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Monday, October 31, 2005


On Halloween we got to Trick-R-Treat. However, we first had to earn our candy. The morning began with competitive log PT. We divided into groups, and each group had a task to perform involving a log. One group had to roll the log as quickly as possible all the way across the PT field. Another group had to carry their log the same distance, moving as quickly as possible. Yet another group...

After we got our blood pumping, we got to do LINES training (basically Ju-Jitsu). So far we had been practicing in 1-on-1 groups. This time we lined up with 10 attackers against one defender and hit the defender full-speed (one after the other), with about 3 seconds between attacks. It was fun! Some of us got a little bumped up, but like they say - you can't learn to win a fight unless you practice fighting. Mall-style, no-one-gets-sued type martial arts doesn't cut it if you actually might fight someone who is out to kill you.

It had been several days since we had mail call. In retrospect, I'm sure this was intentional. Mail call happened outside, at night, on a grassy area in front of the company. There was quite a few boxes of mail waiting, including many packages with Halloween candy. We began a new mail call tradition today. The Drill Sergeant picked up a letter, read out the name of the recipient, and the entire class echoed that name. Then the class began a countdown from 5 to 1. On 1, the Drill Sergeant let the mail fall to the ground. If it hit the ground, the recipient had to knock out 20 pushups. It was a lot of fun! We even had a few diving catches (as well as dive-and-misses!).

No food is allowed in the barracks. However, there was plenty of candy in the many packages that were handed out. The solution? 5 minutes of trick-or-treat, followed by 5 minutes to eat everything we got. This was a test of our ability to function as a team. A total of 10 minutes is PLENTY if you organze yourself, but not nearly enough if everyone acts as an individual. The Drill Sergeants had us line up single-file in front of those who had received candy and start to pick out what we want from each of them. This strategy would fail, as at most 1/3 of the class would make it through the line in time. We quickly reorganized, and had those at the front of the line take large hands full of candy, and then move out to distribute to those at the back of the line. We had our treats passed out in 3 minutes flat, and had plenty of time to enjoy our Halloween treat.

Teamwork is a theme that repeated itself constantly in AIT. Learn teamwork - and learn how to take charge and organize a team - and you will do well.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Over the Hill and Through the Woods

Psyop is part of the Special Operations community. As such, we are well equiped. When we're out in the field, we will always have GPS. Why then should we learn to navigate by compass (for direction) and pace counting (for distance)? Well, first of all, technology breaks. Usually at the worst possible time. Even if your device doesn't die on you, your batteries might. If you were told to prepare for 2 days in the field, and you're on Day 14 (this happens!) you might not have enough batteries along to power all of your technology. Also, GPS is susceptable to being jammed - especially in a war zone.

One more reason to learn to do things by hand - to open your eyes and understand what your technology is telling you - is that it's all too easy to be misled by your technology if you don't use it properly. Here is an example: I fly volunteer, civilian search and rescue. One day we were called into a safety briefing. One of our highly trained pilots had run out of fuel on a mission and had to land on a highway. Did he have a leak in his fuel system? Did he face massive, unpredicted head winds? No. He had simply entered Jackson, WI into the GPS rather than Jackson, FL as intended. Even though the GPS pointed him in almost exactly the wrong direction, he followed his technology. Having a sound understanding of the principles behind your technology is critical, especially when your life depends on it. Jessica Lynch's convoy had GPS.

Today we began to learn how to navigate over the hill and through the woods, even though our goal wasn't grandmother's house, but rather small markers in the middle of the Special Forces Land Navigation course. We did have a basic introduction to land navigation in BCT, but if you didn't already know land nav, the BCT course would not help you much. It was too short, poorly taught, and coupled with minimal practical application. Not so in PSYOP AIT. We had thorough classroom instruction, coupled with interesting and relevant stories to illustrate especially challenging situations. Land nav came easy to me because I'm already a trained pilot, but I still enjoyed the class thoroughly. We will have several days in the field to apply land nav - and I'm very much looking forward to it!

Females in AIT

One reader asked me what life is like for females going through AIT. Being male my observations are from the "outside", but here is what I saw:

Females certainly received no special treatment in the AIT class I went through. No more, and no less, was expected of them than of males. However, I got the impression that the females created problems for themselves. I'll write about what I mean in a moment.

One of the females in the class cut her hair short, approached every challenge with a can-do attitude and very much acted like a soldier. Some of the other females branded her "GI Jane". That name frustrated her at first, but I think she began to wear it like a badge of honor as she became very successful in the program. On the other extreme, there was a female who would smile at everything, and apparently is very used to getting her way whenever she acts cute. She became a special project of one of the Drill Sergeants and had quite a hard time. Part of the "special" treatment was being given a student leadership role during a critical time. She had to lead actions of the class during our final field training exercise. Sometimes her decisions or indecisions caused (simulated) deaths. She took this very much to heart, and learned quickly that war is not a game. In my opinion the special treatment she received was professional and motivated out of an honest desire to turn her into a fine soldier.

