What I learned at Army ROTC Cadet Basic Camp 2017.

31 July, 2017

Hooah! I’m back home from Fort Knox, and feeling fine! Army ROTC Basic Camp was one Hell of a way to spend a month: it was at times grueling, glorious, tedious, exhilarating, and above all, fun. Did it suck? Of course. But I also learned a lot about the Army, officership, and myself. I made lifelong friends. And I feel more confident than ever about my life’s trajectory. I had life-changing experiences, and I want to share some of my reflections on these with you. I’m especially honored to be part of the small percentage of Americans who have the honor of experiencing military training and service. Basic Camp was only the first step on a long journey, but it was a big step, and one that leaves me feeling warmed-up and fortified for the road ahead.

 

First, let me be clear about what training program this was. I’m enrolled in the U.S. Army’s ROTC, (Reserve Officer Training Corp) which was created originally in 1916 as part of the United States’ buildup for entry into World War One. ROTC operates nationwide through civilian colleges, to train student cadets into new Active Duty, Reserve, and National Guard officers. The combination of military training and their respective college degree programs gives these officers diverse skillsets: commissioned officers hold degrees in fields ranging from mechanical engineering, to business, to biology. Cadets engage in physical training, classroom military science classes, and field training exercises, all while gradually assuming command responsibility, and being evaluated on their leadership performance. They concurrently take the same college classes as other students in their degree program, and are encouraged to participate in university sports, clubs, and activities. The commissioning process is competitive, and cadets earn Active Duty spots in different branches of the Army (Infantry, Armor, Engineering, etc.,) concurrent with their grades, physical fitness, and leadership skills.

 

ROTC is typically a four-year program, wherein the cadet typically earns a scholarship in exchange for a contractual term of military service. But because the Marketing MBA I’m pursuing is a two-year program, I’ll be completing all ROTC commissioning requirements in two years. The training I did this summer at Cadet Basic Camp allows me to “catch up,” since it fulfills the requirements that four-year cadets knock out in their first two years of the program. Also, because I’m on a Minuteman Scholarship, I’ll be serving in the Reserve concurrent to my time in school! If anyone is considering ROTC, I strongly recommend considering the Minuteman and other National Guard/Reserve options through the Simultaneous Membership Program: whether you go Active or Reserve after college, your Drill Weekends and Annual Training will get you extra “on the job learning” that most of your peers will lack. You’ll have extra time on technical skills such as weapons and first aid, and you can learn from the experienced Soldiers in your unit. Plus, you get paid, and it’s fun.

 

Anyway, Cadet Basic Camp is the first fully immersive Army experience most cadets have, in the sense of living on an Army installation in full uniform and conducting daily training for an extended period. If rumor serves me well, this initial cadet training used to be a lot easier, but the new Commanding General of Cadet Command turned up the heat significantly a couple years ago. We had mean Drill Sergeants who smoked us daily and pushed our physical and mental limits, in an excellent program of improving our individual discipline and unit cohesion. We learned basic soldier skills of marksmanship, weapons maintenance, land navigation, first aid, radio communication, squad tactics, drill and ceremony, and more. And we got to take turns stepping up to lead our fellow cadets on the Team, Squad, Platoon, and Company levels, through daily tasks, and field exercises. While Cadet Basic Camp is admittedly a far cry from the Army’s Basic Combat Training (which all enlisted recruits go through) in terms of duration and harshness, (4 weeks versus 10,) the program was clearly designed to test our intestinal fortitude as prospective leaders of the United States Army. I feel confident in saying that all of us who stuck it out came away a little grittier, more Soldierly, and with a few extra ounces of that precious resource fundamental to the success of all great armies throughout history: Discipline.

 

For me, Basic Camp gave me so many minute lessons and precious experiences, that I can’t possibly recount all of them here. And I’m honestly not sure that I’d want to give everything away: some stories are exclusive to me and my battle buddies, and would decrease in value if they were over-circulated. What I’ve attempted to do here is narrow it down to a few of the big picture, thematic lessons. On top of all these, one of the biggest realizations I had was how little I still know about truly being a great Soldier and Officer: character transformations take time, sustained effort, and the kind of experiences you can only gain in the thick of things, out there.

