Fort Sill, Oklahoma
My father enlisted in the Marine Reserves. My step-grandfather was drafted into Vietnam out of the mountains in Kentucky. I had great uncles who served in the Navy and fought the Japanese during the Second World War. The summer I turned nineteen, I enlisted in the United States Army at the behest of my parents. It was the best thing they ever did for me, because I was going nowhere, very fast. Enlisting allowed me to take my place and longer, grander tradition of service of my family.
After I signed the contract, I left for basic combat training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. After reception, we were assigned to 3rd platoon, and met our drill sergeant. He was a staff sergeant from a Caribbean Island. Me being from Michigan, I hadn't encountered that sort of accent till that point, so I had a demanding time understanding what he was saying. Most of his sentences ended with, “Or I’ll fucking kill you.” That part made sense.
We were given a chance to turn in any contraband, like drugs or guns or pornography. Some turned in items and some didn't. I remember how serious the drill sergeants sounded. That we’d be sent to prison if there was the slightest contraband. I know it’s a theatrical performance now, but at the time I was so scared I turned in the one piece of nicotine gum I had just in case it would cost me a jail sentence.
After contraband turn in, it was bedtime. They marched us to our barracks, and we might have fallen asleep at 0200. Somewhere around 0400 we awoke to screaming as angry men threatened our lives for the sin of sloth. By 0500 we were marching as a company to the chow hall. They had us file into a waiting area, coiled around like a snake, and we discovered what a, “Shark Attack,” was.
As the coil of soldiers fed into the chow line, all I head was screaming. The slightest infraction was met with extreme prejudice. I questioned how hungry I was, and if there was a quieter dining establishment for an early morning breakfast but found myself grabbing a tray and silently sliding along the buffet line regardless. To my right, there was a recruit from Haiti. He said to the lunch ladies that served us behind the buffet, “I don't like this type of food. Do you have anything else in the back?”
Which was the wrong thing to say, because they grabbed this kid by the back of his shirt, and said, “You don't like this type of food, well, you don’t get to eat!” He was dragged away from the buffet line as the screaming got louder. I turned to lunch lady, and said, “I love this type of food. This looks fantastic. I'll take as much of it as you're allowed to give me. Please and thank you.”
Back in 2006, there were two types of Basic Combat Training courses. Male only for the combat arms soldiers, and Co-ed for support MOS’s. Fort Sill, being the home of the field artillery, ran a male-only basic training course. Outside of the lunch ladies, I hardly saw a woman for the first three weeks of Basic Combat Training.
That changed when they marched us down to the general store. We stood in formation outside and were sent in one squad at a time to run in and grab what personal hygiene supplies we needed. Once I got to the checkout line, my nineteen-year-old brain saw what looked like a radiant goddess at the checkout line. She looked my age, smiled when I kept calling her ma’am, and gently touched my arm as she told me to, “Have a nice day.” Having not seen a woman in weeks, I was glad I only burst into awkward giggling and did not in fact propose marriage.
No, that would come later. Towards the end of my Active-Duty time, I met who would be my first real girlfriend, first fiancée, and first heartbreak all at once. Let's call her Kay. I was on staff duty, and she was fresh from Advanced Individual Training. I picked her up in my 1999 Dodge Grand Caravan and managed to get her number. Kay, being nineteen at the time, and myself at twenty-three, were both just old enough to make stupid choices, like getting engaged after knowing each other for less than eight weeks. She was smart enough to give me the ring back at the deployment ceremony. My dear john email came a few weeks later when she was in Afghanistan. I’ll always be grateful she dumped me.
Stories like Kay were common in the Active Duty Army, especially in wartime. There was such a compressed timeline for everything because you did not know when you were deploying, for how long, or if you’d come back. So people got married in a flash, and divorced even faster. Luckily, in my basic training unit, that wasn’t as big an issue, given the male only gender dynamic.