Another female forgot to bring tampons to the field (a big no-no: you are taught that you MUST plan for all of your needs while deployed. There are no drug stores in the Iraqi desert to pick up a few things you forgot). A Drill Sergeant found out, and decided to "punish" her my making her Student First Sergeant for a few weeks (Student First Sergeant is a student tasked with organizing both the Psyop and Civil Affairs elements that made up our class). They reasoned that she would realize through being responsible for other people that she needs to be responsible for herself. I think it worked out well. She rose to the challenge, and did an outstanding job leading the class.

Females were not the only ones who received special treatment. There were several males who did not act as a soldier (especially a Special Operations soldier) should. They were given the same hard (but fair) time. Some of them stepped up to the challenge, and some failed. The ones that failed did not graduate with the class.

I mentioned earlier that the females created problems for themselves. On the male floor, there were occasional issues with a person not doing his duty here, or a person not squaring away their bunk there. However, on balance, we got along. From what I hear, the female floor was more like Jr. High School. There were females who flat refused to clean up anything, but were nasty-dirty themselves. There were clicks, and the clicks made fun of each other. There were bitter rivalries. A few of the females decided to hook up during pass (strictly forbidden!), and they fought over the same guy. One female got caught doing that and was removed from the class (the male involved was an already-trained soldier from a different company, I don't know how or if he was punished).

At one point a Drill Sergeant from the other class was upstairs yelling at the females in their barracks for a solid hour because of their infighting.

I don't have first-hand insight into what went on up on the female floor (except for one funny story I'll relate another time), but apparently it was quite an emotionally challenging environment.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Pole to Pole, Hole to Hole

Today was spent in the field. After breakfast, we had a class in survival. Many valuable lessons were learned, but one stuck out in everyone's mind. It was about the proper technique for spooning - sharing of body warmth. The Sergeant's advice was simple and easy to remember: "Privates, if you're spooning just remember this simple rule: 'Sleep pole to pole, ... or hole to hole, ... but never pole to hole. Otherwise it can be very embarassing when you wake up in the morning'." (Think about it)

By late morning it was time to hop in our HMMWV's. I was looking forward to this! We got to push the vehicles hard, accelerating full-speed, braking hard, and maneuvering to avoid obstacles. The only thing I didn't like about this training iteration is that it ended too soon. Still, we will have plenty of opportunities to drive HMMWV's during the rest of training.

Tonight we got to combine two neat things, NVG's and HMMWV's. We got to drive in the dark, navigating with night vision goggles. One problem that NVG's have (at least the early generation we were using) is that they are monocular - you see the same picture in each eye. Depth perception suffers. To help us understand the problem, we played "catch" in the dark. We took a chem light, taped it over until you could barely see light coming out with the naked eye, then put on the NVG's and tossed it back and forth. It was hard! You have no real idea how far away the stick is as it comes toward you. My partner and I set the record for most catches, mostly be getting the stick to hit our chest and then cradling it.

Night driving itself was a rush. Three of us went out at a time, along with an instructor. Only two of us had NVG's (the instructor had a set as well). The one without night vision really had to trust in the driver - he could not see what was happening, but felt the HMMWV bumping and twisting over the road. When my turn came, I realized that you could catch turns in the road by keeping an eye on the way the treeline turned ahead of you (since the trees were cut out to follow the road). It was over too soon. I would love to do it again!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Dancing in the Dark

We're out in the field now. In BCT, "the field" meant sleeping in a tiny two-man tent, both ends exposed to the elements, sleeping on a thin bedroll. In AIT (or at least in Psyop AIT) they take a different approach. They told us we'll never do that in real life. Today we are in FOB Freedom (FOB means forward operating base). There, we sleep in "tents" that sleep about 16, have wooden floors, and a high-quality heater. We sleep on cots. A far cry from BCT! We're spending 3 days in the field, rotating in groups through varous training iterations.

Once the sun went down, we moved into our field classroom (a large tent that doubles as the mess hall). There, we received instruction in the use of Night Vision Goggles (NVG). It was great! Having watched so many action movies, I knew about what to expect. Still, it is fun to sit there in total darkness, put on a device, and be able to see. We had to take turns, so we got to mess with our friends who were not wearing NVG's at the time :-)

Every Saturday we have been learning LINES, a variant of Ju-Jitsu.

After NVG class we got to put that to practice in the dark. We got together in 2 man groups, and tried to take each other down. You much more feel than see what you are doing. It was great fun! Some of us (including me) got bumped up a bit, but you can't learn to fight if you don't fight. Is this really the Army? Somehow we had way too much fun.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Get Up That Rope, Private!

