I enlisted in the Army in May of 1992. May 6th. 19 years i've been associated with the Army (Active, Nat'l Guard, Contractor, and DA Civ employee), except for just about 8 months from July 2000 to May of 2001. Had I stayed active duty I'd probably be E7 by now - maybe E8? and a few months from retirement.
Hard to say which would have been better. Had I stayed in I would no-doubt have at least earned a combat patch or two. That would have been awesome.
Below is the story of my experience in Basic Training (Army), and the follow-on Advanced Individual Training. This isnt an ad for the army or the military. Tis simply a story of a very large and important part of my life.
w/o further ado...
Staring out the bus window, my mind was racing. This morning I was 'Darin'. I lived with my brother and parents. I delivered pizzas for a 'living'. In the span of just a few hours I'd gone from being a little brother to riding on a charter from Oklahoma City airport with approximately 10 other soon-to-be Soldiers. I was in an aisle seat, but turned to speak with those around me. There was one kid - and I say kid because he was about my age then, 19 - who said he'd been to basic before, but did not complete it due to injury. He told me "When you see the guys in the Smokey Bear hats, with the big shiny disc on the front, call them SIR no matter WHAT they say. It's a test." I didn't buy it.
As those around me made nervous conversation, I tried to look out the windows for signs of life, but the darkness consumed any hint of location or proximity to civilization. The next thing I recall is standing on what we learned later was the Drill Pad. We were on a concrete floor spotted with massive columns holding up a large brick wing of building. I was standing there, with my arms behind my back and my bags at my side facing double doors which lead into what appeared to be an office. From time to time a Corporal would emerge from the office and S L O W L Y open the door, and move across in front of us. His Battle Dress Uniform cap was pulled down tightly near his nose. He was stocky - looked every bit the part of a NFL linebacker. He wore the most-pressed, well-put-on uniform I can remember seeing in all my military service. His boots were so shiny we could see flashes as if he was a super-star, walking in front of paparazzi, flashes blazing, as he'd walk under the orange and white flood lights. He didn't walk - he strode.
After lining up to receive our linens we were sent upstairs to bed. I was too scared to pee. I didn't know if I was allowed to speak with anyone or not. For all I knew I was sleeping with real Soldiers - as in - active duty guys already serving. It wasn't until the next morning I saw I was in the company of perhaps 75 other "newbies". Some tried to look - or actually were - brave. Some looked - or actually were - as if they were going to cry. Most of us were somewhere in between. I leaned a bit towards crying.
The next few days were filled with jostling from location to location. Sometimes we'd walk. Other times we'd board "cattle cars" - large gray metal boxes with double doors on one side, and tiny windows across the top, hooked to a semi-tractor - for rides to various locations such as the Central Issue Facility to get uniforms and equipment, or to personnel centers to go over our contracts and orders. I remember clearly in-processing our medical station. Near the first to go through, myself and a "Private Service" (later I learned he was a PRIOR service Soldier, only there for a bit until he moves on to his other training) Soldier were tasked to help out. Before we could, we had to get OUR shots. I filled out a few papers then stepped through a door way to find a gun pushed into each shoulder. PSSPOW!! Without using needles, medicine was shot into my body with the pressure of air. Was very cool and hurt like hell.
The Private Service Soldier (PSS) and I were to handle filing and placement of the other shot "victims". The PSS had a terrible runny nose which dripped non-stop despite his efforts to control it with tissue.
After an hour, perhaps, I approached The Corporal asking to return to my "Platoon".
"Corporal, this private requests permission to return to his group."
What the hell you talking about? ALL these knuckleheads are your group. Get away from me."
