For The Love Of God! Ch 1 pt3

Once we arrived back at the reception battalion building, they started issuing us our uniforms. The army is a very efficient operation. Well, at times anyway. This was one of those times. Getting our BDUs (battle dress uniforms) and every other article of clothing worked very much like an assembly line. We started at one end of the building and conveyed through a maze of counters and walls where, at one station, as they were called, we were issued four pairs of trousers (army for pants)—two pairs of summer weight, two pairs of winter weight. As we continued to shuffle along, we were issued our blouses (army for shirts)—two pairs summer weight, two pairs winter weight. Farther down the line, we were issued our T-shirts, socks, briefs, and boots. One would never guess that the soldier they see walking around town in uniform looking all spiffy and shiny, dignified and diligent, is actually wearing briefs the color of the worst area of a discarded baby diaper. Yes, even the underwear in the army is brown. It matches the undershirt. Who knew that the army was concerned with color coordination all the way down to the Skivvies?

New combat boots are really something to speak of. When they’re brand-new, they are, I think, modeled after Dutch clogs—only slightly more stiff. The boots are not comfortable at first, but once they’re broken in, they’re comfortable enough to play basketball in, which is quite a transformation. And like the boots, we, as brand-new soldiers, would experience a transformation just as drastic. The difference is that brand-new soldiers start off soft and, after being broken in, become hard, physically and mentally. Years after being in the army, I wondered if the boots were made for me or if I was made for the boots.

After getting all of our clothes, we went to a separate part of the building and were issued our BI (basic issue items). BI simply means army gear. They gave us our Kevlar helmets, which we referred to with many different names like helmet, Kevlar, k-pot, headgear, and brain bucket. We were given our web gear—suitably named because at times, it was much like getting caught in a spider web while trying to put it on—which was most often called an LBE (load-bearing equipment). The LBE is basically suspenders that attach to a pistol belt. And to the pistol belt are attached ammo pouches and canteen holders, which are canteen covers that are supposed to insulate the canteen. And the list of gear goes on and on.

The first thing they gave us was a giant duffel bag, which, for reasons unknown to me, is usually called an A bag. We were told to stuff this bag with everything they gave us. After they finished giving us everything they deemed necessary, our A bags were packed to the top and weighed about forty or fifty pounds.

The next day, we saw the resident hairstylists. To say the least, they are good at what they do. You don’t even have to tell them which style you want because they already know: it’s called the “bald eagle,” which is a fancy army way of saying bald. I sat down in the chair and was very glad to be doing so because the wait was very long and I, along with everyone else, was exhausted. On the floor lay piles and piles of hair. I had never seen so much hair in my life. The barbers might as well have been robots. They didn’t speak, and they didn’t seem to move anything except their arms. They just stood as if their feet were glued to the floor, and waited for the next customer to plop into their chairs.

Once I was in the chair, the barber snapped the cape to rid it of the previous previously satisfied customer’s hair and whisked it onto me, and then buzz, buzz, buzz,” and I was done. I was practically out of the door before the last of my hair had hit the pile of previous previously satisfied customer’s hair. We all had to wait for the rest of the privates, as we were now being called, to get their bald eagles. We sat down on a bench with no back and were told to read our Smartbooks. I opened mine and blankly stared at a page as I rubbed my hairless head and thought about Olivia’s beautiful long brown hair. When you’re physically and mentally exhausted, your emotions are intensified. If you’re angry, you’re incensed. If you’re happy, you’re jubilant. If you’re sad, you’re on the verge of tears. The two days I had been gone seemed like two years, and I had three months left to go. It was mid-June, and I was scheduled to get back home sometime in late September. It truly seemed like forever to me.