 

That said, here it goes …

 

Always have your battle buddy’s back, and always be disciplined.

 

For those who don’t know, “smoking” is when the Drill Sergeant orders a large quantity of exercise which often only ends when the recruits have been reduced to a flailing, jittering mass of exhausted muscles, heaving lungs, and dirty sweat globules. Each iteration of these extra exercise bonanzas is known as a “smoke session.” You know the smoking’s about to commence when you hear the dreaded command of “Half-right: face!” (“Turn diagonally to the right so you all have room, in theory, to drop down and kick your feet back into pushup position without clocking the guy behind you in the face and getting your fingers stomped on by the guy in front of you. In theory.”)

 

And if there’s one thing that anyone who’s ever been in the military, known someone in the military, or even seen a war movie knows about Drill Sergeants, it’s that those loud gentlemen in the Smoky the Bear hats love to smoke recruits for seemingly anything and everything.

 

Cadet Johnston didn’t shave this morning?! I can fix that. Johnston: you have twenty seconds to run inside and grab your razor. Everyone else: Half-right, face!

 

Oh, Cadet Winston thinks he can move at the position of attention?! Well, sounds like all are restless, guess ya need more exercise! Half-right, face!

 

Falling asleep during your four-hour classroom lesson on the 7 Army Values?! On your feet! Half-right, face!

 

It’s your birthday, huh? How old are you? That’s how many eight-count push-ups we’re doing! Platoon! Half-right, face!

 

While the severity of the sessions can vary, getting smoked generally sucks. You get extra sweat, extra dirt on your recently cleaned uniform, your sore and tired muscles get even more sore and tired, there’s mental stress on top of mental stress, and bloody hands from doing pushups on gravel. You learn eventually that getting smoked isn’t the end of the world that it feels like at first, and it can even become funny in some circumstances, but it still always kinda sucks.

 

Why do the Drills do it? Are they just sadistic demons who like to watch you suffer? Believe it or not, Drill Sergeants and their methods exist to instill discipline, both on a team level, and on an individual level. Ever since Baron von Steuben helped Washington train his frozen and starving Continental soldiers back at Valley Forge, the U.S. Army has treasured discipline. It keeps units together in the face of enemy fire and tough environmental conditions, it overcomes individual fears and doubts, and it allows an army to out-coordinate and out-fight its enemies on the battlefield. All the fancy technology and military theory doesn’t mean a damn without discipline. George Washington said it best:

Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.”

In training, as in battle, if one member of your platoon screws up, it means you’ve all screwed up. The Army is a team sport. Battles and wars are won and survived as a team, and one screw-up by one member of that team means unnecessary pain for everyone. And in war, that pain can be a lot worse than push-ups. That’s the lesson Drill Sergeants are burning into you when they make you drop and do push-ups for seemingly small things, like someone’s flag patch being crooked, or someone missing their cadet handbook, or someone dozing off during class instruction. Being lazy about attention to detail, both for yourself and your buddy, puts you all in danger. You make sure your shit is squared away, and you make sure your buddy’s shit is squared away, so that when you meet the enemy, you all have the best odds possible of defeating that enemy, and coming home in one piece. Your radio, vehicle, armor, rifle, ammo, gas mask, and mental alertness all need to be as perfect as possible. And your buddy’s better all be that way too, or you, him, his family, and the rest of your unit are paying the price.

 

We each learned that if we screwed up as individuals, our whole team was going to pay for it. And, if we wanted to minimize smokings in the future, we had to look out for each other. That means making sure your buddy’s uniform is all squared away, that he (or she) has all his gear, that he doesn’t nod off during lectures, and that you, he, and everyone else get to every single formation prepared and on time.

