I have finished my Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Random Observations and Experiences:
I was pretty nervous about going to Basic Training, especially since I watched "Full Metal Jacket" a couple weeks before leaving. Strangely, my biggest fear after watching the movie was thinking that I would have to deal with the same open bay toilets. Scary! I was very relieved to find out that was not the case when I arrived. But, I was just as eager to leave for Basic Training because it was going to be my first time flying on an airplane.
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait 11 days before I left for Basic Training. We spent most of our time at Fort Dix in the dark about the military buildup of Operation Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia except for the basic details provided to us by our Drill Sergeants. It wasn't until after Basic Training when I was at AIT that I was able to catch up on the news.
I thought Basic Training would start as soon as I arrived at Fort Dix but I spent a week in a Reception Battalion. It is the orientation time where we waited to be assigned a Basic Training company and received all our new uniforms and equipment. We would spend all day in long lines going from station to station getting yelled at by Drill Sergeants. We got our heads shaved, and went through medical check-ups and received multiple immunization shots in each shoulder. The shots were very painful because they used a needle-less gas-pressurized injection gun like they used on Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie, "Total Recall". The painful welts from the shots would last for days. It was fun getting all the cool Army gear (except for the Army "Birth Control" glasses), but by the end of the week I couldn't wait for Basic Training to start.
If Orientation week was a shock to the system, then starting Basic Training was a lightening bolt out of the blue. I will never forget the first hour after being turned over to our new Drill Sergeants as they started yelling at us at the top of their lungs. They made us dump all our gear on the pavement and would yell out an item for us to quickly find and hold up before placing it in our large canvas bag. If any of us were too slow or held up the wrong item, they would make the entire platoon stuff all our gear back into our bags and carry them on our backs as we ran around the large barracks building. We ran with our heavy bags around the building at least 10 times (as they chased us with insults), each time making us start our inventory all over again.
The toughest part of the first week was mental. We had a million tasks we had to accomplish and hardly any free time to do them. I am pretty sure this time pressure is planned so they could punish us over and over with push-ups for everything that wasn't done in time. We spent most of our time taking classes lead by our Drill Sergeants on things like learning Army ranks, how to salute, organize our locker, and wear our uniforms correctly. The rest of the time was spent learning how to march in formation and physical training.
My new home for 9 weeks of Basic Training was in the 3rd Squad of Alpha Company, 3rd Platoon. (A-3-26) There was 3 platoons in the company and we spent all of Basic Training competing with each other. Our platoon was called the Rangers and we were the best because we won most of the competitions. Our platoon would receive a streamer for each competition won and we would attach it to our platoon's flag, the guidon. By the end, our guidon was covered in streamers while the other platoons had only two or three each. I think one of the reasons was because we had a good Platoon Guide and Assistant Platoon Guide. Private Davis and Private Santamonica were picked by Head Drill Sergeant Webb at the beginning of Basic Training and they were never fired from their positions the entire time. Drill Sergeant Webb said that was a first time occurrence for him.
The first streamer we won was the weekly barracks cleanliness inspection. It was the only streamer that could be awarded and then taken away. We won it every week except one time in the middle of Basic Training when another platoon took it from us. We really got chewed out for that but we won it right back the next week and kept it for the remainder of time. We really had a good cleaning system down and I learned how to use a floor buffer like a champ. The other benefit of this competition was the winning platoon got to carry the company's guidon as well.
The barracks where we lived was a three story brick building. It was spotless due to the constant cleaning but it did have problems in the bathroom. Most of the sinks and toilets in our bathroom didn't work. It was pretty amazing to see 50 guys taking turns trying to crowd around three working sinks in the morning. I would find myself have to squeeze between others just to get some water on my toothbrush while trying not to get someone else's shaving cream on it. The upside is there was less things we had to clean before the morning formation.
There are three phases to Basic Training, the Red, White and Blue. You can tell which phase a platoon is in by the color of their guidon. The Red Phase is the toughest where the Drill Sergeants are actively trying to break you down and you are still trying to adjust and learn the basics of Army life. The White Phase is where the Drill Sergeants start to build you back up and you spend most of the time out on the ranges learning how to fire weapons. The Blue Phase is the last phase where you take the final tests and go camping in the field. By this time, we all felt good about ourselves and everything began to feel second nature. The Drill Sergeants started to act nicely as long as we didn't mess up and we also began to respect the job they did to train us.