Yesterday we saw the Senior class - the class that's about 4 weeks ahead of us in training - return from an obstacle course. They were battered, bruised and exhausted. The rumor is a few ended up in the hospital as well. They did not return from just any obstacle course, they returned from Nasty Nick, the Special Forces obstacle course. Nasty Nick is known for being, well nasty. There are multi-story towers you can only get up by climbing thick ropes. You can only get down them by sliding over ropes, either balanced on your belly or hanging from arms and legs. Parts are supposed to require balancing on a narrow beam high above the ground, while others apparently involve mud and water.

Way back in High School I used to be able to climb up a rope - barely. That was half a lifetime ago for me.

Today is Sunday. At this point in our training, Sundays are somewhat regulated affairs. People who attend various religious services go in groups at the appointed times. Services start between 0830 and 1100 depending on the faith. I had an important conversation with the Company Chaplain that I will come back to in a later blog. Those not at a service are generally assigned to a work detail. The duty Drill Sergeant (there is only one on duty for both classes) supervises the work details. Today, DS Bergstadt was in charge of us. He's normally assigned to the Senior Class. He also happens to be crazy. In a good way, but crazy nevertheless. For example, he's known for rappelling down the outside of the barracks to pop in on students at night to try and catch them in the act of doing the wrong thing. One time when a student dumped a load of dust on his students heads, he... You'll have to stay tuned to find out what happened that time (the student doing the dumping was me!)

Today DS Bergstadt decided that it would be a waste of valuable training time to put us on work details. Instead, he took us over to a rope climbing facility and proceeded to instruct us in the fine art of hauling our rears 30' vertically up ropes. The technique he showed us was to wedge the rope between the top of one boot and sole of the other, while reaching up to grab the rope as high up as possible. Then you just hold tight (don't pull up with your arms) while bringing your knees up to your chest. Lock your feet to the rope again, and stand up. Repeat until you reach the top.

The result of this training was - I had no idea how I would be able to complete Nasty Nick. I could repeat the climbing procedure no more than twice, getting me about 5 feet up the rope, before my hand strength gave out. With just a few weeks to go, I was very worried about Nasty Nick. On the other hand, I could not wait for the challenge.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Driving, Army Style

After cleaning off all the mud from this morning's PT, we headed off to our classroom for an introduction to driving the HMMWV ("Hum-vie"). It was pretty slow for me (being an experienced driver with 4x4 / large vehicle experience), but necessary for some. Three people in the class do not have a civilian driver's license.

There was some valuable / unique information in the class, but it could have been conveyed in 15 minutes rather than 4 hours. Still, there was one bright spot: We learned that we would be driving HMMWV's at night, with night vision goggles. Cool! I can't wait.


Speaking of driving, one reader wrote in with a vehicle related issue. She is leasing a car from Honda, and wants to return it under the provisions of the SSCRA when she's activated for basic training and AIT (if you don't know what SSCRA is, and are in the military, or are considering joining, click that link! It's good stuff to know).

Honda refused to take the vehicle back, saying that since she's allowed to take it to the state she will be serving in, they are not obligated. As far as I understand, that does not matter! SSCRA says "The service member or the spouse must prove that the service member’s military obligations have materially affected his/her ability to pay on the [auto lease] debts. "

I was in a similar situation with Toyota, and they took the vehicle back with no hesitation at all. Guess what, once I got out of AIT, I went and got another Toyota.

I would be interested to hear from you about companies that have treated you well, or didn't treat you well, while you were serving our country.

Speaking of buying our Toyota, we got our new one for $884 under dealer invoice. My wife wrote up how to do that. It's easy. It just involves spending $12 with Consumer Reports, and knowing how to drive a hard bargain.

The writeup is at a website called WWWatcher. Pass it along to anyone you know who is in the market for a new car!

Gettin' Dirty

The morning started off ... not so well at all. It had rained the night before, the PT field was muddy. (Can you guess where this is going? :-) Somehow whatever we did, we were not fast enough, did not push hard enough, did not try hard enough. After stretching and several rounds of pushups and flutter kicks, the Drill Sergeants told us to run down a hill (to a point where we could no longer see them) and await instructions. They then called "Fall In!" (the command to get into formation). We sprinted as fast as we could, lined up into something vaguely resembling a formation (many would call it a gaggle), and then tried to straighten out into four uniform rows. After we failed miserably for a minute or so, one of the Drill Sergeants would yell out "Too slow! Back down the hill!". After about the fourth iteration, the Drill Sergeant stood so that we would have to stand in deep muddy puddles and called "Fall In!". I thought "sh*t, my socks are going to get wet." Somehow, in the back of my mind, I knew my socks were the least of my worries.