The next day, after our CIF and uniform issue, we were taken to a small building in a grass lot. It was hot. Temps were in the 80s with humidity equal. Standing there in formation, lined up and trying to look like Soldiers, we were exhausted. Our Drill Sergeant instructed us to a garden-type hose coming out of a pipe buried in the ground. We were to fill both our canteens with hose water. When we'd completed his task he said, "PRIVATES! Now…DRAAAAAAANK WAAAAAAAAATER!!!!!!!!!!" We consumed the first of our canteens immediately. Rubber and plastic flavored water never tasted so good. "NOW! PRIVATES!!! WHAN YOO ER DONE HOLD THA CAN'T EEN UPSIDE DAWN OVAH YORE HEDS!!" Woe to those whose canteen spilled upon them more than a few drops. The SECOND Canteen didn't go down so easily, but feeling water logged, I made it through. I'd slowly let some water trickle down my cheek to cool my neck AND not get a water-sick stomach. Upon the laborious completion of two quarts of water within 5 minutes, we re-filled our canteens and were moved to the door of the building. Upon entry we were told to remove our camouflage BDU top. We were marched behind a counter and a fake Class A Dress uniform jacket was put on us. The jacket was sealed shut in the front, and had a slit up the back. We put it on as if one is putting on a coat, but backwards - arms first. SNAP! Flash fired and we were done.
Basic Combat Training started 18 May. To assess physical readiness, I had to do Thirteen consecutive pushups. As I got my body up for the last push up I thought to myself "wow…these aren't easy." I had no idea at the time, but over the course of the next 8 weeks, I'd accomplish tens of thousands of push-ups. One day, mid way through my training, I decided to try and count. I didn't catch every one, and lost even a good guess once I reached the 600 or 700 area.
The first day in our open bay "1st Platoon RANGERS!" barracks, our drill sergeants W and R walked down the aisles reminding us what pieces of crap we were and how we had not done anything right. After we'd been verbally undressed, we were called to attention. Our Battery Commander, CPT B, entered. CPT B walked down the aisle stopping at each bunk to say hello to every private in the platoon. When he got down about 10 on the right, to my bunk, I got the same line of questions as the privates before me. Show me your dog tags. Protestant, eh? Blood type. A Negative? Pretty Rare, you gonna give blood? After reading my last name he asked "Hey Private - do you have any relatives in the Army? Any who have been stationed at Fort Sill? Then, a slap on the shoulder and he moved on to the next private.
Private Muterspaw got it pretty good, across the aisle from me. This was his conversation with Drill Sergeant W. "Private, where are you from?"
"Ohio, Drill Sergeant!"
"Ohio??! My ex-wife is from Ohio...she's a b1tch, too!"
Up in the morning at the break of day. First platoon will lead the way.
The Very first day Basic officially began I was chosen for Kitchen Patrol.
Bright and early 10 of us reported to the Dining Facility, or DFAC (Mess/Chow Hall for some). We were greeted by a Drill Sergeant who very much did not want to be there. I was assigned as a server. My job was to place spoonfuls of whatever into the plastic bowls or plates of the Soldiers coming through the line. When chow service had ended for the day we were to clean. Clean. CLEAN. The DS in charge made Gordon Ramsey look like a pussy cat. This Sergeant would not only lift out the drain plugs to check the bottom, but he'd stick his finger DOWN the train as far as he could, looking for grease or grime. We scrubbed every single square inch of that facility. We consistently failed his inspection until he either gave up, got tired, OR we met the standard. We worked until about 8pm. Most of the platoon was asleep when we returned.
On days I didn't have KP, physical training started at 0600. At 0530 somebody - usually a Drill Sergeant would enter the bay and start screaming as if his hair was on fire. We had 25 minutes to get up, shave, and prepare for PT in whatever uniform and with whatever equipment we were told. Generally PT consisted of one of two things - Muscle Failure, or Run. On Muscle Failure days we brought with us our PT mat, and a canteen. We'd assemble on the drill pad, by squad. The Drill Sergeant conducting the session would command us to attention then: "Exxxxxxtend to the Lehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhft….MAAAAARCHHHHHHHHH!!!" We'd shout with feigned enthusiasm as we went to double-arm distance before hearing the command "HARMS Downwaaaaaaaaaaard………….MHOOOOV!!!, LEHHHHHHHHHHHHHHFT FACE…...Exxxxxxtend to the Lehhhhhft….MAAAARCHHH!!!.....HARMS DOWNwaaaaaaaaaaaarddddddddddddddd….MHOOOOOOV! Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight FACE…………FRAHM Front to rear couNT HOFFFFFF!! EEEEVEN numbers one step to the left…….unCOVER!"
Now we were in the PT Formation for stretching and warm ups. After several minutes of getting the blood flowing we'd follow the lead of the Drill Sergeant bringing upon ourselves untold levels of pain and suffering in the name of fitness.
