HAVING SERVED PROUDLY in the US Army, I find myself often asked about basic training – that initial period of indoctrination into the military. For myself, it was eight weeks at Fort Jackson, SC (The Palmetto State).
Of course, one does not simply go from being a slack-jawed yokel to hard-bitten soldier. There are many steps required to get a person trained. Logistics take up the first week or so. They train about 300 troops per ‘cycle’, so you have to wait until that critical number of people arrive in one place. This ‘Reception Battalion’ is a kind of rest stop for people joining the Army. You fill out paperwork, get your head shaved (mostly), get gear, boots, etc. You are introduced to the military in a very simple, non-threatening manner. Then the buses come.
When they came for me, I had been in reception for 4 days. When I stepped onto my bus, I saw that the windows were blacked out. This seemed ominous. After an hour or so, we stopped, and a very large man got on the bus. He was wearing the distinctive ‘Smokey the Bear’ hat of a drill sergeant. The relationship got off to a quick start – he threatened to kill us; he used profanity; he informed us that we should leave the bus; he promised retribution for failure. Amazingly, he did all this in one sentence:
“You sons-of-bitches got 10 goddamn seconds to get off this f—ing bus or I’m gonna rip your stinkin’ heads off and s–t down your necks!”
He then informed us that 5 of those precious seconds were gone – it would seem that his clock had started prior to walking on the bus. This seemed unfair, but we were in no position to argue. It being an 88-passenger bus, all 88 of us attempted to get off the bus at the same time. In this, we failed. I came of the bus considerably behind the others, and was welcomed to the unfamiliar surroundings by the same large, angry drill sergeant, who was issuing punishment for those who failed to quit the bus in the proscribed manner.
“Drop! Drop! Beat your face!!!” he yelled.
Drop? Drop what – my bags? I hadn’t even picked them up… Beat my face? What the hell did that mean? I cast my eye to the privates who had departed the bus slightly ahead of me – ah! They had ‘dropped’ to the ground, and were ‘beating their face’ on the pavement, a colorful euphemism for the push-ups I had heard so much fuss about. I promptly followed suit.
After about a minute of exercise, I began to weaken. I slowed slightly in my efforts, but here the efforts of the other soldiers were instructive. Some had already stopped, and it seemed to send the Drill Sergeant into a paradox of fury. He swore, he raged, he howled, he even shook his hand at one private. We were all quite effectively terrified.
This was a man who was very good at what he did.
After our arms had begun to give out, he yelled at us to get up, get our bags, and “get our lazy asses in line”. We did so as sharply as we could. He then began singling out particularly awkward or inelegant troops, and repeating the ‘Drop’ command. Now we had two things to fear – group and individual punishment. I mentally committed myself to being invisible.
Having lined up, we were then sorted into four platoons. Several other busloads of nervous privates were already assembled; several more came after us. Eventually, each platoon consisted of 80 very tired privates. At this point, several other Drill Sergeants appeared. After some discussions, they took us upstairs to our quarters. It was a single large room with 40 sets of bunk beds ringing the room. Wall lockers were at the head and foot of the beds, forming little 4-bed cubes. We were arrayed around the room along a black line of tape that seemed to guard the large, highly polished center of the floor.
After we were in position, our two drill Sergeants closed the door to our barracks and began to talk. The tall Drill Sergeant spoke first, introducing himself as ‘Smooth’. It was an apt nickname, for he spoke gently to us, the first person to do so. He told us very nicely to get in the ‘front leaning rest’ position, explaining that this was the proper name for the ‘up’ part of the push up. We were worried that we would have to do more push ups, but he must have anticipated this worry, because he assured us that we would not. “Just stay in the front-leaning rest while I talk to you a little while.” It seemed reasonable.
“Now first of all, I don’t want anyone in this platoon to say ‘Thank You’ to me, or anyone else in the company. You can thank your recruiter! This is Alpha Company, and we say ‘Always Forward’. Also, do not call me, or any other Drill Sergeant, ‘sir’ – we’re non-commissioned officers, so you call us ‘Drill Sergeant’. Do you all understand? Say ‘Always Forward, Drill Sergeant’ if you do.”
We yelled ‘Always Forward, Drill Sergeant’ in unison. He thought this was fine, and then began telling us some other instructive details about Army life.
During this time, the shorter drill sergeant stood in the center of the room with his arms folded across his chest. His nickname was ‘Diamonds’. We did not ask why, but found out later it was due to his love of the ‘diamond’ push-up, a variant that has a person bring the hands together until the thumbs and index fingers of both hands were touching in the shape of a diamond. Do try it, for a lark.
After a minute or two of maintaining the front leaning rest, I noticed a kind of curious fatigue set in. My arms began to tremble somewhat. I cast my eye about, and noticed varying degrees of shakes spreading around the room. Eventually, someone dropped to the floor.
The drill sergeants jumped like they had been stung – straight at the exhausted private. What a change had come over them! They yelled, they cursed – oh, how they cursed! It quailed the heart, and our arms were all getting so tired…
In less than five minutes, even the strongest person in the room was completely exhausted. The drill sergeants told us to stand up with obvious disgust and disappointment.
Suddenly, it was Q&A time! ‘Smooth’ called us all to attention, and began moving down the row asking us our names, where we were from, and why we had joined the Army.
I had signed up at age 20 to support my wife, after I found myself without support from my family. A difficult but noble circumstance, and the drill sergeant found no reason to question it.
He moved to the next fellow in line – a young man whom I had met and befriended at the reception battalion. He was very small, polite to a fault, and looked like he might faint at any moment. He’d worked at a fast food restaurant for several years and wanted to make the Army a career. The Drill Sergeant liked that and told him so.
Now, I saw what was coming, though perhaps you cannot. As the drill sergeant turned to the next private, the years of McPoliteness betrayed my buddy, and he said: ‘Thank you, sir.’
The Drill Sergeant turned in mid stride, saying “What? What?! What!!! What did you just say!?! Weren’t you listening to me 5 minutes ago?” He seemed hurt and betrayed by this privates’ obvious disregard for his simple instructions. He told him to drop, so he could repeat the instructions.
As mentioned, I had seen it coming. This was not helpful to me, however. The pantomime that the drill sergeant was playing out was utterly hilarious, but I knew only too well that it was for his amusement only. Stress affects us all differently though, and in my case it seems to produce laughter. Knowing it was wrong, wrong, wrong, I attempted to stifle it as best I could. I thought I would explode. I managed to keep myself relatively calm while the drill sergeant admonished my buddy.
When he had finished, my buddy stood, and the drill sergeant turned again to address the next recruit. I was still struggling with my internal demon, but it seemed I would escape notice. That’s when ‘Diamonds’, who had resumed his sphinx-like pose in the center of the room noticed my shaking. Quick as a flash he stuck out a finger at me and said: “Hey Drill Sergeant, that guy thinks this is funny!”
Suddenly it did not seem funny at all. The very large drill sergeant appeared in front of me, towering over me, and asking me pointed questions. I quickly regained my composure under his withering cross-examination. I must say, I have never heard profanity used to such good effect before or since. Each word was like a cool slap across my cheeks, quite bracing.
He turned away at last, and I can honestly say I spent the next eight weeks afraid to laugh. I managed to avoid further incident that day, but clearly all hope of being invisible had vanished. Eventually I learned that biting one’s tongue is not merely a figure of speech, though biting the cheeks is more effective. Such is the way of the modern soldier.
Always Forward, Drill Sergeant!
[Chapter 4 of The Feral Chicken of Clayton (and other essays)]