Basic Combat Training is done. I’ll never have to do it again. I never would in any event…It was a long, difficult road for me, made more difficult by my age and personality. I’m just glad the bullshit is over and I can get back to being a slightly modified version of me.
I arrived at Fort Jackson and reported immediately to 120th Battalion for in-processing. There were some drill sergeants around, but for the most part they kept their rude natures in check, only hinting with gruff voices at what was to come. 120th was sufficiently miserable for me, but the US Army had more, much more, in store.
The day came when my company, Echo 2-13, was transported to the official BCT grounds, and the move was straight out of a professional kidnapping. We were all ordered onto a bus, a huge drill sergeant standing at the front barking for us to keep our heads down so we could not see where we were being taken. The sergeant sported a gold front tooth, which made his sadistic smile ironic. When we reached the company barracks, we jumped off the bus and were immediately placed in the front lean and rest position (pushup). Fingers were crushed under boots on the hot pavement, luggage and paperwork fell to the ground and amongst us. The drill sergeants gave us our first “smoking”, a tangle of new soldiers-in-training getting their first taste of muscle failure at the BCT. The drill sergeants possessed an impressive lexicon of curse-words and they used them to maximum effect.
When we were all standing and moved to another area to buy some needed equipment, our platoon sergeant began pacing up and down our ranks. He was inspecting the physiques of his recruits, looking for the PT stud that could make his platoon look good. He stopped near me and said, “How old are you, Moore?” I told him I was 36. He grunted.
I was feeling really strong at the beginning of the cycle and did very well on my first fitness test, though not as well as I knew I could do. 300 is technically the max score (100% in all three categories) but the scale can go higher. The sergeants messed with us on the first test though, not wanting inflated heads. They took off about 20 of my pushups saying that I wasn’t extending my arms. I laughed to myself, knowing I’d done pushups since I was 15. Guess I didn’t do them the Army way…
The sleeping and living conditions strained me. Living with 55 guys in their teens and early twenties posed difficulties and left me frustrated. There were days that I didn’t want to get up (who wants to get up at 4 in the morning anyway?), but I kept chugging, and at times doubting my decision to give away my freedom, if only temporarily. There were a few soldiers my age, and I did manage to find a few younger guys that I got along with. We found a bond in secretly cursing the drill sergeants…
Over the next few weeks we were submitted to intense bouts of calisthenics, before and after eating. I was placed in the “A” running group or “A-Train” as it was monikered. The fastest runners ran there, the pace was kept high and each session culminated in a series of long hill sprints which would test even the most physically fit warrior. I never puked, but there were times I thought that I would. My run times improved slowly, widdled down to a 12:58 2 mile run on my third PT test.
Then things went bad.
I began to suffer from extreme fatigue, do to lack of sleep and food. The psychological stress took its toll too. I developed a nasty respiratory infection and had trouble breathing at times. I suffered a right Achilles tendon strain and was forced to sit out many of the ability group runs. I limped around for three weeks like and old dog with arthritis.
The weeks were filled with rifle training, land nav, Combat Life Saver courses, (we had to stick other soldiers with needles, and get stuck). Every hour seemed to be an exquisitely tailored moment of discomfort. We had to sit on the floor for hours during lectures. We sat on the ground when outside, eating MREs and fighting off hoards of ants. The gas chamber was one of the most painful moments of BCT. We stood in the chamber, the murky interior undulating with CS gas. Behind your mask, there’s nothing to worry about, but as you wait, you wonder about what kind of hell is about to be unleashed on you. And hell it was. Ordered to remove my mask and a member of the last squad to enter, I was hit by the most powerful burst of CS, do to there being remaining CS pills from the squads that had already passed through. Soldiers clawed at there chests. Cadre, appearing monsters behind their dark masks, made sure no one could exit before their time. Some soldiers were forcibly restrained. We finally were able to move to the door and made to open it for ourselves, while fighting off the gas’ effects.
