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.


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.”

A view from the infantry

Your truly along the Serbian/Macedonia border in the late 90's (sadly working under a United Nation's mandate).
Yours truly along the Serbian/Macedonia border in the late 90’s (sadly working under a United Nations mandate). Guess who got to haul the SINCGAR on patrol?

In 1997 I enlisted in the U.S. Army straight out of high school and spent three years as a mechanized infantryman.

After Basic Training in Fort Benning, Ga., I was sent to Schweinfurt, Germany, to join my unit, Charlie Co., 1/18th Infantry Battalion. I was part of First Infantry Division, known by most civilians as “The Big Red One.”

My time in service does not include the kind of deployments faced by the men and women who serve in a post 9/11 world, but I am confident that I can speak knowledgeably on the culture of combat units.

And I am confident Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey’s announcement that the front lines will now be an option for women is, for all intents and purposes, a policy shift that will get good soldiers killed.

While most commentary since the shift was revealed Wednesday has focused on the physical rigors demanded in combat roles, little has been mentioned about the sexual element that first sergeants and company commanders will now be forced to deal with.

Read the rest over at The Washington Times

Editor’s note: I’m trying to knock out “Damn Few” by the former Head of Basic and Advanced SEAL Training so I can give you guys a worthy review. In the mean time, hopefully this piece I did for TWT will serve as an adequate addendum to yesterday’s post on women in combat units.

Military obesity isn’t the issue: Civilian fat bodies are

The Washington Post is running stories on the military's bulging bellies. I looked through my old Army photos and found one of my fellow infantrymen after a 10 mile run. Nope. No fat people there. I wonder why.
The Washington Post just ran a story on the military’s bulging bellies. I looked through my old Army photos from 1997 and found one of me with my fellow infantrymen after a 10 mile run. Nope. No fat people there. My Magic Eight Ball says the MOS might have had something to do with it.

Over the past few years there has been increasing coverage of the growing waistlines of our nation’s military. It’s generally a dumb story. The people charged with fixing the problem know exactly what’s going on:  Nobody does physical fitness like the infantry. Period. If you want less overweight soldiers, tell the POGS to look at their grunt-buddies for an example of how to stay in shape.

Let’s take a look at who, exactly, can’t seem to get their asses in gear, shall we?

Obesity Military

Surprise, surprise. Look who leads the pack or, more aptly, leads the rear of the formation on Company runs:  women, the Air Force, and fat old men who have their rank and don’t give a rip because they’ve hit twenty years of service and can retire at any time.

When I was part of Charlie Co., 1/18 Infantry in the 90’s we had a guy who treated his body like crap and he couldn’t stay in shape. The solution? They made me get up with him on the weekends and take him on four, five, and six-mile runs. We also ran after work. We did push-ups. We did sit-ups. Our Platoon Sergeant gave me free rein to drag him out of bed and onto the road for long runs until he got it in his thick head to get where he was supposed to be, meaning: in shape. When you make something a priority, things start to fall into place. Shocker. The military should make it a priority to emulate the kind of standards infantrymen hold themselves to.

With that said, the bigger story is the nation’s eating problem:

Obesity is now the leading cause of ineligibility for people who want to join the Army, according to military officials, who see expanding waistlines in the warrior corps as a national security concern. …

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said he was floored by what he found in 2009 when he was assigned to overhaul the Army’s training system. Seventy-five percent of civilians who wanted to join the force were ineligible, he said. Obesity was the leading cause.

“Of the 25 percent that could join, what we found was 65 percent could not pass the [physical training] test on the first day,” he said in a recent speech. “Young people joining our service could not run, jump, tumble or roll — the kind of things you would expect soldiers to do if you’re in combat.”

I believe that our nation’s outward appearance is a reflection of our own cultural decay.

Sloth. Gluttony. Pride. Envy. A nation of video game obsessed, chip-eating narcissists live vicariously through the heroes in their first person shooter, only taking breaks to go to the bathroom and catch a few minutes of whatever brain dead reality show is popular on MTV. Huge swaths of the population sit around on their butts all day, and when they wake from their Netflix induced stupor long enough to catch a news report of someone who went out there and actually built something they become angry. (See: Occupy Wall Street.)

In the United States, we live in a society where anyone can be fat. Quite unlike any other time in history, the poorer you are in the United States the more likely it is that you will be fat. It’s a testament to our greatness, but one that doesn’t come without its own set of challenges. Where once artists and painters drew naked heavy women because weight was an indicator of wealth, today obesity is an indicator that you might very well be living on a tight budget.

Today, the rich have personal trainers to help hound off the weight, but the poor have internet access. All the nutritional information we could ever want is right there at our fingertips, and yet rich and poor alike don’t utilize it. There are YouTube videos, blogs, government funded websites and enough dietary knowledge to make anyone a subject matter expert in a relatively short amount of time, and yet we still pack on the pounds. Why? It’s because we aren’t serious. About anything. We spend our days working and our nights watching Jersey Shore. Or Buck Wild. Or Honey Boo Boo. Or Dancing with the Stars. Or American Idol.

And so, the nation’s newspapers should not worry about the body fat standards of the military so much as it should worry about the psyche of our civilian population. More nutrition labels aren’t the answer. More bans on sodium and fat are not the answer. Limits on carbohydrates aren’t the answer. Instead, I would argue that finding a way to change the culture in a way that tempers its obsession with instant gratification and celebrity would yield better results.

And if we fail? If there’s a zombie apocalypse we all know who will be the first ones to go — and it won’t be me.