Tales from Basic Training: Roster Number 144 speaks

As regular readers know, I spent a few years in the late 90s as an infantryman in the U.S. Army. The experience in many ways molded me into the person I am today, and for that I will always be grateful.

To give you a better idea of what Basic Training was like in the 90’s, I’ve decided to post an excerpt from my memoirs. They were written when I was 21 years old. I am now 34. Basic Training has changed a lot since 1997, but hopefully you’ll find my experience educational and, perhaps, entertaining.

“Douglas Ernst” goes to Basic Training and becomes “Roster #144”:

The lights were turned off and Drill Sergeant Piper exited the room. A red hue poked out from underneath a few bunks. Writing letters was the last thing on my mind. My first official day of basic training, a dizzying blur of agitated authority figures armed with extremely durable vocal cords, had gone rather smoothly.

“Is this what my life will be like for the next three years?” I thought.

I sat and listened as an intricate symphony worked its way through the darkness and into my ears. Roster number 299 was already fast asleep and snoring in the exaggerated manner of a Saturday morning cartoon. If I listened hard enough I was able to make out young men crying into their pillow — probably some of them high-school football standouts. Long drawn-out sobs, short rhythmic sniffles, and a variety of other cries filled the air. There weren’t many, but they were definitely there. God only knows how many others were internally wrestling with their tear ducts. Somewhere shortly after thoughts of my older brother’s experience at West Point and how good a glass of Gatorade would have gone about then, I fell asleep.

“Will you shut the fuck up! Fucking crybabies! I don’t need to hear that shit now!” somebody yelled into the night, waking me up. The multiple “smoke sessions” we had during the night were pushing (literally) a few people to the breaking point. I laughed hard into my pillow. I wished I had the guts to say it first, but only for a fraction of a second — one of the Drill Sergeants had heard the noise.

“Damn it,” was my last thought before the onslaught began.

“What the fuck is going on in there? Oh, you wanna talk in my barracks? You must want some push-ups. I see. Just get down! Oh, you don’t want to say ‘at ease’? All right, I got a joke for that ass.”

The lights were flicked on and I didn’t have time for my eyes to adjust to the light before noticing everyone doing push-ups. I looked down at my watch. It was 4:00 a.m.

“Who gets up at 4:00 a.m.?” I thought. “And how the hell am I supposed to yell ‘at ease’ while I’m half asleep?” I didn’t understand, but I figured I better start doing push-ups like everyone else.

Drill Sergeant Piper paced the length of the room. When he wasn’t looking, some people decided to lie on their stomachs, a futile attempt to save energy. Whether or not one cheated mattered little. Before he was done with us, every ounce of energy would be converted into a puddle of sweat and left to evaporate on the barracks floor.

He slithered across the room like a king cobra set loose in a chicken coop. He darted between bunks and around corners, and before long the stomach-slackers were brought to justice. Their beds were torn apart and they were instructed to continue with their exercise in the middle of the aisle.

A flustered fat kid to my right lay sprawled out on the tile floor. He had given up on push-ups with the short-breathed exclamation, “Muscle … failure.” For a moment he caressed the cracks in the floor with his fingertips. A mantra of “Cold, cold floor. Cold, cold floor” dribbled off his lips. I briefly cracked a smile, and the muscle contractions I was experiencing weren’t due to oxygen starved muscles ready to burst at the seams, but laughter.

“You think this is funny, funny man?” said the Drill Sergeant. “That’s good, because I got a bag a jokes for that ass! Keep pushing!”

My smile returned to its original, more “drill-sergeant-friendly” grimace, and I resumed the exercise. At this time two more Drill Sergeants shot through the door and into the fray. Drill Sergeant Piper was free to turn his undivided attention toward the mysterious mantra-boy beneath him.

“What on God’s green Earth is going on here, Private? What’s your name?”

The heavy kid shook free of his altered state and looked up. A black strand of sewing thread and a piece of lint stuck to his moistened cheeks. Again, I turned my head and smiled. The lactic acid was stockpiling within the cell walls of my chest quickly, and the energy used to muster a smile was better suited someplace else. I bit my lip and focused on locking my arms. A full push-up was now definitely out of the question, but I’d be left alone as long as I gave the impression I was trying to hold myself up.

