Surviving Air Force Basic Training Graduation
My Trip to See My Daughters Graduate Air Force Basic Training
I had the distinct pleasure of watching my twin daughters (Christina and Jeanie) graduate from Air Force Basic Training, at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. If your loved one is graduating from basic training, and there is any way at all you can attend, I highly recommend it. It's an experience you will never forget.
Note: The information in this article describes my trip to Air Force Basic Training graduation. This is the schedule and what happened when I went. The times and events you experience may be different. For the current lists of dates, times, and events, contact the Lackland AFB Basic Training Reception Center at (210) 671-3024.
A week or so before the graduation you should receive a two-page brochure from your loved one with information concerning the graduation. Part of this packet will consist of a temporary vehicle pass, which you will need to drive a car, and/or even get onto the base during your visit (unless you are active duty/retired military, in which case your normal military vehicle sticker will suffice). If you do not receive the vehicle pass or have more than one vehicle, don't worry. You can get a replacement/more passes when you first arrive at the base, at the visitor's center at the Valley Hi or Luke Street Gates.
The basic training graduation schedule always begins on Thursday evening and ends on Sunday evening. If you can plan to be there during the entire four days, it's well worth it.
Thursday: We drove, and timed our arrival at 1030 hours (10:30 AM) on Thursday so that we could attend the events briefing scheduled for 1100 (11:00 AM).
The events briefing is conducted several times, all day Thursday, and once on Friday morning.
If you are driving to San Antonio or renting a car at the San Antonio Airport, you will be arriving on one of four major roads: I-10/Hwy. 90, Hwy. 281, I-37 or I-35. Local traffic conditions are particularly congested during weekdays between 7:00 AM to 9:00 AM and again between 4:00 PM to about 7:00 PM
Arriving from the East on I-10 or Hwy 90: Travel straight through San Antonio on I-10/Hwy 90 West. Exit on Military Drive Turn left onto Military Drive. Travel South approximately 1 mile to the Luke Street entry gate which will be on your right.
Arriving from the North on I-35, Hwy. 281 or I-10: When you enter San Antonio, turn right onto Loop 410 West. Take exit #7 Valley Hi /Lackland AFB. Remain on the access road until reaching the Valley Hi intersection. Turn left onto Valley Hi. Travel East approximately 3/4 mile to the Valley Hi entry gate, which will be directly ahead.
Arriving from the South on I-35 or I-37: When you enter San Antonio, turn left onto Loop 410. Take exit #7 Valley Hi / Lackland AFB. Remain on the access road until reaching the Valley Hi intersection. Turn right onto Valley Hi Travel East approximately 3/4 mile to the Valley Hi entry gate, which will be directly ahead.
If you are flying to San Antonio, I strongly recommend you rent a car at the airport. While you can travel via taxi or bus to Lackland AFB, it will be extremely difficult getting from your hotel to the various events at Lackland throughout the graduation weekend, if you are not driving a car.
From REDLEG, a reader of ours, who recently attended a graduation ceremony at Lackland: If you don't want to rent a car, or you are not old enough to rent a car, you may wish to try MAC TRANS, tel (210) 670-8855. Rates from their business card:
- To/from Lackland AFB (and surrounding hotels) to/from Airport = $15 per person (but if there's two or more people riding, it's $10 each)
- Transportation on base (from one point on Lackland AFB to another) - $3.00 per person
- Transportation to/from a location on base to/from local hotel - $4.00 per person
- Transportation to/from a location on base (or local hotel) to/from the San Antonio Downtown area - $12.00 ($6.00 per person for two or more)
Once you enter one of the gates, there are signs which will direct you to the Basic Training Reception Center, which is located on Carlswell Street. The Reception Center opens at 0800 (8:00 AM) on Thursday, and there are scheduled events briefings throughout the day. Even if you don't plan to attend one of the briefings, a member of the family must sign into the reception center to make sure your recruit will be available during the visitation periods.
This is EXTREMELY important. Do not attempt to surprise your family member by not signing in. If you do so, you run the risk that he/she will be scheduled for Dorm Guard or some other detail during the visitation periods, and you won't get to see them. When you sign in, have their squadron and flight number handy (it will be on the invitation you receive in the mail, and is also part of the mailing address you've been using to write to them while in basic). Having this information handy will make it much easier to find their name on the visitation list.
The events briefing lasts about an hour to 1 1/2 hours. While subject to change, the current schedule for the briefings is:
0900 (9:00 AM)
1100 (11:00 AM)
1400 (2:00 PM)
0900 (9:00 AM)
The events briefing gives you an overview of what will/when will happen during the graduation weekend, as well as rules you and the recruit must follow. Even if you are current/retired military, I highly recommend attending one of these briefings (The only "negative" comment I have about the briefing is that the briefer kept referring to our graduating loved ones as "Your Recruit." "Your recruit will arrive at 0900 hours." "Your Recruit is allowed to ride in your vehicle." I remember thinking to myself, "Wait a minute, they are *YOUR* recruits, but they are *MY* daughters).
