Joe Pappalardo visited Lackland for a story about the new ways the U.S. Air Force trains special-ops fighters. Check out the feature here.
LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, TX—I knew that I was in trouble when I saw the mannequin. It’s ripped with the abs of Brad Pitt in Fight Club, and despite the lack of legs it’s the most intimidatingly conditioned dummy I’ve ever seen.
The musclebound torso before me wears nothing but a wristband and a chest strap supporting a sensor the size and shape of a hotel bar of soap. The gear measures the human body’s performance—more specifically, the exertions of young airmen at the U.S. Air Force Special Warfare Training Wing. The dummy is used to introduce them to the equipment they will wear when they run and workout, producing data that will scrutinize them like they’ve never been scrutinized before.
The mission at this facility at Lackland Air Force Base is deceptively simple: to get trainees ready for their first special-operations training class, an unforgiving session called Assessment and Selection. Airmen must pass A&S to do Air Force jobs that involved deploying with ground forces. Think of pararescue operators who leap out of aircraft or tactical controllers who call in close air support. Seniorhelpline got a behind-the-scenes tour of this facility, which is applying the technology used in professional athletics to military training.
To the instructors here in Texas, the human body is a machine to be quantified and calibrated to an optimal state. An eight-week course uses sensors, intensive exercise, classwork, and shrewd mentorship to peel back the human body and mind, and expose any weakness. Trainees have their central nervous system, hormone levels, and sleep cycles tracked. They give urine samples, perform in front of motion-capture video, and see their plates of food scrutinized by nutritionists. They are assigned to hot tubs, cold baths, sensory-deprivation chambers, yoga poses, whatever it takes to help recover from each day’s six hours of workouts and swims.
The mannequin is a perfect specimen, and a not-so-subtle cue to the trainees. This is what we expect. Which is why I start to regret requesting to be subjected to as many pieces of monitoring equipment as time allows.
The Slouch of Modern Life Must Be Corrected
To improve, the trainees must first be shown where they are deficient. So when they arrive, they enter the Dari Motion Capture system, something similar to what Hollywood uses to fuse actors with their CGI characters. Dari doesn’t use on-body sensors, just cameras that capture the biomechanical motions of subjects.
When I enter, a monitor mounted in the room shows an overlay over my body, something that looks like an artist’s stick model that moves when I do. I immediately start doing The Robot—at least, until Rachel Matson, the athletic trainer with the squadron, instructs me to stand still with my arms crooked downward.
Things go okay, at least until I’m asked to squat while holding a rod behind my head. The stick man on the screen twists unnaturally, out of balance and crooked, looking awkward and clumsy, revealing the hidden history of my body (I had shoulder surgery years ago and have steadily ignored rehabilitation exercises).
A conversation with Chief Master Sgt. Joshua Smith, an instructor with the 350th Special Warfare Training Squadron, doesn’t make me feel better. The body’s strength is maximized when the spine is straight and there are muscles that hold the chest out.
“These days you can see the slouch, from modern life,” he says, speaking of the concave bends in the spine he sees in recruits. And professional writers.
It makes me feel subpar and subhuman. And worse is to come.
Turns Out, I Am Not Built Like the Mannequin
As the aspirational mannequin demonstrated, the trainees wear a wristband and chest harness during all runs and non-pool workouts. The stream of data warns of heat exhaustion (via a thermometer) and bad running form (via accelerometers). But its true purpose is to show, empirically and in cold numbers, whether the subject is really pushing his or her limits. The whole point of being here is to find those limits and then exceed them.
Stupidly, I have asked to try everything, so the crew at Lackland decides to “puck me up” with the Zephyr tracking system, which is available off the shelf and often used by sports teams. “Okay,” says Smith, who is built like an extra on the set of Vikings. “Take off that shirt and we’ll hook you up.”
I groan at the thought. I’m not built like the mannequin—more like if someone melted the mannequin with a giant magnifying glass.
You can’t cover the military without being okay with hanging around younger, better conditioned, and far more dangerously trained individuals than yourself. But spending time with the special-operations community amplifies this divide. A much younger me once went on a steep ruck march with an Army spec-ops team during training. I felt proud that I could almost keep up with one of them—until I learned he underwent hernia surgery earlier that week.
This place is something different. It’s one thing to be around the walking by-products of intense physical training, but quite another to be at a place where such physicality is a guiding life principal. As I lay half-naked on the floor, I realize the degree that science can direct this fine-tuning.
The training wing is obsessed with mastering the cycles of exertion and recovery, and each student is pushed to figure out the best ways to optimize their bodies. “This is just like an aircraft coming down and they hook up the computers to it and they download how well that aircraft performed,” I remember Smith saying, earlier that day. “We're doing the same thing with these warriors we're developing.”
Data and Algorithms vs. Dedication and Grit
As I get bare for analysis, I glance around at the room to see if my self-consciousness is warranted. It is: a half-dozen subject-matter experts, media affairs staff, and seasoned special warfare training staff are idly gawking. There’s even a photographer, contracted by the USAF, to chronicle the stripping and wiring of the journalist.
The chest strap comes first. After a call for a “larger one,” Smith makes it work by tightening it, with hideous bulges the result. Still, the thing is more comfortable than I’d imagine. I bet the trainees forget it’s even there as they suffer.
Harder to ignore is the electrode stuck to my forehead. Smith the Viking orders me to lay down and stay still and quiet. He’s taking some baseline readings—heart rate, CNS, that sort of thing—to determine if I’m ready for a workout. This is part of an omega brain-wave reading, determining if my brain has recovered enough of its electrical energy to handle the day’s exercise. (It turns out that it has.)
Laying half naked on the floor, surrounded by strangers and a pitiless photographer, I ponder this way of thinking. As may be typical, I measure this experience against cultural icons.
What would Captain America say about this place? Would he be disgusted to see data and algorithms superseding human guts, dedication, and grit? Or would he understand that not everyone is built for front-line combat, in body or spirit, and anything that can be done to find and prepare those that are is humane as well as efficient?
Steve Rodgers would probably recognize and appreciate something that seems familiar: These trainees are here to learn how to operate their bodies like machines, but the choice to accept that discipline is theirs alone. They are volunteering for some of the hardest and stressful jobs in the Air Force, and this course aims to calibrate their minds to accept what that means.
I remember what a trainee told me, earlier in the day: “In some ways it’s very structured here, and we’re watched closely. But now there’s also more responsibility given to us.”
This helps contextualize my reaction, a little. Imagine I’m not a wreck of a writer in his 40s but a college baseball player with a heavy dose of patriotism. The emotional impact of seeing exactly what’s wrong with my body would be a challenge, one that they are (hopefully) then taught how to fix. If they can’t change their thinking—and adopt the kind of self-aware humility that does not come naturally to young alpha personalities with competitive streaks—they won’t succeed in special operations.
So maybe Steve Rodgers wouldn’t get it. But Goose, despite the lack of warplanes, would understand it as the plot of Top Gun. Despite the sensors, tight schedule, ever-present monitoring, military discipline, and streams of big data, this is one of the most human places I’ve visited. Too bad it took my humiliation to drive the point home.