SAN ANTONIO — It is dark o’clock at USAA on a Friday. Shouting, flashlights and bright yellow school buses are spotted near a campus parking garage. Men and women pick up camouflage backpacks and file onto the buses.

“I am a drill sergeant in the United States Army,” pierces the silence as the bus bounces down the road.

“Yes, drill sergeant,” the full bus quickly responds.

When the tires come to a stop, the riders spill out onto the soccer field. There are no games being played there today. 400 USAA employees fall into formation to accomplish a special mission. The 4 a.m. bootcamp offers a glimpse into basic training.  

“It’s just a taste of what it means to serve in the military,” said Brian Parks, an IT Director for USAA and a former active and reserve Sergeant First Class in the Army.

Parks has directed the Zero Day PT since its inception in 2008. Since then, at last 27 similar events have been held at the San Antonio location and other USAA regional offices. 5,000 employees have volunteered to participate in those events and learn more about truly serving the men and women in the military.

“Our veterans at USAA bring it,” said participant Colleen McAdams who works in the Communication Department at USAA. “They are not kidding around. They really try to make it an authentic experience.”

The trainees are split into groups and are led through exercises by active duty drill sergeants from local military bases. Each group learns a specific military branch’s core values.

Some of the participants with their noses to the grass while doing push-ups are veterans themselves. Most of the trainees are civilians. Others are military spouses, like McAdams.

“The opportunity today to kind of get to be in his shoes or be in our military’s shoes, even for just a few hours was really meaningful.”

McAdam’s husband served in the U.S. Navy for five years.

Mental and physical drills break down the trainees reflexes to act as individuals.

“It almost is a great analogy of what military service is,” said McAdams. “You look at it and say like ‘oh, I could do that for an hour or two,’ but the longer you do it, the harder it becomes. So even though an empty backpack and water bottle don’t weigh much, holding them out in front of me for minutes and minutes was exhausting.”

Over the course of four hours, the groups slowly but surely start working together.

“It’s all about teamwork,” said Parks. “We have to be one team when it comes to serving our members.”

The experience makes serving our military superheroes even more meaningful for the participants.

When the drills come to an end, the group bands together to celebrate their hard work.

Parks says once bootcamp is over, he checks in with his coworkers who have never heard him raise his voice.

“[It’s] flat out emotion. Sometimes I have to talk to them and let them know I’m not that guy,” said Parks as he took off his camo hat. “I can make my voice normal,” he said with a grin.