Easing transition to Air Force life
When a young airman is assigned to his or her first base after graduating from basic training and technical school, it can be a somewhat daunting experience.
For many of these young people this will be their first time living and functioning on their own, out from under the close supervision of parents or supervising sergeants. When they reach their new base they are immediately thrust into unfamiliar jobs and expected to function immediately as productive members of their squadron.
To help ease this uncomfortable transition, there is the First Term Airman Center, or FTAC. At Vance Air Force Base, FTAC consists of a minimum of three and a maximum of five full days of instruction.
“They are coming from a training environment and this is their first opportunity to be in an operational environment,” said Master Sgt. Richard Parks, career assistance adviser and the man in charge of FTAC at Vance. “In basic training, tech school, we’re there at school, we’re there in training, but we’re also there where they live, so they don’t really have to do anything.
“When they get here, it’s like OK, you are in the dorms and after 4:30 you’re kind of on your own.”
These airmen often are 18 or 19 years old, Parks said, with little practical life experience.
“They’ve never done laundry, they’ve never shopped, they’ve never bought groceries,” Parks said. “It’s really just to help ease that transition into the operational service.”
FTAC begins with young airmen meeting wing leadership, either 71st Flying Training Wing commander Col. Darrell Judy or vice commander Col. Fred Cunningham, as well as wing command Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Wilson.
“They kind of get the lay of the land, what the expectations are for the wing,” Parks said.
Airmen receive four hours of financial training, Parks said, part of which is learning to put together a budget. They also hear about retirement planning, though their careers are just beginning. The Airman and Family Readiness Center also offers guidance on buying a car, which is important since Vance airmen receive twice the Basic Allowance for Subsistence as airmen at larger bases.
“There are some cars in the parking lot and you say, OK, that person is probably eating peanut butter and jelly,” Parks said.
They learn about standards and discipline from the First Sergeants’ Association, hear from the base legal office and the medical group.
“They get suicide prevention, they get alcohol awareness courses, the wing chaplain comes in, the Military Family Life Counselor,” Parks said. “Anybody that’s on base that’s an option for them to deal with any kind of personal issues they have.”
Someone from Public Affairs talks to them about the dos and don’ts of social media for military members, they learn about the base honor guard and even hear from retirees, Parks said.
“They get a little bit of everything,” Parks said. “We do have some mandatory topics, but we try to make it a unique experience each time they come through.”
FTAC is an opportunity for airmen new to the base to get to know their peers, which helps given the fact Parks estimates only half of the airmen living in base dormitories have vehicles.
“If you don’t have a car here in Enid it’s pretty hard after 5 o’clock when the BX closes, you’re pretty much stuck,” he said. But finding a friend in the dorm with a car can help solve that problem. “If we sit in class for a week and we develop that relationship, and if I see him in the parking lot, ‘Hey man, let me tag along or go get something to eat, help me out.’ That networking piece and building those relationships is the secondary part of it.”
FTAC helps avoid nightmare scenarios, like the story Parks tells of his first job as a supervisor and one of his young airmen who didn’t know anybody on base wound up feasting on Doritos and a soda for Thanksgiving dinner.
Each airman in FTAC is required to write a one-page essay titled “Why I Joined the Air Force.” The essays are then read and the best essay is singled out by Wilson.
“We tell them to be honest,” Parks said. “Just them doing that helps them communicate better. It’s one of the best things we do in that course is getting them to open up and tell their story.”
Sometimes the friendships formed in FTAC are life-long, Parks said.
“I’ve had airmen who have gotten married who met in FTAC,” he said.
The FTAC program was founded at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., in 1977 by Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Estrem. It began as a 30-day program, two weeks of instruction and two weeks of base cleaning details. That has since been discontinued.
“We called it the base beautification program,” Parks said.
“We took screwdrivers and dug weeds out of sidewalks,” said Tech. Sgt. James Bolinger with the Vance Public Affairs office.
Later this year FTAC will morph again into a course called Airmanship 300.
“It will be a brand-new curriculum,” Parks said.
New airmen typically go through FTAC within 60 days of reporting to Vance, Parks said. There must be at least four new airmen on base in order to conduct a class, which means classes don’t happen often at Vance, due to the base’s small contingent of enlisted members (approximately 370 enlisted as compared to 885 officers). Parks said classes average about six members, with large classes ranging up to 12 or 15.
“Every 60 days we have a course,” Parks said. “We run about six to eight FTACs a year here at Vance.”
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