Reception battalion is tough for a brand-new soldier. Most new enlistees are just kids who have never been away from home. Going away from home or from your parents for the first time is quite an experience that I’m sure most people never forget. What makes it so memorable for civilians is that they experience adult freedom. In addition to the responsibility of paying bills and getting to work on time, they experience a different sort of relationship with their parents in which they view them as friends whom they can call if they have a problem, if they are scared, or if they just need someone to talk to who knows them well. It’s a very exciting time for most. Going to basic right out of high school is an entirely different experience. Your bills are taken care of, you have medical attention anytime you need it, you have three square meals a day, and you get all the clothes you need. That’s where the positives end. In basic training, the army sees to it that you have everything you need to exist. Period. Existence doesn’t require a little bit more sleep. Existence doesn’t require pleasantries. Existence doesn’t require most of what we, as Americans living in the technology era, consider essential—like air conditioning, television, telephones, or even ice in our drinks. What’s more important is that existence doesn’t require smiles, words of encouragement, or even love. The few things that separate us humans from every other living creature are not required for existence. In basic training, you go from being a regular human being from “back on the block,” as civilian life is known in the army, to being the most basic form of human life there is, virtually overnight. I liken this latter form to a blank slate. You are turned into a body, a vessel capable of becoming something else, and nothing else. It’s not that you are no longer who you are, because who you are is intrinsic. Deep down inside, you’re still the same person. So instead of forgetting who you are and what makes you unique, you are no longer allowed to be that person, which is far worse. There is no you. There is Private Jones, but without the Jones. During basic training, the ultimate goal of the army is to mold you into part of a team. Several years ago, the army changed its slogan from “Be all you can be” to “An army of one.” That is an enormous contradiction. There are no individuals, there is no you.

The last thing that I remember doing before “shipping,” as making the transition from reception battalion to actual basic training is called, was going into an auditorium that looked like an old movie theater, complete with stadium seating, red seats, and red curtains. I sat near the top of the auditorium next to my new buddy, Private Sawyer. Sawyer was from Utah. We became friends after they put us in alphabetical order. We were in the n through x platoon. Sawyer was tall with blue eyes and rather large ears. He had a very calm voice and pleasant personality. I couldn’t have asked for a better “battle buddy.” A battle buddy is the person you are supposed to be attached at the hip with, so to speak. Battle buddies do everything together. I suppose they make you partner up with a battle buddy for moral support and general help. He was my closest friend there. He accepted me for my religion, which is more than I can say for a lot of people there. Sawyer was a Mormon, but we still prayed together on occasion.

It’s too bad that we weren’t supposed to be praying up at the top of that auditorium, because we were all bowing our heads, then raising them, and then bowing them again, only to shortly thereafter repeat the process. But, of course, we weren’t praying at all—we were falling asleep. To remedy this, the army has a system: it’s called the “buddy check.” The buddy check is not a visual check but a series of sharp elbow blows to the ribs of the guy sitting next to you. Now picture this: looking from the top down, you see hundreds of brand-new privates below you, all with newly shaven heads. All of the heads are white because they have scarcely, if ever, seen daylight. We were getting some sort of briefing before we shipped and were supposed to be paying attention. Army people hate it if you fall asleep when they are addressing you. The problem was that none of us were used to the schedule that we had just been introduced to. So you can imagine how it must have looked when everyone’s head below you is either slumped down to their chests, or slowly falling into that position, or leaning left to jab an elbow to the right. It looked like everyone was bobbing for apples. I must credit the snapshot memory I have of this event to Private Sawyer. Without his buddy checks, none of this would be possible. Thanks, battle buddy! Friend!

We may not have been praying, but we should have been. The next day was shipment day. Say that to yourself like you would say “judgment day” from the movie Terminator 2 with your best Schwarzenegger accent. That’s the best way to say it because shipment day is every bit as ominous. Shipment day began with the thirty or so of us walking to some building where we would … well, at the time, I had no idea since we were never told anything. All I knew was that we were being shipped and I was carrying all of my bags, which included my personal duffel bag and my giant A bag stuffed with all of that “cool” army stuff, to the army bus station. Maybe. I remember being so relieved that we were getting shipped. Over the last couple of days, we had all been moaning and groaning about being there at reception battalion because the people there were such condescending assholes. I remember murmuring to myself, “Please! Just let us ship. It’ll be so much better. At least we’ll be doing some training or something. Let us do anything to get away from these … these … your children, Lord. Bless them.”

They took us to a building that was old but clean and crisp. Inside, it was oblong and large—and completely empty. We were told, as usual, to pack in as tightly as possible, which left a large portion of the building empty since there were only about thirty of us. So it made no sense to me when they made us stand in two separate lines, looking directly forward with our giant A bags on top of our feet and kicked up onto the heels of the guy in front of us. If someone had lost his balance, I’m sure we would have heard the cracking of ankle bones because we could not move our feet at all. Maybe the army people were going to play a game of human dominos with us before the drill sergeants got there. That could have been the case, for all we knew. We were never told anything. At any rate, nobody fell and no ankles cracked. We stood there for a very long time. We weren’t allowed to make a sound; there was nothing but disturbing silence, like we were all mentally preparing ourselves for what was to come. If only we knew.