One of my issues was a profound love of my own voice, along with a general lack of physical strength and hand/eye coordination. It was that first one that got me in the most trouble. I talked non-stop in formation, because I felt utterly out of place and certain I wouldn’t pass the course, so I kept trying to make everyone around me laugh. Luckily, I was the sort of guy who made friends with the “Go to war or go to jail,” crowd. There was a high percentage of ex-cons in my platoon, and my mouth annoyed a much bigger guy to the point where he got in my face. Well, me being 5’7, it was more like his chest got in my face. I hadn’t been hit in the face up to that point, so I tended to be more open with my opinions. Then, right before the fight started, the four of the ex-cons in the platoon got between me and the angry gentleman, forming a barricade. The leader of the ex-cons said, “Don’t you mess with Lester!” Then, to emphasize a point that needed no assistance, I jumped up and pointed at him over the shoulder of the ex-con in charge, shouting, “Yeah!”
It’s a good thing I’m likable.
Mine wasn’t the only discipline problem in the company. One of the earlier solutions involved the drill sergeants waking us up in the middle of the night and marching us into this big briefing room. They had a map of the Korean Penninsula pulled up, and a drill sergeant was addressing the company.
"At 2200 hours, the North Koreans sent and division size element through the DMZ, smashing allied lines. Seoul is cut off and they're under siege. All training has been halted by order of the Pentagon. Each training company will be issued rifles and sent to Japan to await the invasion.”
My fourth point of contact had never tightened up that fast before, because we hadn't even been issued rifles by that point.
The drill sergeant continued and asked, “Who thinks this is real?”
I raised my shaking hand along with the rest of the company.
The drill sergeant laughed at us and simply stated, “It’s not real, but it could be. So, you fuckstains better get your shit together and take the training seriously.”
I never was a great shot with a rifle. I knew which end of the barrel the bullet came out of, the location of the safety and semi levers, and was reasonably certain I could hit something at thirty yards. But I was never one of those soldiers that could close their eyes and use the force to hit the 300-meter target using only iron sites. Anything further than thirty meters, I would need God’s blessing to take out.
But at week four, I was feeling cocky. There was this shooting competition between the platoons, and I somehow convinced my platoon that I was the guy to get a 40/40 score. At the time, we didn’t have access to the laser sights that were used later in the Global War on Terror, so we had to learn how to manually set the iron sites that came built into the weapon. As I laid in the prone firing position, and my ill-fitting Kevlar helmet kept sliding down my face to obscure my vision, I heard the BIG LOUD VOICE say, “Shooters, move your safety switch from safe to semi, and fire when ready.”
As the competition commenced, and we got ready for the parade of pop-up targets, I felt an unnatural level of confidence. This would be where I show I was a real soldier. Fierce and deadly. As the pop-up targets finished popping, the BIG LOUD VOICE said over the loudspeaker, “Shooters, lock your firing bolt to the rear, place your selector switch back to safe, and stand by to receive your scores.”
I got around 13/40, while the shooter to my left got something like 62/40. I wasn’t allowed to compete in competitions after that.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Eleven years later, I was in the Indiana Army National Guard. At that time, my back wasn’t doing great. An injured back and the body armor were a bad mix, because the Kevlar plates immobilized your back to a level where it was painfully stiff. I was attempting to qualify on the 9MM pistol, and I believe I needed 22/40 to pass. I kept shooting somewhere in the low single digits, and after four or five attempts I found my platoon sergeant and suggested, “You know, if you add up all four attempts, it would get me a passing score.” After my fifth try it got too dark for the range, and we went back to the barracks. The next day no one asked me to shoot, and I checked the scores. I qualified at 22/40.
Once we got to Fort Sill, I was sent to a reception battalion. It’s a holding area, where drill sergeants teach you how to put on a uniform, what a formation is and how to march from the barracks to the chow hall. As training companies get ready to begin another cycle, they pulled troops from the reception battalion to fill numbers. One evening, we were all sitting in the bleachers, and the reception drill sergeants were doing a Q and A session. There was one soldier who raised his hand to make a statement.
“All of us need tenderness and love in our lives. If you need someone to cry with, I'll cry with you. If you need someone to hold onto, we can hold on to each other.”
At the time of this writing, I am in my mid-30's. I get what he was going for. But when I was 19, in the wartime army of 2006, we were all desperately trying to put on our toughest, most macho faces simply because we knew we were going to war.
It wasn’t if you deployed, but when, and how many times, and would you still be yourself when you came home. If you came home. So, his idea of us holding each other and crying our feelings out didn't play like he thought it was going to. We all laughed at him and called him Care Bear for the rest of the course.