As our feet became wet, the Drill Sergeant called out "Front leaning rest position - Move!". You may recall from a previous blog that the "front leaning rest position" has nothing to do with resting. You get down on hands and feet, body straight, ready to perform the pushup. "Down!" called the Drill Sergeant. We moved down in unison. "Up!" was the next command we expected to hear, but it never came. Instead, we heard "All the way down!" There we were, face down in the puddle. "Roll to the left!", "Roll to the right!", "Roll to the left!", "More to the left!" (to make sure everyone ended up in the deep part of the puddle. "Up!"

After that, we did our final stretches, and were dismissed to go upstairs, shower, and get ready for our first day of HMMWV driving school. You might think that we would be upset, but the opposite was true. In the shower we all kept talking about how much fun it was to roll around in the mud - kind of like being a kid again.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Jedi Warrior

During Reception Battalion at Basic Training, you are issued "dog tags". The politically correct term these days is "ID tags", though most NCO's slip up and use the traditional term. Your dog tags include important information: Your name, social security number, blood type, and religious preference.

Today in formation, one Drill Sergeant told us an interesting story:

"Recruits, all of you have your religious preference on your dog tag. Me, my dog tag says 'Jedi' because I want to look down from above and watch that poor priest trying to figure out what the heck to do with me. He'll have to call up Skywalker Ranch for advice. He will have one heck of a time trying to figure out where to get a dozen Ewoks to dance around my funeral pyre!"

Interesting trivia: This Drill Sergeant's legs appear in the Jim Carrey film Dumb & Dumber. In the scene with the ski lift in the back, his legs are the bright green ones.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Waking up at the Crack of Dawn...

... would have been wonderful. Instead, our night ended at 0330. Today was our first APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test). Fort Bragg is not a training installation, and AIT is sometimes hard-pressed for facilities. The only field available for the test was only available until sunrise.

After getting up, we did some stretching and light warming up in the company area. The stretches go something like this.

Drill Sergeant: "The neck rotation!"
Students (chorus): "BAM!"
[we move quickly to the start position and start when the DS begins counting]

That continues through a series of movement exercises: the neck rotation, the hip rotation (looks like you're doing hula hoops without the hoops), and the knee rotation.

Then begins the stretching

Drill Sergeant: "The overhead arm pull!"
Students (chorus): "Lead the way, Drill Sergeant, lead the way!"
Drill Sergeant: "Ready... streeeetch!"

Perhaps you're wondering why I detail our stretching routine. There's a good story about that yet to come. Hang in there, you'll enjoy it!

I hit the PT field with a sore throat, but still managed to hold my pushup and situp scores (to the exact numbers) and had my best 2 mile run yet - 15:45. For you 18 year olds out there that's not a very good time, but for a 39 year old it's a decent score. It gave me about 72 points in that event (plus or minus a bit). You need 60 points in each event to pass AIT.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


This morning we were standing in formation, getting a briefing from the Drill Sergeants about what to expect from the class. At one point they told us about survival training. We learned that they will teach us how to kill and prepare chickens, so that if we're ever trapped behind enemy lines we can do it quietly without being discovered. One Drill Sergeant went into some detail about what it is like to kill a chicken, watching closely for students that show signs of being squirmish. I bet those are the ones that will be selected to demonstrate the kills :-)

At this point, a young recruit named McWillie enteres the story. He acts extremely overzealously, shouting out "Drill Sergeant yes Drill Sergeant!" and the like (normally you only see that in Full Metal Jacket these days). He shouts it in such a strange voice that you just know he's messing with the Drill Sergeants, but he has such a serious look on his face that no Drill Sergeant has called him on it.

The Drill Sergeant finished telling us about the chickens. A few of us were casually sucking down water from our Camelbaks. The DS asked if there are any questions. McWillie shot his hand up, and was promptly called on. He shouted out in his highly enthusiastic voice "Drill Sergeant, I don't want to kill chickens. I want to kill a BEAR!!!" Have the class spat out their water, and we all burst into laughter. The Drill Sergeant couldn't help himself - he started to laugh with us.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

This Place is Different

The very first night in Reception Battalion (the first week of Basic Combat Training), we were issued a plastic 2 quart canteen. It looked like the kind of thing they issued in WWII. In fact, I'm pretty sure mine was first issued in WWII.

When we left Reception Battalion for the meaty part of BCT, all of the Drill Sergeants wore a Camelbak, while we toted around our uncomfortable 2 quarts. The Drill Sergeants made a point to let us know that they were issued their Camelbaks, a privilege of graduating from Drill Sergeant School.

