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Drill Sergeants Give 300 USAA Employees a Taste of Boot Camp

‎03-21-2014 12:22 PM

Zero-Day-PT%20(11)_JPG.png Wealth management specialist Stella Peña quickly shakes the sleep off at 4:30 a.m. as she arrives late for formation at USAA’s headquarters in San Antonio.


She gets an earful from Kat Bailey, senior administrative support associate in Enterprise Learning & Development, who’s also a retired Air Force senior master sergeant. She readies herselffor the day ahead and joins 300 of her colleagues on yellow school buses bound for a training field. Today is Zero Day PT.


The short ride to the field represents the first step on the journey from civilian to military life. She steps off the bus and is greeted by veteran NCOs, officers and currently serving Air Force and Army drill sergeants ready for her arrival.  


“I’m just going to try my best not to cry,” Peña says.


We know what it means to serve


Zero Day PT, or Zero Day Physical Training, is a simulated first day of military boot camp that helps employees connect with USAA’s military members. It’s a great team-building exercise and a way to give employees a small slice of the total mind and body experience that trainees get over a eight- to 12-week period to convert to military life.


Stella PenaI think the most important thing we can do is know our members and understand them,” says Dan Cable, retired Air Force officer and executive director for the member experience process performance and engineering team. “It’s an opportunity that can be offered nowhere else in the country. I don’t know of any other company that goes this far to get into their members’ shoes to walk a day in their lives.”


At USAA, 23% of employees are veterans, reservists or have spouses with a military affiliation.




An experience like no other


The veterans and reservists who organize Zero Day PT at USAA say it is fairly realistic — except instead of hopping onto a school bus with a water bottle, military trainees would receive two 40- to 60-pound duffel bags and be stuffed into smelly, old cattle cars. Instead of a cool spring day, trainees might begin their military conversion in the blazing heat of August. Instead of three hours for training, service members might face 16 hours.


“We try to do a very good job of creating a realistic environment, given our limits,” says Jonathan Velazquez, director for member experience performance optimization and a major in the Army Reserve. Velazquez and Brian Parks, the event’s founder, have organized the event since 2012.


To create a realistic experience, Parks and Velazquez call on drill sergeants from Camp Bullis, military training instructors from Lackland Air Force Base, and veterans and reservists currently employed at USAA. In all, 50 volunteer military mentors make up the training cadre that leads participants in the physical activities a service member might experience on the first day of basic training.


After the initial welcome, the cadre breaks participants into smaller training groups. Then drill sergeants bark orders to do dozens of situps, pushups, flutter kicks and other exercises, all while other members of the cadre shout in participants’ ears. After an hour of calisthenics on the field and drill and ceremony instruction, participants run two miles in a single formation and chant military cadence.


Breaking down to build the team


USAA“The purpose of Zero Day for the military is to begin the process of breaking down the individual so you can start to build the team,” says Steven Sanchez, a member of the cadre and an IT project manager at USAA. Sanchez is an Army veteran. “The first step in Zero Day is to let people know it’s all about the team,” he says.


Organizers say they’ve gotten good feedback from participants, many of whom ask to repeat the experience. “People say that they’re surprised by how hard it is,” Sanchez says. “But then again, they’re also surprised by the feeling they have after they’re finished.”


Participants feel exhausted but exhilarated, and they appreciate the opportunity to have this unique experience.

“It was an awesome and humbling experience,” says Chris Cox, vice president for digital experience in the member experience department. “It was an honor to be here with everybody else. It provided me an experience of what it means to serve.”


At the end of the event, executive sponsor Wayne Peacock, executive vice president of member experience, tells the group that after more than 20 years at USAA, he “still had a lot to learn.”


“When we’re on the phone talking to young recruits, we need to empathize with them and try to understand what they’re going through,” Wayne says. “I can think of no better experience to help you do that than this.”




No Department of Defense or government agency endorsement. 


by chi-town1986 ‎03-23-2014 01:38 PM
Great idea, corporate america should take notes.
by 3e531-Aaron on ‎03-24-2014 04:33 PM - last edited on ‎03-28-2014 12:51 PM by Community Manager

I would like to say that I though I think the idea is great, they need to be courteous of those living near the USAA campus.
I live almost 1 mile away on the other side of I-10 from USAA and I was rudely awoken by what sounded like a drill sergeant at the end of my street at 4:45am.

I could literally hear every word as if the PT was taking place in my neighborhood, and my bedroom window doesn't even face USAA.  I had no idea what was going on, so I got into my car to find the source since it had been going on at least 30 minutes non-stop and I couldn't get back to sleep - I even called non-emergency police dispatch to tell them that some crazy boot camp instructor must be running a group in my neighborhood with a blow horn, clearly breaking San Antonio's noise ordinance which is from 11pm - 6am.  The dispatch told me that she received other calls from people complaining of a male voice on a PA system even further away (2 miles from USAA) and she didn't know what it was. 

I finally arrived at the edge of my neighboorhood which exits to I-10 (Ramsgate) across from USAA and I could see the stadium lights on and hear the drill sergeants as loud as can be on the PA system echoing across the morning sky.  

I discovered this while on the phone with the dispatch and told her what the source was.  She said she would send a squad car to USAA - I don't know if they arrived or not, but they didn't finish the PA system till 6am.  There's an apartment complex right across the street from the field where they do this, and I really feel sorry for those people - you probably made some PTSD vet kill someone.


Anyone at USAA, if you read this - I am not some crotchety old man - but I think that if people are complaining about noise levels from at least 2 miles away - I really feel that you should take into consideration your neighbors at that hour.  The noise ordinance applies to you too.  Not only that, but when I was in PT, the drill sergeants didn't use a PA system - they yelled face to face at us.  If you want to be courteous of those around you be more like the military - then drop the PA system next year.


Thank you for your feedback. In the event we pursue a similar event in the future, we will ensure to take into account all feedback received. We strive to be good neighbors in the San Antonio community.

by Jj austin ‎03-24-2014 09:04 PM
Aaron...i don't work there but yes you are a crotchedy old man with nothing better to do than get in a car and find a source of a noise..maybe you should have turned down your hearing aid . You are probably my neighbor who starts his lawnmower at 730 in the morning .. Please next time you take an hour to write an annoying letter perhaps you could use your time better by writing a thank you to a member of our military serving our country.
by PanzerLeader ‎04-02-2014 02:42 PM

It means a lot to me that USAA is doing this to help understand the military mindset. That connection to customers is why I joined USAA!

by DiALi ‎04-03-2014 08:54 PM

I think its an AWESOME idea. And I can empathize with the one that does not appreciate the noise as well as those that think he is being a crotchety old man. I know that since being a baby and a military brat, the noise of PT in the morning or large military vehicles roaming by, or my favorite, the noise of soldiers singing cadence has not changed for me. I frichen' love it. I can listen to it all day and all night. But we were living on base. I am not sure how I would feel if it was in an open field close by to my civilian home. USAA did respond by saying they would take it into account. I know that I do not think, at all, that they should stop the program. It is a great teasm building experience and a great way to allow those that havent served get at least a very small taste if how we feel or what we experience as soldiers.

by JimL1962 ‎04-16-2014 03:30 PM

Absolutely Fantastic idea.  As great as USAA personnel are in general, a program like this will give them a much improved basis for understanding and appreciating Military life, military mission and military people ... and thereby gain an even greater ability to meet the USAA Mission of servic to the Military & those related to the military.  USAA civilian employees will be lining up to get selected to participate in this factiastic Military Team and Environment Exposure Experience.   

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