As I was wrapping up at the uniform store, the beleaguered clerk was explaining to me what the difference between a tie tac and a tie bar. “One goes through the tie, the other goes around,” she said. “You can either get one of your rank or one that represents the country.”
“I’ll get one for the country,” I said, and I reached out to pick out one with a nice eagle on it.
“Are you a colonel,” she asked me.
“Um. N-No,” I stuttered.
“Then let’s not get that one,” she said gently.
That pretty much sums up what my trip was like. Forget being a fish out of water, I was like a fish on Mars.
I’m not a colonel.
Preparing for Cot:
Since I had a test on Friday, I had an entire free weekend lined up, where there would be no studying whatsoever. Trying to take advantage of this, I drove down to Langley AFB where they have a uniform store so that I could get my supplies for Commissioned Officer Training. The base was about 1.5 hours away, and I really had no idea what to expect.
I knew it would cost about a thousand dollars and that I needed a lot of stuff. I also knew that it would take a while, since I was so clueless. I gave myself an hour to get everything I needed. Turns out, I was only off by a factor of 2.5.
Getting into base:
After finally finding the entrance since a road was closed, I had to show your ID to an enlisted guard. I did that,
“Have a nice weekend, sir,” he said.
“You too!,” I replied, and I started to drive away.
Then, as my car was leaving, I noticed that he was saluting. I didn’t expect this a) because I’m not in uniform and b) because people do not normally salute me.
So, at this point, since my car had already started moving, I felt like a jackass, primarily because I had already moved past the point at which I could salute. I don’t know what the protocol is for this. Should I have returned his salute? Since I haven’t been to COT, my only knowledge of saluting is from Youtube videos.
Since I don’t know any of my sizes, I had to try on lots of stuff. I tried on several Airman Battle Uniforms before finally settling on some. I hope they fit properly. I had to have the store employees estimate my size, since I had no idea. You could tell they’ve done this before.
A handsome young man modeling my ABU hat.
Thank God the women that worked there knew how to tell if something fit well or not, because I had no clue. They also knew the regulations, so that was helpful.
When picking out dress shirts, jackets, pants, they had all sorts of measurements on them. I had no idea what the numbers meant.
“Well, what size are you?” the clerk asked me when I was looking at dress shirts.
“No clue,” I told them. “My wife usually handles this.”
So, they had to measure my neck, and apparently, that’s the only part that matters, since the sizing was based off neck size. I roughly knew my pants size, so figuring that out wasn’t too bad.
Finally, I needed a dress uniform, so they appraised how my pants and jacket fit. When they were doing that, they started laughing.
“Nice shoes,” they told me.
- The shoes I chose to wear to base. Seriously, who buys these?
Apparently, they don’t see many black and orange/pink running shoes in there. I was secretly glad I changed out of my tie-dyed shirt.
Meeting the Intern
While looking at the ties (of which most for sale are clip-ons), I heard another customer (a captain) say that he was in the medical corps. My ears immediately perked up.
“Excuse me,” I said. “You’re a doctor? I’m in medical school.”
We started talking, and it turns out that he’s a pediatrics intern (what I want to do), at the naval hospital (one of my top two places to match). He knew immediately that I was getting all of my gear for COT.
He gave me some fantastic advice, and we must have talked for 15 minutes:
1) I should do a pediatrics rotation at Langley, since the head of their residency program is a pediatric oncologist.
2) Graduate COT as high as I can. Doing better in COT helps with the matching process and that looks good professionally.
3) In a military residency, you don’t see as many patients as in a civilian one, but the quality of time you spend per patient is better. Some weeks he works 80 hours, some weeks he works 32, but it’s still better than medical school.
4) He didn’t need great boards or research to match pediatrics. Even though the military is very competitive, it was nice to know that since the competitive part of what I want to do is at the fellowship stage.
5) He said he knew nothing about MCV/VCU, but he said that when I’m interviewing, I need to emphasize there is no better medical school than it. Wherever you are, that’s the best place to be!
6) COT is fun, but it’s death by powerpoint.
He also said he’d be willing to come talk to the Military Medical Student Association sometime, so I got his card.
“Welcome to the family!”
As my stuff piled up more and more, three enlisted airmen took notice of the n00b piling up an entire cart full of stuff.
“That’s quite the shopping cart you’ve got there,” one said.
I explained I was an officer via direct commissioning, hadn’t been to officer training yet, and needed everything. They grumbled about how much everything cost, and commiserated that I hadn’t been even issued a standard uniform. I said I was given $400 for everything. They laughed and said it was nowhere near enough.
“What are you going to be doing for us,” one asked?
“Physician,” I told them.
“Cool,” said another. “Welcome to the family!”
Pins, Insignias, Ranks
Eventually, I had to buy all these little pins, insignias, and ranks.
“You want this one,” the clerk said when pointing to an insignia of a captain that you have sew onto your ABUs.
“Um, OK, but I’m not a captain,” I told her. “So where’s the one for 2nd lieutenant?”
“You want this one,” she said, again pointing to the captain one.
“Right, I get that I want this type of insignia,” I said, “But I’m not that rank.”
She again pointed to the captain one, then wandered off. I stared at the insignia, confused.
“The one you want is right here, sir,” said an enlisted fellow shopper, helping out the blind, incompetent 2nd lieutenant.
Based off me, I can see why the enlisted folks make fun of the officers.
Oh Say Can You See
After paying for everything (dress uniform, ABUs, PT gear, belts, boots, shiny shoes, and including specialty garters that you wear in your pants to keep my shirt crisp), the total cost was about $880 bucks.
As I stepped outside with all of my gear, I noticed that music is playing and everyone I can see is standing still. It was the national anthem.
I saw one airman in uniform saluting the flag. Many other people just stood there. Again, not sure what the protocol is for someone in civilian clothes, I chose to just put my hand over my heart.
Probably, my biggest confusion was when the clerk asked me what my specialty is.
I looked at her blankly. Doctors don’t figure out what specialty we are until match day, and that’s three years away.
“I have no idea,” I said. “I’m leaning toward some sort of pediatrics subspecialty.”I figured that was easier than saying oncology, since that just depresses everyone.
Then, it was her turn to look at me blankly. Even though we were both speaking English, clearly, we were not speaking the same language.
“Well, they’re here if you need them,” she said gesturing in a certain area before wandering off to help some other shoppers.
I started looking through the pins. Then, I realized what she meant. In the Air Force, specialty means “job.” I quietly picked out the one for physician.
I have a lot to learn.