I had watched several documentaries, read books and had heard more stories than I could remember on the subject. Some people refer to it as boot camp. This is only accurate if you have enlisted in the Marine Corps. For the Army, it is simply basic training. The Army has several basic training posts located around the US. Fort Sill, Oklahoma was to be my personal gateway to becoming a soldier.
I had always wanted to be a Marine. The Army wasn’t ever really an option. I looked into the Navy very briefly in high school but that wasn’t for me. The recruiting station in Spring Valley, NY contained representatives from all 4 branches (sorry Coast Guard). The offices were staggered down the hallway; Marines were first door on the left, Navy across the hall, Army second on the left and Air Force on the right. I had gone through the entire enlistment process with the marine Corps at the age of 17. I decided between my 11th and 12th grade year that I could wait no longer. My Father had passed away earlier that year and all that was required at that age was the blessing of my Mother, which she gave hesitantly. I tested, I was inspected and then I waited. The plan was that I would receive my GED (good enough diploma) at some point during my time in service. I was okay with that. Long story short, I decided that maybe I should finish high school after all. I talked to my recruiter and told him I wasn’t ready. my contract was terminated and I was allowed to back out and continue school. Fast forward two years and I was again ready to sign on the dotted line and serve my country. I arrived at the recruiting center at roughly 11:30. As I locked my Jeep and walked to the front door, there was Sergeant Vega. Back against the wall, one foot propped up behind him. He was smoking a cigarette and after a long exhale asked me, “What’s up, buddy? Here to join the Army?”
Absolutely not, I replied. Not that I had anything against the Army. My Grandfather served during World War II and my Uncle served as well. I grew up hearing stories of the Army. I just always felt that I was going to break the family mold. I was going to be the first Marine (An honor that actually went to my second youngest Brother, still serving in the Marine Reserves). No, Sir, I was there to talk to the Marine recruiter. Sergeant Vega was quick to inform me that the gentleman I was there to see had just left for lunch and would not be returning for at least forty-five minutes. For those of you that may not have ever gone through the experience, the initial step of enlisting in the military is like the first step through the threshold of an airplane. You think about it weeks prior, the anxiety builds and you finally resolve yourself to make the leap. Well this time I was told I couldn’t jump just yet. Sergeant Vega knew where I was mentally. He saw it every day and knew it was the right time to strike. I hope Sergeant Vega got into sales after his Army career because he could have sold a ketchup Popsicle to a Woman in white gloves. He was good. “I got a deal for you. Come into my office and listen to my pitch. I only need 10 minutes of your time and you don’t have to tell me anything about yourself. I won’t even ask your name. You like what you hear and we’ll talk more. You don’t and I’ll walk over to the Marine office for you and hold the door. What do you say?” 45 minutes later I was signing the paperwork.
November 20th, 1995 the bus came to a halt outside of a very plain building. The only thing that stood out was a sign that had the words “SOLDIERING STARTS HERE”. Now, like I said earlier, I had prepared for this moment. I had studied and read and watched and listened. I braced for the sea of “brown rounds” to flood the bus. There was nothing but silence. The bus hissed and the door creaked open as the driver announced on the speaker, “Just go sit on those benches there and someone will be along to get you soon”. Fear and anticipation turned to confusion. We disembarked the bus and sat on the benches as instructed. Then, we waited. After some time had passed, a rather small Female arrived and politely introduced herself and explained her function. She was there to guide us through the indoctrination process. There would be paperwork, equipment issue, medical testing, inoculations, rules, regulations, more paperwork and uniform fitting. This process would take three days and it was called reception. After that, basic training would begin. The day’s events were conducted with a heightened sense of purpose but nothing too rigorous. There was a feeling that every person that had to deal with us had done so with a thousand other recruits previously and couldn’t possibly care less about us or what we were getting in to. They had already been there and done that. It was our problem now. As promised, reception lasted three days and by the end of it I had lost my initial apprehension. I had begun growing accustomed to the routine and felt like it wouldn’t be as bad as I had first thought. This was going to be great.