Today, at AIT, we were issued our basic gear. First we received a Blackhawk brand backpack. An omen, I thought. I hope to fly Blackhawk helicopters in the future. It's quite a nice backpack, rugged and comfortable to wear. That was to be our book bag for the classroom portion of AIT. It also came in handy for missions in the field. Then we were all issued - a Camelbak! As a civilian you might say "no big deal, I have a Camelbak, too". What you need to realize is that the military takes away pretty much all of your privileges when you enter basic training, then slowly restores them as you prove yourself. No one in any other AIT receives a Camelbak (as far as I know). It proved to be herald of things to come - Special Operations training is very well funded compared to other AIT's (and very well run as well).

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Displaced Civilians

I arrived at AIT the night before most of my fellow students. When we got up in the morning, a certain Drill Sergeant Barker gathered up the 6 of us who were already at AIT and showed us his standards for cleaning the common areas of the barracks, then gave us MRE's and sent us to relax outside. DS Barker' demeanor was much more Bill Cosby than Sgt. Carter. He seemed like a man who possesses calm authority - like a man who gets his way without ever raising his voice. This suspicion would prove to be true.

A MRE meal in Basic Training was punctuated with people trying to get the best possible trades with their peers, whining and complaining until someone trades away their Peanut M&M's for Cheese with Jalipenos (or until the meal was done, which usually happened first). My first breakfast at AIT was different. People were not trying to eat as much as they possibly could. In fact, many people shared their goodies with the other students, or just plain gave them away. It felt good to be with people who don't place themselves above all else. It showed in the way they shared their food, and would later show in the way they show dedication to the mission and to their battle buddies.

Then came the "shark attack" ... or so we thought. The bus with the rest of the class pulled up, drill sergeants began to gather with stern looks on their face. We tensed, suspecting that the DS's would tear into the class at any moment. What happened next was the first of many events that showed that Psychological Operations is different.

We placed our possessions down in formation, and were instructed to file through a tent to sign in. Then, friendly NCO's in full battle rattle started handing us water, while others walked next to us, asking us innoculous questions about where we're from, what our name is, introducing themselves by first name, and asking us if we have everything we need. It was ... surreal.

They walked us into an area that was enclosed with engineer tape (white cloth tape, about 3" wide). We clearly were being contained, but the "guards" were very friendly. Next we heard a HMMWV (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle - Hum-vie) fire up it's motor, and it rolled up a small hill into our view. Atop it was a powerful loudspeaker system. And then came ... The Laugh. Sergeant Bowers has a loud, overpowering, manical laugh worthy of a Hollywood movie. It is an incredible tool to demoralize the enemy. He would later show us a video of him sitting in a HMMWV in Fallujah as a 500lb bomb demolished a building in an airstrike his team had called in. In the instant of impact, The Laugh started up - demoralizing all enemy within earshot.

Each Instructor and Drill Sergeant was introduced in turn, then we were instructed to return to our gear. That's when all hell broke loose. We were given our room assignments, then given two minutes flat to get our gear upstairs and secured, then get back down in formation. There was the expected bottleneck at the doorway as everyone tried to get in first, then again in the stairs on the way up. I found my room (luckily it was very close to the stairway), and then promptly realized that I had no clue where I had packed my lock, and suspected it was at the very bottom of my duffle. Not paniced, but certainly concerned about the prospect of being singled out on Day One, I told my new roommate "Oh sh!t, I can't find my lock!". Calmly, the man who would prove to be one of the finest soldiers in AIT, pulled out a spare lock and slapped it on my locker, gave it a tug to make sure it was secure. That done, we raced down the stair together. A little stress situation like that gives you great insight into the character of a man. SPC Paul "Esca" Escajadillo put his battle buddy ahead of himself when he took a moment to help me secure my locker, and it would show again and again that he does the right thing, rather than what is convenient for him.

We ran back into formation, and stood at attention wondering what would happen next. It had certainly been more than two minutes by the time that the last soldiers returned. Would we be punished for taking too long? The next thing that happened was truely comical to me, in particular because my locker was secured. Clothes came pooring out of the windows! Shoes came flying down, BDU's floated a bit slower. The ground was soon littered with uniforms, socks and underwear. Then, DS Patterson - a short, athletic black woman - appeared at an upstairs window and announced in a voice that belies her short stature "Where is Private Hick*"? When the Private announced himself, she held up a magazine and asked "What the hell is this, Private Tits & Ass?" Now I could not find the exact cover, but start with this:

Remove a bunch of the clothing, and add paint splats all over the model. The Private was out of trouble when it was realized that he had a paintball magazine, but the nickname Private T&A stuck for the rest of the course.

Once the T&A incident was over, we acted as a team to gather up the scattered belongings of our battle buddies who had not secured their wall locker, and moved upstairs to get properly settled into our new quarters.

