Devin B., U.S. Air Force 2nd Lieutenant, HPSP Medical Corps '22
For many new Air Force HPSP recipients, the idea of attending a five week long Commissioned Officer Training (COT) course at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama can be daunting. Especially if you come from a family with no prior military service, such as myself. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that there is very little reliable and detailed information available as far as how to prepare and what to expect, during what is most likely your first military training experience. Having just recently graduated from COT, I would like to share a description of my experience along with some suggestions on how to prepare. Hopefully this information and my perspective will help to relieve some of the stress and anxiety you may feel before attending COT.
How to Prepare
Once you have officially signed up for a COT date (this is usually done by your recruiter around the time of your commissioning, or if you have deferred COT until later, you need to get in touch with your point of contact at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) in order to sign up), I recommend that you begin purchasing your uniforms and preparing for the physical training (PT) test. Fortunately, you can find a few valuable pieces of information and videos about COT on the Officer Training School website, not the least of which is a list of uniform items, the Officer Training School Manual (OTSMAN), and information about the documents you’ll need to bring for in-processing. You can wait until you arrive at COT to purchase your uniforms, however, I would not recommend this option given the large number of students attending COT. The uniform store tends to be chaotic that first day, and it can take a while to get your uniforms back if they need alterations. The preferred option is to purchase uniforms beforehand from the Air Force Base nearest you. Unless you already have a military ID, you will need someone with an ID to sponsor you on base. For example, I convinced my recruiter to take me uniform shopping on base a few months before I left for COT. Another way to find someone who can sponsor you on base is to reach out on the Air Force HPSP Facebook page, you can usually find someone in your area that is willing to take you on base and help you purchase your uniforms. Note: this Facebook page can be a valuable resource for any HPSP related questions, I highly recommend requesting to join. I ended up having to take several trips to my local base for uniforms because they did not have some items in my size the first time I went, and then again to pick up alterations. I was impressed with how helpful the employees were at clothing sales as far as making sure I had everything on my list. The only uniform item I purchased off base were my boots, which I ordered online and made sure to break them in before leaving. I chose the Danner Tachyon boots, they are very comfortable, lightweight, and I did not get any blisters. Many of my COT classmates were jealous of these boots.
It is very important to arrive at COT prepared for the PT test. The test was administered on the fourth day of training, around 15 people from my class were sent home for not passing the PT test. The requirements for the PT test can be found here beginning on page 86. The test consists of a 1.5-mile run, waist measurement, pushups, and sit ups. I began preparing several months before COT by weight training three days a week and doing two days of cardio. Every two weeks, I performed a self-administered Air Force PT test to gauge my progress. The week before I left for COT, I did the test three times to make sure I was consistently scoring well. This was more than enough for me to receive an “excellent” on the actual test. We did far less physical training at COT than I was expecting, there just wasn’t enough time between all the academic and leadership training. The first two weeks we had PT around four times per week, some days we had two PT sessions. However, during weeks 3-5, the amount of PT really tapered off. I actually came home from COT in worse shape than when I left. Most of the PT sessions we did were cardio-heavy and did not involve very much strength training. However, there is a small gym on the Officer Training School campus that you can go to if you have time after scheduled military training (SMT) for the day is complete. SMT usually runs from 0430 – 1900 and lights out is at 2200 (you must be back in your dorm room by 2145).
One of the most helpful things I did before arriving at COT was study the OTSMAN. You can find the link to the OTSMAN on the OTS website referenced above. Essentially, the OTSMAN outlines all the customs, courtesies, and procedures that you will be using while at COT. You take a written test on the OTSMAN within your first week of training, for my class we took the test on Saturday of week one. Before COT, I read through the OTSMAN three or four times while trying to memorize everything I deemed most important. I also memorized all the information in the attachment at the end of the OTSMAN entitled Warrior Knowledge. This was useful because at COT you are sporadically verbally tested on this section.
Lastly, once you receive official orders, you need to make travel arrangements through the travel agency that AFIT is currently using. AFIT will provide detailed instructions on how to do this when you register for COT.