Towards the end of the third day we were thrown a loop. Our liaison had us pack up all of our belongings and carry our things outside of the barracks building in which we were currently billeted. I hoisted my large ruck sack onto my back and tried to carry my two duffle bags in each hand. Keep in mind, we had been issued everything that would be needed, both clothing and equipment, for the duration of the basic training phase and it was all in my three over sized bags. Transporting them was tricky. I decided it was easier if I hoisted one of my duffles onto my back, slung the other on my chest and carried the ruck sack in my right hand. It made standing and walking difficult but it balanced the weight better. I shuffled outside and got in line with the rest of the recruits. After a few minutes, our transportation arrived. We were told to fill into the trucks, which would take us across post to our basic training facility. Notice I said truck and not bus. What we were expected to load into was aptly named a cattle truck. Mainly because it was used for transporting cattle or in this case, a bunch of would be soldiers who had no idea what was coming next.
We filled into the truck. Starting towards the back and packing in towards the front. It was so tight I almost couldn’t breath. I was lucky and ended up about three rows from the large doors at the back of the truck. Once the entire class (Or as we would later be called a platoon) was stuffed to capacity inside the trucks, the liaisons shut the two large doors in the back and one smaller door on the passenger side, sealing us inside. No one spoke. It was pitch black and it was uncomfortably tight which made several of the young men visibly anxious. I was one of them. The truck lurched forward which caused everyone to shift towards the rear of the truck. Luckily we were packed so tight there wasn’t room to fall down. We rode in the back of that truck for what seemed like an hour. I found out much later that it was only a 5 minute ride from Reception Battalion to our basic training barracks. Funny how the mind will play tricks on you when you are robbed of your senses. After some time, the truck came to a halt and the engine was shut off. It was silent once again. Silent and dark and honestly, scary as hell. The handle on the back doors clicked, the doors groaned open and before my eyes could adjust to the sunlight which had suddenly flooded the once black space we occupied, I could hear their voices. My eyes adjusted to see a swarm of brown, round brim hats all tipped forward on neatly kept heads. The voices didn’t necessarily say anything or at least anything that was discernible to my untrained ear. They barked all in unison but all barking different things. It was total confusion. Agitated by the fact that no one had yet attempted to disembark the cattle truck, the barks became fever pitched. We go the idea. Those in the back of the truck pushed forward, not wanting to be the last off and those in the front pushed back, not wanting to be the first. I was sandwiched and the breath was squeezed out of me. In a near panic, I was able to get enough room to help the guy in front of me find his motivation as I gave him a good shove towards the outside. He lost his balance and fell out of the truck. His weight,no longer there to support mine, caused the pressure behind me to become much greater. I toppled forward landing on top of the duffle bag on my chest in the street. I felt like a gazelle in the African plains. Boots hit the ground all around me and continued on. “Sorry, buddy. Can’t help you. We appreciate your sacrifice”. I picked myself up and moved with the crowd, being berated and threatened all the way, until I made it to the drill pad and found my place. The Drill Sergeants made their way through the ranks, finding anyone that looked weak, fat, skinny, scared, confident or just breathing. I stood and waited my turn. One of them stopped in front of me. The brim of his hat touched the side of my forehead. I looked straight ahead, not moving. He stood there, hat brim and his gaze both boring holes into my skull, waiting for me to show him something to attack. I gave nothing. I assume he was tired of wasting his time with me so I was given the simple command of, “drop”. I began performing the first of what would amount to thousands of push ups over the next several months. We were all ordered to stand at the position of attention and listen closely as the Drill Sergeants talked. The Drill informed the platoon that he was aware of seven recruits that had come from New York State. My stomach dropped, knowing I was one of the New York Seven (as we would later be fondly referred to). The NY 7 was ordered to form up in front of the formation. We stood in a row, all seven staring out at the rest of the recruits. Keep in mind, basic training is a collection of men from all corners of the US, the World in fact. The Drill Sergeant paced in front and behind us and addressed the class:
Take a good look recruits. Some of you may have never seen a New Yorker before. Memorize these names and faces because these are you thieves, your liars and your punks. These seven are the reason we have to lock our lockers. They will steal your stuff when you’re not looking. Be wary, Gentlemen, for these seven will sleep with your wife or girlfriend while you are deployed. Keep a very close eye on them.
Some of the looks we got from the other recruits were nothing short of frightening. I was horrified. We had been there less than an hour and I was hated by complete strangers already. I found out later that the Drill Sergeants periodically had problems with New Yorkers in the past and developed this exercise to control any of my more outspoken fellow Yankees. It worked exactly as I’m sure they had designed it to. For the next several days, until we were all able to actually get to know each other, the class watched us as we even more carefully watched them in return.
