Basic Military Training might give Airmen the tools to succeed in their career field, but the Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training site – the BEAST – gives them a much simpler gift: the tools to survive deployment.
The lifeblood of the BEAST is military training instructors like Staff Sgt. Britney Simpson, 319th Training Squadron Military Training Instructor. Airmen meet Simpson during their fifth week of BMT, where they undergo a mock deployment to the site. There, Simpson puts them through a week of painstakingly simulated scenarios involving basic combat and air base defense against chemical and ground attacks.
Though the BEAST is only a mock installation, the site is actually the first place where reality sets in for many trainees, Simpson said.
"When these trainees grasp the concept that this is real, that the deployment will come, and that the threat is real – and all around us – that's the most rewarding part of my work," she said. "Knowing that what I'm teaching them could one day help them in a deployed environment, that's one of the best things about being out here at the BEAST."
Deployment to the BEAST can be a jarring shift for trainees who’ve spent the past four weeks living in dormitories. The site is exposed to the sweltering Texas sun, covered in sand and loose gravel and surrounded by imposing mounds of fencing wire and sandbag barricades.
"I always think of this experience as a real deployment,” Simpson explained. “You don't create that experience without there being intensity, and that has to come from me. One day, they may be under pressure, and they will have to react. At the BEAST site, that pressure is coming from me."
If trainees think the living conditions are adverse, that’s nothing compared to the human element that Simpson brings to the table.
During chemical and ground attack simulation, Simpson barks instructions like a traditional MTI, urging Airmen to take proper care of their filtration masks, body armor, and weapons.
But during seemingly peaceful times at the site, Simpson surprises trainees as an insurgent infiltrator, sharpening their situational awareness and alertness.
“Another lesson we teach deployed Airmen is they can’t allow unauthorized people on-base,” Simpson said. “There are times when we have instructors pose as infiltrators, and Airmen can see what happens if they ignore people just trying to walk onto the installation.” Chief Master Sgt. Scott Ransom, 319th Training Squadron superintendent, said Simpson was an ideal choice for the BEAST site because of her experience downrange. Simpson, as a former security forces military working dog handler deployed to Iraq in 2006, has excellent installation defense instincts.
“Simpson is consistent,” he said. “She’s not flashy or in-your-face … but when you watch her run through the teaching scenarios here, it’s easy to see that she’s in her element.”
Simpson’s experience makes her a role model for trainees, Ransom added. The MTI has been under attack downrange in Iraq, and wears the Army Combat Action Badge.
"Getting them to trust that we know what we're talking about, that can be challenging," Simpson said. “But having combat experience, they respect that.”
While Simpson leans on her downrange experience, it’s also important for her to balance this tough love with accessibility.
"We're their discipline, but we’re their counselors, too, so they need to know they can come to us with questions or if they need help,” Simpson noted. "I'm intense, but approachable at the same time. If an airman needs to talk to me about a problem, I’m there for them – there's a time to turn it on, and a time to turn it off. I just happen to have ‘it’ on more than I have ‘it’ off."
So, after a week of intense survival and base defense simulations, Simpson sends her trainees on, one step closer to active duty.
"Everyone should know that these trainees come here as civilians, but in 7.5 weeks, we've taken them from being a civilian to being an Airman," she noted. "Us marching them down the bomb run, that's not the whole journey."
For an Air Force that is constantly seeking ways to improve base defense and installation security, having MTIs like Simpson teaching all Airmen – not just security forces personnel – to fight and survive future attacks is a valuable asset.
"Without us, there would be no Airmen to send on deployments,” said Simpson, noting that all Airmen are vital components of base defense. "When you are in times of stress, you fall back on your training. That’s what we, as instructors, are giving these Airmen here at the BEAST.”