One morning we got…lucky? Drill Sergeant R called us down to PT Formation. He had rolled out a big projection style TV with a VCR atop. He said to us, "Privates, Today is your lucky day. Today you'll get to watch a hot chick strutting around in tights. But privates…this little girl will WHOOP YOUR arse"
For the first time in my life, as the video played, I did aerobics. There are few things as funny as soon-to-be hardened Soldiers falling over themselves trying to keep up with a 5'4" aerobics instructor named Buffy.
I didn't adjust well to basic. The stress was unbelievable for me. There were times I'd cry myself to sleep, silently. I hadn't made what I'd call friends - honestly, initially; everyone was there for themselves, to simply survive. My only links to sanity were the few letters I'd get from family and friends. Especially important to me were letters from my Dad. My Dad, you see, had gone through Basic Training in the late 1950s - back when a private could get hit or beat-up a bit from a Drill Sergeant. My father, although only spending 2 1/2 years in the Active Army, was my lifeline. He knew what I was feeling and would share those thoughts and feelings with me via his letters. I recall about week two or three I got a letter from him which started "Dear Darin…you've been there a few weeks now and I bet you're asking yourself what the heck are you doing there?" Precisely. I had no idea. I surely did not WANT to be there. I'd often report for sick call, in lieu of doing PT. I'd find an illness. Sore throat. Hurting feet. Fever. Things would just happen. I recall being at the clinic complaining of headaches. I mentioned to the Doctor I was in a scooter accident the year prior where I suffered a big concussion. He said "Try these pills for a week. If they do not stop the headaches, we'll send you home IPS." "IPS?" I asked. "Injury Prior to Service". This was my ticket out of this hell. This was my ticket back to the place I felt safe - Mom and Dad's house. Walking back to my barracks from the clinic I was thinking about where I was, and what I was seeing. I was seeing and hearing hundreds of "privates" just like me who were DOING it. I'd see privates in their last couple weeks of Basic, marching by singing LOUD and PROUD and looking every bit how I expected a Soldier to look. These guys looked so much older than me - although I suspect my age was average for a trainee. It was on that walk home I decided I was not going to quit. I decided it'd be very lame to get fired or laid-off from the ARMY. If the ARMY couldn't use me, who could? I committed myself to one act - if did ANYTHING for the rest of my life I, I promised myself the next time I was to see my parents again, I WILL be in my Uniform. I was not going to get off a plane having nothing to show for my time and effort.
Over the next few weeks I still got sick and still went to sick call - but NEVER mentioned a headache - and never took those pills, either. One problem I mentioned consistently was numbness in my feet. Tingles. The front half of my feet felt 'asleep'. In fact, in 8 weeks of basic, my toe nails never grew. That's true.
One fever day - more than 102 - I got an IV from the clinic then was sent to walk back to my Barracks with a "Light Indoor Duty for the day" assignment. When I arrived to see my Battery had departed I asked the Drill Sergeant where they went, as I gave him my sick slip.
"It's your lucky day Private - they all went to the NBC (gas) Chamber."
The NBC Chamber. I'd heard the horror stories.
"Drill Sergeant? I am feeling much better, Drill Sergeant. Is there any way…."
"What, Private??? You WANT to go through that? Well…shat..HOOAH Son" Drill Sergeant N said to me. "Load this food into that 5-ton (truck)."
When I finished, I reported back.
"Now, git in back, and get away from me."" I climbed aboard and he drove. A few minutes later we were there. I hopped down and double-timed to my DS.
"Holy shat, Private - I thought you were gonna die!" DS R said.
"Drill Sergeant, this is my platoon. I want to be with them" I replied after I assumed the position of parade-rest".
"YOUR platoon? You don't have sh!t, private. Now, get away from me." He replied.