What came after was a complete blur. We were led into the barracks and assigned bunks. We were led to the chow hall and fed. We were led to classrooms and instructed. All the while we were screamed at, berated and forced to hydrate continually. If you know anything about my upbringing (read My Mother is an Irish Ninja) then you know getting screamed at and berated was not a foreign concept. I knew I could handle that part. It was the forced hydration that caused me to get noticed. Every recruit carried a canteen. Before every task we had to fill the canteen. Then after being what was referred to as “smoked” (which consisted of rigorous physical activity) we were required to drink the contents of said canteen. After a few cycles of this routine, we were led to a classroom for a two-hour block of instruction. About ten minutes in, my bladder began to ache. I held out as long as I felt I could and when I could stand it no more, my hand went up. Instantly a Drill Sergeant descended upon me, demanding to know why I was attempting to interrupt this very important speech about whatever. I timidly requested to use the bathroom. Well, the Army doesn’t have any bathrooms. Believe me, I was as surprised as you. Not a single bathroom on post. The Drill Sergeant left me confused and aching to pee. I waited a bit longer until it became unbearable. My hand went up again. Without speaking the same Drill came up behind me and hoisted me with one hand out of my chair and drug me by my collar out the door and down the hall. As he walked and I struggled to keep up he colorfully and repeatedly informed me about how he now owned my ass. My bladder had apparently sealed my fate. I was led to a door and subsequently shoved head long through. As I flew past the door I noticed a sign which read “Latrine”. Right… no bathrooms, I got it. For the first time in my life I had to attempt to urinate with a very intimidating person yelling insults at me. It would not be the last. Once I returned to class I was able to disappear back into anonymity as someone else caught the Drill Sergeant’s attention.
The rest of Basic was pretty much how you’d imagine. We fell into a routine of physical training, sleep deprivation and hunger mixed with weapons training, hand to hand combat, bayonet training and a slew of other instructions to transform us into US Soldiers. We were also assigned our specific Drill Sergeants. There was Sergeant Vader, he was our Senior Drill Sergeant. A tall, menacing man, he was in charge and everyone knew it without ever having to be told. He was surprisingly quiet and didn’t have to yell to get his point across. His approach was more psychological. Then there was Drill Sergeant Green. He was extremely motivating but aside from the mandatory ass chewing and smoke sessions, he was more of a positive influence. He seemed to give more pep talks and would deliver them exactly when we needed them most. The man was an incredible cadence caller as well. I always said that if he decided to stop torturing people for a living he would do well as an R&B singer. Lastly there was Drill Sergeant Dew, who reminded me of Scrappy from the Scooby Doo cartoons. Small, loud and intent on causing as much discomfort as possible. He genuinely seemed to dislike recruits and reinforced that belief as much as he could.
Basic Training moved fast. There was an overwhelming amount of information thrown at us but oddly, we all adapted. Most of us anyway. As the weeks went by we had two suicide attempts, several dropped for academic or physical reasons and several more dropped for being trouble makers. As our ranks got smaller the ones that remained grew closer. We began to work in unison. Things became fluid. Our run distances increased and no one complained, my sit up count neared triple digits on the physical fitness tests and push ups were done with increasing numbers and ease. Halfway through and I was able to hold the front leaning rest (The ready position for the push up) for twenty minutes without so much as a muscle twitch. We became faster, stronger, smarter and more confident. I learned my body could do an incredible amount more than my mind told me it could. I also mastered the art of sleeping in any circumstance during that time. I could sleep sitting, standing even walking. I could literally fall asleep while on a 15 mile road march. I was in top physical and mental condition or at least until that point of my life. I had mastered firing a rifle, throwing grenades, camouflaging, surviving and fighting. Then, before I knew it, it was over. Seemingly as quickly as it had begun, I was ushered across the graduation stage and welcomed to the big green machine. I was now a soldier. The next step was what the Army refers to as “A.I.T.” or Advanced Individual Training. It’s basically where you learn to do the job that you will be doing during your time in the Army. I was off to Forward Observer School. The rumor was that A.I.T. was like college. There was classroom instruction, no Drill Sergeants and weekends off. Compared to the last few months, that sounded like paradise. Perhaps if I had enlisted as a mechanic, cook, admin or maybe in communications, that would have been true. For me and the 12 other new soldiers headed to the US Army Forward Observer school, the rumor couldn’t have been more wrong.