In addition to signing in and attending one of the briefings, the Reception Center has a snack bar and a gift shop. It is here that you can also order copies of the graduation ceremony videos.
One of the things that surprised me the most during our visit were the number of family members and friends attending. When I graduated Air Force Basic in 1975, there were about three recruits in my flight who had family members/friends attend the graduation parade. In my daughters' flight, there were just two recruits who DIDN'T have family members or friends attending. One recruit in my daughters' flight had 16 guests attending! When we arrived at 10:30 for the events briefing, the two close parking lots were already almost full. Those who arrived a little bit later for the briefing had to park in other parking lots two, three, and even four blocks down the road.
After the events briefing, we decided to drive over to the other side of the base (the base is divided into two sections). As we crossed Military Drive to enter the gate on the other side, we noticed a long line of cars for those using the temporary visitor passes at the gate's visitor center (being retired military, my vehicle has a military sticker, so we didn't have to use the passes). The temporary passes must be signed by Security Police to be "activated." In order to activate the pass, you will need your vehicle registration, your driver's license, and proof of insurance. Once signed, the pass is valid until the end of the following Sunday.
During the events briefing, we were told that the recruits would arrive at the Reception Center that evening at about 1600 (4:00 PM) for the evening retreat ceremony, which begins at 1630 (4:30 PM). Noting the size of the morning crowd, we decided to see if we could check into our hotel a little early and try and make it back by about 1500 (3:30 PM) to "beat the crowd" and try and get a close parking space.
We had reservations at the Best Western Lackland Inn & Suits, which is just down the road on Hwy 90. The hotel is clean, modern, and modestly priced (for San Antonio). However, if I had to do it again, I wouldn't stay there. Instead, I think I would try the Holiday Inn which is just another few blocks down. When I made the reservations, I asked for a suite and was told there were three types of rooms -- regular rooms, small suites, and large suites. I chose the small suite (trying to save a few bucks). The "small suite" turns out to be nothing more than a room with a kitchenette. While this is not too bad, there were absolutely no cooking/eating utensils supplied, so unless we wanted to go out and buy a complete set of cooking utensils, it didn't do us much good. At least in the Holiday Inn, there would have been room service. We were gone from the room all day on Friday, and the room had not been cleaned upon our return at about 8:30 PM. I complained about this, and the room was cleaned while we were out on Saturday, but upon our return, we found that someone (presumably the maid) had left a walkie-talkie on one of the beds. Minor problem(s), but shows a lack of attention to detail that one expects when staying in a "nicer" hotel.
Eagle3000 (The folks who run the Basic Training Souvenir Shop) have a list of " hotels which give discounts for family members attending Air Force Basic Training Graduation.
There are two videos professionally taken during the graduation weekend -- the Thursday retreat ceremony and Friday's graduation parade. You can order a copy of each at the Reception Center Gift Shop. The cost is $21.00 for each video or $35.00 for both. They are delivered (by mail) about six weeks after you order them.
You can also buy loads of basic training souvenirs at the shop.
Hint: If you don't want to fight the crowds at the gift shop, you can order most of the popular items, online.
If you have a military/retired/dependent ID card, there is a possibility that you can stay at the Gateway Inn on Lackland Air Force Base. Don't count on this, though. The Gateway Inn (base billeting) is usually full at Lackland with official duty travelers.
Guide Note: The first event *used* to be the Retreat Ceremony. This changed after our visit. Now, the first event is the Airman's "Fun Run," which is at 9:30 A.M. on Thursday Morning. The Airmen run for two miles, in military formation, and their route takes them past the Reception Center, where family members line up to try and get a glance at their recruit. You won't have an opportunity to talk to your recruit at this time, however (they don't stop there). That opportunity will come after the Retreat Ceremony.
Our plan to arrive back "ahead of the crowd" didn't work. When we arrived back at about 15:30 (3:30 P.M.), the parking lots were already packed, and we had to park a couple of blocks down the road. The bleachers were also getting full by then, and had we arrived any later, it would have been standing room only.
For those who don't know, a " retreat ceremony" is a ceremony to lower the United States Flag at the end of the official duty day. The various flights began marching up to the retreat grounds (which is a parking lot behind the Reception Center), at about 16:00. Everyone who could leave the bleachers while having someone save their place left to stand at the side of the marching path to see if they could see their loved one(s). I tried. I really, really tried. At one time I thought I saw one of my daughters, but told myself it wasn't her. (Turns out I was wrong). Your loved one will look completely different. They look different (hair, uniform), they walk (march) different, and -- most of all, their attitude or "air about them" is completely different.
