In Basic Officer Training, I Just Couldn’t Shut Up, and It Cost Me an Award and Could Have Cost Me My Future Career

Everyone who knows me would agree I’m an extrovert, as I get my energy from being around and interacting with other people. In basic training, you don’t get that opportunity. Your interactions are limited and controlled, and most of what you say is a response to something from a drill instructor or flight captain.

It was late June 2004, and I flew on a commercial plane from Washington, DC to Rapid City, South Dakota, to participate in Air Force ROTC’s basic officer training at Ellsworth Air Force Base, what we called “Field Training”. It was the required four-and-a-half week course that tested each cadet via continued stressful environments and situations. Additionally, my performance in this course was a small yet determining factor in my future career.

I wanted to go to pilot training…and my selection to that training was based on the following criteria, which are very well explained on this website and shown here in the chart below:

FactorRangeMultiplierWeight of Score
Cadet Class Ranking5-10550% (50 points)
Grade Point Average2.0-4.03.7515% (15 points)
Physical Fitness Test75-1000.1010% (10 points)
Field Training Rating5-10110% (10 points)
Pilot Candidate Selection Method Score1-990.151615% (15 points)

As I can now look back at my records and run the numbers, this is what I came up with at the time of my application to pilot training.

FactorMy ScorePoints
Cadet Class Ranking #2 out of 3047.8
Grade Point Average3.75 out of 414.06
Physical Fitness Test (My average score was a 90)90 out of 1009
Pilot Candidate Selection Method Score46 out of 996.97
Total Points =77.83

That meant that my performance at Field Training could get me to a 87.83 (if I graduated at the top of my class) or an 82.07 (if I graduated at the bottom), and that was the difference between an B+ and a B-…and with seemingly half of Air Force ROTC cadets wanting to go to pilot training, I figured I need to get that B+ on my application.

And that’s why I needed to shut my mouth…

But that’s very difficult to do for me and many times during Field Training…I just couldn’t do it.

There was the time when my flight was on bus going back to our barracks from the dining hall. We would normally march (and jog) but heavy storms had come in and changed our plans. While on the bus, we were all required to sit at attention and hold a small paper book in our hands, which rested on the seat back in front of us. Each page in the book had information we were required to memorize, like the phonetic alphabet, the entire chain of command from ROTC to the top of the Air Force, and all four verses to the Star Spangled Banner.

As I sat there, I positioned my book in front of my face, so our training staff couldn’t see my eyes, as I of course was looking out of the window. Next thing I knew, I heard one of them bark at me.

“Cadet Schaffel! 341 for looking around at the position of attention!” He was referring to a Form 341, something we had to fill out and turn in to document our infractions.

I should have shut my mouth and said, “yes, sir” and gone back to looking at my book, but I decided that running my mouth would be a better option.

“Sir, may I make a statement?”

“What!”

“Sir, I was looking outside to ensure that it is safe for me and my fellow cadets to get off the bus when we arrive at our destination.”

The training staff member’s face turned red and he rushed from the front of the bus to where I was sitting.

“CADET SCHAFFEL! DON’T YOU THINK THAT THERE ARE MORE FUCKING IMPORTANT PEOPLE THAN YOU WHOSE JOB IT IS TO DETERMINE THE SAFETY AND WELL BEING OF THESE CADETS!

“YOU WOULD BE DOING PUSHUPS RIGHT NOW IF WE WEREN’T ON THIS BUS!”

I went back to looking at my book and somehow refrained from saying anything further…at least at that time.

At some other point during Field Training, one of my roles and responsibilities for our flight was to be a road guard. As we marched everywhere we went, our flight had two reflective vest-wearing cadets who marched about 10 to 15 paces ahead and behind the rest of the flight that was marching in formation. The road guards’ job was to preposition themselves in roadways to ensure that no cars would approach as the formation was walking through an intersection or crosswalk.

This was a job that I had to do for a week, and while doing the job, I would have regular conversations with the other road guard marching next to me. No one could hear us, as we were too far in front or behind the rest of the flight and our training staff.

Until one day, during one of my reviews, our flight captain sat me down in his office and asked me why I was talking in formation. I asked for more details and he said that other cadets said that I would talk during my road guard responsibilities.

Not only was my own mouth hurting me, but now others weren’t doing me any favors…

Then there was the time when we had just crawled through a mud pit and I put my uniform hat on backwards. It seemed easier to crawl through the mud as I had better vision while doing so. After I got out, I saluted some training staff with my hat on backwards, and in doing so, I brought my saluting hand all the way behind my head so my fingers touched the brim of my hat (as was proper procedure if I were wearing it facing forward).

“Schaffel, why is your hat on backwards?”

Instead of saying, “Sorry, ma’am,” and putting my hat forwards, I had a snarky comment (because when do I not have a snarky comment for something)…

“Ma’am, my vision was impaired while crawling through the pit, so I turned my hat backwards. Upon exiting the pit, I wanted to give you a proper salute, so I saluted the back of my cap.”

That also didn’t go over very well…

While I’m sure there were other cases of me flapping my gums, it all came to conclusion in our final cadet rankings. During the second-to-last night of our training, our flight captain sat each of us down and told us our class ranking, one of the five determining factors for pilot training selection.

When it was my turn, I was ready to hear the good news. I knew my fellow cadets had rated me highly, as we had a peer rating that was made public each week, so I was excited to see the finally tally. I didn’t think I would be number one, but I knew I would be towards the top.

“Cadet Schaffel, you are ranked number five in the flight,” the flight captain told me.

With about 25 or so in our flight, being number five would put me in the top 20% and earn me the Superior Performer award. I might not have been a Distinguished Graduate (the top 10%), but it was still good.

The next day, as they handed out awards, they went down the list calling each of the first four ranked cadets. Then it was my turn, except it didn’t come. The sixth-ranked cadet in our flight, a good guy named Troy, was given the Superior Performance award. I got nothing.

Later that day, I asked our flight captain what happened and why Troy was given the award over me. “Well, we looked at everybody at the squadron level and found that he just outperformed you there.”

I don’t know for sure, but that didn’t make sense to me. The rankings were given out on a flight-by-flight basis. I could only determine that, while they had to stick to the calculations that put me fifth place in the flight, they must have had the authority to pass me over for an award.

This is what I felt like they were saying: “Cadet Schaffel, you’re arrogant and you know it, and we’re trying to teach you a lesson.”

The difference in coming back in the top third of my flight and earning the award was one point on the pilot selection score. My Field Training ranking earned me eight points, instead of nine.

Luckily for me, it didn’t matter, as I found out that I was selected for pilot training on March 11th, 2005, about eight months after I left South Dakota.

While I didn’t end up going to pilot training, the reasons of which are explained in the first chapter of my book, I’ll never forget those lessons from Field Training, and while they’re still difficult for me, I do my best at just shutting the hell up…at least sometimes…

Here are some pictures from my time in South Dakota:

Hotel Flight, Ellsworth II, June – July 2004. I’m standing fifth from the left.
Standing with three of my closest “battle buddies.” On the left is Donnie Meyers, a guy as equally ridiculous as me. Second from the left is Steve Smith, who grew facial hair so quickly he had to shave twice a day. On the right is Troy Leiker.
Our flight on our last night at the base, enjoying our “dining out.” Pictured in the center, seated, is our flight captain. You can tell Donnie and I are enjoying ourselves.
Pointing at the camera is our flight captain. You can see Donnie just to his right laughing. Donnie and I always knew that our flight captain was a goofy guy, and we were happy to have one night where we could all relax.

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