* Name changed to protect the innocent

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Calm Before the Storm

The bus ride up to Fort Bragg was uneventful and relaxing. I felt happy, mostly because I was able to spend around two hours on the phone with my fiancee before boarding the Grayhound. As the bus sped through the night, I could not help but wonder what AIT would be like. Many of the guys at Fort Jackson had friends who joined a bit earlier and had already moved on to AIT. We heard that it's pretty much a 9-6, Monday-Friday affair. We heard that they got their cell phones after the first week. We heard that "punishment" was doing 10 pushups, and then everyone could order pizza. We didn't hear wrong (as far as I know). BUT, none of these people were in AIT for Special Operations. That makes a world of difference, as I would discover.

I traveled with one other person, a female whose graduation date also got messed up. We arrived at Fort Bragg late at night. Upon checking in with the Drill Sergeant on duty, I found that I was assigned to a room with three other people. Gone were the 8 man bays of BCT. We each had our own bed, a nightstand, clock, dresser and chair. Something else was different, too - the people. If BCT was like an inner city high school, AIT was turning out to be much more like Freshman year at an ivy league school. I found I was not the only one to score a 99 on the ASVAB. In fact, there were several of us. I also was not the only one to receive a leadership award. The people around me were - sharp.

I fell asleep happy about my situation, and wondering what the next day would bring.

The Sweet Taste of Freedom

... tastes remarkably like peanut M&M's.

Today I woke up to a new world... one in which I'm no longer a Basic Training soldier. My AIT (Advanced Individual Training for Psychological Operations) starts a week before Basic Training Graduation, so the Army had no choice but to graduate me early.

After wakeup call, everyone else went down to begin the arduous task of cleaning all of our gear. It has to be turned in just as clean as we got it. I was different. I was shipping out today! Instead of joining the cleaning party, I packed up a few things and walked myself down to chow. A corporal then drove me over to Outprocessing, which took just a few minutes. I was given a Grayhound ticket to get me from Fort Jackson, South Carolina to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. That bus was set to depart at 1700 (that's 5PM for you civilians), and I had about 8 hours of time to fill.

My Class A uniform (the one that looks like a suit with lots of pins and ribbons on it) was still in the cleaners for pressing, so DS Annoyed drove me over to get it out. On that trip, when we were alone, he talked to me like he would to any other adult. It was almost surreal. He constantly hollers and tries to instill discipline, far more so than any other Drill Sergeant. There he was, talking to me like a colleague. Like a fellow soldier. He shared with me that he takes such a strong approach because he feels that soldiers who leave IET (Initial Entry Training = Basic + AIT) without discipline are at risk on the battlefield. I can't argue with that. Many people I saw in Basic are likely to do the wrong thing under pressure. It's widely believed among NCO's that I've met that Jessica Lynch and her unit got into such trouble (and many died) due to lack of discipline.

The laundry facility itself was truely impressive. It reminded me much more of a factory than of the cleaners on the corner. It was huge. There must have been thousands and thousands of uniforms there, being cleaned, pressed, repaired, taken in or taken out.

Class A's in hand, DS Annoyed said I'm officially done with BCT. I asked him if I could walk myself to the PX (kind of like a mall with a Walmart). He thought for a moment, then said "you're officially en route to Ft. Bragg, so you can go where you want".

What a strange feeling. No one looking over my shoulder, free to go where I want at my own pace. Free to eat whatever I want! MRE's come with a piece of candy or a cookie. Back in the day when we were still allowed to eat that treat (before a few girls were caught eating the chicklet-sized rubber - uh, gum - that comes with them), I always hoped to get the Peanut M&M's, but never did. Now, cash in hand, I walked up to the PX and bought some. Oh, boy. Free at last. Free to... eat Peanut M&M's. Freedom never tasted so sweet (and crunchy).

Returning to the barracks to say final farewells, I could not resist the temptation to slide a bit of forbidden fruit under a few friends pillows. I hope they enjoyed it!

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Board

Alpha Company is made up of four Platoons: Nightbreed, Death Row, Wolverines, and of course my platoon, the Undertakers. Each platoon is led by it's own Drill Sergeant team. Drill Sergeants are selected from the top 10% of Army NCO's. As such, they are very competitive.

One event is very important to them: the Leader of the Cycle Award. Each platoon's senior Drill Sergeant selects one soldier to represent the Platoon, and sends that soldier to a Leadership Board. That Board consists if the First Sergeant (the most senior NCO in the Company) and the four senior DS's (one from each Platoon).

I was the soldier selected to represent the Undertakers.

The Board is a formal process. The soldier reports to the President of the Board (in this case the First Sergeant). Then drill movements are presented (left face, right face, about face, rightstep march, and so on). After that, each Board member asks the soldier two questions pertaining to things we have learned at Basic Training. The Drill Sergeants from other Platoons try to trip you up and test your confidence. For example, after giving a correct answer they will give you a stern, disapproving look and ask if you're serious about your answer. Stick to your guns. That's what they want to see.