After the recruits march up to their staging area, everyone returned to their seats. Here is where knowing your loved one's flight number will also help. As they march onto the Retreat Field, their flight is announced. Keep your eyes peeled for where they wind up.
There is simply no way to describe how one feels during the retreat ceremony. I have been through hundreds of such ceremonies, and dozens of military parades. I have been both a spectator and a participant. I have spent countless hours organizing both events. Not a single event struck me emotionally as hard as watching my daughters as part of a group of proud professionals, displaying their respect for our Nation's flag. If there isn't a tear in your eye at the end of this ceremony, you're a harder person than I am.
After the ceremony, they dismiss the flights, and invite the hundreds in the stands to "go on down and find your recruit." You don't have a chance if you don't know the approximate area to begin your search. Luckily, I'm much larger than the average Joe, and my daughters were able to find me. Otherwise, I'd probably still be looking. However, they found me, and it was finally the moment I had traveled 900 miles for. To say I was the proudest, happiest man on earth would be a very large understatement. I'm not even going to try and find the words. This is something you will have to discover yourself.
A word about "Public Displays of Affection (PDA), while wearing a military uniform." This is normally frowned on by the military, but an exception is made during this period for BRIEF hugs and kisses. Keep it brief, however. Don't get your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend in trouble by swapping spit in front of hundreds of spectators and (worse) their T.I.s. (This is true of the entire visit. On Saturday, during the town pass, I saw a recruit walking through a mall downtown with his wife/girlfriend, hand-in-hand. I was about to approach him and give him a little advice when an off-duty T.I. beat me to it. He took the recruit off to the side for five minutes of conversation. It's best not to speculate about the words/phrases used).
After retreat ends (about 16:45), and you find your loved one in the crowd, you can take them anywhere on base until about 1930 (7:30 PM). It is very important that they get back to the Reception Center by then because they must walk back to their dormitory and be inside no later than 2000 (8:00 PM). I don't know if it would actually happen, but recruits are told they will be recycled if they break curfew. Best not let your loved one be a "test case."
Here's a tip about what your loved one will want to do -- EAT. Neither of my daughters were "sweet-lovers" before basic training. Both of them were into health foods. However, a week before graduation, I talked to my daughters on the phone, and they asked me to bring food, any food, but make sure I brought lots of junk food. After we checked into our hotel, before returning to the Reception Center, we found a grocery store, and (get this!) a drive-through Chinese Restaurant (China Rose, located on Military Drive, just north of Hwy 90). Between the grocery store and China Rose, I bought 2 quarts of fried rice (one quart of chicken, one of beef), a cheesecake, an apple pie, a package of cookies, a 12-pack of coke, and two chocolate pudding "snack packs." My thoughts were to give my daughters a wide choice and save any leftovers for the next day. What leftovers?
We decided to leave the crowd who were gathering around the picnic tables at the Reception Center and found a small park right behind the Commissary. After polishing off all of the food we brought for them, as well as a candy bar that I happened to have in the van for myself, my daughters asked me if we could stop by Baskin Robbins on the way back to the Reception Center. Bring your loved one food -- lots of food!
Another thing to be prepared for. If you aren't or haven't been in the Air Force, expect your loved ones to be speaking to you in a foreign language. They will use military/Air Force acronyms without thinking about it. "When we were doing PC, the MTI told me to report ASAP to the MPF." (Translation: "While we were busy doing exercises, the guy who is in charge of my life at this point in time, told me to go as fast as I possibly could to the building where the people who do the paperwork hang out").
Friday : The graduation parade begins the next day (Friday) at 1100 (during the summer months, when the weather is hotter, the graduation parade is at 0900). However, the parade is held on the other side of the base, away from the Reception Center. Since 9-11, they don't allow parking close to the bleachers on the Parade Ground, so buses begin leaving the Reception Center at about 1015. They use dozens of busses and they keep loading/moving passengers at an impressive pace. Learning our lesson from the night before, and knowing there was a scheduled briefing at 0900 that many people would be attending, we arrived at the Reception Center at 0800 to get a close parking space. Hint: If you decide to do this, there is a MacDonalds on Military Drive, just north of Hwy 90. A couple of breakfast sandwiches, and a large cup of coffee, and you're good to go.
A word for smokers: The retreat bleachers, the parade ground, and the Reception Center are non-smoking areas. However, you can sit in your car and smoke and the picnic tables in the back of the Reception Center have been designated as smoking areas. Away from these areas, you can smoke outside, but there is no smoking inside of most of the Air Force facilities.