Everyone was assigned a Ranger Buddy near the beginning of Basic Training. We shared a bunk and had to be responsible for each other. If one of us got busted for something, the other would be punished as well. My Ranger Buddy was Private First Class Rodgers. He had a higher rank because he had already graduated from college before enlisting in the Army. We got along well, but I think he thought of me as more of an annoying younger brother than as a friend.
Some guys can't handle Basic Training once they get there. We only lost one from our platoon who I had hung out with during the orientation week. He had seemed okay but he got desperate to leave once Basic Training started. He ended throwing himself off his top bunk to the floor. He didn't hurt himself that badly but he got his wish and he was processed out of our platoon after a week.
Fort Dix was one of the only two bases that has Basic Training for female soldiers. The barracks for the girls going through Reception was right across from ours and on the same floor. In the little time we had before lights out, we would hang out by the windows checking out the girls and vice-versa. The girls enjoyed teasing us by flashing us every once in awhile. This lasted less than a week before some recruit in 2nd platoon flashed back something he shouldn't have and a Drill Sergeant saw it from below. Our whole company was pulled outside onto the yard and punished with exercise. After about ten minutes, our platoon and 1st platoon were allowed back inside, but 2nd platoon was stuck out there for awhile. The next day the females were moved to some other location.
One of the very first thing we were issued was the recruit's bible, the U.S. ARMY SOLDIERS MANUAL OF COMMON TASKS. We had to carry it in our pocket at all times and if we had any free time we were supposed to pull it out and work on memorizing it's contents. The manual was very thick and covered almost every conceivable topic relating to being a soldier; infantry fighting tactics, using and maintaining our weapons, first aid, guard duty, radio communications, map reading, reacting to nuclear, chemical or biological attacks, army regulations, and maintaining our uniform. We had to learn everything to pass the comprehensive Common Task Test (CTT) near the end of Basic Training.
Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) - The three parts of the PT Test we had to pass by the end of Basic Training were Push-Ups, Sit-Ups and 2 Mile Run. We would start with the Push-Ups and then how many Sit-Ups that we could do in 2 minutes. We had to keep perfect form or the improperly executed repetition would not count. During the two minutes, we were allowed to rest in the official resting positions. For Push-Ups that meant raising our behinds up into the air or sagging in the middle without touching the ground and we could rest in the up position while doing Sit-Ups. If we rested on the ground, our time was immediately up. Our final test was the 2 Mile Run which was run on a 1 mile track we had to circle twice. I started out Basic Training pretty weak but I passed the Final APFT with 33 Push-Ups, 57 Sit-Ups and 14:30 on my 2 Mile Run. Push-Ups was the hardest for me and the only one where I had to practice extra in our little bit of free time. I was very happy to pass with 2 over the minimum.
Marching in Formation or "Drill and Ceremony" is one of the first things we learned in Basic Training. On the first day, the Drill Sergeant picked 4 Squad Leaders to go along with the Platoon Guide and Assistant Platoon Guide. While our two top leaders, Davis & Santamonica, were never fired, the Drill Sergeants replaced the Squad Leaders frequently, especially in the first two weeks. The main reason was mistakes made while learning how to march and Squad Leaders had the toughest job because they were at the front. One or two mistakes and they were replaced. As we got better at marching, I really began to enjoy the precision of 50 soldiers marching in-step as 1 unit. My favorite moments were when our platoon would march right through the center of other platoons that were in our path. Two platoons marching head-on into each other, 100 men threading through each others ranks and passing out the back.
Marching was also the cause of our platoon's worst punishment of Basic Training. Marching back from lunch, the Squad Leaders made an early turn onto the path outside our barracks before the Drill Sergeant's shouted command. He was livid and had us doing non-stop push-ups, jumping jacks and flutter kicks in the classroom with the doors and windows closed. That is called "getting cycled" and he didn't let up on us until the walls and floor was covered in sweat which took over a half hour.