I happily rejoined the group. Happiness faded to fear as we approached the chamber. Initially, we were masked, sitting in a small gray or black room. A Drill Sergeant was instructing us on what to do and what to expect. Soon thereafter the room filled with a thick fog. One by one, we were told to stand and approach the door to exit. Before exiting, we were instructed to remove our mask and 'sound off' with our rank name, and platoon motto. As my turn came, I stood and faced the drill sergeant - whose name I don't recall; he was a reservist, there for his 2-week summer service. I didn't notice immediate effects of the gas, but when the DS grabbed my shoulders and shook me a bit I gasped. Holy Sweet Jesus and Mary. Vaporous razors clawed their way up my nose and down my throat. Smokey jalapeños dug into my eye sockets. It wasn't 5 seconds before my nostrils were vacating more snot than I thought humanly possible. "What's your name?? MOTTO??!!" the still-masked DS shouted at me. Crying from pain I stumbled "Pee-Vee-Two…(my last name)…..First Platoon….Rangers lead the way!!!" When he released me I bolted for the door and found those who had gone before. We were stumbling around, outdoors snorting and crying and gasping. I didn't get sick for two weeks after that. I wonder if there is cause and effect there.
One humid and cloudy morning we were cattle-car'd up to the "Confidence course." There before us was a series of obstacles designed to challenge us AND allow us to succeed. Prior to our running of the course, the DSs from the Battery walked us through the how-to's. As we approached low barbed wire, covering muddy-water-filled trenches the DS giving the instruction said
"Now…I'm not gonna SHOW you how…"
Just then DS R yelled "Shiiiiiiiiiittttttt" as he sprung forward and dove right in. SPLASH! Red-Brown mud and water exploded as he dove into the trench. The Battery went nuts! We cheered as if we were cheering for the superbowl.
In a flash DS Robbins was out, stained with the earth and water of Oklahoma.
(actual photo taken when he finished the course at that time)
We also made a trek out to the rappelling tower. After blocks of instruction we climbed our way to the top. We were told to swing over and place our toes on a 'ledge' - turned out the ledge stuck out about 2" - if that. I remember being there, half-over the ledge, and half hanging on for dear life. A local news station was doing a feature on the training, so in addition to facing my fear, I was face-to-face with a news camera lens. I was frozen at the top of a tower for all the world to see. At least all the world in Lawton, OK. After what seemed like minutes I felt a hand on my shoulder. DS N greeted my gaze as I turned up to see who it was. He looked me in the eyes and with words and tone of a father to a son, said to me "It's okay, son. You can do this."
At that moment I leaned back and let it go. My rappel was NOT pretty…but I did it. I made it safely to the ground. Thank you DS N.
From time to time we'd have evenings free - I use the word 'free' but there was never shortage of things to prepare. We spent hours in bleachers on the drill pad shining boots, or practicing our Drill and Ceremonies or rehearsing our 3 General Orders, other tasks in our Manual of Common Tasks - every task a private must master before Graduating and becoming a Soldier.
As calm as some evenings were, the weather provided a lot of drama. One blustery morning - used loosely as it was still dark - about the 3rd week of June, we heard the sirens. TORNADO! I was very frightened. In a flash our Platoon Leader - a 34 year old SPC from a National Guard unit - ordered us out of the bays and down into the laundry rooms on the ground floor. There we sat, crammed in under counters and sinks until the storm passed. That next morning our training was canceled and we performed clean-up duties around the area.
As we approached graduation, we faced the biggest test of all we'd learned to that point - the Field Training Exercise, or FTX. The morning of the start of the exercise, we assembled near a baseball field and told we would NOT be trucked to the location. We would not have to march, either. With a whoop-whoop-whoop, a CH47 Chinook landed just in the outfield. In columns we approached the bird and entered. I was at the head of one line, and sat just behind the pilots, near a very large open doorway/window. The chopper took off and flew calmly across post. In an instant the bus-sized flying can dropped like a rock. I tensed up. The sound got louder and louder and in a flash the bird was twisting and flopping - flying nap-of-the-earth long a valley floor. I could look out and see at times we were less than 50 feet off the ground flying easily over 100mph. The sound was deafening. During this roller-coaster I looked over to see CPT B there near me. He smiled big and shouted 'What do you think??' "Sir, this is awesome, SIR!" I replied. He slapped my knee and grinned.
As we approached our LZ columns of smoke rose to greet us. Departing the helicopter at a full, crouched run, we heard Artillery fires and impacts! BOOM!!!!!!!! When the simulators. We heard weapon fire - the DS's brought plenty of blank rounds. We secured the LZ before moving on to our assembly area. Each time the Ch47 came back, dozens of privates got a very good taste of what it might have been like for Soldiers in various conflicts. Thank you CPT B.
