I joined the Army in May 2003. I picked an MOS that seemed cool to me, 13B, cannon crewmember. Basically, I was in a combat field where I would be able to shoot things and blow stuff up. In short, I would kill the enemy. I could have been a Pharmaceutical Specialist, or a Aircraft Repair Specialist, or something that would pay off when I decided to leave the Army and become a civilian, but no, If I was going to do this Army thing I was going to do it right. I was going to go in there and do something that most people don't do. I wanted to be "The King of Battle" as the Field Artillery is known. So, in September, when I shipped out, I was proud to be headed to the flat, windswept plains of Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I was proud to be headed to a place known for harsh weather and even harsher Drill Sergeants. I was excited to be doing such a unique thing, something that most people my age were scared or too lazy to do. I was proud to be serving my country, I was proud knowing that I would probably be going to war, even though I didn't agree with that war, I would be doing something that would shape my life and forever change me, hopefully for the better.
I flew into Oklahoma City just as the sun was beginning to set, plunging the countryside into a darkness that a young guy used to the city lights in New York City and New Jersey knew nothing about. As we rode the bus on the pitch black highway through the middle of nowhere, silent, all of us destined for the unknown, not sure if we were doing the right thing. A collective nervousness hung in the air and my heart beat faster as the miles ticked by on the odometer of that bus which looked and felt as if it had shuffled frightened new recruits back and forth for decades. I stared out the window into the bleak darkness as the bus plunged us deeper and deeper into this hole that we had dug for ourselves, closer to the point of no return.
I awoke to the bus slowing and bright lights flooding the interior. I was amazed at myself for being able to sleep during such a nervous time, yet it was conceivable since my anticipation had kept me up for the better part of the past three nights. We crept through the barriers and security checkpoints of the main gate of Fort Sill, and again dove into darkness as we drove through the main post to the area where fate awaited us. And minutes later we arrived and fate walked onto that bus. Tall and dressed in a uniform pressed so sharp that the sleeves could cut a man's throat, with a round brown hat, tilted just right as to shade the eyes making his stare look menacing, hateful almost, the Drill Sergeant who told us in a calm yet commanding voice, "Welcome to Fort Sill, now get off the bus."
We spent our first few hours filling out some papers. We were tired, hungry, and most of all, scared. The Drill Sergeants were not loud, or mean. They did not scream at us or make us do anything degrading or any push ups. All that would come later. As we filled out the papers we were given a brief intro to what our life over the next few months would be like. We were to give up all "contraband" items, lighters, tobacco products, knives, electronic devices etc. or face the "harshest" of penalties. Basically we were threatened with disciplinary action for all the things that we could possibly do. We were then given bunks in an old, drafty building and went to sleep.
The next few days were spent getting our uniforms, our haircuts, the quickest most painful haircut I have ever had. It was about 30 seconds of digging into my scalp that left me bald, with a burning patch of white and red skin on my dome. We were given some classes on how to march, how to follow basic commands, rank structure. It was Army 101, supposed to get us ready so we were not totally ignorant to the rules when we went "across the tracks." Across the tracks was the training center. It was where boys became men. It was where you trained for war. It was where all your hard work and dedication, all your days spent with your face in the mud, would turn you into the steel faced killer that the Army needed.
Finally, after what seemed like too long, the day came for us to head "across the tracks." We had heard so many stories about the Drill Sergeants. About how they would treat us, about the ride over there, about how they would pack us into the back of trailers, windowless, hot, with barely enough air to breath. Fights would brake out inside of them in the dark as we were crammed in like sardines. Then they would let us out into the hands of the merciless Drill Sergeants who would scream into our faces and make us do countless push ups until our arms were weak like putty. As we waited in line for this next moment of truth, this next test of our perseverance and dedication to our mission, our hearts beat rapidly. We watched as the "cattle carts" pulled up and the Drill Sergeants piled out. Our trainers, the ones who would teach us everything we need to know, the ones whose hands we were in walked slowly up and down the line. Their uniforms spotless, pressed and sharp, their hats tilted all the same way, to shade their eyes, gave them a menacing look. They all looked to be about 8 feet tall, their boots so shiny you could see your face in them. They wore patches and badges that spoke of their experience for them. Combat veterans, Rangers, Airborne, Air Assault, all labels we hoped to one day procure in our quest to be the hardest of the hard. We piled into the cattle carts, all too scared to be uncomfortable. As we were shut into the hot dark trailers we heard the Drill Sergeants laugh.
