MTIs wear what’s called a campaign hat. Only MTIs are authorized to wear it, so you won’t see it on any other Airmen in any line of duty, and only during MTI duty. Campaign hats come in two different materials that I know of – felt and a tightly woven straw-type material. I’m not sure if there are specific seasonal restrictions to the hats, or if they can wear whichever they choose. Female MTIs have a different shape to their hats. The male hats resemble what you’ve seen on Smokey the Bear, the female hats have more of a classic cowboy hat shape, with one side snapped up. Both hats have a leather strap for securing it to the head. You’ll see MTIs carry their hats by this strap sometimes, and if you get the chance to look closely, you’ll see that most MTIs have this strap personalized with a tooled message, usually their nickname. The blue rope you see on the male hat above is only authorized for those who’ve earned the title of Master MTI.
The ribbon you see in the photo above is the MTI Service Ribbon. The source for the photo is theMilitary Training Instructor Association(MTIA) website, which states that this particular ribbon in the photo is the first one ever created. You won’t see this ribbon on your MTI unless they’re in blues, understandably. Another item you’ll see when they’re in blues is the “cookie,” which is an occupational badge for the Air Education and Training Command, awarded to instructors. It’s a round badge worn underneath their name tag. You’ll see a similar (if not the same) AETC badge on your instructor when you get to tech school.
You’ll also hear your MTIs coming. MTIs wear taps on their boots when in ABUs and their dress shoes when in blues. The taps aren’t just to make you run scared in the other direction, or to make shivers run up your spine when you hear them. Taps are used to bring the flight to attention – they’re the indicator to let you know that something is coming. When you hear the tap, you know a preparatory command is about to be issued.
MTIs work in teams. Your flight will have a Team Chief, who is your primary MTI. Your flight may also be instructed by other MTIs in your team, who steps in to help out from time to time. They may “babysit” your flight while your MTI is off doing something else, or they may step in to do one particular part of your training. The MTI who taught us drill and how to march that the first week was a team member, and not our primary MTI. Your MTI also works closely with your brother/sister flight’s MTI, so you may see that MTI frequently as well. We had no less than seven MTIs who came in at various times to instructor “chat” with us, whether it was to babysit, teach us drill, or discuss hair regulations. It is not uncommon for your MTI to invite other MTIs to give you the “Come to Jesus” talk. MTIs teach the wingman concept and utilize it themselves.
“Tormentor to Mentor”
Mrs. Duh nailed it with this phrase. When you first arrive at BMT, you’re convinced that MTIs are there to make your life a living hell, and they do a pretty good job at it too. I went down there know it was a “mind game,” but living it is an entirely different story. I considered myself a secure person, I knew who I was, I was confident. An MTI has the ability to tear that down in minutes, let me tell you. Ultimately, their goal is the cliched “break you down as individuals to build you back up as a flight.” Their mission is to break you of your bad habits and produce Airmen who they’d be proud to serve alongside of in the operational Air Force. Many MTIs take on this challenge because they want to see Airmen of quality rise up through the ranks.
The ends justify the means, in the case of MTIs. Some MTIs are “old school” in their mannerisms and use intimidation more than others. Others have a stronger mentorship style. You’re likely to see a mix of both within your MTI team and at your squadron. Again, they work as a team, so you’ll experience it all. You’ll catch glimpses that one MTI likes you as a trainee, and others you’ll never get that feeling from. I was convinced my brother’s flight’s MTI wasn’t a fan of me at all, as he always spoke to me with disgust, but he glowed about me to my family during graduation weekend and sends me thoughtful messages now that I’m in the operational Air Force. With that, I must say that the scariest, roughest MTIs are often the ones most deserving of your respect and deference.
One of the MTIs in our squadron was universally feared, especially by females. He was a crusty, menacing older black man, with a scar above his eye and his campaign hat worn low, making his eyes look especially sinister. His walk was ominous; he moved just slow enough to make your hair stand up and make you wonder if the next pause meant that he’d stop and address you. He had a way of speaking to you in a slow, soft voice, and then blowing up, inches from your face. He’s the kind of person who spat when he talked if he was that close to you. It was enough to make me hustle back up to the dorm and burst into tears as I quickly commanded our flight to do whatever it was he asked. I used to regularly warn trainees if he was sitting at the Snake Pit as they entered the dining facility.
I grew less intimidated by him as the weeks passed, and I was honored when he asked our flight to address a younger flight about hair regulations since it was one of the things he yelled at us about initially. I took what I could get, in terms of kudos. As I grew more confident, I would greet him as he passed by. Prior to taking leave, he called me down (by name) from the dorm to let me know to keep my flight in order while he was away. During our 8WOT, he addressed our flight and brother flight in one of our classes and spoke in a relaxed manner as he gave career advice. Sadly, I missed much of this class to handle Dorm Chief business, as the teacher in me was intrigued by his instructional style. He was clearly a successful educator, and I wanted to learn from him. I am blessed to still keep in touch with him, and I look forward to reconnecting with him later in my career. Don’t be quick to write off these MTIs in your squadron – you may find that they’re the ones who have the greatest impact on your training.
MTIs will let up on you as the weeks pass. Once you start taking ownership of your training and give them what they want to see (military bearing, motivation, hustle, sounding off, confidence), they won’t give you as hard of a time.
If you mess up at anything, correct it without showing any emotion or disappointment in your face and you’ll be fine. It’s when you lose military bearing that they blast you. One of the lovely parts of progressing in your training is that you’ll increase your confidence level and feel more comfortable addressing your MTI, and you may find yourself being able to have a “normal” conversation with him/her. MTIs tend to prey on the newer trainees, so you’ll notice that fewer and fewer MTIs are monitoring you during PT in the morning since they’re all over with the first and second weekers.
