When I was an Airman …
By Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Ott, 28th Communication Squadron
/ Published October 19, 2011
ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. --
"Rainbow rainbow don't be blue, we were once rainbows too." Those are the words I remember hearing as my basic training flight stumbled (can't say marched) to receive a "shorter than average" haircut and our initial uniform issue.
This was one of my first memories some 29 years ago when I entered the Air Force. Now, as I'm beginning my 30th and final year on active duty, it's only natural to reflect back.
Initial uniform issue included two complete "Combination-1" (service dress) uniforms. Each was a different shade, one with a slight silver hue that was only discernable by the shade number printed on the tag or by the highly-tuned eye of the TI. The green fatigues came in both permanent press and 100 percent cotton, and I received mix-matched shirts and pants (guess I was a couple decades ahead of today's mixed shade ABUs).
Immunizations were delivered all at once, via an air gun that shot the serum under high pressure. We were warned not to flinch, otherwise the gun would, "rip the skin off your arm." I remember a few of my flight mates walking away with a bloody upper arm.
The tradition of "hurry up and wait" was well established. If we arrived at a training location with more than 15 minutes to wait, it was "smoke break" time. You could either stand at ease and read the basic training manual or relax and have a smoke. We went from 20 non-smokers to only five by week two.
Weapons training was a couple of hours of classroom instruction followed by a half day on the range, firing the M-16 with a .22-caliber adapter. We were lucky to shoot five rounds without a jam.
Travelling to tech school and to your first duty station meant wearing Combination-1. There is nothing quite like wearing a coat and tie for an 18-hour bus ride or a 15-hour international flight.
Your first assignment could be a challenge; there was no FTAC or Right Start. Your roommate guided you to the dining hall, Airman's Club, BX and gym (usually in that order). Yes, I said roommate not suitemate! In fact, fast forward to 1987 and I had a roommate as a staff sergeant at Robins Air Force Base, Ga.
My first assignment was a small radar site with 24 personnel to include two admin troops and two supply troops along with six senior NCOs and a lieutenant colonel as commander. Talk about top heavy!
Thanks to prior college credits and promotion to senior airman below-the-zone, I became an E-4 with a whopping 17 months time in service. Add the near 100 percent appointment rate to sergeant; I became an NCO at 29 months.
So with less than two-and-a-half years experience I became a supervisor. I hand wrote my first Airman Performance Report (predecessor to today's EPR) on a yellow legal pad. Double spacing the lines provided space for chain of command edits. Once the report passed the chain, one of the admin troops would select the proper sized font ball for the IBM Selectric typewriter and typed the report.
Mentorship meant listening to the senior NCOs tell "war stories" at work and at the club on Friday after work. There were no professional enhancement seminars or Top-III, 5/6 or Airman's Councils. The only Chief I saw during my first assignment was the president of my BTZ board (yes, we had to meet boards for BTZ and quarterly awards).
There wasn't an Airman's Creed in 1982. There was no NCO Creed, SNCO Creed, Chiefs Creed or Core Values either. When the Air Force Song was played we stood at attention; we didn't sing along and for sure never clapped in rhythm! Ceremonies were simple yet dignified and professional without noise makers or squadron cheers. Promotion meant a trip to clothing sales to purchase your next set of stripes. No one "tacked" on your new stripes, a simple handshake was sufficient.
Everyone wore blues every day unless in a "getting dirty" job; aircrews wore blues unless on alert or flying. Elite gate guards, with starched blues, spit-shined boots and chrome helmets waved traffic through the main gates with choreographed moves worthy of YouTube.
Yes, I've seen many changes since 1982 (some good, some not). But one thing that hasn't changed, and never will, is the quality, spirit and dedication of our Airmen.