General Non-Fiction posted June 26, 2019


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Army basic training experience

Living the Lie

by bhogg


Do you ever think your Country lies? I know it does. First, some backstory.

On December, 1, 1969, I sat in the Auburn Student Union at Auburn, Alabama, watching the inaugural Vietnam war draft. In the room with me were perhaps one hundred people. I remember the knock-down-drag-out war of the students present. At the time, just one television set. Many wanted to watch 'Star-Trek'. Some, like me, were sitting on the edge of our chairs to watch the draft, (think about Powerball drawing on steroids!). Numbers pulled, eliciting either sighs of relief, or groans of dismay, I must say, mine was of the latter. Did I win? I think not, my number was three! In other words, I was 'effed.'

Certainly, a trivial falsehood, but one somewhat personal to me. In 1971, the Federal Government told me a blatant lie. The letter in the United States Mail told it all. I've long since lost the original, the message, simple. "Your friends and neighbors have chosen you to represent them in the United States Military." I'm here to tell you, it was a lie. My friends wanted to me hang out for a while in college, drink some more beer, and yes, smoke some more controlled substances. But no, not meant to be.

The letter went on to explain,

a. date and place of medical exam
b. payment for travel and/or how to receive such information
c. phone contacts for deferment requests: and an address
d. explanation of civil and criminal penalties

Of course, I knew it was coming, but still, the letter was a kick in the balls. For many of the wrong reasons, I married in 1970, so this communication affected not only me, but my wife.

Think about the timing. Here I was graduating from college. Certainly not the best academic record of all time, but not too bad. I went to my local draft board in an effort to extend my student deferment. It looked like I had a good chance on going to graduate school. A couple of my favorite professor's made a good dedicated push.

Taking those flowering recommendations and my Graduate Record Exam scores to my draft-board did no good at all. The chubby, squinty eyed, mean spirited, draft board commissioner took one look at me and almost shouted, "Let me get this straight. You want extended student deferment, when my nephew just lost a leg in Vietnam?"

What in the world could I say? My only reasonable response, "No Ma'am."

When I got home, my wife asked, "How did it go?"

My response, simple and to the point, "I'm 'Effed'."

You're given a few weeks to get your life in order. I took advantage of those weeks. Sex had always been good between my wife and I, but it went into over-drive. Outside, inside, kitchen or den...made no difference. Other forms of exercise took front and center. I always ran, but kicked up my distance to three to four miles per day on a light day and six miles a couple of times a week. I lifted weights and did other forms of strength training.

I'd made my mind up. I didn't want to go, but certainly didn't want to follow some people I knew who went North, (Canada). The die had been cast, so why not make the best of it.?

My older brother is two years older than me. Since he was currently in the military, I called and asked for any hints or suggestions he might have on surviving basic training. After a lifetime of no advice or bad advice, he actually came through.
I'll paraphrase just a few:
1. "Do you think you could kiss your drill sergeant on the mouth?" That one was out.
2. "You'll take a battery of tests. Some of the questions will be like, would you rather be reading a book in the library, or walking through a field? Think library."
3. "On the rifle range, don't shoot anybody, but make sure you don't score well. There's a reason you're shooting targets made to look like a human torso."
4. "You always hear, don't volunteer. While it makes sense in the larger picture, there are two exceptions. If you're asked, can you type or can you drive a truck, holler YES. The company clerks and truck drivers are in the 'Nam'. They need help." I company clerked and drove trucks and ambulances all through basic training.
5. "The stuff about getting your hair buzz-cut when you go in is a crock. Find out what hair regulations are, and from day one, make sure you're in compliance. When they march you in to get your first cut, tell the guy to just trim around the edges."
6. "They'll tell you to throw away your civvies. Don't do it. You will have a small locker space for personal items. Not very big and can't contain food or beverages."
7. "You unit will be filled by scum of the earth types. Know you'll be taking communal showers. Don't drop your soap. Better yet, buy some soap on a rope."

There were some other observations, but these I remember.

The day to go for physicals came all too early. I had to be at the bus station in LaGrange, Georgia at 7:30 on a Monday morning. There was a chartered bus for about thirty-five guys. We sat around, drank coffee and talked. I met three other guys who were college graduates. Two from the University of Georgia and one from Valdosta State. The four of us were draftees. In fact, there were only about ten people who volunteered, the balance drafted. Oddly enough, two of the volunteers were only seventeen-years-old. They had to have parental consent to join. What were those parents thinking?