The platoon sergeants elected me as a squad leader, stating that the squad leaders were those who had demonstrated the highest motivation and capabilities. I sure didn’t feel motivated much of the time, but I always went full throttle in PT and all of the foot marches, and to be sure, physical fitness is a virtual cult in the Army. I learned that when you’re a good PT guy, the sergeants don’t mess with you. As the platoon sergeant told us–There are two types of soldiers: High maintenance and low maintenance. The easiest way for the cadre to distinguish the two is through physical fitness.
As a platoon, we were messed with, physically and psychologically in every manner possible. Finally though, came the apex of our training: Victor Forge. A seven day field training exercise, it would test all of the warrior skills we had learned. Just before the FTX, I had taken my final fitness test, scoring a 306 and being awarded a certificate for outstanding fitness. My score was second highest in my company. I was beaten by someone 13 years younger, though I really believe I could have taken the title had I not been injured and sick in the previous weeks. In any case, I’m proud of my accomplishment.
Victory Forge began with a 11 mile march while carrying a fully loaded assault pack. The heat was oppressive but I had adapted. At least I wasn’t wearing the IBA (Body armor that weighs about 30 lbs and keeps in enough heat to fry your liver). The major problem I had with the heat was maintaining enough electrolytes in my body. When they’re gone, it doesn’t matter how much water you drink–you feel so fatigued you can barely lift your feet. Several times, my electrolytes became depleted during training, and I suffered the consequences.
We marched to the FOB (Forward Operating Base). It was impressive. A huge area surrounded by razor wire, complete with almost all of the amenities of the real thing–just like in Iraq. Our days were spent just as they may be in deployment: Entry Control Point duty, patrols, ambushes, counter-ambushed, long marches and almost no sleep. During one mission, I was charged with carrying the radio. Damn that things heavy. We were to march to an area in 95 degree heat, wearing full body armor and set up an ambush. We wore MILES gear, which would indicate hits on the enemy and ourselves. As the Oppositional Force came into view, we opened up with the ambush. I was on the opposite side of the road from the the rest of my platoon because I was carrying the radio and needed to stick with the drill sergeants. When I finally did get into the fight, I went prone hard and fast. That move left chunks of my front tooth dispersed in the sands of Columbia, SC. My tooth had hit the carry handle of my M-16. Actually, the damage was much less severe than I had at first feared. Nothing the Army can’t fix (for free damn it).
On another training mission, we were marched to the wood-line by our platoon sergeant, who smoked the hell out of us all with “Up, Down, Gos” When we were all exhausted, parched, and covered in sand, he told us to walk away from him while he hid somewhere on the FOB. We were to find him and then escort him while he moved as he pleased–just as a body guard detail may do for a General in Iraq. When we finally located him, he was rude enough to jump into a five ton truck and begin driving down the dusty road. We had to run along beside him. Only myself and one other soldier were able to keep up the whole time and when he finally stopped the truck, he announced that that last ten soldiers were considered casualties. We would have to move then back to the radio tent–nearly 1/4 of a mile away! After getting a head count, I picked up a soldier in a fireman’s carry and began my trek. Believe me, Splinter Cell does no justice as to the difficulty of carrying people for long distances. I had to set him down twice, but finally managed to get him to the Evac point. I had to carry one other soldier a shorter distance too.
People began to break at Victory Forge, bodily and mentally. There was fighting and injuries. My fatigue levels reached new heights and my physical capabilities were severely diminished. When it was over, we were greeted by a night time ceremony with a huge TV screen and rock and roll music blaring across a dark field. As we marched back from our final mission, the music carried us, and soldiers who had questioned their decision to become soldiers, now felt strong.
I’m sitting in the airport now, waiting to fly to my advanced training in Arizona. The first taste of freedom is sweet. I’m still recovering physically, from the ordeal. I hope that AIT is much more pleasant…