 

None of us arrived at camp as the perfect cadet. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. We each kept dutifully on top of some tasks, while slipping up on others, and that’s where that critical Looking Out for Each Other rose to prominence. We covered each other’s individual weaknesses with our respective individual strengths, and that kept our unit stronger, whether we were cleaning the barracks, choking on tear gas, or running through tactical exercise lanes. No, I didn’t necessarily like everyone in my platoon: one or two of them were downright irritating and unpleasant, to be completely honest. I’m sure one or two people didn’t like me! Personalities clash! But no matter how frustrated we sometimes got with each other, we were still battle buddies, and still looked after each other so we could rise to each challenge and make it through as a team, with a minimum of unnecessary pain. (And I gotta say, the vast majority of my platoon were and are champs!)

 

By the end of Camp, when one of us screwed up and had to do push-ups, we would voluntarily and almost immediately all drop and join them in the suckage, without a word from Drill Sergeant. We functioned automatically as a unit, and were each stronger individually for it.

 

That’s a profound lesson, and one I know I’ll have reinforced throughout my Army career.

 

Embrace the suck!

 

Basic Camp was fun. It also sucked. It sucked really bad sometimes.

 

It didn’t suck at first. We didn’t have drill sergeants during the first three days of Camp, we just had reception battalion NCO’s and officers. They yelled at us, but only made us do a few pushups a couple of times. Some of them were cool and gave good advice, but those first three days were mostly boring and full of hurry-up-and-wait. Exceptional bright spots included an interesting speech by Commanding General Major General Hughes, and some useful mental training by contracted civilian sports trainers.

 

Then, on the fourth day, at 0400, we met our drill sergeants. Without any overt warning the previous day (though we figured they had to arrive sometime) those screaming, terrifying tyrants stormed into our rooms, flipped on the lights, and used their impressive motivational skills to persuade us to quickly exit our bunks, get on our shoes, and stand at formation outside in the dark of the morning. Hooah!

 

Once outside, we were thrust into a barrage of physical activity (push-ups being the dominant theme) that lasted for most of the entire day, and left our hands cracked and bleeding from all that lovely gravel and broken asphalt. (“Rock star hands,” as our ever-comedic Drill Sergeant remarked.) Through the constant experience of harsh voices and harsh exercise, we began to learn the necessities of moving quickly, sounding off when you’re supposed to, shutting up when you’re supposed to, and above all staying motivated and disciplined throughout training.

 

Overall, this was physically exhausting, painful, and tested my willpower. For these first couple days, the Drill Sergeants made our lives absolute hell, and combined the physical challenge with reminders that we didn’t have to be there, and could get on a plane the next day and be home watching Netflix and eating and drinking whatever we want. This was of course all part of the mental games that Drill Sergeants employ to weed out the undedicated and begin the age-old process of instilling discipline in recruits. I reminded myself of why I joined, and kept my eyes on the future prize…but, in the moment, sitting there in the front-leaning rest position, sweat drenching my body, arms shaking with exhaustion, hands burning, I considered quitting. At least for a few seconds. All I’d have to do was stand up. But I made giving up an impossibility in my mind, and reminded myself that the only way out was through. I kept going through the suckage, got stronger, calloused up my hands, learned to move fast and work with my platoonmates, and in a few weeks, I graduated.

 

You know what the key is to make it through all the Suck of military training? Embrace it. Embrace the Suck. Embrace the pain, the exhaustion, the fatigue, the hunger, the tedium, the frustration, and all the taunting, enraging failures that come before the final success. Yeah, the situation you’re in sucks: what are you going to do about it? Get frustrated, get sad, cry, complain…or ma up and do something. Don’t just endure the suck, embrace it! Laugh about it! Let it make you stronger. Live all those stories that you can tell later: the stories that prove you refused to take the easy way out, that you stepped up to the challenge to pursue something important, met some tough resistance along the way, and kept going even when it hurt like hell.

