off it?all in the name of corporate loyalty. Let's face it, the U.S. military is a corporation, albeit with a more apocalyptic product line.
But aside from nurturing blind pride of affiliation, the way in which the military trains its employees differs from the civilian world on many levels. Take, for example, the interview process. After basic training, I was off to my technical training post at Corry Station, Pensacola, Fla. This was during the twilight of the Cold War. I was 17 years old and still reeling from puberty, but someone somewhere thought I'd fit right in as a printer systems operator in the field of signals intelligence?a right arm of the CIA.
In the civilian world, I would have compiled a nondescript resume that the Department of Defense would have soundly dismissed?at 17, I had only a stint at McDonald's and a paper route. In basic training, however, the first step to my military ascent was a simple test assessing my ability to remember four letters of international Morse code.
Step two saw smartly dressed FBI agents?badges, briefcases, dark suits and all?do a background check in my hometown. To my high school teachers and coaches, neighbors and classmates, they posed questions like "Has Jeff ever discussed Marxist philosophy at length?" or "Does Jeff have any friends who hail from communist countries?" and even baited questions like "Which drugs have you seen Jeff use?" Lo and behold, at 18 I received my top secret security clearance badge. I suddenly had access to highly confidential documents that made little sense to me (wink wink).
In the civilian world, many companies harbor proprietary knowledge and go to some length to secure it through good-faith oaths from employees. They rarely, however, threaten lengthy incarceration and charges of treason. In the military, I was fed a steady diet of propaganda films about the deviously underhanded Soviets, who apparently scattered KGB operatives throughout the United States in hot pursuit of badge holders who might be tempted to sell secrets for a load of cash. We were trained to recognize the signs: For example, if a fellow at a bar engages you in conversation and he has a thick Baltic accent, chances are he's a spy.
Upon completing my six months of technical training, I left Corry Station with a mastery of Morse code and a passable familiarity with the Russian alphabet. I was then off to the National Security Agency (NSA)?that fabled bastion of U.S. espionage and foreign intelligence?where the nation's code makers and code breakers keep an unblinking eye on the world. You may have seen NSA headquarters in movies such as "Enemy of the State" and "Good Will Hunting" (which is surprising, considering we were forbidden to snap even the most casual photo of the building). Whereas many offices in the civilian world preach security and merely require badges for entry, NSA features snipers stationed on the roof, armed guards at every door, and periodic bomb threats that required a mass exodus out of the building.
Now that I'm firmly entrenched in the civilian world, I've come to have more respect for the approach our armed forces take to training. I never sat still in the service, from the training simulations and classroom drilling in my tech school to the heavily encouraged professional development at NSA. It was a valuable lesson: If we never sit still in any job we do, chances are we're growing.
But loose lips sink ships, I was told when I was discharged, so you won't get any more info out of me.
COPYRIGHT Bill Communications Inc. 2001. All rights reserved.