One of the worst tasks we had to do in Basic Training was pulling Fire Guard duty about once or twice per week. The reason it was so bad was it took an hour away from what little sleep we enjoyed at night. The best time to be assigned Fire Guard duty was first or last so our sleep wouldn't be interrupted in the middle of the night. When pulling guard duty, we had to put on our complete uniform, boots included, and keep a watch out to make sure the barracks didn't burn down. The hard part was trying to stay awake while counting down the minutes for the next soldier to take over. Normally we would find and wake the next guy up with about ten minutes to go so he would have his uniform on and be ready to take over when our time expired.
In Basic Training, your bed has to be made to exact specifications every morning with hospital corners. Allot of guys would sleep on top of the covers so they wouldn't have to make them in the morning, but that was not for me. I always slept comfortably under the covers. I wasn't going to ruin my sleep to save two minutes in the morning.
During Basic Training we had to go through the Confidence and Obstacle Courses. I found them to be one of the most enjoyable things we had to accomplish. I really liked the Confidence Climb which looks like a vertical wooden ladder that goes 30 feet up into the air. It is tough because the thick wooden bars get further apart the higher we got. To get over the top and down the other side, we needed to stand on the second highest bar to reach the top. The Weaver was the only one I failed. To complete it, we had to weave our bodies under and over the bars up one side of an inclined ladder and down the next. I slipped while under a bar near the top and fell to the ground flat on my back. I wanted to try it again but I didn't get a chance.
In Basic Training, we did a lot of NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) training. The most important item we trained on was our Gas Mask; how to clean it, how to use it and how to put it on very quickly from the carrying pouch we wore on our hip. The ultimate test of our training was the trip to the Gas Chamber for a little Gas Mask Appreciation. I was only a little nervous because it was hard to be truly frightened when I had no clue as to what CS Gas (Tear Gas) felt like. We put on our gas masks and the Drill Sergeant led us into the chamber two squads at a time. Drill Sergeant Sparks had us line up facing each other and had the other squad remove their masks first. It was shocking to see the row of guys start to freak out across from us as the Drill Sergeant went down the whole line asking each person a question before allowing them all to put their masks on. When it was my squad's turn and I pulled off my mask, I felt nothing for a few seconds and then I understood why it was called tear gas. I seemed to lose all control of the fluids in my face as my eyes began to pour tears, and my nose and mouth began to run and drool uncontrollably. The pain was intense but the embarrassment from the uncontrollable slobbering as I tried to answer Drill Sergeant Sparks' questions was the biggest thing on my mind. After we put our masks back on and were marched outside, the Drill Sergeants had us run around the field to get fresh air back into our lungs.
I really enjoyed the Bayonet Training where we learned to fight with the bayonet attached to the front of our rifle. We learned and practiced all the proper bayonet moves with our M16 rifles but the fun part was when we got to put the training to use in one-on-one combat with pugil sticks. We got all padded up and the Drill Sergeants refereed each fight, giving a point for every clean hit using a correct bayonet move. The first person to 3 points won. It was exhausting, but I won both of my matches. I found the hardest move to defend was the forward thrust. We were also taught a little bit of hand-to-hand combat, mostly concentrating on different throws.
As a soldier, one of the most important things we learned was how to fire our M16 A1 rifles. In the 4th and 5th week of Basic Training we spent a lot of time out on the ranges learning Basic Rifle Marksmanship (BRM). The first thing we learned out on the rifle range, besides safety procedures, was how to zero the sights on our weapon. This meant firing three rounds into a special grid target. The object was not to hit the center of the target at first, but to get a tight shot group with all three holes close together. Based on how far our shot group was from the center of the target we would adjust our sights appropriately. We would do this three times, each time trying to get our shot group closer to the center. The trick to getting a tight shot group is proper breathing and trigger squeeze technique. Firing our rifle in the brief pause at the end of an exhale and squeezing lightly on the trigger with the meaty part near the end of the index finger.