 

Embrace all of that, I found, and it makes the next challenge that much easier. When you wince, and cry, and bitch and moan about it all, it just makes the next challenge agonizingly more difficult. On deployment, I know that a lot of things are going to suck a lot worse than they did in training, and it’s going to be harder to accept the bad situations, but the same dynamic applies. There are situations you can’t change, and challenges you can’t escape. So, you soldier on, play the hand you’ve been dealt, and find the humor where you can.

 

Some of the many other things at Camp that sucked included:

  • The CS tear gas chamber, where we felt the effects of tear gas with and without our equipment. (Spoilers: the equipment works great, but without it, tear gas SUCKS.)
  • Our 12km night ruck march up the infamous hills of Fort Knox.
  • The habitual lack of sleep throughout camp.
  • The habitual hunger while at camp, especially in the field. And that one time the DFAC ran out of food.
  • Getting smoked for stupid, stupid (Mine or someone else’s.)
  • The combination of all the little discomforts of heat, sweat, dirt, and the need to focus while tired.

 

The further into the month we got, the more we all learned the wisdom of embracing suck. I’ll always remember that.

 

Never, ever quit, and you’ll learn just how far you can go.

 

Never give in, never give in, never, never, never- in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. -Winston Churchill

 

The U.S. Army Soldier’s Creed contains the Warrior Ethos, which reads as follows:

 

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

 

During my time at Basic Camp, I gave 100% to living that ethos, and learned a lesson about those middle two lines. As I previously mentioned, Camp was tough. The thought of quitting crossed my mind: first, during our initial hours with the Drill Sergeants, and second, during the hilly 12-km ruck march back from the field. The temptation to quit slithered its way into smaller moments as well, with the urge to sleep when I had to pay attention, or how much easier it would be to stop doing so many pushups and just drop to my knees.

 

But, other than allowing myself a few moments to wallow in self-pity, I always pushed through. I pushed through the pain, the fear, and fatigue, and found success, pride, and strength on the other side. The pressures of Camp; from drill sergeants, from my encouraging platoon mates, and from my own revved up drive to make it as an Army Officer: these pushed me past the mental barriers that I too-often allow to stop me in my life back home. Had it not been for my decision to join the Army and embark on its training, I never would have learned how far I could go when I refused to accept surrender or defeat as possibilities in my reality.

 

Our last night in the field, our platoon of about 40 cadets was set up in a patrol base: that’s a triangular formation, set up for concealment, rest, and defense while on missions in hostile territory. We all lay prone, M-16’s at the ready, keeping guard out into the darkening woods for any sign of hostile movement. I, being part of our platoon’s weapons squad, had the duty of guarding the chief apex of our base. This apex was the entrance and exit point of our formation, and it was the job of me and my battle buddy to challenge anyone who approached (“Halt! Who goes there?”) and have them give the correct password before we could let them in. Plus, I had to keep track of everyone who left. While hostile activity (aka drill sergeants testing our defenses) could come from any direction, this apex would be the most likely avenue of approach for any (simulated) insidious insurgent treachery.

 

I knew that if I screwed up, my platoon would be smoked like a chicken at a July 4th barbecue. In the “real world,” we’d all be dead. So, being the cautious cadet that I am, I kept guard even longer than required throughout the entire night. Since our squad was working in security shifts to allow sleep time, this probably wasn’t necessary, but in my head that dark, dark, night, I entertained thoughts of imminent enemy assault from any angle, or at the least, tricky drill sergeants sneaking in where someone fell asleep. And so, I lay there, scanning the inky blackness with no flashlight or night vision, rifle ready to “BANG BANG BANG” at any bad guys. As the night went on, from all around the patrol base I periodically heard others’ reports of baddies moving out there, maybe surrounding us for an assault, and at the least checking on our security. On top of that, my fatigue, combined with habitual lack of sleep, and the darkness, and the S P O O K Y nocturnal noises (coyote howls and yelps, the heavy panting of a huge deer,) all conspired to keep me extra paranoid. It’s amazing how much your mind can play tricks on you when you’re tired, nervous, and staring into the dark. Every tree became a potential (ridiculously tall) bad guy, lurking to attack.