Our FTX involved setting up tents with our Battle Buddy - we each were issued 1/2 of a tent, so it made sense. I remember cleaning my M16 one morning, looking out across the field where we landed. I noticed a slight, familiar burning in my nose, before seeing a thin white cloud rising. HOLY!! I gave the alarm GAS! GAS! GAS! Luckily, cloud of CS (Tear gas) gas blew quickly over, and past our position.
At the conclusion of our FTX we were scheduled to make a 25 mile march back to our barracks. Thankfully, or unfortunately, the area was under a tornado warning. We made the trip back in what seemed like moving vans/trucks.
Back on the drill pad we turned-in our weapons and hosed off the big dirt before heading upstairs to shower and clean up. I'd never felt more exhausted in my life, after just a few days out in the brush. To think we nearly would have had a 25 mile walk made me feel very fortunate, and a little sad. Other Soldiers have done it. We didn't get the chance. Those are the breaks. I felt no-less a Soldier the day I marched into the auditorium to the cadence of Drill Sergeant W, and received my diploma of graduation from LTC A, and CPT B and Senior Drill Sergeant D. In fact, that day - that afternoon near Lawton, Oklahoma gave me perhaps the strongest feeling I'd have since, that I'd actually accomplished something important. That day, I became a Soldier.
I believe there were 17 of us standing in a parking lot, bags in hand, as a greyhound bus pulled into the parking lot. Behind us was the only home we'd known in the Army - the 'starship' building of 1-19th Field Artillery BCT. If one were to check google maps for Fort Sill, chances are the marker would be placed in/near a baseball field. Zooming out, and to the lower left, you'd see the last of one of several massive buildings. That's 1-19th. E Btry was the last two sections, on the right (east and south) of the building. The baseball field is surrounded by the track we ran for our 2 mile tests, and the location where the helicopters landed.
Sitting on a bus prepared for a 10 hour bus ride to Fort Bliss TX I thought about the rumors I'd heard about what Advanced Individual Training would be like. Most of the rumors told me I'd have much more freedom. The rumors told me things like "Yeah…now that you've graduated Basic, they treat you a lot better. You get to live in a Dorm and come and go as you please, when not in school." The rumors mentioned "The Drill Sergeants are so much cooler."
About hour 8 into what turned out to be a 14 hour bus ride, we stopped near a Dairy Queen. I went in and had my first Junk Food in more than two months (and 20lbs). Even better, I got to talk to a real, flesh and blood Girl. She took my order and I couldn't stop smiling. She was Texan, through and through. Blonde, and about 5'5" tall and eyes the color of the water in Hawaii. I would have proposed right there on the spot if I could have summoned the courage to talk to her using words other than "Hamburger", "Fries", "Chocolate Shake".
Approaching Fort Bliss the landscape changed from 'just about flat' and grassy, to moonscape. Large naked mountains of stone and dust loomed before us. The sun was shining and people were out. In stark contrast to my experience at basic, being secluded from the world, Fort Bliss was smack-dab down town. We drove through the gate to a building I assumed would be our new home. I thought this looked nice - centrally located on post, I'm sure I'd seen the PX nearby, and was that a bowling alley down the street?
After the bus driver exited, then returned, the bus pulled away.
Logan Heights. The first thing I noticed after getting of the freeway was the Victory Tower - a rappelling and activity tower just inside the gate to the Air Defense Artillery School barracks. A massive, imposing obstacle, rope bridges, ladders, and nets combined to lead a Soldier to the summit. The entire group of bus riders gasped and started chattering about how much fun it'd be to go through that.
Just beyond we caught a glimpse of our new home at D BTRY, 1-56th ADA. Cinder Blocks. Cement Floors. Shaped, when viewed from above, like a letter 'H'. These structures were likely built around the time of World War Two. Another fact - the entire compound was set on the side of a hill leading to the before-mentioned mountain peaks. Everything was up hill, or down hill.