When it came to being tested, we practiced on a Pop-up Target Range. The targets ranged between 50 and 300 yards at six different distances. (I only hit one 300 yard pop-up target in my entire time out on the range.) We were given 2 magazines with 20 rounds each. We would fire at the first 20 targets in a foxhole with a sandbag supporting the front hand and the last 20 targets in the prone position without the support of a sandbag. There were three passing levels for the Basic Rifle Marksmanship test; Marksman (23 out of 40 targets), Sharpshooter (30 out of 40), and Expert (36 out of 40). My best score was 31, but too bad it wasn't on my final qualification test. I normally scored in the high 20s and I ended up with 28 to receive a Marksman Badge.
The fun part of firing our rifles was countered by the amount of time spent breaking down and cleaning our M16 A1 rifles. We would spend hours in the classroom after spending all day on the range, cleaning and lubricating every part of the rifle. The Drill Sergeants had a very through inspection at the end before we could turn them back into the weapons vault. He would run a clean white cloth through all the rifle's parts and if any black smudges turned up, we had more cleaning to do.
One of the weapons we had to learn how to use was the Hand Grenade. We practised pulling the pin and throwing dummy grenades that only had a small fuse that popped. We were tested on the Hand Grenade Course where we had to throw the grenades over and around obstacles into large circles on the ground or into buildings and vehicles. The course was pretty easy physically, but the main test was making sure we had the proper throwing and safety techniques. After we graduated the course, we got to handle and throw two live grenades. With a Drill Sergeant making sure we used the proper technique, we would pull the ring on the grenade, stand and toss it down the range and then duck behind the thick barrier to avoid the blast. Pulling the ring on the grenades was probably the most intense experience I had at Basic Training.
Whenever our platoon went anywhere that wasn't in marching distance, we were driven in what we called the Cattle Cars. It was a unique vehicle because the inside had two levels of wide benches, which allowed us to sit without taking off our large rucksacks, and only a few small windows up high that we couldn't see out of while sitting down. Personally, I loved the Cattle Cars because they gave me a chance to catch some sleep without fear of being caught by the Drill Sergeants who would sit in the front cab. The most comfortable position was to rest the front of my helmet against the flash suppressor on the point of my rifle which I would hold upright between my legs.
Front Leaning Rest Position - The official Army name for the push-up position which was normally proceeded by the command, "Half Left, FACE". Getting "Dropped" was the term we recruits used for when a Drill Sergeant would punish us with push-ups or worse, flutter kicks. I hated flutter kicks where we would have to lie on our backs with our feet raised off the ground, gently kicking our feet up and down. Wearing heavy boots and with my long legs, it was impossible to do it for any length of time which would quickly draw the ire of a Drill Sergeant.
Mail Call was one of the highlights of Basic Training. I was not much of a letter writer but getting mail was a fun break from the daily grind. Getting snacks in a care package would require push-ups as payment from the Drill Sergeant, but it was worth it.
With no books or magazines to read and television to watch, the only form of entertainment was practical jokes. The biggest, of course, was when one of the recruits would yell "At Ease" when we sitting in the classroom; cleaning our rifles, studying our manuals or trying to rest the eyelids. The first recruit to spot a Drill Sergeant entering the room is supposed to yell this so we can all jump up into the proper position, but jokers like to yell it whenever they saw someone with their eyes closed. I got pretty good at going from a sound sleep to my feet in a split second. The reason this joke is so effective is because the one time we ignored the call it turned out to be real and the Drill Sergeant got angry at our slow reaction.
We were always very tired in Basic Training. Any chance we could sneak a few moments of shut eye, we took it. This was always a bit dangerous if we were caught by a Drill Sergeant. One private had a Drill Sergeant throw a chair at him during class. The other danger was fellow recruits taking advantage of you. I mostly lucked out except for one day in the field when I was one of the guys who got sand poured into my mouth while asleep. The only real tool we had to fight this was popping No-Doze that we would buy at the PX (Post Exchange). It was effective, but I saved it for days I was really tired.
One of the things that surprised me at Basic Training was how much I enjoyed the food in the Mess Hall. I went in thinking I would be eating nothing but slop for several months, but it was delicious. The only problem is that I had to learn to eat fast. The Drill Sergeants made sure we finished our meals quickly without any talking. Each meal, our Drill Sergeant would alternate the order of each squad entering the Mess Hall. If we were at the end of the line, we would get less than five minutes to finish our meal after we got our food. I used to be a slow eater, not anymore. In Basic Training we had to pull KP (Kitchen Patrol) only three times. Each time I was assigned to removing the dishes, glasses and silverware out of the dishwasher.