What to Expect During Training
COT usually begins on a Sunday which is designated as a travel day. Upon arrival you have to sign a few forms, then they issue your room key/number, linens for the bed, poncho, camelback, and a reflective belt to be worn outside your uniform during hours of darkness. Afterwards, you can go to your room to unpack and begin trying to get everything in inspection order according to the provided dorm manual. I read through a copy of an old OTS dorm manual that I found online before I left for COT, and I also practiced folding/rolling my clothes as outlined in the manual. You will save yourself some time and stress if you roll your shirts and socks before you pack for COT. In my opinion, it is best to arrive as early as you can that first Sunday, so you can have more time to get settled. I arrived late due to a delayed flight and I felt like I didn’t have enough time to get settled before lights out, and training began the next day. The first training day is long and consists of a lot of paperwork, standing in line, urinalysis, etc. They give you MREs to eat and you still wear your civilian clothes. This is also the day they take you to clothing sales in case you still need to purchase uniform items. Day two you begin wearing your ABUs and the yelling really starts as the military training instructors (MTIs) teach you how to stand at attention, salute, and perform facing movements. There is also some lecture time in the auditorium to introduce you to Officer Training School, the curriculum, and establish expectations. On day three, the COT class gets divided into flights, or groups of 13-16 trainees. Each flight is assigned a flight commander (usually a captain or major) who provides instruction in a lot of the academic material and serves as your flight’s mentor as the course progresses. My flight commander was excellent and did a lot to help us survive training by making the classroom environment a place where we were not worried about getting yelled at. However, I saw different flight commanders who did not employ that same style with their flights, so there is some variation in that regard. All the students in the flight receives some sort of a flight leadership position. For example, logistics officer, public affairs officer, academic officer, etc. Additionally, every flight member takes a turn serving as flight leader for at least a few days. There are also leadership positions available which give you responsibility over the entire COT class. These are randomly assigned during the first week and come with added accountability and time commitments. I was unlucky enough to be selected for one of these class-level positions, if this happens to you as well just try and have a good attitude about it and do your best. Any spare time you have during the first week is spent studying a pocket-sized version of the OTSMAN. As previously mentioned, week one you have the PT test and the test over the OTSMAN.
There is a lot of variation in your daily schedule as the course progresses. However, most days will consist of at least some drill instruction/practice (at the beginning there is a lot of this, towards the end not so much), auditorium lectures involving the whole class, lectures from your flight commander in your individual flight rooms, and leadership/problem solving exercises (also usually done with just your flight). The academic material consists of history/structure/policy of the Air force, different leadership/management styles, problem solving strategies, ethical/procedural case studies, etc. Every day lights on is at 0430 (there is some *unofficial* leniency on the weekends) and training ends no earlier than 1900 with lights out at 2200. Most meals are eaten at the dining facility, where you follow very strict procedures and only have 10 minutes to eat after you sit down. You will have to eat MREs on several occasions, for example during field training/exercises. You are always given the opportunity to eat three meals a day. Finally, you are required to march everywhere you go, you cannot just walk.
Sample Schedule Week 1:
0430 – lights on
0500–0600 – PT
0600-0630 – Uniform of the day change/dorm maintenance
0630-0730 – Breakfast (*your flight will be designated a specific time to eat within this window)
0800-1100 – Drill instruction
1130-1230 – Lunch (*your flight will be designated a specific time to eat within this window)
1300-1700 – Lecture (Boyd Auditorium/flight room)
1700-1800 – Dinner (*your flight will be designated a specific time to eat within this window)
1800-1900 – admin time/mentorship with Flt/CC
Note: You may notice gaps in the schedule to account for transit time (sometimes it can take quite awhile to travel a short distance if you are under the watchful eye of an MTI who stops and yells at your flight for every mistake while marching).
Generally speaking, on weekends (Saturday and Sunday) you are allotted more “free time” that you can use to study, clean your room/do laundry, get a haircut, exercise, or really anything else within reason. Also, every Sunday morning they give you time to attend religious services if you so desire.
Beginning with week two the amount of academic material you are required to learn really picks up. Make sure to ask your flight for help if you need it. Learning to work as a team and help each other is one of the main lessons they want you to learn at COT. Midway through week two you are tested as a flight to see how well you can march together. When your flight passes the test, you receive a pennant on the flight guidon which allows you to march around campus as a flight without supervision. On Saturday of week two they take you to visit Tuskegee museum, it is about a 45-minute bus ride off base. Make sure to bring your study materials because the first academic test is on Monday of week three.