“Roster number 138. Private Duke,” said the soldier in a Southern draw.

“Where you from Private?” said the instructor. “You a Southern boy? Down with Dixie and shit?”

“North Carolina, Drill Sergeant.”

“Figures,” said drill Sergeant Piper. “All you Southerners are dumb as a box a rocks. I knew it.”

“Yes Drill Sergeant.”

“Shut the fuck up! You take the little yellow bus to school or something? I didn’t ask you to talk. Damn.”

I couldn’t take it. The “little yellow bus” remark sent me reeling. An insult on that level was completely unexpected. For four years I had waited for an outburst like that from one of my high school educators, but to no avail. There must be a finite number of times high school history teachers could deal with students still lacking our 16th president’s name from their memory bank before snapping. I had probably just missed the occasion.

Unfortunately, my sudden outburst of giggles soon had me gasping for breath at the hands of a disgruntled instructor. Drill Sergeant Piper left Private Duke and ordered him to commence with “the side straddle hop,” known to the rest of the civilized world as ‘jumping jacks,’ before directing his wrath in my direction.

“Funny man again?” hissed the Drill Sergeant. “Wrong answer, Private. That’s a ‘no-go.’ I gave you a chance and you blew it. And I never give second chances. Wrong motha-fucking answer. Now let’s see what I got in my bag of tricks. Roster number…”

“144, Drill Sergeant.”

“Roster number 144, when I say ‘front’ you will perform the push-up. When I say ‘back’ you will immediately flip over and begin knocking out sit-ups.”

“Yes Drill Sergeant.”

Drill sergeant Piper hurled my bed to the right, almost taking off roster number 145’s head in the process. I glanced at the nearly decapitated soldier for a brief second before experiencing what was, at the time, hell-on-earth.

“Front!”

I didn’t plant both my hands before a succession of orders spewed from Drill Sergeant Piper’s mouth.

“Back! Front! Back! Front! Back!”

I looked like an exotic insect performing a mating ritual for his camouflaged counter part—or a break-dancer on crack.

“Front! Back! Front! Back!”

I gasped for breath and caught a dizzying glance of my fellow soldiers. The scuff marks my combat boots were leaving behind as muscle failure set in were unavoidable. I should not have left them on after a previous smoke session. Within minutes I had somehow managed to trap myself within a circular shoe-polish enclosure. My comrades didn’t look happy. The amount of time we’d have to rid the floor of the black blemishes would be miniscule, and our inability to do so would more than likely end up in another feeding frenzy of Drill Sergeants.

“Front! Back! Front! Back! What’s wrong funny man? You’re slowing up! You ain’t laughing now! Laugh, funny man! Laugh!”

Needless to say, I never laughed. I didn’t cry either. I was probably just too tired. Crying would’ve involved stomach muscles to contract and expand with my sobs, which meant feeling the after-effects of our pre-dawn smoke session. Crying involved wiping away tears, which meant raising my arms. I had a hard enough time wiping my butt after a bowel movement, let alone having to deal with tears. My muscles were just too sore. Any amount of quiet time I gained wasn’t going to be spent wallowing in misery. It was going to be spent sleeping.

Late that night I was finally “ordered” to sleep. I contemplated the effects my hair-trigger laughing attacks had spawned earlier that morning. I decided that I’d have to work on my self-control if I were to have any chance of making it out of basic training alive. If the Drill Sergeants didn’t kill me for the constant schoolgirl tittering, my fellow soldiers would.

For a moment the thought struck me that Private Duke might seek retribution for mocking his “Cold, cold floor” mantra, and I tensed. Instead of peering through the darkness for my would-be attacker I drifted off into deep sleep filled with nightmares. I woke up the next day with the realization I wasn’t going to have sexual dreams involving Sports Illustrated swimsuit models for at a long, long, time.

Sometimes I think back on this period of time and wish I could go back there, if only for a few days. If I ever met Drill Sergeant Piper again there’s really only one thing I’d want to say to him: “Thanks.”

Basic Training Cured My ADD. Too Bad Drill Sergeants Don’t Come In Pill Form.

I wasn't given a prescription for Basic Training by a doctor (Drill Sergeants don't come in pill form), but it cured my so-called ADD. Who knew.