As we filed out of the bus we were greeted by a trio of Drill Sergeants. The first had small eyes and a fighter's profile. Drill Sergeant L had a toothpick in his mouth and a smirk. DS L was the kind of guy I would NOT like to see drunk - struck me as a bar-fighter. The next was DS…something or ‘nother. What I remember most from him was as he'd bark orders spittle would often fly, or fall from his mouth. He had a strong Georgia drawl (the state, not the country). Next was a thin, taller DS. I wish I could remember his name - but we mostly knew him as the Ninja. More on that later.
Standing there about 8am, in wool, we were in a full sweat. The temperature was already cresting 80 degrees, and we were standing in an asphalt parking lot, next to a hot, running bus. By 4pm, it'd reach 100. "Yeah…but it's a DRY heat…" people say. I'm here to tell you wet or dry 100 degrees is HOT.
Remember those rumors? Yeah…not so much. Not only were these drill sergeants NOT "cool" or "easy" - my time in AIT was in nearly EVERY WAY more challenging. Mentally and physically I was taxed beyond levels I thought I could get through. Days were spent in class, learning the craft of the Stinger Missile system. I excelled in class. I could remember facts about the missile and it's subsystems. I aced every test. Visual Aircraft Recognition tests were a breeze. The Aircraft Req. tests were a series of slides showing models of actual aircraft. We had 5 seconds to look at the image, and 10 seconds to write our answer. Often, the instructors (who were non-Drill sergeant NCOs) would get us going by challenging us to a speed test. One such test they had 1 second of the image, and 3 seconds to write it. Bam-bam-bam - I was knocking out answers with ease. Then - the OV-10 Mohawk came on. I wrote down, in my hurry, "Tomahawk".
When we went over the answers I noticed my mistake. I approached the instructor at near tears. "I wrote Tomahawk…" "P - relax. This wasn't official. You're still okay man. I knew what you meant, and scored you 100 anyway."
These instructors were gifted. They had mastered their craft. In an all-male class I heard VERY interesting comparisons between the aircraft we were learning and various body parts of my classmates. The helicopter, BO105 looked like PVT Boone - both PVT Boone's head AND the chopper was shaped like a tic-tac laying on its side. 39". That's the width of the AH1 Cobra AND the length our instructor's….member. It was during those classes I realized the game. I realized these sergeants are NOT out to kill me. I learned the sergeants are also graded on how well they instruct, and drill and care for the Privates under their control (No pun intended following the Cobra line). These sergeants were there to ENSURE we succeeded. They, in their discipline and instruction, were doing us favors beyond our ability to understand. It was during these classes I learned how the Corps of noncommissioned officers were a group of the most important people in my life.
Mornings before class, my Battery would assemble for PT. We started PT at 0530 in order to get in an hour to 90 minutes of exercise before the sun got too hot. The drill sergeants pushed us hard. We'd most of our push-ups facing downhill. We'd do muscle failure AND run at times. Up and down and across the encampment we'd run. We'd sound-off with our cadence at the top of our lungs WHILE trying to breathe the thin mountain air. El Paso sits at about 3800 feet, and we were a bit higher than that, being up near the mountains. After a couple weeks of doing crunches until I couldn't stand, and sit-ups until I thought I would die, I got out of the shower one morning and noticed a weird deformity on my stomach. What appeared to be horizontal and vertical lines were showing through my skin. I counted four distinct block-looking areas. That wasn't me. I was a fat kid.
I grew stronger and faster. My first Physical Fitness tests, back at Fort Sill, I scored 28 push-ups, 40 sit-ups, (in two minutes each) and ran two miles in 16:28. By the time I left Fort Bliss my scores were 72, 94, and 12:48, respectively. I did this all without the aid of a nautilus machine, or weights. I got good at push-ups the only way one can - by doing push-ups.
With my school successes and my physical conditioning I grew more confident. I recall during one particularly hard run the Drill Sergeant was running out of cadences to call. He asked for a volunteer. I moved out of formation, and got in place. He fell back to the rear of the group. I called cadence for about 15 minutes, leading about 70 Soldiers. I thought I'd found my calling. Now, trust me when I say I cannot sing. I couldn't sing in key to save my life, or that of my children. I could, however, emulate the sound my drill sergeants used. I found if I thrust a southern and soulful accent, my voice would carry across loud and clear.
