Since I wrote this, COVID-19 has happened, causing the military to modify operations. Hopefully, it will return to normal soon, although “normal” may be changed.
This was originally published in The Belle Banner, Belle Missouri March 25th 2020. If you would like to see the current articles as they are published, you may subscribe to The Belle Banner by calling 573-859-3328, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail to The Belle Banner, PO Box 711, Belle, MO 65013. Subscription rates are; Maries, Osage, and Gasconade County = $23.55 per year, elsewhere in Missouri = $26.77, outside Missouri = $27.00, and foreign countries = $40.00.
Being a drill sergeant was the hardest job I had in the Army, no question, but on graduation day when parents tell you, “He (or she) stands so straight and confident, you’ve done in 10 weeks what I couldn’t do in 18 years”. That’s rewarding.
Joining the Army is a scary thought to many. “I will disappear into the Army, I’ll be alone and be away from my family.” Yes, you leave your family here, but you don’t “disappear” into the Army.
The conversion from civilian to soldier starts the first day of Basic Combat Training. There are a few days of boring, frustrating processing, but the abrupt change starts upon arrival at the Basic Training Company. That is “shock and awe” day. You have all of your gear in a duffle bag, you are wearing a new uniform, new boots, and, for some, new glasses. You will have heard stories about the “mean and crazy” drill sergeants. The bus comes to a stop, and it is like hell itself has descended on you. There are a dozen drill sergeants scattered among the four or five busses, all screaming at you to “GET OFF THE BUS”, stand there, you behind her, WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT, YOU ARE AT ATTENTION, DON’T MOVE THOSE EYES. Platoons of 40 to 50 people each are identified and separated. The Army has gotten smarter about that. Haley Shanks entire platoon enlisted to be parachute riggers. They went through basic training, airborne school, and rigger school together, greatly improving their opportunity for success. Move to the barracks, bunks are assigned, women on one floor, men on another, and battle buddies are assigned. Nobody in basic training goes anywhere alone, always with your battle buddy. You learn, that day, that you don’t move or do anything that is not directed by the drill sergeant. The first two to three weeks is called “total control”, which means that trainees don’t do anything on their own, the drill sergeant has total control. One of the platoon drill sergeants will probably be present until “lights out” at 2130 (9:30 PM), during total control. That means, being available for questions, nobody watches you take a shower or go to the bathroom.
Around three weeks you’ve gotten to know everybody in your platoon, and platoon pride surfaces as everyone starts to work together to get everybody through. You’ll see drill sergeants spending extra hours couching someone having difficulty with a particular task. You’ll see drill sergeants spending time with someone who is having personal difficulty. Sometime in the last part of basic you will realize that while on a break, during training, the whole platoon is sitting on the ground bantering with the drill sergeants. The drill sergeants are still the drill sergeants, whom you obey to the letter, but by then you realize that the mission of the drill sergeant is to convert you to being a soldier, and GET YOU THROUGH BASIC TRAINING.
Graduation from basic training is a giant step in life, you are now a soldier, the less than one half of one percent of Americans who will defend this country. Now it is off to AIT (Advanced Individual Training) to learn the job for which you enlisted. Chances are, there will be several others going with you to AIT, so it will probably not be a completely new start. AIT varies from six or seven weeks to a year, depending on the particular job. After AIT, it is off into the real Army, and no, the real Army doesn’t even resemble basic training. Basic training’s purpose is to create soldiers. Soldiers work together on jobs to accomplish missions.
There is another element of training between AIT and the regular army, which I highly recommend. Airborne School. If you can get the airborne option in your enlistment contract, do it, I don’t think you’ll regret it. Jumping out of an airplane, in the Army, is safer than driving a car. You are taught over and over how to wear the parachute, how to get out of the aircraft, what to do in the air, and how to safely land, and that is reinforced before every parachute jump. In the airplane there are two jumpmasters and two jumpmaster qualified safety’s, who constantly check and check and check everything. Safety is the utmost concern, and when you go out that door, the chute opens and you’re in the air, the sensation is indescribable. The high is ultimate. You will never be able to describe, to your family, why you love jumping out of airplanes.
Airborne school (jump school) is not that hard. I don’t mean it is a blow off, but if you’re in good shape physically, and you can jump out of an airplane, you can make it through jump school. Women may have to practice the flex arm hang prior to jump school.
Being airborne qualified will place you in a different assignment pattern than your friends who are not. If your first assignment is overseas, it will probably be Italy (the most requested assignment in the Army), or Germany if artillery or cavalry (the second most requested assignment in the Army), or Alaska. If assigned in the states, there is about a 90 percent chance that you will be assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Combat arms soldiers will surely be assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. Support soldiers have about a 90 to 95 percent of being assigned to the 82nd, and a small chance of being assigned to another airborne unit on post, such as the Special Forces Command or the Special Operations Command. The 82nd Airborne Division higher headquarters, XVIII Airborne Corps is on Fort Bragg, as well as its higher, US Army Forces Command.
Fort Bragg, North Carolina is the biggest and best post in the country, covering over 250 square miles. Population wise, it is the largest, with over 50,000 active duty soldiers, over 4,000 reserves, 12,000 civilian workers, and about 75,000 dependents living on post, giving it a daytime population of around 150,000. Within the Army it is called the center of the military universe, or sometimes, Pentagon South, or mother Bragg. Fort Bragg has multiples of about every recreation facility you can imagine, on post, including two 18 hole golf courses. The hunting and fishing crowd usually eat lunch on post at McKellar’s Lodge, home of the McKellar’s Rod & Gun Club. Fort Bragg has two large main exchange/commissary complexes, with dozens of annex’s scattered throughout post, and a third 83,000 square foot complex scheduled to break ground this fall.
The adjoining city of Fayetteville, population of about 220,000, has gone from a rough “GI town” in World War II and the nick name “Fayettenam” 50 years ago, to a very nice city, which is a three time winner of an “All American City” award, with a huge retired military population. The retired military community in Fayetteville started growing in the early 1960’s, when career soldiers, who staid in the Army after World War II, and spent their entire career in the 82nd Airborne Division and/or Special Forces, started retiring. When I came back from Vietnam in 1967, I got out of the Army and we returned to Fayetteville. It is pine trees and sand, a moderate climate, and great congenial southern people. I walked into Gene Autry’s Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, looking for a job as a mechanic, and was hired as a salesman. I was selling cars there when Fayetteville got its first black car salesman, Boyd Harris. When civil rights was front page news in the 1960’s, and some places were having trouble, including riots, trying to forcibly integrate black and white communities, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, as much of North and South Carolina, it was invisible, there were no fights, it just happened. In 2008, Time Magazine named Fayetteville, North Carolina, America’s most pro-military town. The “Airborne and Special Operations Museum”, which opened in 2000, covers about two city blocks in downtown Fayetteville.
If any of my grands enlist in the Army, I will encourage them to try for Fort Bragg, not Fort Leonard Wood.