I recently learned that my nephew, Russell, has signed up with the Army National Guard, and that he’ll leave for basic training in September. Randy and Carol had some questions for me about what Russell can expect. I hope that I get the chance to talk to Russell directly before he goes, but I did share some of my experiences with his parents.
First, I had to make clear that, since I served in the Air Force, my basic training was much easier (at least from a physical standpoint) than what Russell will face. I was a 17 year old girl, just four days out of high school when I flew down to Texas to start my training at Lackland AFB (near San Antonio). Back then, basic was only 6 weeks long. Russell will be facing about 9 weeks in his Army boot camp.
We were there for a couple days before we were allowed to call home. Now, this was 1983, so there was no such thing as cell phones yet, not that it seems Russell will be allowed to have his with him anyway. There was a bank of pay phones on the patio of our dormitory. We were allowed just a few minutes to call home and, hopefully reach whomever it was we most wanted to talk to. As airmen hung up the phone, our training instructor (TI) would make anyone who was crying report to him immediately. I was called over. Fortunately, he was still chewing out the girl he’d called over ahead of me. She was having quite a “moment”, crying how she hated it here, how she didn’t care what happened, she wanted to go home. I don’t recall the TI’s words exactly, but he certainly was not kind or gentle in how he spoke to her. I was a fast learner, so, when he dismissed the other girl, looked at me and barked “What are YOU crying for?”, I tried to get a hold of my self, and through my sniffles said “Cuz I’m happy.” That completely took him off guard and he questioned what I was talking about. I told him that I had talked to my Mom AND my Dad and that I was happy. He just looked at me for a moment, shook his head and dismissed me.
I do have to blame Dad on that one. I was fine until just before we were about to say “good-bye” and I heard Dad sob just once. Never had I seen/heard Dad cry before and certainly not for me, so it really threw me for a loop! I couldn’t help but start crying in response. But, score 1 for me ‘cuz my TI didn’t end up totally reaming me out!
One hot day, we were on the marching pad, training for the Honor Flight drills. We’d been at it for a long time, and, finally, when he gave an order for “right flank, march” I was the only one who turned left. Well, THAT wasn’t going to be ignored. Again, I can’t recall exactly what all the TI said, but he decided that I was more fitting for the title of “Squirrel Bait” than another gal he was trying to pin it on earlier. (Squirrel Bait = “nuts”). From that moment until graduation – and even afterwards – my TI made sure that EVERYone knew me as “Airman Basic Squirrel Bait.” In the chow hall, before I could sit down and eat, he called me over to the “Snake Pit” (the table where all the TIs ate while watching us for mistakes). I gave my reporting statement and salute (“Airman Basic Ludwig reporting as ordered, Sir”). He looked at me, then turned to the other TIs at the table and said “This is Airman Basic Squirrel Bait.” I actually slumped my shoulders a bit and gave him a look – lost my “military bearing” which is a complete no-no! All those TI eyes were on me and I squared up my shoulders and asked to be dismissed. Everyone at my table wondered what I had done wrong to get called to the Pit.
One other day, while running the Confidence Course (obstacle course), I was trotting across the balance beam, which my TI was monitoring. As I stepped off and started to jog up to the next obstacle, my TI calls to the next one, pointing at me “This is the one.” When I get to the next TI, he simply says “So, you’re Squirrel Bait, huh?” I gave my TI a look and just kept going.
I got picked on in other ways, too. It happened that I somehow caught the eye of a guy in our brother flight that it seemed all the girls were ga-ga for. I didn’t really have any serious interest in him (not really my type – I never went for the football jock types in high school), but he was nice and invited me to hang out with him on Town Pass (when Lackland floods San Antonio with all of us new airmen in our blue uniforms for a day). In the mean time, my TI was fooling around with one of the girls in our flight (a serious no-no if we’d ever cared enough to get him in trouble, which we didn’t). He had made her our “dorm chief” – meaning she was in charge of us in his absence. Anyway, we had an hour or so of liberty time and I stayed back in the dorm long enough to put on a touch of mascara (I may have been a 17 year old girl, but, with my hair chopped off, and a much rounder face, I looked like a 14 year old boy!). The TI and dorm chief cornered me and started teasing me about my “date” with Joe King. Dianna “Easy” Eassay (can’t remember exactly how to spell that) claimed that he was taking her to dinner during town pass. I knew they were full of it, but wasn’t going to play their game so simply said that Joe was free to do what he wanted and that I didn’t care. The TI (SSgt. Covell) sneered at me and said “I can make it so you don’t see him again until the day you say good-bye.” I’m not sure why he thought that would upset me, because I really didn’t have any feelings for this guy – I considered us just friends. I muttered something along the line of “whatever” and ignored them. When they couldn’t get a rise out of me, they left. I was angry as a hornet, though, and proceeded to go into the bathroom and punch a wall!
Beyond the mental games that they play, the worst part for me about basic training was the running. I am not built to run. I can jog in place but the moment I step out, I don’t know what happens. I cannot coordinate my breathing, I never get rid of that “stitch” in my side, and I always get shin splints. In the Air Force, we worked our way up to a mile and a half, and by the end, I was lucky if I could talk let alone call cadence, which was supposed to be one of my “jobs.” Unlike other branches of service, though, we weren’t loaded down with back-packs or other equipment, and we most certainly did NOT run in the rain! My saving grace was that, on the day of our PE (physical evaluation) test, it was pouring down rain, so we had to jog in place under an over-hang for 15 minutes. I lead the group calling cadence as we jogged. I had no problems. Of interest, a gal, who became my best friend through basic and tech school (Djuana Cobble) had to cross her arms over her ample boobs while we jogged. The TI got in her face and asked her “what are you doing?” She just looked him in the eye and said “what do you think?” He blushed and turned away.
That was something our TI would not really ever let us do – look him in the eye. He used to shove the brim of his “Smokey-the-Bear” hat under the brim of my OD cap (olive drab), touching it to my forehead, and then try to scold me about whatever he felt like at that moment. Of course, when you are that close to someone’s face, and they are not supposed to look you in the eye, well, I imagine that I became very cross-eyed while staring at a point between his eyes. He could barely keep a straight face, let alone continue to chew me out, and I imagine that contributed to my title of “Squirrel Bait.”
Still, basic training was such an eye-opener for me. I had zero self-esteem going in. I had grown up always hearing what I couldn’t do, but here I was, firing – and qualifying easily – with an M-16 rifle, completing the obstacle course (which really was pretty intense), and handling myself pretty well against a lot of over-bearing idiots. At the age of 17 I was able to see the benefits of this experience and wished ALL kids would have to complete basic training after high school, with the option to leave service afterwards if they did not want a military career. It would boost up other kids like me, who needed to know they were capable of more than they’d ever believed. And it would allow the spoiled brats to understand that the world most certainly did not revolve around them.
Anyway, one of the things I told Russell’s parents to pass on to him is that he should not use Basic Training as a place to make a show of himself, good or bad. Basic is a place where you want to remain as anonymous as possible. You are there to learn the ranks, learn how to properly wear a uniform, march, salute, shoot a weapon, and fold your underwear into six-inch squares. You do not need to stand out. You do NOT volunteer for jobs that will be assigned to someone. You don’t let words get you angry enough to respond – at all. When they cannot break you down, they leave you alone. All you need to do is graduate. After that, life returns to normal – though it takes some getting used to normal after a couple months of living under such close scrutiny and discipline.
All in all, I would love it if my sons could/would join the military in whatever branch they want (or can get in!). I would be proud to say that my sons served their country. I just hope we have a decent enough country for them to serve if/when that day ever comes!