ALS did more than prepare me to be an NCO

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Reggie Manning
  • 341st Logistics Readiness Squadron
We were lined up against the wall of a narrow hallway, resembling day one of basic training. I was expecting a flock of MTI's to come running down the hall with their vocal cords blaring like Civil War piccolos at any moment. Flashbacks of "drop your bags trainees!" haunted me as I saw three instructors making their way towards me. I was preparing myself to be 'Re-Blued,' my eyes envisioned war faces, my ears anticipated verbal onslaughts of military motivation, my knees were showing early signs of buckling, but I was wrong.

There before me stood a well groomed, perfectly uniformed technical sergeant with embracing eyes. His first words were, "nice to meet you, Sir. How are you feeling this morning?" I was caught off guard. I opened my mouth but my brain could not select words to transmit. This was the complete opposite of what I've spent the previous few days dreading. 'Sir'? I would have never expected such a professional greeting, but this was the womb of professionals.

I soon realized that this place wasn't intended to break you down, but in fact, to build you up.

After being split into two flights, I was officially a Titan. Our instructor was Tech. Sgt. Jesse Cook, the same gentle-voiced Instructor that stunned me with the address of Sir. The 15 of us Titans sat behind a U-shaped table with a binder in front of us that made the Bible look like a pamphlet.

It didn't take long to realize why the fail rate of ALS was so high when our instructor went over the rules and standards we all had to follow: no profanity, no smoking, no tardiness and no unprofessional jokes. These rules may seem they should the standard everywhere, but hearing them spelled out like land mines of instant failure made the punch more severe.

If you had a dirty uniform, strings on your chevron, scuffed boots, were not groomed or had personal hygiene issues, turned in late homework or unfinished projects, or didn't read the next day's lesson, the result was paperwork and the possibility of being released back to your squadron. I was already limping on my last leg with leadership, so I knew there was no way I could get kicked out of ALS and still have a career.

So I focused. We all did. I wrote down everything our instructor said, even the jokes. I had sticky notes soaked with more ink than Californian tattoo artists. I also took the liberty of buying a weatherproof memo pad, just in case I wasted coffee on my notes. You had to be extremely careful in this place, and my toes were in screaming agony from tip toeing so gingerly. I knew that one wrong move, one wrong comment, or one unorganized morning of not being 100 percent prepared would result in my early termination from ALS.

My short term goal was to at least last a week, and for a week I said nothing in fear of uttering an accidental curse word. I quit smoking, even on the weekends, out of fear that an instructor would pass by my garage and serve me with walking papers. I was extremely paranoid ... and it worked.

The homework capacity was unmerciful. There were Navy SEALS in Hell Week who were acquiring more sleep than we were. There were nights where I had to write speech outlines, the speech itself, create a power point presentation to go along with the speech, memorandums, and still read up on the next day's lesson. I spent countless hours going over my briefings and practicing in front of my wife, while employing her to count my amount of "Um's and Uh's," but it worked. I went from having cold chills about public speaking to actually being ecstatic the night before. So even after working overtime on weeding out my verbal pauses that stood out like spring dandelions, I still could not sleep due to mere excitement.

The intense PT conducted every day would've sent "Senior Airman" Chuck Norris back to his squadron. My body was pushed to limits that I never knew existed. I sweated enough fluids to nourish the Sahara Desert. But somehow I made it through; we all made it through. Drill Practice was an instant flashback. I found myself standing in formation thinking of home, the same thoughts I had during basic. I was awfully nervous about making a wrong turn or missing a step. The butterflies in my stomach became airborne and made me nauseous; we all were, and it showed during our early practice sessions. Here we were, years later, turning right on left flank calls. But somehow we all got it together.

The morning of every test the same vibe fogged the room. Knowing a few missed questions could cancel out everything you've done so far was overwhelming. Everyone had a coffee cup in front of them pumping enough steam to create a sauna. If you fell asleep during an exam, that was an instant ticket home, even though you just pulled an all-nighter studying for this exam.

Cell phones were stacked outside the door because if one rang, buzzed, or even emitted a light too loud during an exam, you might as well stand up and click your heels. I was still paranoid, even though I surpassed my self-expectation by lasting more than a week. I was in the last week, on the final exam, and there was no way I was going to let my cell phone send me home over a Facebook notification. I took extra precautions when I set my phone outside the door. I set it on silent, shut it off, removed the battery, and even considered calling into Verizon to cancel my contract. There was no way I was going home this late in the course.

When Cook walked into the room after our final examination with a look of disappointment written all over his face, I started packing my bags. I tried ... and for that simple fact, I was proud. I was giddy I even made it to the last week. All dreams end when reality sets in. I knew that I had failed and I just wanted to run to my car to avoid the shame.

"You all passed," he announced, and it felt like he declared that the war had ended.

All of my paranoia paid off. I walked across that graduation stage and felt a level of pride I would've never imagined; words cannot express the emotions that soared through my body. My heartbeat was thumping through my blues shirt against the pins on my ribbon rack. From my facial expression, you would've thought I was being honored with the Air Force Cross as I accepted the ALS certificate.

I ultimately realized that ALS doesn't make these awful leaders I have run across in my career. I used to think that all staff sergeants were brainwashed in ALS with their main objective being to destroy Airmen. But now I see that ALS doesn't make leaders, it only gives you the tools to become one.

My experience in ALS was life changing and provided me with a new outlook on the military. I was surrounded by great Airmen as well as dedicated instructors who pushed me to not give up, and to stop setting such low goals for myself. Raising the bar was the motto.

I limbo'd my way into Airman Leadership School, but I did a chin-up on my way out, thanks to the Airmen who believed in me, and the instructors who motivated me to believe in myself.