Week three is the last week you are presented with new academic information, which is tested on the following Monday. On Saturday of week three, they bus you to visit the Enlisted Airman Museum. Again, I would recommend that you bring your study guide with you, so you can prepare as much as possible for the test. After that, the last two weeks of COT are all about putting what you have learned into practical leadership exercises. For example, during week four everyone takes a turn leading their flight through different parts of a challenging obstacle course. Towards the end of COT your class goes on a mock deployment designed to stretch your organizational and leadership skills. These are fun exercises, but they can be kind of stressful as well. It was nice to finally get out of the classroom though.
**Since this blog post was written, graduation activities at COT have changed. Current information from COT coordinators indicates that there is no graduation ceremony for students attending the 5-week COT (medical & dental students). A graduation ceremony only exists now for the 8-week COT. The information below will remain on this blog post, but information about graduation activities should be confirmed with officer training school directors before making definitive plans for family to attend.**
Graduation activities commence on Wednesday evening of graduation week with the “dining-in” event. This is a fun formal dinner held at a nice hotel off base where you are introduced to several Air Force traditions like the grog bowl (if you mess up on a custom/courtesy at the event you must drink from this nasty mixture). Mess dress is the uniform you are supposed to wear to the dining-in, however, mess dress was made optional for my class so many of us chose not to buy the mess dress and just wore service dress. The dining-in is only for trainees and staff, families are not invited to this event. Thursday morning your families are welcome to attend some informational sessions that serve as kind of an introduction to the Air Force culture. After that, an informal open house takes place where you are able to show your family around OTS campus. We were even allowed to go to lunch with our families off base. Thursday afternoon the awards ceremony takes place, your families are also invited to this event. Select squadrons, flights, and individuals are awarded for achievements in academics, leadership, physical fitness, and service. Additionally, the brigadier general that was to review our graduation parade the following day shared a short message at the awards ceremony. Graduation occurs Friday morning with the presentation of your graduation certificate by your flight commander, followed by your class graduation parade. Of course, families are invited to attend both events. Everything wraps up shortly after noon and then you are free to go. I flew home later that evening, whereas I knew of other people who stayed the night off base (you can’t stay that night in the dorms) and flew home the next day. My family stayed at a hotel off base for the two days of graduation events, but the families of some of my classmates that had a military ID (so they could get on and off base as they pleased) stayed at the hotel on base right across the street from OTS campus. Originally, I had told my family not to worry about coming because it would be a far trip. Nevertheless, my wife, mom, and dad insisted on coming and they were glad they came. Ultimately I was happy they were there as well, as I was proud of this accomplishment.
The uniform of the day throughout the entire course was ABUs except on the day of open ranks inspection (towards the end of week four) and the last two days of graduation week we wore blues. Picture day occurs midway through week three, you normally wear service dress for this, however, not everyone from my class had their blues back from alterations by then, so we wore ABUs for the pictures. As you progress through COT, the class may or may not receive certain privileges. For example, the weekend of week three we were permitted to leave the OTS campus and eat somewhere else on base if we so desired. During week four we were allowed to carry our cell phones with us during the day. Privileges are awarded in accordance with the performance of the class.
Overall, I had a positive experience while at COT. My newly acquired knowledge, skills, and confidence will undoubtedly serve me well in the future. My main point of frustration stemmed from the fact that as COT attendance increases during the busy summer months, OTS becomes significantly undermanned. The shortage of staff occasionally became apparent at different points throughout the course. For example, we started out with only three MTIs for all 285 of us, then one instructor got hurt so we were left with only two MTIs for the second half of the course. On the other hand, I was very impressed with the quality of all the staff that I came in contact with. Everyone was very good at their job and I felt they truly cared about our success as officers in training. Even given the time restraints of a five-week course, I felt the training gave me a great base to build upon and later succeed as an officer in the Air Force. I was also very impressed with all my fellow students/classmates. The future of the Air Force is in good hands. I became very close with the members of my flight and built strong friendships. Nothing brings a group closer together than being forced to do hard things together. My flight consisted of two lawyers, two nurses, eight medical students, and one individual involved in public health. It was great to network with people from all over the country. Unfortunately, I may forget most of what I learned at COT before I get the chance to go on active duty after I’m done with school. However, I’m positive that some of the things I learned from this experience will be helpful in other faucets of my life, including medical school. COT will be for you whatever you decide to make of it. Have a good attitude, try to have fun, do your best, and you’ll be fine.