So, we were driven to the medical and induction center in Atlanta, Georgia. One thing became crystal clear. If you were drafted, you were going to pass the physical. A guy next to me actually had a hollow spot on his right shoulder. Something was definitely messed up. He said he injured it in a football game and had been undergoing physical therapy for three months. The medic just checked him off and hollered, "Next.!" So smart on the Army's part. The guy wound up with a medical discharge (and check for life), and didn't even last three weeks of basic training.

The two kids with parental consent failed the physical and were crying like babies. Several of us wanted to volunteer for them to take our place.

You fill out a bunch of forms. One section had to do with police records. Listen sometime to Arlo Guthrie's riff on Alice's restaurant. It's much like it. I asked one of the drill sergeants a question about a disorderly conduct charge and night in jail of my own. He actually asked me If I'd heard Arlo's story. Of course, I had. His response, "Son, just check NO. That group of guys over there are definitely the father rapers." I checked NO.

In short order, myself and eighteen guys from Central Georgia, were on a bus to Fort Knox, KY. Somewhat ironic as the Army conducted basic training at Fort Benning in Columbus, GA, about forty-five minutes from LaGrange. I guess they don't want you too close to home.

The bus ride was somber, mostly quiet. I hung out mostly with the two guys from the University of Georgia. Sitting next to me was a guy from Milledgeville, GA. Forest Gump had his Bubba to tell all about shrimp. This guy worked at the Colonial Bakery and could go on for hours about bread, how they got to eat all the culled sweet rolls and on and on...and on. One of their bread brand names was Sunshine Bread, so his nick-name became Sunshine. More about him later.

The quiet mood ended when we arrived at Fort Knox. When the bus stopped, we were greeted by big, huge, Drill Instructors with their Smokey Bear Hats. Screaming would probably be more descriptive. I guess we were no longer human beings. Instead, we became maggots, or maggot derivatives, I heard plain old maggot, maggot breath, maggot turd, maggot scum and worse. I decided I could rise above all this. After all, I was a college graduate, and at twenty-two-years of age, older than most of the other men. I had done things to prepare myself. My physical condition had never been better. I'm sure the Army had their process nailed down, but I was going to see through it. In fact, after a few days, my nick-name became, Cool Hand Luke, or simply, 'Cool'.

We were shown to our barracks and told we would begin in earnest the next morning. The DI's last instruction, "You maggots get a good night's sleep. Reveille is at 0600. For you pukes who don't know what it is, just listen for a loud bugle."

There were other people in our unit that we met. What an eclectic group, we were represented by folks from West-Central, Georgia, Chicago, Puerto Rico and West Virginia. People were moaning in the barracks; some guys couldn't sleep on the thin mattresses on the twin bunks. Me, I slept like a baby. It seemed like no time before reveille. I hopped up, made my bed and headed outside. We were greeted by the DI's screaming and trying to get us into somewhat of a formation, then we ran to the mess hall.

Everyone seems to want to complain about Army chow. Breakfast was great. Eggs, sausage, toast, creamed beef, coffee and other delectable items. I did learn a lesson though. Don't pig out, because the second you're done, you're out the door and running somewhere.

Even before drawing our clothing and necessities, we were all run to the barber shop. As mentioned earlier, I just asked the guy to trim a little around my ears...He did. Everyone else was scalped. Even the DI's looked at me a little strange. One did say, "You might regret not getting it shorter. You sweat a lot under the helmet." I would say my cut was identical to his.

Drawing uniforms is a hoot. You're run through a warehouse. Guys take a look at you and throw the pants, tops, underwear and field apparel at you. Surprising, but they seemed to get most of it right. The only thing they really measure you for is boots and shoes. Everything is stuffed into a huge duffel bag, then you run back to your barracks. I was beginning to appreciate my physical condition. Many of the guys were falling out. I tried to help this one skinny kid from West Virginia, but the DI screamed, "Let the maggot alone." He then went over and screamed at the kid, "Get your maggot ass up or I'll kick you up." I helped him any-way. When you get back to the barracks, you put all the things away in foot lockers and upright lockers. I don't know why I spent time in trying to be neat with it, because the DI's were going to come in and haul it all out for not being, 'stowed' away correctly. Come to find there is the Army way for everything. We were told, "You may as well throw out your civilian clothing, you won't need them for nine weeks." I put mine neatly away in the small locker space entitled, 'Personal Items'.

Dressed in our Physical Training outfits, the next agenda item is health and then personnel. You get a full set of dental x-rays, eye exams, drawing blood and the dreaded inoculations. Amazing to me, many of the recruits had never had blood drawn or even been given a shot. Several passed out on the spot. You then sit down with a personnel specialist to start your file. I was a bit surprised the person doing mine was a female civilian. Lucky me...No getting yelled at or called a maggot at any time. At the end, she even said, "Have a nice day." Too late, but a good thought.

