October 30, 2014, Fort George G. Meade, Md. (AFNS) – Glamorized during the ‘80s movie ‘Top Gun,’ the concept of a wingman was to always keep the lead pilot safe, even at the cost of veering off to fight the enemy. For the past few years, “wingman” has become a pledge, promise and commitment between Airmen to take care of themselves and those around them.
Today, at the Air Force’s only basic military training unit at Joint Base San Antonio – Lackland, Texas, the term is taking on an even different meaning. A Wingman leads by example and takes action when needed, and the term is also used here as a way to take a stand against sexual assault.
Col. Michele C. Edmondson is the commander of the 737th Training Group and the Air Force’s basic military training program. She says that, while there have been challenges over recent years, with allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct among military training instructors and trainees, she feels that using the wingman concept is a positive step in meeting those challenges head on.
“Airmanship and wingmanship are huge, but to me … it’s also about dignity and respect,” Edmondson said. “That goes for how each Military Training Instructor, or MTI treats a trainee. How every trainee treats every other trainee. How every trainee treats an MTI. How I treat every MTI … and trainee. A lot of the past wouldn’t have been an issue if everyone would have treated each other with dignity and respect.”
Today’s trainees are assigned a wingman on day zero of training. If one trainee needs to go anywhere, their wingman is required to accompany them. Additionally, each Airman carries a “wingman card” on their person at all times. On the card it has the name of their wingman as well as emergency phone numbers to the trainee/student hotline and their sexual assault response coordinator.
The card says, “I will never leave my wingman. I will look out for possible self-harm or unprofessional relationship indicators to my wingman. I have a duty to report any indicators that may hurt my wingman or bring discredit to the United State Air Force.”
According to Col. Trent H. Edwards, the commander of the 37th Training Wing, wingmanship isn’t just another slogan or cumbersome program. “The other thing we are expressing to the trainees is the need to take care of each other. If you see your wingman in trouble you have to do something – you are obliged to do something and take care of each other. That then extends to the family of professional Airmen”
But Edwards says, that while wingmanship is important, it’s just as important to match the right people to the right job and get the right number of people to avoid the long hours and stressful situations.
“We’ve included more MTIs so they aren’t working 80 hours a week under very stressful conditions,” Edwards said. “Most importantly, we have implemented a professional development program for our MTIs and resiliency programs so that they understand the environment that they are in.”
To assist leadership with the oversight of the new programs, chief master sergeants, flight commanders, operations officers and first sergeants were added into every squadron.
Another change was bolstering the female MTI corps to ensure there is appropriate oversight for female flights, similar to mentorship efforts for male trainees.
“There will be at least one female available to every female flight,” said Master Sgt. Chrissie Slifer, a military training instructor. “That way (a trainee) will have a female to turn to, or a strong female role model.” This is the wingman concept executed on a much larger scale.
To ensure MTIs have the experience and maturity to lead, mentor and mold trainees, they are now required to hold the rank of technical sergeant or master sergeant.
BMT also continues to update its infrastructure to help make the environment safer for both trainees and MTIs. Both the Airman Training Complex, or ATC, and the recruit housing and training dormitories, or RH&Ts. underwent major physical and procedural changes.
According to Slifer, another key change to BMT has been the use of MTI offices. Once a place for MTIs to stay overnight, beds have been removed and MTIs are no longer allowed to stay there. During the hours of darkness, a Charge of Quarters, or CQ, helps to maintain the safety and security of all trainees.
The ATC provides a separation between MTI offices and trainee living areas. Under this concept, outward facing MTI offices are lined with windows making it visible from the main hallway. The offices have two points of entry – one from the main hallway and the other through the trainee’s living area — and whenever an office door is opened, it sends an alarm to the CQ.
Currently, the older dorm offices are still located inside the trainee’s living area; however the solid doors have been replaced by windowed doors, allowing full visibility into the office.
In addition to the changes in the office, a phone is now located in the ATC dayrooms or the dorm restrooms as a direct reporting line available for trainee use in the instance they need to report. The phone can also be used to speak to the on-call chaplain, reach the 2nd Air Force reporting line, or get the local weather and news.
“The reason for local weather and news is so a trainee doesn’t feel scared to pick up the phone,” said Tech. Sgt. Blake Roberts, a military training instructor. “(If using the phone) they could say, ‘I was just checking the weather,’ and not feel threatened. That was its intent.”
Another issue addressed was the lack of standardized training for MTIs. About two years ago, the 323rd Training Squadron became the primary training squadron for all instructors.
“When instructors get here they go through their normal Air Force military instructor school,” Roberts said. “When they are done with that, in the past it used to be that they would be a student with the flight and it was kind of like ‘baptism by fire.’ (MTIs) would just get destroyed.
According to both Roberts and Slifer, the instructor training curriculum has seen some major changes over the past couple of years. Though much of it is still focused on how to lead a flight, there has also been an emphasis on sexual assault prevention training, reporting procedures and various other situational based training.
“This was a complete culture shift making sure the trainee is protected and making sure the MTI is protected,” Slifer said, “just like a good wingman.”
“I think it is so much smarter and safer for (MTIs) too because I think about the way we used to do things. I used to council trainees in my office one on one, with the door open, or two trainees with the door closed. Who knows what they could have said that I did, or that I didn’t do? It’s just way smarter.”
Overall, the implementation of the new training has helps strengthen the MTI corps, in turn, providing better training to the new recruits.
“These skills and lessons about sexual assault that we teach them, they need to take that out to tech school and they need to take it out to the outside Air Force,” Roberts said. “They need to have that foundation early so they go out there and learn how to protect themselves.”
The use of the wingman concept has since evolved from its beginning, during the days when staying with a pilot often meant the difference between life and death. For today’s Airmen, however, the idea remains much the same. It is the notion of keeping fellow Airmen safe by making sure someone always has their back.