Air Force emphasizes wellness and stress management to create more resilient warriors

The new basic training curriculum aims to better prepare recruits for the uncertainties of war.

By Carson Frame, American Homefront ProjectNovember 8, 2023 11:38 am, ,

From the American Homefront Project:

When Air Force trainees step off the bus for basic training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, they undergo a rigorous introduction to military life, where they learn about principles like discipline, physical fitness and teamwork.

It’s a stressful transition by design. Trainees lose access to their cell phones and social networks, receive uniforms and basic supplies, and move into dorms with little privacy. But the Air Force also wants to make sure they have the tools to cope.

On a recent morning in October, the first full day of a basic training cycle, the booming voice of Master Sgt. Federico Arriaga resonated across an auditorium full of new trainees. They were bleary-eyed, running on just a few hours of sleep after a grueling day of travel and in-processing. Some stared at the ceiling, while others took notes or followed along with Arriaga’s lesson on their iPads.

“Anybody already homesick?” Arriaga asked, scanning faces and raised hands. “All right, a few of you.”

One trainee explained that she missed her children, while others said this was their first time away from home.

Sounding less like a drill instructor and more like a coach, Arriaga urged the trainees to rely on one another and draw emotional and mental strength from challenges they had already overcome.

“Wanting to go home is a normal reaction to stress,” he assured the group. “Believe in yourself, stand firm, and you will be successful.”

The rest of the lesson was a primer on the physical and mental stressors that awaited them in basic training. Arriaga emphasized self-control, a positive mindset, and a willingness to ask for help. He even offered tips for trainees to relax their bodies in difficult moments.

“The first one is tactical breathing,” he said. “Slow, deep breaths in and out through your nose. Keep your back straight, shoulders relaxed, and allow your belly to expand. Now your chest. Breathe fully in your lungs, filling them to the bottom.”

Courses on stress reduction and resilience have been part of Air Force basic training for years, but now they’re among the first things recruits encounter. According to Col. Billy Wilson, head of the 37th Training Group, the goal is to shape airmen into team-oriented problem solvers.

Air Force recruits at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland make their final phone call home for a while. They were given 90 seconds to inform their loved ones that they’d arrived at the base. Carson Frame / American Homefront

“It’s about giving the trainees an opportunity to get a better sense of self and what that actually means in the profession of arms,” he said. “We want to make sure that we deliver the curriculum in a way that allows them to absorb the information that we’re teaching and adapt to the new environment.”

In an era when threats can emerge quickly, the Air Force wants airmen who can handle the physical and emotional stresses of high-intensity operations and act decisively in complex, changing environments.

“The Air Force in particular is populated largely by persons who have technical expertise, so there’s a lot of decision making power that’s delegated down to frontline airmen,” said Col. Daniel Cassidy, director of human performance for the 37th Training Wing.

Recruit Saige Ware said the resilience training helped her cope with the stress she feels over her physical fitness test. “I can’t let not knowing how to do a certain number of pushups bring me down,” she said.
Vanessa Adame / U.S. Air Force

Cassidy, who helped reconfigure the Air Force’s basic training curriculum, said resilience comes from combining problem-solving skills with positive lifestyle habits. He added that it’s important to teach airmen how sleep hygiene, nutrition, proper exercise form, and stress management affect performance.

“We put trainees on a schedule which allows them to appreciate what it’s like to optimize these health behavioral inputs across seven and a half weeks of basic military training,” he said.

After just a few days at basic training, some new airmen were already wrestling with the concept of resilience and how to apply it. Saige Ware, 18, worried about whether she would be able to pass the physical fitness test.

“This is my goal,” she explained. “I’ve got to drive. I’ve got to be resilient. I can’t let not knowing how to do a certain number of pushups bring me down. I’ve learned a lot, actually.”

For Esteban Gonzalez, 18, the biggest hurdle was homesickness. He said he was getting through it by talking with others in his training group and reflecting on his reasons for joining the Air Force.

“I know people who have wives and children back home. It’s very hard to cope and persevere. But it’s just something you have to do,” he said. “That’s perseverance: Continuing to fight through whatever you’re going through and realizing that you’ll be okay in the end.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.