The first day is filled with some other stuff, lunch and dinner. At dinner, the kid I helped from West Virginia, said, "I can't believe this. We've had meat three times today." Some complain about the food, but it is all about perspective.

We went back to the barracks and it looked like a hurricane hit. Clothing was ripped out of lockers and strewn over the floor. My brother told me how to pack the locker, and mine was disturbed, but mostly intact. A DI was giving instructions on the proper way to pack your things. He was using my locker for his example. Apparently, the only thing I'd done wrong was not having my folded under-garments all pointed in the same direction. My personal items were untouched. I had to muse, "Thanks, Bro.!"

All in all, a pretty benign day. The next day should be okay since most of the day we would be indoors taking a variety of tests. I went to bed thinking, 'Library, library, library.'
After reveille, you're given fifteen minutes for toilet use, showers if so inclined, brushing teeth and shaving. I had an alarm clock and was up fifteen minutes prior to the dreaded bugle. More time is better for me. After breakfast and bathroom breaks, we were run over to a large auditorium. All were seated around work tables, sharp pencils beside a simple scratch pad. Instructions were given and various tests were handed out. They were all multiple choice where you filled in the small blocks representing A, B, C, D, E. From school days, I loved multiple choice. Even if you didn't know the answer, it always possible to eliminate some of the possible choices and improve your odds.

I knew I was older, and certainly felt I was probably smarter than most of the guys in the room. After I finished the first test segment, I looked around. Hmmm, first guy done. No wait, Sunshine was done and just sitting there with a silly looking grin spread across his face. From the time I spent with him, smart was not an attribute I would have attached. After the second segment, I asked permission to go sharpen my pencil. As I walked by Sunshine, I glanced at his filled-out form. It looked like a zipper. He was answering in succession, A through E and then reversing the sequence from E to A. He apparently wasn't even reading the questions. What a dumb-ass. I won't say he passed the Army exams, but I will say he made it through basic training. I'll also tell you right after basic training, he wasn't sent for advance training, just directly to his assignment. He was sent to the Presidio in San Francisco with an Occupational Specialty of Duty Soldier. Long story, but I ran into him at a bar in San Francisco six months later. He said all he did was cut grass and paint rocks white. He went on to tell, rather than living in a barracks, he had a single room in what he called a GI hotel. His quote, a classic, "It's like I'm in San Francisco on an expense account." Now who's the dumb one.

On the fourth day, we were assembled outside of the barracks. This was the time where you were informed of the orders of the day. The DI yelled out, "Which one of you guys is William Hogg?" I raised my hand. He then yelled, "Step forward. It says here you were a Professional Officer Candidate for the Air Force. According to your records, you were only eight weeks away from being a 'Looootenant'. It says you resigned for personal reasons. Why did you do that?"

"Because, Drill Sergeant, I wanted a real job like you have."

"Outstanding answer maggot, but that shit don't float, cuz' it also says you were drafted. We need a company leader and thought it might be you since you do have some military background. Maybe not, we don't need no smart-ass. Do you know how to drill?"

"Yes, Drill Sergeant, probably in my sleep."

"All right, we're going to give you the chance. Come up here and get your chevrons. Just know I'm going to have my eye on you. One little slip and you won't be back with the rest, you'll be at the end of the line. You understand, maggot?"

"Yes, Drill Sergeant." Damn, I've only been in the Army for a few days and already have a promotion.

Things seemed to be going okay. The guys in my barracks actually paid attention to me. They figured out pretty quickly my strategy was to keep the DI's off our backs and as much as possible, stay out of trouble. Well, trouble found me anyhow and as so often happens, it was my mouth. In week two, I was tasked in getting the latrines super clean for an upcoming inspection by the Colonel of our Battalion. I had guys working, some of them even using old toothbrushes to clean out the grout on the backsplash behind the sinks. The DI came through on a pre-inspection. He looked around and remarked, "This is damn good. Your people have done an outstanding job. Is there anything you need?"

Sometimes I just can't help myself. "No Drill Sergeant, we've got all we need. I do think we have a potential liability problem though."

"What the hell you mean, liability problem?"

"Well, you know the painted red cans above the urinals marked, 'BUTTS ONLY'?"

"Yeah, so what?"

"The problem is those guys from West Virginia keep trying to climb up there and..."

The DI practically screamed, "Son, I'm from West-by-God Virginia!"

There you have it. While I spent a little over two years in the Army, even before two weeks were up, my one big promotion went down in smoke!


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