Military Stories #07

Basic training was exactly just that. It was eight weeks of the training necessary to turn a civilian into a soldier. Eight weeks of hard PT to build strength and physical stamina, eight weeks of drilling Army procedure and the basic rules of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It was a shock to find out that several rights guaranteed by the constitution were no longer available. Eight weeks of the Army tearing down and then building you up into a lean mean fighting machine.

It was just a little problem that not everybody got on board at the same time. There began to be grumbling in the ranks. Random talk about jumping the wire and disguising yourself in order to make it to the highway. The most significant problem was the haircut. At other times a close cropped skull would not draw attention, today there is complete freedom to have long or short hair. But this was 1970 and just two years previously one of the more popular musicals was “Hair” with verses extolling the abundance of long hair, and growing it as long as possible. It’s true that not all young men had pony-tails, but nearly all had hair that they could comb. Wandering around in the world with a “skin-head” meant that you were either a convict, crazy person, or a soldier. And if you were announced as missing, the authorities certainly knew where to find you.

The most serious plans included wearing a wig and beat up shoes. Later on, after basic training, it was the lack of hair and the boots or army dress shoes that gave it away, were were soldiers on leave. Very detailed plans that rivaled moments of “the Great Escape” we’re being hatched late in the night. In retrospect it probably would have been easier to pretend to be a graduating soldier in full dress uniform. Who was going to stop you and ask for papers? You could probably get to the airport and fly anywhere you wanted. I think part of the attraction of the “breakout” plans was the drama of the whole thing.

It was at this point where the training got serious, they marched us to a large hanger where several companies could squeeze into the space and watch a demonstration. One of the real benefits of being a platoon guide or squad leader was that you were always available as demonstrators. I fired anti-tank recoil less rifles, LAW anti-tank missiles, 50 caliber machine guns and even .45 caliber pistols. Of course I was also throw in judo moves and had knife attacks from the rear.

This time the platoon next to us volunteered their squad leaders as “prisoners of war”. They were told not to reveal anything but their name, rank, and identification number. Each one was brought before three drill sergeants, and questioned before the entire gathering. Bright lights kept them from seeing the audience or even the drill sergeants. After not responding to the slaps and shoves, the squad leaders were told to strip to their skivvies, then they were tied to several vertical racks. 

Picking out the strongest and most hard core squad leader was an easy task. Everyone in the audience knew that it was the first squad leader that was following the procedures of not talking. One of the drill sergeants produced a long wand from a box on the floor. When he pulled the trigger there was a blue spark and the smell of ozone. I believe it was an electric cattle prod.

Everyone’s eyes widened quite a bit. Certainly this was torture, and we weren’t going to torture our own men for the sake of training? Apparently the answer was yes. At first there were just jabs to the legs, shoulders and thighs. The squad leader held up and volunteered very little. The drill sergeants began asking more personal questions and the squad leader started answering them because he felt the answers couldn’t hurt, they certainly hurt far less then the electric shocks. The setting on the wand wasn’t even tazor level shocks. Then the drill sergeants started asking, unit strength questions, deployment questions, questions that the enemy would certainly want to know. The squad leader was mute to these questions until the cattle prod slipped under the waist band of his Army shorts. Then the squad leader broken down and told them everything that he knew.

The training was that if you were captured, you will eventual spill your guts. That was a given and you shouldn’t be ashamed. Your job was to delay this as long as possible. I looked at the of the squad leader and I saw the look of a broken man. I don’t know what happened to him later, but I thanked God that my platoon wasn’t selected for the demo, and that I wasn’t on that stage in my underwear. I also noticed that the late night discussions of going AWOL tapered off after that day. The Army was not rolling around, and took this job seriously, and so should the “boots”.
This did not mean that we saw the light and became soldiers. It was only that we resigned to becoming “prisoners” of the system. We obeyed orders, we formed lines, we waited for hours at different locations, and we didn’t complain. Resignation is a sad thing to witness, and even sadder to experience. All this was four to five weeks into the training.