The Drill Sergeants were hardcore lifers, that’s for sure. They ate, slept, lived, and breathed for the Army, and they expected us to do so as well. It was only a matter of minutes before they began yelling at us. They immediately found faults with anybody that they felt like picking on, usually the fat guys. We looked like a bunch of scared kids, and I guess most of us were. Their goal was to break us, to exhaust us emotionally, psychologically, and physically and then to rebuild us, train us, and transform us from civilian boys into soldiers. They accomplished that by belittling and berating us and working us to death and enforcing the strictest of discipline. The days were long and hard. I don’t know how the drill sergeants did it. They would arrive at our barracks in their starched pressed fatigues and spit-shined boots and smokey the bear style of drill sergeant hats before daylight. I wondered if they slept in their uniforms. They would throw on the lights and start yelling, “Get your sorry asses up and out of those bunks trainees! You got fifteen minutes to shit, shower, and shave, and then fallout for physical training (PT).” Some days began at 4:00 AM and ended at midnight. The shortest days were still at least 12-hour days, but on those days, we had other details assigned.
“Fireguard” was an example of one detail. We took turns sitting up all night long, guarding against the barracks catching fire, which seemed senseless to me. It’s not like we were using old potbelly wood-burning stove heaters. Kitchen police (KP) at the mess hall was the worst detail of all. I hated KP more than anything. Cleaning the latrines was no fun either. I was beginning to hate everything about the Army. Some of the guys talked about going AWOL or inflicting self-injuries to get out. Some talked about running off to Canada. As bad as I missed Diane and my family and friends, I wasn’t to that point yet. I kept reminding myself that a million guys before me made it through this, and I can make it too.
PT wasn’t too bad. I was able to do as many pushups and exercises as they demanded. We marched in formations for hours and hours and also did a lot of running. For me, running was the hardest part of PT. I had the strength, but I didn’t have the endurance that they wanted. It didn’t take them long to fix that problem, though. The sergeants left me alone for the most part as I kept quiet and tried my best to blend in. They concentrated more on the fat and out of shape guys, I felt sorry for them. The drill sergeants were bullying and ruthless at embarrassing and humiliating those guys, forcing them to do extra PT. They even stood over them in the mess hall and watched what they ate, limiting their meals to half portions. They also monitored what the weaker skinny guys ate, ordering them to eat double portions of the chow.
The first few weeks of basic training were brutal, but when we began weapons training, it wasn’t so bad. I didn’t mind sitting in the classrooms; it was certainly more comfortable than running or marching. And eventually, when we went to the firing ranges, there was a lot of relaxed sitting around waiting for your turn to fire the weapons. Any time we had a break, the sergeants would yell out, “smoke ’em if you got ’em.” Almost everyone smoked. The first time they issued an M-16 rifle, I was surprised to see that the gun had a plastic stock and plastic handgrips. It looked like a Mattel toy. Were they seriously going to train us with toy guns? It didn’t take long to learn that calling a weapon a “gun” was unacceptable and not tolerated by the drill sergeants. I grew up with guns. My dad had several, and I had been hunting and shooting with Dad since I was 12 years old. The military rifles that my dad owned were old Jap rifles that men brought home from World War II. They were real military rifles that looked like the ones used in all of the action war movies and TV shows. Soon I learned that the M-16 rifle they had issued to us wasn’t a toy at all, it was for real, and we soon learned all that there was to know about that weapon, including how it worked, how to disassemble and reassemble it, how to clean it, and how we were supposed to sleep with it and love it.
As the weeks went by, the training became less frightening. My self-confidence was growing as I learned the ropes. I made sure that my boots were spit-shined; my bunk was always made up flawlessly with perfect hospital fold corners, and my footlocker was precision orderly. I was passing the inspections and shooting well and performing well in almost all areas. I qualified as a marksman with the rifle, automatic rifle, and machine gun as well as an expert with the pistol and grenades. What the Army called bivouac was like the overnight camping out that my old neighborhood friends and I did a lot of as kids. Sleeping bags and tents were nothing new to me. I liked the classroom training as well as the weapons training and firing all of the different types of weapons. I was good at it.
During the last 3 or 4 weeks of training, most of us were allowed short weekend passes. We trained Saturday mornings and were let go at noon but had to be back by Sunday evening. Before issuing our first weekend passes, the drill sergeants called us into formation. “Okay, trainees, listen up. You better have your sorry asses back here on time! NO excuses will be accepted. Failure will be punished harshly, up to and including an Article 15, and you may have to start your basic training all over again with the next company of trainees. Be careful out there; you’re not as tough as you think you are. You’ve had just enough hand to hand combat training to get your asses kicked! And it is not recommended that you wear your uniforms while traveling.” WHAT? Don’t wear my uniform? That made no sense to me. I always had the highest respect and admiration for guys in uniform.
I wasn’t sure what an Article 15 was all about, but they threatened us with it frequently for some reason, and I knew that it included some loss of pay. As a private E-1, there wasn’t much pay to lose since we only received $97 monthly after taxes. When traveling home on a weekend pass, I could only afford to fly one way, and that had to be on the less expensive military standby flights, which cost $18 each way. So, even though I had less than 36 hours of free time off to enjoy, on Saturdays, I hitchhiked the 6-8 hours that it took to travel 300 miles across the state of Pennsylvania. I wore my uniform and usually was able to get rides pretty quickly. Diane and I went out every Saturday night that I had a pass. The time away from each other seemed to bring us closer together. I guess there’s some truth to the saying that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” On Sundays, if she could borrow her dad’s car, Diane would drive me to the airport for my flight back to base, but if not, then my parents would drive me.
Finally, after eight weeks of training, most of us made it through the intensity of it all. We wore our uniforms for a graduation ceremony where they marched us in perfect military formations around a parade field, showing us off in front of the brass (officers) and other spectators. Afterward, we were standing at attention in formation, listening to some high-ranking officer who declared that we were now men, prepared for our next phase of training, whatever that may be. I was proud to have successfully made it through basic training, hoping it was the hardest phase. I was no longer a punk kid hanging out around the neighborhood. I was in the Army now and felt like I was part of something bigger.