When I was a kid my mom wondered aloud whether or not I had ADD. She mentioned that some of my teachers thought the same thing. Although I was never placed on Ritalin, it was at that time that I was introduced to the word. Years later I was assigned to report to Fort Benning, GA for Basic Training. In a matter of weeks my “ADD” was cured! All it took was a Drill Sergeant and the life of an infantryman to sweat the ADD out of me. No drugs necessary. It turns out I was just a kid with a lot of energy, who also happened to be a bit of a joker. Nothing a few thousand push-ups, mud and cold couldn’t cure. It’s because of my own experience that I can’t help but be skeptical about many of the 3 million American kids who take drugs to “focus” each year. L. Alan Sroufe, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, is on the same wavelength:

Attention-deficit drugs increase concentration in the short term, which is why they work so well for college students cramming for exams. But when given to children over long periods of time, they neither improve school achievement nor reduce behavior problems. The drugs can also have serious side effects…

Sadly, few physicians and parents seem to be aware of what we have been learning about the lack of effectiveness of these drugs.

What gets publicized are short-term results and studies on brain differences among children. Indeed, there are a number of incontrovertible facts that seem at first glance to support medication. It is because of this partial foundation in reality that the problem with the current approach to treating children has been so difficult to see.

While I don’t subscribe to the Tom Cruise wing of the anti-drug alliance, it seems like the knee jerk reaction in the United States is to pump someone up with drugs the moment there is a problem. It’s hard work to get to the root of a problem, but it’s rather easy to find a doctor who will scribble some words on a piece of paper so you can feel better before the week is out. But no one really asks if you actually ARE better.

Over the past few years I had a job that was rather stressful. It was rewarding work, but the pay wasn’t great and the demands for excellence were high. I had trouble paying my bills (DC is an expensive city, and I racked up a lot of debt in the form of student loans). I was in a long distance relationship. I started having weird heart palpitations in the middle of the day. I couldn’t sleep. I thought I was going to have a heart attack, even though I’m a healthy male who doesn’t drink or smoke—and I exercise regularly. I talked with a number of people, all of whom cared deeply for me and wanted me to do what was in my best interest. Almost all of them indicated that I might need to resort to some sort of drugs to handle my anxiety. These trusted friends also indicated that if I saw some of the doctors they recommended (again, out of concern for my health), that I would most likely end up getting a prescription of some kind.

I determined that the financial, professional, and romantic pressures coming at me from all sides should be alleviated first. I quit my job, and found one that set me on a better course for my long term goals. I lowered some of my student loan payments just enough to give me the breathing room I needed to live and work in DC. While it wasn’t initially on the docket, I ended up getting married. In a relatively short span of time my sleep returned, my heart palpitations stopped, and my chest no longer felt as though The Incredible Hulk was standing on it. By making tough choices that were connected to the root problem, I was able to avoid drugs—which in my particular case would have only been masking the core issues at hand.

Professor Sroufe is on the ball when he says:

However brain functioning is measured, [studies geared towards the “inborn defect”] tell us nothing about whether the observed anomalies were present at birth or whether they resulted from trauma, chronic stress or other early-childhood experiences. One of the most profound findings in behavioral neuroscience in recent years has been the clear evidence that the developing brain is shaped by experience.

It is certainly true that large numbers of children have problems with attention, self-regulation and behavior. But are these problems because of some aspect present at birth? Or are they caused by experiences in early childhood? These questions can be answered only by studying children and their surroundings from before birth through childhood and adolescence, as my colleagues at the University of Minnesota and I have been doing for decades (emphasis added).

Again, none of this is meant to suggest that there aren’t biochemical conditions that can (and should) be treated with medications. The question at hand is whether or not we’re doing ourselves a disservice by going to quick-fix prescription drugs whenever it seems like some serious introspection might result in a handful of really tough decisions (e.g., Do I need to quit my job?).

We’ve become a nation that’s inflated with unearned self-esteem. When a problem arises, it’s not us who need to change—it’s our biochemistry! While this may be true in some cases, I’m inclined to think that millions of kids are needlessly taking drugs each year.

And if you’ve made it this far, take a break with some Jimmy Eat World. And remember, “I’m not crazy, because I take the right pills every day.”