After an indeterminate period of time, we heard a vehicle pull up to the building, and then the front door opened. We were told to move from our current foot-locked position and turn sideways into a modified position of parade rest, with our ID card held between our index finger and thumb. The upper right “your left” (they always specified) corner of the card was to touch the bottom of our chin, so that we could easily be identified by he who came through the door. The room was a bit dark since the only source of light was the early morning sunshine that had begun to filter through the blinds on the windows. When the door opened, bright light came bursting into the room like a ray of something divine, and all that we could see was a greenish silhouette, wearing a Smokey-the-Bear-type hat, enter the room. This was our first glimpse of someone we would hate very soon. This was our “daddy.” This was the physical manifestation of all the malice from all of your enemies combined, and he wanted to know your name, and he wanted to know your face. This was our drill sergeant. His name was Burkett.

Sergeant Burkett came into the room and exchanged a few words with the army people and then proceeded down the line of us and recorded our names. As he got to each person, he would first write the name and social security number down on his clipboard and then look at the picture on the card. Then, he would not just look at but study each face. Nothing was said. He showed no emotion. The silence was almost eerie. It seemed very odd to me that he wasn’t saying anything. He methodically recorded our information, one person at a time, and looked into each of our eyes. Sergeant Burkett was about thirty-four years old. His one defining feature was a large red birthmark that covered nearly the whole left side of his face. He reminded me of the Batman villain Two-Face. I can’t say that he was intimidating, though. I was seeing only the human side of him. My idea of a drill sergeant was from the movie Full Metal Jacket. I expected yelling, threats, and insults. Instead, he was a sort of enigma. It’s easy to feel insecure when you don’t know what to think or feel. On the one hand, I thought the guy was going to be a complete jerk. On the other hand, I thought that maybe things weren’t going to be that bad after all. The former thought was much more accurate.

After Sergeant Burkett finished “getting to know us,” he told us to file out into the truck outside. File means that one line is to begin marching out and when the last man from the first line reaches the first man in the second line, the second line follows. I was in about the middle of the first line, and when I got outside, I saw a semi with what appeared to be a cattle trailer attached to it. The trailer was made of aluminum and had slots all the way around it to let air in. I had heard of these vehicles before. They were, in fact, called cattle trucks, but I always thought that was an exaggeration. Yet that’s exactly what they were. We were the cattle, and we were going to be shipped to basic training via a mode of transportation that was fit only for the bovine species.

As I entered the trailer, everyone was being told to “pack it in” over to the left side of the trailer. There was a bench around the inside walls of the trailer. The bench was about two feet wide and about three feet off the floor. We began packing it in by standing on top of the bench. On my way to the bench, I looked to my right to see who was giving the directions. Dominating a corner of the trailer was a figure as black as night and nearly as big. This was Sergeant Redding. He was grasping a handhold and leaning forward as he gave direct orders as to how we were to pack it in. “You. There,” he would say as he pointed to where he wanted us.

As I already described, drill sergeants wear a hat similar to the hat that park rangers wear. What you probably don’t know, though, is how they wear them. If you saw a park ranger wearing his hat, you’d probably notice that the circular brim is parallel to the ground. The wearer is casual, but the hat is stiff. Drill sergeants wear their “round brown,” as they’re called in the business (even though they’re green), with a slight forward tilt. This tilt makes a world of difference in the aura those hats can project. You can’t see the drill sergeants’ eyes very well when they wear the hat that way. It looks like they’re always facing a strong headwind without flinching. Simply, the round brown projects power and authority. It says, “I’m strong, you’re weak.” Oddly enough, Sergeant Redding was being just as calm and clinical as Sergeant Burkett had been, which was cool with me. Sergeant Redding did not look like the type of man you’d want on your ass.

Getting packed in only took a few minutes. We weren’t allowed to use the straps that made it easy to hold our bags, so there we were, standing with our arms around our A bags and our personal duffel bags on top of those. We were all a little uncomfortable being jammed in there like that, but it was OK. It was OK until the door closed. All of my preconceived notions about basic training vanished as quickly as the exit had. The threshold of that door was the dividing line between hope and fear, dreams and nightmares, and ultimately, between boy and man.

Nothing could have prepared us.


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