The graduation parade begins at 1100 and is over surprisingly quickly. I expected the parade (with speeches) to last a full hour, but it barely lasted 30 minutes. Again, upon completion, the recruits are dismissed and everyone in the stands gets to rush down and congratulate them (after you find them). Your loved one is allowed to ride the bus back to the reception center with you, or, you can choose to walk back with them (about 3/4 of a mile). At that point, they are released for an all-day on-base liberty and can ride with you in your vehicle anywhere on base.
Right after the parade, and until about 1300 (1:00 P.M.), there is an "open house" held in the dormitories. This period is referred to (by the Basic Training Staff) as the "payback" period. This is where you can see where your loved one actually lived and can see with your own eyes that it was possible to teach him/her how to make a bed and fold clothes. This is also a chance for you to meet and talk with their T.I.s. Before walking over to the dorm, one of my daughters begged me, "Please, Dad, don't make any jokes, okay? Our T.I. DOES NOT have a sense of humor." Luckily for her, the bay she lived in was on the top (3rd) floor, up five flights of stairs. Upon reaching the top level, I couldn't even breath, let alone attempt to be funny. I think they build dormitory floors higher than when I went through basic.
The visit to the dorm reinforces that even though they have gone through the graduation ceremony, they are still in basic training, and will be until they out process. When we left the bay and went back down the flight of stairs (much easier going down, I think the exercise of going up got me a little bit back into shape), there was a T.I. waiting there, sending recruits back up to fix their "scuffed shoes." My daughters noticed this before we even left the doorway of the building, and scurried back up the stairs without being told (they learned much during their six weeks).
Before we could get on with our day, there was some "running around" to do. My daughters needed to pick up some uniforms from the cleaners and had to get some items from military clothing sales (One of them needed to buy an Honor Graduate Ribbon!). Be prepared to do this, as most places they may need to go (officially) are closed on Sundays, and some of the official offices, such as finance or personnel will be closed on Saturday, as well.
During our trip, there was only one authorized off-base pass, which occurred on Saturday. However, effective June 2004, the Air Force has changed their basic training pass procedures. The pass following the graduation parade on Friday is now an off-base pass, as is the pass on Saturday following graduation. Winners of the Thunderbolt and Warhawk awards, as well as honor graduates, get an off-base pass on Sunday, as well. Others receive an on-base pass on Sunday.
If you elect to stay on base during the pass-periods, there are plenty of places to visit on Lackland, including the BX, Commissary, Bowling Center, parks, eating establishments, etc., during the on-base pass on Friday, but they will all be crowded with new graduates and their families. If you've never seen a military commissary or BX, this will be your chance. You can enter these facilities with "your recruit," but you will not be able to purchase anything unless you have a military ID card ("your recruit" can purchase for you, however).
We spent our time during the day eating (well, my daughters were eating, anyway), at almost every eating place on base -- and there are several of them, including the AAFES Snack Bar, the BX Food Court, Bowling Center, Gateway Club, Mitchell Hall, Smokin' Joe's BBQ, Arnold Hall, Burger King, Golf Course and various other concessions throughout the base. You will not believe how much your loved one wants (or needs) to eat (I'm still shaking my head over this, a full week later).
Again, you have to make sure you return them by 19:30, as they must walk back and be inside the dormitory no later than 2000.
Saturday : Saturday, the recruits are released at about 0900, and should arrive at the Reception Center shortly after. There is no need to arrive early on this day. The parking lot which was blocked off for the Retreat Ceremony on Thursday and used for the buses on Friday should now be open, which allows much more parking space. Consider using this parking lot. While parked there, I noticed several people still parking blocks away, when they noted the other two parking lots were full.
Saturday's visit, like Friday, is an "off base" pass. You can take your loved one anywhere downtown San Antonio. Again, you must return them to the Reception Center (or one of the other designated drop-off points) by 19:30. I won't go over all that's available to visit in San Antonio, as there are many attractions and they are available on the Internet, and in various guide books. Many people in my daughters' flight planned to spend the day at Sea World, or Fiesta Texas (Six Flags). Because I spoiled by daughters rotten when they were kids, they had already visited these attractions before and had no desire to stand in lines on a busy Saturday. Instead, we visited the River Walk briefly, and then they wanted to explore a mall (and pretend they were teenagers again). After the mall, we went to our hotel room, where they indulged themselves in a long, hot, PRIVATE shower (no privacy in basic), and watched a pay-per-view movie (and, of course, ate constantly throughout the day).
Sunday : If you elect to stay Sunday (we didn't), it will be an on base pass unless your recruit is an honor graduate or a winner of the Thunderbolt or Warhawk awards. The recruits will be released to walk to the Reception Center at about 0900 and can spend the day with you until about 17:30 (5:30 PM) that evening. They must be back in their dorm by 1800 to pack up and prepare to ship out to technical school the next day.
You'll be happy to know that I spoke with both of my daughters on the phone a week after they started technical school (Air Force Job Training), and their eating habits had ALMOST returned to normal.