By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
July 24, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates got a glimpse today into major changes ahead in the Air Force's basic training program during a visit to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where he thanked trainees for their service and the contributions they soon will be making. Gates spent several hours at the San Antonio base known as "the Gateway to the Air Force," where about 600 new airmen graduate every week.
Despite pouring rain as the remnants of Hurricane Dolly moved through the region, the secretary toured the field training exercise area and watched trainees disassemble and reassemble M16 rifles and go through a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives chamber, reported Oscar Balladares, base spokesman. Gates also got a peek at the improvised-explosive-device training trail.
During the visit, Gates got a briefing on the Air Force's plans to add two weeks to its current six-and-a-half-week basic training program, Balladares said. The expansion, slated for early November, is designed to enhance airmen's warfighting skills with more training in weapons handling and maintenance, integrated base defense, and emergency medicine.
In some respects, the visit was a walk down memory lane for Gates, who received his Air Force commission at Lackland in 1967.
Speaking to trainees during the celebrated coin ceremony and retreat as they received their Airman's Coin in anticipation of their graduation tomorrow, Gates praised the airmen for volunteering to serve in the U.S. military.
"It takes uncommon perseverance to make it through basic training, especially in the Texas heat, just as it takes uncommon patriotism to make the decision to join the military in a time of war," he said.
Gates reminded the airmen they're joining an Air Force with a storied past, from the Berlin Airlift to dogfights over Korea to today's missions in support of the war on terror.
He noted that the Air Force has flown more than 1 million missions since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, including tens of thousands of sorties flown over U.S. skies to protect the homeland. Meanwhile, he told them, the Air Force's constant presence in Iraq and Afghanistan "has saved countless American lives [and] the lives of innocent civilians and has left terrorists and insurgents with little room to operate."
In addition, the U.S. Air Force has helped stand up both the Iraqi and Afghan air forces, basically from scratch, over the last two years, he said.
At the same time, the Air Force is taking on more and more varied operations than ever before, Gates said. He noted that more than 6,000 airmen are performing nontraditional missions on the ground, from detainee operations to explosive ordnance disposal or convoy security to leading provincial reconstruction teams.
"Put simply, without the Air Force's contributions in the skies and in many cases, on the ground, America's war effort would simply grind to a halt," Gates told the airmen. "Every soldier and Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan is profoundly grateful to have you overhead, watching out for them."
Gates reminded the airmen that basic training is just the first step in a path on which they will be big players in defending the United States and its interests, both at home and overseas. "It is no easy task, but it is a vital one if the United States is to remain safe, prosperous and strong," he said.
The secretary told reporters after the ceremony that he has great faith in the future of the Air Force and its new leadership.
After visiting Lackland, Gates traveled across town to Fort Sam Houston, where he visited wounded warriors at Brooke Army Medical Center.