Master Military Training Instructors are referred to as “Blue Ropes” for the blue cord they wear around their campaign hat. PerMTIA, blue ropes represented 10% of MTIs and the best of the best. I didn’t see any blue ropes that pushed flights in my squadron, so I can’t say for sure that they don’t push. The blue ropes at my squadron typically had more demanding roles as leaders, such as section supervisors, or being in charge of Drill and Ceremony. Becoming a blue rope is a demanding process that requires multiple evaluations and assessments of the MTI’s skills and abilities as an instructor. I’ve known of a few top-notch MTIs that go before the board and don’t make it, for one reason or another. They’re allowed to reapply and retest when the next opportunity presents itself.
MTI duty is not an easy assignment. It’s not for everyone and it’s not an involuntary assignment. It is a special duty assignment, and therefore your MTIs have another AFSC (job) that they’re trained in prior to applying. MTIs are there because they’ve applied and been accepted to attend MTI school. MTI school is held down at Lackland AFB as well. They participate in classroom instruction and then complete the certification phase, which is what I’ll compare to student teaching below.
The MTI tour is a stabilized, four-year tour at Lackland. An MTI responsible for a flight is referred to as “pushing a flight” on “the streets,” or as a “street MTI.” MTIs can also work in other areas, such as at BEAST or the reception center. Working the streets is a demanding job, with long, exhausting hours. MTIs typically begin their day at 0400 and may not leave until 2100. When you have a flight, it’s a seven day a week job, including national holidays. You can imagine the strain this puts on a marriage and on families, even if you live close to the base and don’t have a long commute. If you were waking up that early, getting that little of sleep, and rarely seeing your loved ones, you’d be pissy too. Sure, MTIs receive special duty pay, but like teachers, they’re not doing it for the money…plus, many are taking that money and stocking up on cases of Monster. Folks, that stuff adds up! 😉
I get the impression that MTIs have much more pressure on them than what we as trainees may realize. While you’re being assessed as a trainee, your MTIs are being evaluated by their section supervisors, their training superintendent, and by STAN/Eval Team (Standardization and Evaluation). Your failure as a trainee reflects poorly on your MTI, so much is at stake. MTIs must also uphold the highest standards of dress and appearance, drill, and military bearing. There is no room for error when you’re the role model. Set a bad example and you’ll reinforce bad habits. The rule of “you get out of it what you put into it” applies here too. MTIs maintain impeccable uniforms, and many have them tailored to hug the body more so than the large, boxy ABUs you’ll be issued. The hair on female MTIs has to be flawless. I knew of many male MTIs who tried to work time at the gym into their overloaded schedules as well. I imagine that male MTIs must feel a lot of pressure to physically look the part, and they’re typically the ones demonstrating your exercises at PT. For both male and female MTIs, being overweight is not an option, as it shows a lack of excellence and a lack of discipline.
Cut your MTIs some slack. On top of everything I’ve described here, they have a mountain of paperwork to complete, and everything has to be done to the letter, documented in the computer, and filed appropriately. They have a huge amount of accountability and responsibility that’s placed on them. Are you surprised to hear that there’s usually a shortage of MTIs? You shouldn’t be. They have their own, special MTI-specific recruiters.
MTI Organizational Structure
Squadrons are broken down into sections. I remember our squadron having at least four sections. Each section has its own supervisor, who is responsible for the MTIs who work within that section. Above the section, the supervisor is the Training Superintendent, who is the senior-most enlisted member at the squadron. A squadron commander rounds out the chain of command. You also have a first sergeant, who is available to meet the needs of both MTIs working in that squadron and for any issues that may arise with trainees. We never really saw nor heard anything for our first shirt – the only time I saw him was in the 8WOT, on the morning of the Airman’s Run. Our interactions with the squadron commander were minimal as well, although you had to be on the lookout for him to render appropriate military honors.
You may see the following individuals working with your MTIs.
MTIs in training – These Airmen wear ABUs, but have not earned the right to wear the campaign hat yet. They are either being mentored or assessed by current MTIs. In essence, they are similar to student teachers. We had one who taught us a drill lesson while she was being evaluated, and who participated as an evaluator when we did Control (a drilling assessment).
MTIs being disciplined – These MTIs are referred to as having “lost their hat.” For whatever reason, if an MTI has received disciplinary action, they will lose the right to wear their hat for a period of time. I can only imagine that this is a huge ego blow, as the campaign hat is a visible symbol of your MTI duty. To lose one’s hat is a very public proclamation that they have done something wrong in the eyes of their leadership.
US Air Force Academy Cadets – You’ll recognize cadets by their berets (worn instead of ABU hats), and by their USAFA PT uniforms that they’ll wear during the drill. Cadets range between the ages of 17 and 23 and are down at Lackland as part of a summer tour. I’m not entirely sure if they are picked to do so, or if they choose to do so. If your flight has a cadet working with your MTI, they’ll take over some of the leadership roles, and may march you in Parade. They may conduct PT, work CQ, and eat at the Snake Pit with your MTIs. Generally, my experience with cadets at BMT has not been positive. Many of them seemed snooty in their demeanor, and they did not seem friendly at all, despite the fact that they had yet to graduate from the academy and become commissioned officers.
[Edit: I was going to discuss MTI Tools in this post, but it’s getting lengthy enough, so I’ll save that topic for the next one!