Two of the other soldiers weren't really competitors. They only started seriously studying the day before the Board. My Drill Sergeant gave me a week's warning, and I had been studying throughout the entire Basic Training course anyhow. One other soldier, however, was outstanding competition. He is focused on getting into Special Forces (through a program known as the Q-course), and comes from a long line of soldiers. He was good, but not good enough. I won the competition, earning the Leader of the Cycle distinction.

Monday, October 10, 2005

PG Again

Today, I became PG (Platoon Guide) again. The previous PG, Private Watts, was doing the job well. DS Annoyed has been drifting between platoons the last week or so as the company struggles to figure out how to best assign personnel, and he was watching over us today. There was some miscommunication, and DS Annoyed ended up yelling at a group of people who were just doing what they had been told to do. Rather than apologize for his mistake, or even just let it go, he decided to fire the PG and put me in his place. It was an unwarranted move, but I have the job again nonetheless. I did discuss the incident with the Platoon’s Senior Drill Sergeant, with whom I have an excellent rapport, and we quietly agreed that I could choose my successor when I ship out early to AIT, and that I will choose Watts. He is an excellent leader, and deserves to lead the Platoon across the parade field at graduation. Now that I have the job, I will do it to the best of my abilities.

Friday, October 07, 2005

One Hell of a Day

We moved out to the field today for Victory Forge, our final FTX (Field Training Exercise). Victory Forge brings together all of the soldering skills we have been taught as we apply them to lifelike training scenarios.

The first day in the field is a day to setup things, get squared away, and prepare for the start of the scenarios the following day. I volunteered for a work detail that was finishing up one of the training areas – a vehicle checkpoint. Much had been already built, but there were many sandbags to be filled, which had to be placed to make fighting positions, and hundreds of meters of Constantine wire (similar to barbed wire) to be laid. Putting down the Constantine wire involved pounding large metal stakes into the ground, and then unrolling large spools of the wire between the stakes. A spool of Constantine wire looks like a large Slinky (about 4’ across) with razor-sharp protrusions along the entire length. The wire then needs to be fastened to the stakes. Three spools of wire are used for each segment: Two on the ground next to each other, to make the obstacle wide, and a third role on top of the first two, to make the obstacle high. Finally, barbed wire is laid over the top of the Constantine wire to hold everything together firmly.

The job would not take very long with many people working on it. However, to work with Constantine wire, you need to wear special, heavy-duty work gloves. Unfortunately, they were in very short supply. Most people on the work crew finished up about 9PM. Six were selected to stay on to finish the work requiring gloves. Tall people are needed so, lucky me, I was one of the six. Once the work force diminished from 40 people down to 6, the pace slowed as well. Add to that the fact that we had all been working for 12 hours already, and it started taking a long time to get things done. To top it off, about midnight thunderstorms started moving in, and we had to pause the work repeatedly as heavy rain burst forth from dark clouds overhead.

Apparently, the First Sergeant promised the Company Commander that the work would be done in time for training the next day. If we had not finished everything to standard, there would not have been any real impact on training. Still, the First Sergeant said the work had to be done, so we had to get it done. He did stay out there, with us, until we finally finished – at 4:30am! Weary, we returned to our encampment and laid our heads down to rest. A good hour after finally falling into a deep, satisfying sleep, I heard a deep voice boom “Soldier, why are you still asleep?!” Used to little sleep, I instantly became awake enough to say, “I was on a work detail that got off at 4:30am.” Now, some details begin in the early a.m. hours and last only a few hours, so DS McMillan, who turned out to be the one standing over me, asked “and when did this detail start?” When I responded “at 9am the previous day” he said in a deep, friendly voice “Get some sleep, soldier!” I drifted off into pleasant dreams until I awoke on my own some four hours later.

Even though it was one hell of a day, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was quite an experience working in a team, completing a must-do task against a deadline, using brand-new skills. I have done that kind of thing countless times in my software development career, but it was a different kind of experience building something like that with my hands and surveying the work when it was done.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Push, Sit, Run!

Today was the final PT test. To graduate from BCT, you need to score at least 50 points in each of three events: The pushup, the sit-up, and the two-mile run. The actual numbers you need to get depend on your age. Being 39, my Drill Sergeants joke that all I have to do is show up breathing to pass the test. Just passing, though, is not my goal. I want to excel.