The next time the door opened was when the yelling began. The stories we had heard were not exaggerations. Every word from the Drill Sergeant's mouths was a booming order shouted in a commanding voice at the top of their lungs. "Get in line!" "What are you looking at?" "Get down!" "Hey crazy!" These were the phrases we would hear over and over for the rest of our time there, that would be implanted into our heads and incorporated into our speech, even as we finished our time in the Army and became civilians once again. We were at an issuing facility, where we received even more gear and equipment to add to the already uncarryable load that we had. Never before in my life had I managed to attach so many bags, pouches and devices to my body and carry in my arms at once than that day, and I never have since been able to do the same. I had bags on my back, my front, over my shoulders, in my arms hanging around my neck. It would have been a comical experience if I wasn't scared out of my wits AND about to pass out from heat exhaustion.
As they hustled us out of the cattle cars, to the buildings where we would be living, our "battery area", as I was weighed down with ALL of my gear, sweating profusely, and actually trying to run while being screamed at to go faster, as if I could, I just remember thinking, this is exactly what I had expected. This is what, deep down, I had looked forward to. This is what would get me into the shape physically, and mentally that I longed to be in. Gone were the days of wasting away behind a desk, eating high calorie meals, trips to the mall for fulfillment with material goods. Now I would become a real man, not one of the corporate sheep, or the fat, sloppy flag waving Americans who were too scared to leave the comfort of their living room recliners for fear of whatever new terrorist threat FOX News was overhyping today. I would be able to maybe make a difference, if even a small one, in this crazy world. I would at least better myself, learn through experience how this world worked, see things that the average person only cared to see on television, miles away from danger.
The Drill Sergeants lined us up in a formation with yelling and screaming. We were told to line up our duffel bags end to end in front of us. I remember the sweat pouring down my face in buckets. I reached up to wipe my brow with my shirtsleeve, that was when a Drill Sergeant, half as tall as me and I am only 5'7" jumped up onto my packed duffel bag so he could stand eye to eye with me. With spit flying he screamed at me for a few terrifying seconds that "he did not tell me I could wipe my face!" How dare I! We were then shuffled into our platoons, and finally into our barracks. We were assigned a cot and a locker. Our cot and our locker would become areas of great pride as the weeks and months wore on, as we would pride ourselves in the tightness of the sheets on our bed, or who had the best looking girlfriends and wives hanging in our locker doors. Occasionally, we would return after a hard day of training to find a few bunks or lockers overturned, their contents spilled onto the floor because some dummy left their locker unlocked. I was that dummy one time, and I returned to find all my stuff all over the floor.
As the seasons changed from hot to cold, and September became October became November, soon it was time to go home for Christmas break. Two weeks of freedom were creeping upon us. The Drill Sergeants were giving us more freedom, and while we were still on lockdown, and we were still just privates in training, we were a little more respected. Finished with the Basic Training and onto our Advanced Individual Training, or AIT, we were learning the more technical job of manning the howitzer cannon and how we would be effective in battle. Supporting our infantry brothers in a jam by sending rounds downrange to suppress and destroy the enemy was what we did, and we would do it well. We left for two weeks leave for Christmas and New Years, to return for about three more weeks before graduation.
I remember graduation well. It was one of the proudest days of my life. I had worked so hard, spent weeks in the field, sleeping in the cold, in the mud, in the rain. I had roadmarched with 75lbs of gear on my body through all types of weather for miles at a time. I had fired countless rounds from my M-16 to perfect my aim. I had run countless miles in a formation during Physical Training, or PT, to get me in shape. I had rappelled off a 40 foot tower, ran obstacle courses, broken my ankle, been yelled at, done thousands of push ups, failed PT tests, passed PT tests, been deprived of sleep, all in pursuit of becoming a soldier. Just so I could become part of this institution that I might one day die for. My father, brother and uncle had come out to see me at family day and graduation. I was so proud, and I know they were so proud of me. I remember at the end of the graduation ceremony, as we, the new graduates rose sharply and exited the auditorium singing along to the Drill Sergeant's cadence. I stood tall as I saw my father sitting there with his big eyes and smile watching me, proud of his son. I had never been so proud in my life.
As I sit writing this, I am behind a desk, at a bank where I work (can someone say deja vu?). I am waiting to take a test to become a police officer in my hometown. There are moments when I think back to what i have done and I want to raise my hand one more time and do it all again. I won't do that though. I am a father now and I do not want to miss one moment of my baby girl's life, she is growing up so fast. I also do not want to spend another year away from my wife, who stuck by my side for all 16 months that I was in Afghanistan. I have fulfilled my obligation to my country, and while sometimes I feel that I have not fulfilled my obligation to myself, I know that looking into my daughter or my wife's eyes will bring me back home. Basic Training, and the Army was overall a good experience, and everything happens for a reason. I would not discourage anyone from joining, just be prepared when you do, and remember that recruiters lie almost all the time.