When the Air Force’s newest recruits show up to boot camp at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, on Oct. 3, they’ll face a different introduction to military life than trainees of generations past.
A new “Zero Week” curriculum aims to better prepare enlistees for the 52-day gauntlet of basic military training, while fostering skills like decision-making and emotional resilience that will benefit them throughout their careers. It’s one of multiple recent shifts in the Air Force boot camp schedule designed to shape flexible, well-rounded airmen for wars ahead.
“The changes in BMT will make our force stronger, more capable and better prepared for future challenges,” said Col. Lauren Courchaine, who oversees boot camp as commander of the 37th Training Wing, in a release. “We need airmen and guardians who aren’t just physically and mentally prepared but are profoundly motivated to be highly productive members of the Air and Space Force.”
Zero Week refers to the first five days of Air Force boot camp, when around 35,000 newcomers take their initial steps into military life each year by picking up their uniforms, cutting their hair, learning to march in unison and more.
Now, that first week will place more emphasis on stress management, nutrition and rest, as well as the physical aspects of military and fitness drills and how to keep dorms clean.
The Air Force began vetting the changes in a pilot program with two squadrons last December. Starting in October, that curriculum will apply to all airmen and Space Force guardians who start their military journeys at Lackland.
Courchaine told Air Force Times in February the plan came in response to the needs of Generation Z recruits — those born between 1996 and 2010 or so — particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Measures to slow the virus’s spread, like distance learning and isolation, and technology dependence have curbed opportunities for young Americans to develop face-to-face interpersonal skills. Now it’s the Air Force’s job to foster those relationships and ease recruits into adulthood.
“If we can create somewhat of an insular team at the trainee level, then we hope that … you feel comfortable with this group of 50 strangers that you just met 24 hours ago,” she said.
She wants the changes to turn boot camp from a potentially jarring and isolating experience into an empowering one.
For instance, Courchaine said, if a drill instructor singles out a trainee for a mistake, she hopes others will encourage rather than ostracize their wingman.
“If we’re putting people off on islands, then I think we’re setting people up for failure,” she said.
The service can also play a bigger role in teaching recruits how to explore a new city, instead of relying on apps like UberEats to bring the city to them, she added.
Curriculum changes can have physical benefits, too: The beta test found that modeling proper exercise form and encouraging trainees to ask questions led to fitter troops than in the past, according to the release.
Courchaine suggested in February that the Air Force can better prepare airmen for the physical aspects of boot camp by sending them workout videos and asking them to practice exercises ahead of time.
The 37th Training Wing will continue taking inspiration from basic military training regimens across the armed forces, like the Army’s “First 100 Yards” program, as it prepares enlisted recruits for technical school and beyond.
“At the end of the day, if we [can] get 100% of people through basic training and meet the standards, so that we have quality airmen … going to the Air Force, that’s my ultimate goal,” Courchaine said.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.