Near the end of Basic Training we had a major barracks inspection by a Colonel. We had our area spotless and our lockers in perfect order so it went very well, but I had my most embarrassing moment of Basic Training. In the days before the inspection, the Drill Sergeants told us over and over to make sure we call the Officers who would be conducting the inspection, "Sir", and not "Drill Sergeant". The problem is that saying "Drill Sergeant" to address people in authority had become so ingrained that I accidentally called the Colonel, "Drill Sergeant". He laughed it off, but Drill Sergeant Santana gave me the evil eye.
We did a lot of running in Basic Training and a lot of that is running in formation. The pace is slower but it is tougher because we can't run at our own pace and we have to sing cadences at the top of our lungs instead of trying to breath. Beside the PT Tests, the most important run was the Battalion Run where all the companies in the battalion run together in one long formation. It was a six mile run which is much, much longer than I had ever run in the past. It was tough but I was happy that I finished without falling-out of formation like quite a few others.
When we were in the field we got to enjoy the food handed out in a MRE (Meal, Ready-To-Eat) for breakfast and lunch. It is a meal than comes sealed in a brown plastic sleeve that is supposed to last about three years in storage. They are more interesting to go through than to actually eat. They contained a vaccuum-sealed main course like spaghetti or beef stew which we could heat with a flameless heater or eat cold. Mostly I stuck to the packet of crackers with cheese spread and the dessert which was normally a bland tasting cookie. If I was lucky, I would get an MRE with a small bag of M&M's or Tootsie Rolls. The accessories packet had lots of cool little stuff like a tiny bottle of Tabasco, salt and pepper, a spoon, handy wipes, matches, and instant coffee and creamer. To complete the MRE, there would be a packet of cocoa powder or fruit drink mix. For dinner, we would get hot meals served from mermite cans which was much nicer.
In the field, one of the most important things is to never lose track of our rifle. The sergeants love to take it from us if we're not paying attention to it and make us pay to get it back. I freaked out when my rifle which had been leaning up against the tree next to me vanished. It was bad. I had to go and get it from the 1st Sergeant. The embarrassment was worse than the push-ups he made me do to get it back. I never took my hand off the rifle strap after that. We also had to sleep with our rifles in our sleeping bags. It is not the most comfortable thing to do and I found myself dreaming about it all night.
There are two types of crawling we learned to do in the Army, the Low Crawl and the High Crawl. They are both designed to be used if we have to move while under enemy fire. Which one we use depends on the amount of concealment available. In the High Crawl, we crawl on our elbows and knees holding our rifle across our arms. The Low Crawl is very slow with our whole body pressed flat on the ground, holding the rifle flat against the ground by the front sight. To put this all to the test, we had to use both types on a night course, crawling under barbed wire while M-60 machine guns were firing over our heads with flares going off. It wasn't too bad, but my uniform was filled with dirt at the end from the low crawl.
At the end of our field exercise, we had a 17 Mile March with a full pack from the field back to the barracks. We had a list of things we had to carry in our pack, but some guys cheated by not including everything. I carried everything I was supposed to which made the pack pretty heavy. We started in the evening and reached our barracks early in the morning. It was tough but not as bad as I had anticipated. The frequent rest breaks really helped. The nice part is that they let us sleep most of the day. It was very strange to be lying in our bunks in the daylight hours.
We chanted a lot of cadences while marching or running during Basic Training, but the best one is the special one we sing in the last week before graduation. I envied the platoons singing it while marching by when I was in Reception and couldn't wait until we could do the same thing. The "Goodbye Song" is not a regular Army cadence but it is sweet, "Na, Na, Na, Na... Na, Na, Na, Na... Hey, Hey, Hey... Goodbye."
I knew I had succeeded in Basic Training when on the last day, Drill Sergeant Santana had to look at my name tag to address me by name. My plan to keep a low profile with the Drill Sergeants had worked.
Link to my AIT post at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD