Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tales of a Cold Warrior - Entering the Dragon

(To get the full story, you may want to go back and start from the beginning)

I can't say I remember much about getting on the bus in Memphis, nor the bus ride from there to St.  Louis. The bus ride from St. Louis to Ft. Leonard Wood was memorable only at the end. In fact, I don't remember getting on the bus to Ft. Leonard Wood. The Army's goal for that ride was simple, probably honed over many years of dealing with volunteer troops bound for their introduction to the Army family.

We must have been purposefully directed to the busses by gender, as I don't recall any females on the bus, even though my training company had a female platoon. In fact, I do not recall the drills even getting on the bus with us. However, they were there for the ride, talking and laughing, and purposefully being human. As we pulled into the reception area, the head drill on our bus told us that he and his fellow drills were human, and were about to be true assholes, that it was part of the process and not to take it personally. That this was the last time until after we graduated we would see the human part, but to remember that it was there. Or words to that effect...

Then the doors to the bus opened and everything changed. From what seemed like all directions we were assaulted by a barrage of angry yelling men. "Go here", "Move faster", "What the hell are you doing?", and the inevitable "drop and give me 10". We were herded into lines, a ragtag group of civilians adrift among a wolf pack of drill sergeants. There was a speech then by the head sergeant. He talked about what a privilege it was for us to be in the Army and how it was his job to prepare us. He also said that graduating basic was going to be the hardest thing we had ever done. He then directed our attention to the now empty buses idling behind us. He told us that if we wanted to drop out now was the time, we just had to tell one of the drills and they would put us back on the bus. What he didn't want was someone trying to sneak away, as all manner of bad things would befall you in that case. I do remember a few guys getting back on the bus.

From there we were herded into a chow hall for a very unmemorable meal, and then segmented into the reception barracks for a night sleep. At that time, the reception barracks at Ft. Leonard Wood were vintage WW2 barracks which consisted of a double row of cots in an open bay.  I don’t think I got a lot of sleep that first night. There was too much going on, both inside my head and around me. Somehow, we made it through that and got shuffled off to ‘processing’ where our hair got cut by a group of old Filipino men. We were issued our uniforms, boots, underwear, and web gear by a group of fairly bored looking quartermaster corporals, which we carried to a group of old Filipino women to sew the various patches, name tags, and for those of us who had our PFC stripes (due to ROTC participation) our rank. How all those Filipinos came to be in the middle of Missouri cutting hair, sewing, and as I was to find out later, cooking and dating drill sergeants is a mystery.

Eventually we were sent to our training company. Given that training, even basic training, must occur on a schedule, and the number of training companies in existence at any given time are dictated by personnel availability and ultimately budget, in the fall of 1980 there was probably a new training company starting every month. I assume that my training company was not too different from others and consisted of three male platoons and one female platoon. Each platoon consisted of four squads of 7 to 8 men (or women – but at that time never mixed gender). Squad leaders were assigned by rank. The only people that had rank upon entry into basic were kids that had ROTC in high school or prior service individuals re-entering the service after being out for a while. We really didn’t see the prior service guys after reception as they were regulated to staff support positions. This seems right to me as there really was no need to put them through the mental rigors of basic, but probably required a different acclimation process. In any case, it was probably easier for the drills to instill the proper attitude without someone who had been through it all already mucking it up.  Oddly enough, I think I was the only one in my platoon that had been in ROTC. I suspect that reflects that nature of the military then. Most of us were there not necessarily out of a sense of duty, though that was true on some level or we would not have signed up, but also we sort of just fell into the service without planning.

So I was made squad leader by virtue of my ROTC experience. At the time, I thought that it was due to my ability to walk in a straight line and knowing how to salute. I suspect it as a little more than that, as throughout basic other squad leaders were brought up and down, but I remained. I think I was just lucky in that regard as somehow my squad managed to avoid the screw-ups of the other squads.

Next: Meet The Sergeant

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