Monday, August 2, 2010

"Get to Shoot an M16 and Eat that awesome Army Chow!" (2/4)

Back in April I wrote about my experience in the military. I’ve decided to continue the story here. Before I move on from basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, permit me a few more comments.  To clarify the title once again, this was my stock reply when anyone ever asked me why I joined the military so late in life.  I got tired of the question, and anyway the real reason—to serve my country—seemed to hokey for some.  This response warded off further questions sufficiently.

I couldn't tell you how much basic training has changed over the decades, but my training took nine weeks, not counting the an initial "reception" week when you get processed and, frankly, sit around for long stretches of time and try to memorize Army slogans and shit.  The Army divides the nine weeks of actual training into three three-week segments that get progressively easier: red, white, and blue.  So the "red" weeks are hell on earth.  But the drill sergeants get relatively more lenient in the subsequent phases.  I remember many episodes of collective punishment.  Some Private Snuffy would break a rule, or allegedly break a rule, and before we know it we'd have drill sergeants blowing whistles in our ears and hollering at us to get out of bed and outside asap.  Then we'd have to do pushups and roll around in the dirt.  Good times.  If memory serves, they eased up slightly on collective punishment in the blue phase of training.

At the end of each three-week phase we’d have an FTX, or Field Training Exercise. The first one was awful. I remember laying in my “hasty” for hours as the rain soaked me to the bone, snakes and mosquitoes keeping me company the whole time. A “hasty” is a shallow foxhole hastily dug for one person. Heaven forbid you should lose your weapon. On the second FTX I fell asleep while laying in my hasty. The drill sergeant, bless his little black heart, took it from me. My punishment was to dig a foxhole, not a mere hasty, in very stony soil. The third FTX went much better, in large part because we knew we were only days from graduation. One of the unpleasant aspects of this last FTX was a gas attack. They forced us to stay in formation until they exploded CS gas, aka “tear gas,” near us.

Speaking of CS gas, at some point in the first or second phase they had us go into the ominous and probably ill-advisedly named “gas chamber.” Some of the soldiers in training expressed their concern mostly for the gas exercise. For my part, as mentioned in part I of this series, I hated the sleep deprivation. Anyway, drill sergeants and the ubiquitous military contractors lead soldiers into a concrete building out in the wood. The room inside is full of tear gas and recruits are required to walk slowly and stand inside there for a few minutes both with and without their gas mask. Once they open the door, you run out like a Mofo, spitting and vomiting and crying. To make things worse, they have some dude filming you as you come out. Why? They’re going to sell you a DVD of your experience at basic training at the end. Ah, the capitalistic spirit of America that wants to separate young recruits from their money!

As the title of this blog indicates, qualifying on the shooting range was an enjoyable experience. I must admit that I’m mediocre as a marksman; I had virtually no experience with guns before basic training. Sometimes hunters have a disadvantage when it comes to firing a weapon the “Army” way, as they’ve developed bad habits. I had no excuse, and poor eyesight is partly to blame. However, I’ve improved over the years tremendously.

Religion is an interesting thing at basic training. Everyone and their dog want to attend a religious service, especially the Protestant worship hour, because it gives soldiers a break from the drill sergeants in an air-conditioned space. They could be the most depraved reprobates known to man, but by golly they’ll be singing the praise songs and praying with everyone else. As someone from an evangelical background, I concede that I have a certain notion of what Christianity should mean, but I was taken aback by a number of soldiers who saw no disconnect between cursing and promiscuity, on the one hand, and dutifully reading their Bible and praying, on the other. I’m not just talking about the religious service. I mean, I’d see guys praying and reading the Bible at night in their bunks; later they’d talk about their sexual activities with no compunction.

I’m not letting guys off the hook, far from it, but the young women in uniform were as a rule not the most moral animals themselves. I love the Army and I’ll support my daughters in just about any endeavor; however, joining the Army is not an option for them. I don’t want to paint this experience with too broad a brush. Some of the soldiers were moral, if not Christian, and had a good head on their shoulders. Depending on their age some of the guys and gals looked to me as a big brother or father figure. I tried to balance my responsibility as an “adult” with my goofy and immature side.

Let me address nomenclature and jargon for a moment.  I became acquainted with Army phrases like "good to go" and "get squared away."  The drill sergeants liked to refer to soldiers as "f-sticks," not exactly the most polite form of address.  And everything was frickin' this and frickin' that.  I was frickin' freakin' out with all these new expressions.  If you weren't pulling your own weight, you were a "blue falcon," the exact meaning of which is too obscene to explicate here.  A soldier who had his act together would be called "high speed."  Once high speeds and blue falcons were "good to go," then we would roll.  One objection I had was the term "latrine."  Must we really use a French term for a restroom?

Speaking of the French, what's with the beret?  I still hate wearing that thing.  You had to coddle it, cut out the cardboard part, take a lighter to the plastic band in the back, shave the fuzz off, talk to it, shower with it,  sleep in it wet, have a torrid elicit affair with it–all of these tasks just to get it the right shape on your frickin' head.  I'm fine with the kevlar helmet and field cap, but the beret?  I used to joke with the guys about having zealously joined the Army under the mistaken belief that we were actually fighting the French.  And now they make me wear a beret?  I heard that some general who had nothing better to do decided about 10 or 15 years ago that soldiers would wear black berets.  The Special Forces already wore berets, but he wanted everyone in this thing.  And black felt?  Can you pick a worse choice for standing out in the sun for long hours?  To add insult to injury (and this is my other grievance) soldiers must wear their "cover" when they're outside in uniform.

Throughout basic training I was a good boy. I never complained and I never talked myself in to going to sick bay like many soldiers did.  Despite my age and education, I came into this experience in full humility. I could have entered the officer program, but for whatever reason I wanted to start from the bottom up. I entered at the mere rank of Specialist, the highest enlisted rank for a recruit with a college education. My only act resistance, perhaps, came during the photo shoot. In my platoon photo I’m the only soldier out of 55 or so who is smiling. The drill sergeants ordered us to look fierce. But I was having a grand time and wanted to register my happiness for posterity.

At the top of August I left Fort Leonard Wood on a bus toward Arizona for AIT—Advance Individual Training. My 17 weeks at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center Fort Huachuca, where I received instruction as an intelligence analyst, formed one of the great recent experiences of my life.