Nineteen years ago a somewhat bratty former figure skater and former sorority girl left for Army basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. She signed up for the Army a few short weeks before September 11, 2001 and was worried her loan repayment plan may turn into a little more than she bargained for. She was excited though to take her first steps out into the world on her own and especially to see Europe. She was very naive, and wasn’t really giving much thought into what this commitment might entail. She was young, she didn’t work out, she didn’t know what she was getting into and she really didn’t have a love of authority.
She nearly missed her connecting flight to St. Louis because she was drinking El Presidente margaritas – as in the gate doors had to be reopened for her. When she arrived at basic, she was first yelled at for saying “bless you” when someone sneezed. The thought that you got yelled at for being polite, something she had always been yelled at to be was initially very confusing. Throughout the experience she would get yelled at for smiling too much, but she learned not to mind it. One of her first meals she couldn’t quite recognize whether it was Mexican or Chinese food, so she didn’t touch it. They yelled some more. She learned she could do so much more than she thought she could.
During my recent deployment to Afghanistan, one of my close college friends sent me some hilarious letters I wrote to her during basic training. If I had to guess I wrote them in church or when I was supposed to shine my boots. They are a bit garbled and written as quickly as my hands could scribble the words. It was hard trying to explain what I was doing, though not really unique experiences, I felt like my college friends couldn’t begin to imagine this chapter in my life.
Well, I made it through the two road marches (10k & 15k -that’s kilometers) and the Field Training Exercise (FTX). FTX sucked ass! The only good thing I can say is that it didn’t snow. We marched the “10k,” really a 13k to the field (and left about 2:30am) carrying probably 60 pounds in our rucksack (backpack), rifle, canteens, gas mask and heavy clothes. We got “there” and had to dig fox holes in the mud and set up a barricade of sticks and leaves to hide behind. Then we set up our tents. That night we marched around checking security (there wasn’t even a moon). During the march, the Drill Sergeants threw a CS gas grenade at us. We had to stay in our foxhole till 2am — of course we got gassed more, they shot off flares and we shot blanks. I of course wanted no part of the war games and fell asleep (by accident) in my foxhole with my gas mask on, sleeping on my M16. At 4:15am we got woken up. Gotta love sleep?! Slept in a tiny-ass tent with another person — not a hot guy. It was like -10 degrees with windchill. The next early, early morning we took the camp apart, shot off the rest of our blanks. Then we took our 15k march to another range — where we crawled under barbed wire, with live rounds shot way over our heads, tracer rounds, flares and of course too dramatic music from Saving Private Ryan. Only problem was crawling on elbows and knees on rocks!
It’s a world I don’t miss, but I’m glad to have grown so much in those five years and wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything. Every veteran has unique experiences, but they are all amazing and deserve to be remembered and celebrated on Veteran’s Day.