Unfortunately we have been able to do very little PT (physical training) the past few weeks. Much of what we did do is tailored to help those who are having trouble meeting minimums just barely squeak by without hurting themselves. This is not just my opinion: many Drill Sergeants complain about the new PT system they are required to implement. Still, I was able to improve upon my practice tests. I did want to break 16 minutes for my two-mile run and fell short by 6 seconds, but got respectable scores of 72 points on my pushups, and 80 points on each of sit-ups and the two-mile run. I still have a lot to improve before I finish AIT (my goal is to finish with at least 90 points in each event).

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Omaha Beach

We have been in “buddy teams” for all of BCT. The idea is to get you used to always being with at least one other person when in a combat zone. You train like you fight. A secondary reason is to combat abuses of trainees at the hands of Drill Sergeants; a problem that plagued military services since their inception, but now seems to be largely in check. Generally it did not matter what kind of buddy you ended up with. Today, that changed. Today, we went to the Omaha Beach Buddy Team Live Fire Range. That means that both team members are moving down a firing lane at the same time, shooting live rounds at targets that appear. Each lane was about 20 meters (60’) wide, with cover such as a beat-up car, pile of tires, sand bags, etc. every 5 meters or so. Overall, the lane was approximately 200 meters long. The team members took turns advancing toward an “enemy emplacement” at the end of the lane. While one moved, the other provided cover fire. The last thing you want on this range is a partner who is careless with his weapon – one that does not exhibit muzzle discipline, in Army lingo. My partner turned out to be quite a reliable person. We moved down our lane, covering each other as we moved, and reached the final obstacle. At that point, we had to toss a practice hand grenade through a window about 15 meters away. I was one of only two people that actually got the grenade through the window that day.
It was an interesting and fun day, but like the hand grenade range, hopefully a skill I will never need to employ. Then again, it’s better to be trained for the unexpected than to be unprepared when the unexpected happens.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


We have been practicing for a week or so, off and on: “Proper grip, thumb to clip, pull the pin, throw that shit!” Hand grenades. Today’s the day to throw live ones at the range, and to qualify with grenades as a weapon. This is the one class where safety is taken the most seriously (though safety is a key element of everything they do). Drill Sergeants are no longer allowed to teach the class. Instead they have designated instructors who do nothing else, week after week. Some of the people who go through BCT are, well, not the best candidates to throw a softball, let alone a live hand grenade. To reduce the risk to students and instructors, training goes trough multiple stages. At first, we have to throw practice grenades, but going through all the motions as if we’re throwing the real deal. If you can’t toss the grenade at least 5 meters (we duck behind a concrete wall!), you get a CW chalked on your Kevlar helmet. CW stands for Chicken Wing, and means that the instructor you throw the live grenade with has to pay extra-special-attention. On the other hand, if you violate any safety rule (such as not ducking behind the wall after throwing the grenade, a slash is chalked on the Kevlar. Slashes are sent to retraining in a separate lane. After that, they are sent back to try again. Another safety violation changes the slash mark into an X, and the student is banned from the range and must return a different day, potentially causing a late graduation. We had two X’s in the company.

Throwing the actual grenade is pretty anti-climatic. I was a bit nervous, but with all the practice beforehand, I knew exactly what to do and went through the motions instinctively. Duck… wait… boom! Get the second grenade… duck… wait… boom! Done.

It was certainly quite an experience to throw live hand grenades, but it’s a skill I will hopefully never need to use.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


With DS Annoyed reassigned to a different platoon, we got a new DS today – DS McMillan. He’s one interesting character, and a great Drill Sergeant. He’s very tough when the situation calls for it, but he can turn around and motivate you to do your very best. He brings a great deal of energy and experience to the job. He has a very direct approach. Some other DS’s like him, while some others really seem to have a problem with his style. Pretty much all of the soldiers in my platoon like him, except for the ones that continually do the wrong thing – he’s very hard on them, but always tries to tailor punishment to promote learning and behavioral change.

One thing that particularly stands out with him is the cadences he sings. Cadences are the songs that are sung while marching soldiers. Some of them are very creative. Some can’t be sung anymore (at least not within earshot of officers), but those tend to be very funny. Darn PC is everywhere these days… DS McMillan is very musical, and very motivated, and that combination gets the whole platoon fired up. We turn heads around the Battalion when he marches us by.

We learned many cadences at BCT. Just one example follows (it is one that makes sense without knowing the music, but the music makes it all the better).

Around her neck…she wore a yellow ribbon.
She wore a yellow ribbon… in the merry month of May.
And if you asked her… why she wore that ribbon.
She wore it for the soldier who was far, far away.

Around the park… she pushed a baby carriage.
She pushed a baby carriage… in the merry month of May.
And if you asked her… why she pushed that carriage.
She pushed it for the soldier who was far, far away.

Behind his door… her daddy kept a shotgun.
He kept his shotgun… in the merry month of May.
And if you asked him… why he kept a shotgun.He kept it for the soldier who was far, far away.

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