More than school and PT - we were also given 'briefings' about such things as Sexual Harassment. DS W called our battery down to the formation area, and told us to rest, and take seats.
"Privates....Don't be sexually-harassin' no Wimmen....Okay? And look...if a woman sexually harasses YOU...Privates, DONT Report her...get WITH her...geesh..."
As we progressed through training, we were given 'candy'. Occasionally the drill sergeants would reward us with passes to go into town. I can remember my first Saturday free from control. I went to a mall and purchased a NY Yankees hat and shirt. I wore this proudly - it was the first set of civilian clothes I'd purchased since leaving home. I wore the outfit with white long shorts and tan boat shoes, with no socks. Shirt tucked in, hat on, I felt king of the world-ish. Somewhere in my boxes I have a photo taken of me in that outfit. I snicker to myself now but realize the importance of what that shirt and hat meant to me. It was during my visits to town I started to understand the draw of Hispanic women. Being around the sound of the language and their sometimes striking good looks helped me feel like a guy again - rather than "private!" I started to think about life OTHER than school or life on the hill. I suppose I started coming into my own.
A weekend day pass wasn't assumed, however. DS Ninja would see that every weekend, at least some privates would be stuck back in the barracks, cleaning or ironing. While every building maintained a Fire Guard, DS Ninja would often sneak into the building at one of the 'supposed-to-be-locked-from-the-outside' doors…or even once, he came through a window - RIGHT NEXT to the bunk of a sleeping Soldier.
Well, DS Ninja wouldn't simply sneak in an walk around - he'd forage for whatever item he could find left 'unsecure' by the troops. He was known to lift dog tags off sleeping Soldiers to find the key to their wall-locker attached. 3 feet from the sleeper, he'd open the wall locker and remove things such as uniforms, or equipment. One day I returned from school to find the inside of my wall locker DESTROYED. Every bit of clothing was off its hanger and the contents of every drawer ran sacked. Seems I'd left my locker key in my desk drawer and DS Ninja found it while we were away. I was one of the lucky ones, however. There were times when Privates would show up to see the entire contents of their lockers thrown on the floor and their mattress and linens missing. Ever wonder if a single mattress could fit inside a wall locker? I've seen it. Several times.
Because of my transgression, however, I was in the barracks the following Saturday. I'd decided to spend a few hours preparing for a coming barracks inspection. I was using a can of Brasso to square away a drain in the middle of the latrine floor. After polishing for a few minutes, I went to a vending machine and picked up a sprite. Sitting, sprite on one side of me, Brasso on the other, I turned that dingy drain into a mirror like finish. As I was about done, I remember picking up my sprite and pouring a bit into my mouth. For some reason it was no longer cool. In fact, it tasted warm - and burned a little bit. It was then I looked down at my hand to see it holding NOT a can of sprite, but a can of Brasso. I rushed to the sink - thankfully I hadn't swallowed - and spit. I rinsed and rinsed for what seemed like an hour.
Next inspection, I handled cleaning up the outside of the building and gave my latrine duties to another.
Towards the end of our training we were given a 18 hour pass - starting at Noon on Saturday. We didn't have to report until 0600 on Sunday. About 0530, Sunday, as most of us made our way to the formation, I could smell the booze on folk. As this was merely an 'accountability' formation, and not a report for duty, nobody was in trouble. After the DS made his count, he went back inside. He emerged with a clip board and conducted a roll call. When he got to "B" there was no answer. "Bxxxxx!" he called. Cursing, he dismissed us and went back inside.
Four or five hours later - just before lunch we were called to formation. The DS informed us he had found PVT S.B. in a local hospital. B was okay, but his story is one of legend. When the police found him unconscious in the parking lot of a Taco Bell, B's wallet, shirt, and shoes were missing. They assumed he was drunk. They didn't notice the large bump on his head. B never remembered how things happened - he only remembered dancing with "a VERY hot Mexican girl…then seeing three or five BIG - BIG Mexican guys walking towards him looking angry."
