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For Air Force Trainees Who Don't Make Active Duty, The Journey Back To Civilian Life Begins

Ryan Loyd
TPR News
Trainees at graduation commemorate their hard work during a graduation ceremony. Those who don't complete their goal go to a transition flight for help adjusting back to civilian life.

In the military, you either have what it takes, or you don't.

Those who don't often face ridicule, embarrassment and shame when they leave training, but unlike days  past, now there's a little bit more compassion for this group of forgotten trainees transitioning back to civilian life.

Life inside the gates at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland is a microcosm of the world outside, but training is an ongoing ritual. Trainees march in step with one another, and are required to make their commutes in pairs.

Every week is another graduation of 400 to 800 new Airmen. There's a big ceremony to celebrate. Yet little attention is given to trainees who fall short of their goal either because of medical reasons or disciplinary problems.

So a year and a half ago, the Air Force figured out it needed to do something for those trainees. Master Sergeant Ruth Presto runs the Body Mind Spirit program. Her job is to help the trainees who don't make it transition back to civilian life.

"Trouble is, folks come here, the military was their plan for life," she said. "That was what they wanted to do. And they get here with all their hopes dashed and how do you rebuild their hopes and rebuild their motivation? That's what we try to do."

At any given time, Presto says there are up to 350 people in what's called a "transition flight." They are airmen transitioning out of the Air Force, and in most cases are going back home. Many, like 18-year-old Caleb Menken from Oregon, are cut because of a medical condition.

"The military was always my plan; was going to be my life. And, now it's not," he said.

Menken arrived at basic training in mid-October. In his second week of training, he thought he was having a heart attack that turned out to be a cyst on his liver.

"Which automatically disqualifies me from every branch of the military," he said.

For Menken, military service is a family tradition and he says his fate is disappointing.

"It honestly is," he said. "My dad made it through BMT (basic military training), my cousin just went through, he just made it into the Navy. All four branches in one family. But, um, it is embarrassing."

Across base, another group of students talk about their plight.

"I was diagnosed with chronic back pain," said one trainee. "I hurt my shoulder during selection," said another.

The only difference in this unit is that this group made it through basic training. Here, the men and women are transitioning out of the military during technical school, which follows basic training.

Master Sergeant Malcolm Summers talks with the trainees in the Airman Transition Assistance Flight (ATAF). An average of about 100 airmen each quarter file through ATAF, which is slightly older than the Body Mind Spirit program geared for basic trainees. Summers is encouraging them to take advantage of their military benefits before they no longer qualify.

"You're entitled to everything I am entitled to as a 16 year master sergeant, to the day you take off this uniform," he told them.

During a series of questions, he asks how many have taken a College Level Examination Program test (CLEP). It's free here and may help a student forego an entire college course that could run them in the thousands of dollars at a university.

"Go ahead Airman Fields, go ahead, you can raise your hand," Summers said.

Airman Fields didn't pass his CLEP test, but Summers tells him that's OK.

"It was a free opportunity," Summers said. "You took a swing at it. And isn't that important?"

In the same room, Airman First Class Harrison Jones expressed his views on being sent home. He has a master's degree. He also has a heart condition that disqualified him from serving.

But he doesn't fault the military because he expects they want the best and the strongest.

"A lot of the jobs that we're trying out for are really tough and I don't blame the Air Force for having high standards, you know, for what we need to do," Jones said.

In each area, Presto said the military wants to give the trainees who didn't make it the best chance at success possible.

"When you're separating, they are still ambassadors for the Air Force and what we do here is going to affect the story they're going to tell back home," she said. "Either the Air Force kicked me on the way out the door or the Air Force set me up for success in my life."

Some will go back home and start over with a job or college. Some may even qualify to come back and train again.

Whatever it is they do, Air Force leaders say they're glad to now have a chance to guide trainees toward a new path instead of kicking them out without a plan.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.