Fast forward to about week five, which was the Combatives week. We learned different holding moves and ways to slip out of them. One of my sparring partners was nicknamed, “Jewsy,” a name he wore proudly, and he was the fastest guy on the mat. Our match lasted fifteen seconds, but all I remember was the world blurring as he threw me around.
At the end of the week, we learned that getting hit in the face doesn't hurt as much as you thought. Painful and to be avoided, obviously. But typically, not the end of the world. So, the drill sergeants had us gathered in a big circle, and we commenced the pugil stick fight. Each fighter was given a large wooden stick, along with a helmet and lightly padded armor to wear. That way we just got horribly bruised, instead of fractured bones.
Given my understanding that I was not John Rambo, I sized up the competition and contemplated who to call out into the pugil ring. I put on my lightly padded armor, and while doing my best imitation of Apollo Creed from Rocky IV, I bounced around the ring and shouted, “Care Bear, I choose YOU! LET’s DO THIS!”
Little did I know that Care Bear taught karate and jujitsu back home in Wisconsin, and I've never been hit in the face so many times with a giant wooden stick. What little I remember from the fight was me trying to hit him in the face, and him knocking me out of the ring. My drill sergeant grabbed me by my facemask and screamed, “YOU FUCKING KILL HIM!” He proceeded to throw me into the ring, and the beating from Care Bear continued.
After losing the fight 5-0, I ran behind a tree to have myself a good cry. Not my finest hour. But the funny thing was, by that point I had developed a reputation for being a guy who was terrible at most things but kept trying. People responded well to that. While I was crying behind a tree, Jewsy found me and said, “Lester, that was great! You really gave it your best shot!” Once he saw how much I was crying, he quickly excused himself.
When we got to the barracks, all our personal civilian belongings were put in a storage room by the drill sergeant office. By week six, people in the platoon figured out how to pick the lock and retrieve their cell phones. Granted, it was 2006, so the cell phones weren’t terribly impressive. The impressive part was when someone found a phone number for a taxi service on base, went to the PX, bought local unit patches to blend in, and came back with logs of Copenhagen Whiskey Blend Long Cut, Marlboro Lights, and the occasional bottle of cheap bourbon.
The party hit a fever pitch when one day I was coming out of the showers and saw several people from other platoons hanging out in the 3rd platoon latrine. On the sink furthest to the left, there was a stack of pizzas. The next sink over was filled with logs of Copenhagen Whiskey Blend Long Cut. Next to that sink had six packs of mountain dew and two-liter bottles. It was an underground party in basic training. But like most things, a bunch of angry idiots started fighting over who gets what portion of the pizza, which caused a larger fight that split along platoon lines.
Word of the underground party percolated to the Drill Sergeants. Someone had given them a name, so they called all of us down into formation and asked us where the named soldier was. One of the tenser drill sergeants got into a privates face and asked him where his battle buddy was. The private didn’t know. The drill sergeant got so mad that he frisbeed his hat at the private. It missed his head and broke against the concrete wall. The drill sergeant got within an inch and a half of the privates face and screamed, “I went to Iraq! Twice! You think I’m afraid to die? You think you can kill me? Give it your best shot, private! Because you clearly don’t respect me!”
The Drill Sergeants back then were wound a little tight. Most of them had survived the first few rounds of the occupation conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were rewarded with time on the trail to pass along their live saving experience along with giving them a chance to cool off. Not always the most stable people at that time.
It was at that point when the drill sergeants began to start encouraging mob violence. A soldier in 4th platoon had been busted getting cocaine mailed in, along with other hard drugs. I remember being on the drill floor under the barracks, waiting for formation, and another soldier from 4th platoon ran up to us and said, “Drill Sergeant said if anyone wants to take a swing at PFC Cokehead, he’s going to shut the door to his office and turn up his music. Let's go!”
Something like five or six soldiers followed him up to 4th platoon barracks to beat the crap out of PFC Cokehead. I saw Cokehead later covered in bruises, and the drill sergeant kept asking, “Why did you fall down the stairs?” That showed me just how fast violence can erupt, especially when sanctioned by an authority. Humans can turn into animals with as soon as they think its allowed. They got to live in the illusion of power and happily took their place in the culture of violence and fear that was spreading throughout the company. Any consequences were absolved by the authority granted to them as agents of the drill sergeants. This sp