A trainee and drill instructor perform pushups during USAA's Zero Day PT boot camp style training session. Credit: Robin Jerstad for the San Antonio Report

Service in the United States military begins at boot camp, breaking down individuals and reassembling them into cohesive units. USAA, a financial services company serving military members and their families, offered its employees an opportunity to experience a portion of that intense and formative process during the ninth annual Zero Day Physical Training Boot Camp.

A trainee arrives to start the boot camp style training at USAA’s Zero Day Physical Training Boot Camp Friday. Credit: Robin Jerstad for the San Antonio Report

The purpose of the event is to give around 350 USAA interns, employees, and executives a glimpse into the experiences that shaped the military members they serve daily. The program was founded nine years ago by Brian Parks, a USAA information technology director who serves as the event’s senior drill sergeant.

“I had a small group of interns nine years ago that kept begging me for an experience in what it means to serve,” Parks said. Parks co-founded the event with other military veterans at USAA who saw a mock boot camp as a way to give curious employees a glimpse into real service.

Trainees go through military boot camp drills during USAA’s Zero Day program Friday morning. Credit: Robin Jerstad for the San Antonio Report

“The day we arrived to basic training [was] the most memorable time,” Parks said. “Let’s give them a replication of that.”

Beginning promptly at 4 a.m. Friday, the participating USAA staffers arrived at the company’s campus dressed in uniform black shirts, shorts, and if they were really following orders, black athletic shoes. Active duty and veteran military members served as drill instructors for the day, corralling the trainees into yellow buses that would take them to the soccer field on the USAA campus.

At the field, dozens of red-shirted drill instructors greeted the buses with the sounds of marching chants, gunfire, and explosives blaring through speakers situated around the nearly pitch-black field. They were prepared to unleash chaos on the trainees.

Two Cadre drill instructors give instructions to a trainee during USAA’s Zero Day Physical Training Boot Camp. Credit: Robin Jerstad for the San Antonio Report

The instructors interrogated the recruits about the instructors’ proper rank identification and issued blunt commands to exercise. Most of the time, that meant pushups.

“Why do you have white shoes on?” one drill sergeant screamed while pointing a strobing flashlight at a trainee’s glowing sneakers. “Were you not told black shoes? Start pushing dirt, now!”

Recruits were divided into six different military branches: Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard and Reserve. Once appropriately stationed, recruits were tasked with carrying out strenuously specific physical and mental tasks in near darkness. One National Guard trainee was hastily commanded to dictate how a heavily weighted white sack, representing rounds of ammunition, was to be moved through the multiple rows of trainees in her branch. Streams of sweat rolled past her eyes, which darted from one side of the branch to the other, trying to process all of the instructor’s demands.

“When you think about the mental requirements of a military exercise, most people are not used to being talked to directly – being yelled at, told to do something and not being able to ask why,” said Air Force Reserve Maj. Meghan Anderson, who was an officer in charge at the event. “We’re challenging folks to be humble, to trust the trainers, trust the military folks that are out there, and trust that there is a purpose to every activity that we’re participating in.”

This year’s boot camp featured one element of complete surprise. Just before 6 a.m., after stadium lights around the field were turned on, one trainee was given an impromptu haircut that left him bald. A line of trainees watched intently, perhaps fearing they would be the next to lose their hair, unaware the Marine Corps veteran had agreed to the stunt beforehand.

Trainees work out during USAA’s Zero Day boot camp style training session. Credit: Robin Jerstad for the San Antonio Report

Moments later, the lights were shut off again, and trainees were back to being berated in darkness.

“The hardest part was when you would see people that you know personally, and they would get right up in your face and you couldn’t help but smile, because that’s your natural reaction,” said USAA Corporate Communications employee Rebecca Hirsch, one of the trainees. “But then they would scream at you and say ‘You think I’m funny?’, and then you’d have to drop and give them 10 [pushups].”

As the sky brightened with the rising sun, trainees assembled for their final task of the event: a 1.5-mile run around the campus before reassembling on the field to receive their congratulations and commemorative dog tags.

A trainee at USAA’s Zero Day PT cheers to start a morning run during the boot camp style training. Credit: Robin Jerstad for the San Antonio Report

“I think you get a little glimpse of what our members go through,” said Senior Risk Management employee Martin Epple. “As [the instructors] pointed out, our members go through an intense training for months. We saw three hours of it. It really just does not even scratch the surface. Its really a good reminder for the member-first credo of USAA.

Jeffrey Sullivan is a Rivard Report reporter. He graduated from Trinity University with a degree in Political Science.