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Dad’s story: Training gets real

Submitted by on Wednesday, 22 April 2009 7 Comments
A 41-year-old takes on Army Basic Combat Training. Third in a four-part series.

Your goal is to leave basic training without the drill sergeant knowing your name, a friend advised Dad around Christmas.

At graduation, you want the drill sergeant to look at you quizzically and ask, "Were you in my platoon?" the friend said.

When you're 5-foot something and topping 200 pounds, though, there's no where to hide, Dad quickly discovered.

"I see we have a pregnant one here," the drill sergeant glowered. "Extra-large uniform for this guy."

I added to Dad's inability to keep a low profile by screwing up the platoon nickname on the back of envelope for two weeks. Every time one arrived with the wrong words - and we wrote daily - it cost Dad push-ups or sit-ups.

The drill sergeant forgot to check one day until another solider reminded him.

"What'd you do that for?" Dad asked later.

"I'm just trying to help you pass PT, man," came the response.

The letters gave him a lot of help. The guys loved making cards and writing their own letters to add to my "Daily Report," which I'd set up in a desktop publishing program. Nice to see my newspaper design skills still are of use.

Problem was, five to 10 pieces of paper - sometimes with Foamie projects as well - required extra postage. And extra postage also required extra push-ups and sit-ups.

"What do you think Daddy's doing?" Big Guy asked one day after we'd skipped home from the mailbox singing the "Blue's Clues" "Mail Time" song.

"Same thing you just did," I said. "He has to sing 'Mail Time' every time he gets a letter."

Like anything in basic training, the letters also were used against him.

One day, the drill sergeant waved The Daily Report in front of Dad's face, then applied tape to the papers and tossed them in the air.

They stuck on the ceiling above "the kill zone," the gruesomely painted swath that made up most of the barracks floor save for thin aisles in front of the bunks. The swath where soldiers learned not to tread the first time a rabid drill sergeant barked at them for crossing into the forbidden territory.

Someone found a long pole and eventually the platoon was able to fish The Daily Report off the ceiling. It wasn't all selfless concern for a comrade - the other soldiers also liked reading the NBA standings from the sports section of the report.

"What do you think Daddy's doing now?" Big Guy asked as he hung from the monkey bars at the park one day. "Is he doing push ups? Is he running?"

"Probably," I said. "He exercises a lot."

"Is he going to lose his big belly?"

"I'm sure he will."

Dad quickly found out that the MREs were just as awful as my brother had described. He also discovered that the folklore about $30 cookies was an understatement. A "fun size" bag of M&Ms could easily go for $40 or more. Dad doesn't like sweets, and in theory someone like that could do quite well in the basic-training black market.

Even when he wasn't out on missions, he bypassed pancakes and waffles at breakfast and opted for Total and a banana. "I've worked too hard to get this weight off," he said.

The running came along quickly. Dad's always been fast and could outsprint the recruiters even with the prenatal paunch he had when he left. His time on the two-mile, though, was in excess of 21 minutes. Passing is 19:30 for his age group.

He still was about a minute slow during his first physical training test of boot camp. By the second test four weeks into training, he passed. Today, he ran the two-mile in 15 minutes and did 64 pushups - levels that are better than passing for 17- to 21-year-olds.

But physical training was only part of the physical requirements. In many ways, they were the easier part.

"I knew it was going to be hard," Dad said last weekend. "But if I'd known what all it involved before I left, I never could have done it."

But because he didn't know, fear of the unknown couldn't take over and he kept pressing on.

First came marksmanship.

He'd never picked up a gun in his life and cringed at the shotgun over the fireplace at my parents' house. "You sure that's safe?" he'd ask.

His first call home after basic training started was a stunner. "I love shooting!" He'd learned to take apart and reassemble his M16 in 10 minutes. He'd also learned never to go anywhere without it. One solider who did was forced to lug a 15-foot wooden gun around as a reminder.

He qualified easily during week five and was annoyed with himself because he missed sharpshooter by one shot.

Next came map reading and navigation. I chuckled at the thoughts of the man who tossed aside my little Mapquest printouts being forced to find his way out of the forest using a map. I also remembered stories of soldiers lost at Fort Bragg when I worked near there and worried a bit.

He didn't get to call that week, but I never heard any reports of American trainees floating ashore at Cuba, so I figured he was OK.

There were things he didn't talk about much either because he didn't get to call or because he just didn't want to relive them. The gas chamber, for example.

"Wonder what Daddy's doing now? Do you think he's jumping out of helicopters?" Big Guy asked.

"No, but he was jumping off structures yesterday. Tall structures. Taller than the house next door, even," I said.

It was Pinocchio-proof true - Dad actually was rappelling 50 feet rather than jumping, but it was close enough for a 5-year-old. Dad - the man so hesitant about heights he's not wild about tall buildings - was breathless as he described it.

He feared throwing live grenades. When he talked about it later, though, the words tumbled rapidly out of his mouth as he relived the experience.

He hated the 100-pound ruck sack - and at age 42 by the end of training, it did take a toll on his back. But he was jazzed that he'd done it.

He'd dreaded Victory Forge for weeks - a week in the field that started with a 10k march, followed by night missions against "enemy combatants" and capped by a 15k march.

"I did it, baby," he said. "I finished. I'm going to graduate!"

It was an off-schedule call - he'd actually had the nerve to approach the snarling drill sergeant and ask permission, because it was my birthday.

It was the first year he'd ever remembered my birthday. It also was the best gift I'd ever received.

"Mommy, how are we going to know which one's our daddy if he's balded and doesn't have his big belly?" Big Guy asked. "How will we know what he looks like."

Good question, Big Guy. We'll have to figure that out when we get there.

Next: Graduation. Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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7 Comments »

  • Marc said:

    Man, I so don’t miss that. And I was 18.

    So did he join like the real Army… like 3-4 years active and 3-4 reserve (or whatever they enlist for these days) or is this a Reserve or National Guard thing? (Tho these days there’s not really much of a distinction)

  • Debra said:

    Regular Army – 3 1/2 active, 3 1/2 reserves. Though you’re right: These days you’re just as deployed no matter your status.

  • Leslie K. said:

    Debra, I smell a screenplay….

  • Debra said:

    I’ll wait until after you finish your screenplay, Leslie. We both don’t want to premiere at the same time. :)

    Seriously, even I will concede this one of the most amazing things I’ve had the privilege to witness in my life. I covered plenty of amazing stories, astounding turnaround,s in 20 years in journalism but short of gang bangers gone good, I’ve seen few transformations as complete as this one. We’re right proud of Dad.

  • Beth said:

    Wow, Deb–Awesome story!

    Good for “Dad”–what an accomplishment! Can’t wait to read the graduation story.

    Oh, and Happy Late Birthday!

    Beth

  • MtnMom said:

    GASP! You had a birthday?!?! Sorry I missed it! Went to The South and lost all track of time and how it relates to reality! Happy Birthday and thanks for this series. In a world where males get bashed all the time, a success story is refreshing!

    Wishing you all well! – MtnMom

  • Debra said:

    Thanks, Beth and Mountain Mom. Honestly, Mountain Mom, I would have just as soon overlooked the birthday myself except the guys wouldn’t let me. They know it’s only a week after Dad’s, so I can’t slip it past them. Big Guy made me bake a cake that he helped decorate. I wish I had the pictures, but they’re on the other computer. He did OK for a 5-year-old.

    Yes, the transformation and the accomplishment have been amazing. I bet he’ll even keep his socks picked up off the floor now, because he’ll hear a drill sergeant bark every time he sees them on the floor. :)