 

I think I slept about two hours that night. The next day, which was mostly spent on more tactical exercises, began with my thoughts slopping about my head like a dreary November slush. I could barely function at first, and wondered how I’d possibly make it through the day. But to my surprise and pleasure, this improved as I warmed up and got some food in me, and I ended up doing a good job as a squad leader on an ambush mission!

 

Then, that evening, testing my endurance yet further, we did a 12-kilometer ruck march back to garrison from the field. I got about a half hour nap in before that, and then our company was on the road, marching from 2200 to about 0100 in helmet, camouflage face paint, 40-pound rucksack, and weapon in hand. The route was hilly, dark, and we were moving at a moderate pace, on two tactical lines on the side of the road. Like any road march of this type, we had to maintain spacing of 5 to 10 meters with the soldier to the front and back of us, which often involved speeding up to what felt like an uncomfortable pace on the frequent hills. We went over two of Knox’s infamous three major hills, Heartache and Misery, the latter being absolute murder of a quarter mile up: my lungs were burning, my heart was pounding, and it felt like a Herculean effort to keep putting each foot in front of and above the other, up that stupidly steep incline. That was the only point on the march where I was truly having thoughts of just flopping over to the side and giving up. But I pushed past that weakness of thought, and made it back to the barracks sweaty and triumphant, where we stretched, ate Pop Tarts, showered, and slept before 0600 wakeup the next day.

 

I even tripped and fell at one point during the march, with my canteen and weapon hilariously flying away from me as I sprawled out, loudly uttering an expletive. But my drill sergeant and comrades got me back on my feet in seconds, I was uninjured, and I kept going. I saw what I could do when I refused to quit.

 

I’m Happy with the Path I’ve Chosen

 

The path I’ve chosen won’t be an easy one, and I’ve only just begun. It’s going to get a lot harder, in the advanced stages of ROTC training, especially Advance Camp next summer back at Knox, and then on deployment in distant and dangerous places.

 

But it’s a path that I couldn’t be happier about choosing. The Army, despite its problems and for all the blunders of American foreign policy, is a great institution. It’s the greatest army in the history of mankind, and stands proudly alongside the Ancient Romans and 19th Century British as the dominant military of its era. America, for all its flaws, is the greatest nation in the history of the world, and it’s an honor to serve in the Army which has protected that nation and won its wars so many times in our over 200 years of history.

 

And, the Army is a lot of fun. Life is dull without challenges, and the Army presents plenty of those, physically and mentally. I’ve already gotten to learn the basics of moving, shooting, and communicating, I’ve made new friends, I’ve used new professional lingo, and I have so many more technical and leadership skills to learn throughout the rest of my time in ROTC and beyond. I will have to use those skills in dangerous and unfun situations. But the overall satisfaction of growing stronger and beating challenges in the name of such a worthy cause is without question worth all the risk and pain for me.

 

The alternative path would be one of ease, and regret. The ease would come from never having to rise to a physical challenge if I didn’t want to, or face violent danger, or maintain my physical readiness and combat effectiveness. I could and probably would still do so for reasons of my own health and personal security, but, it wouldn’t be so definite and duty-bound as in military service. The regret would come after spending years building a successful civilian career, with a growing income and personal opportunities…and waking up to realize I’m too set on that path or too old to embark on military service. To get to be thirty, thirty-five, forty, and have no exciting stories from my youth, of when I really pushed myself beyond my comfort zone, when things really sucked, and I persisted and got the job done.

 

No. I refuse the easy path.

 

I took the leap. I signed the contract, I stood and raised my hand, and swore my oath. I will be a United States Army Officer, and happily accept everything that title comes with. I’m especially proud to be carrying on family tradition: just as my uncle is retiring from a 30 year Army career as a full bird Colonel, I’m beginning my own journey, to be a new Lieutenant Wilson. My month at Fort Knox in the summer of 2017 was a glorious, dirty, humbling, proud step towards my commissioning day. There’s no turning back. And I wouldn’t have it any other way!

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