Life at Logan Heights brought a few challenges, however. My biggest challenge was one Joe H. Joe seemed to hate me. I had no love for him either. One day in my locker area he challenged me on something. We stood with foreheads inches apart, fists clenched, ready to rumble. He was cussing and frothing while I sat staring at him, mouth tightly closed using every bit of my control to NOT punch him square in the throat. After several minutes of posturing another of our platoon walked in and pulled Joe away. Joe was in my BCT, too...he's the guy on the other rope: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3379/351626...b37daf012_o.jpg
Sometimes I regret not striking him. Now, however, I pity him. He was the classic bully personality. Maybe he just needed a hug?
As school wound down the instructors told us about a tradition. After every class, the guy with the highest scores would be allowed to conduct a firing of the actual missile. The day before the final test, I was brought into the office of the instructors and filled out some paperwork. One instructor asked if I was excited to be the guy. "The guy?" I asked. "To shoot the missile. Just don't screw up on the final and you're the man!"
I missed FOUR on the final. The first FOUR questions I'd gotten wrong since day one. My score allowed another good student to move ahead of me by less than one percent to claim the missile. Several of the instructors approached me looking sad and slightly betrayed. "You didn't WANT to shoot it??" I was asked. "Sergeant, I blew it. No excuse."
A guy we called P-Bat shot the missile to a successful hit, at White Sands Missile Range, NM.
While we had completed our academic work, we still faced one final challenge. Our first crack at that Victory Tower. The FTX consisted of various locations, or stations, set up on the Hill. We, teams of two, would double-time from station to station completing various task - set up and inspection of the Missile, Programming the radios, maintenance on a HMMWV, and visual aircraft recognition while in Mission Oriented Protective Posture - MOPP- 4. MOPP gear is not for cleaning. MOPP gear consists of over-garments used to protect the wearer from chemical or biological weapons. The top and bottoms of the gear is thick cotton and poly blend, filled with active charcoal. To this suit we'd put on industrial grade rubber gloves, and rubber over-boots. Oh - and then our protective mask, made of rubber. The fourth week of august, 1992 didn't feature record highs. If I recall, temps were in the mid to high 90s. While in my MOPP gear, using binoculars looking at photos placed 50 feet away, I was able to successfully identify each of the 6 aircraft. I'm glad there were only 6. Had there been 10, I would have had to swallow the sweat that was accumulating in my mask. A puddle of sweat had filled the area around my chin, and as I'd walk, it'd splash up over my lips. Removing that mask was one of the best 10 seconds of my life. SPLASH went the ounces and ounces of accumulated perspiration.
I had graduated, Commandant's List of the 16S Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) Course. I remember DS L driving a 40 pax bus with about 15 Soldiers, down to the El Paso Airport. I was in my Class A uniform - as I'd promised myself - and had a couple duffel bags with me. As I stumbled down the exit stairs of the bus I looked back at DS L. I said to him "Drill Sergeant, I want to thank you for everything you've done for me." DS L smiled, and winked at me saying "its my job, Soldier. Take CARE of yourself, aight? Now, get away from me." DS L drove away, still chewing that toothpick.
I flew from El Paso to Phoenix, AZ, and from Phoenix to SEA. I had a window seat, just aft of a bulkhead in the plane. I'd received plenty of "hellos!" and "Hey Soldier! Thank you!" from passersby in the airports and on the plane. I remember looking out the window as the plane settled in for final approach to seattle-tacoma international airport. We came in from the south, but out my window I could see Mount Rainier in all its glory. I could see the lakes and the trees and sailboats. The skies were clear and my heart was racing. I was HOME again. I have never seen more beautiful sights up until that time. Not only was I about to land back Home, I was landing a different person than who I was just about 16 or 17 weeks earlier. I left as Darin, the youngest of four brothers, who limped through school and was delivering pizzas for Domino's Pizza. I was returning as PV2 P. A young man somehow a bit older than the 19 year old friends I'd left. I was no longer a driver for a pizza chain - I was trained to operate and fight and overcome adversity. I was taught sometimes the lessons learned facing an obstacle are more important than the actual success of completion. I had thought since day 1 of my initial training "I can't wait to be done with this!". Flying in that day I realized I had only began my journey as a Soldier. After getting through Fort Sill and Fort Bliss I was ready to tackle - or so I thought - whatever came my way as I continued my journey in the Army…to my first duty station.
Pics of Logan Heights below: