Originally published January 25th, 2017 in The Belle Banner.

PFC Jane Doe has been in the Army about a year. She completed one semester of college, ran out of money and went to an Army recruiter. She was interested in the GI Bill and what kind of job she could get in the army. The recruiter told her that she would be in the “Post 911 GI Bill”. After three years in the army, the VA will pay full tuition and fees to an in-state public college, university or trade school, plus a sizable monthly housing allowance, and up to $1,000 a year for books. In other words a full ride. As far as a job in the Army, she would have to take the ASVAB (Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery) test, a physical fitness test, and a medical exam. Plus a background check to make sure she had nothing derogatory in her background. Then, based upon her scores, she could choose from the jobs available, at that time. The recruiter was a former paratrooper and told her that she could also request an “airborne option” along with most jobs (jobs are MOS’s (military occupational specialties) in the army). He told her that paratroopers on jump status receive an extra $150 per month, and that the school is only three weeks long. She choose MOS 42A Human Resource Specialist with the airborne option. Her recruiter cautioned her to reveal absolutely everything she may have done wrong in her life, because MOS 42A requires a SECRET security clearance, and in that investigation all records are available to the Army, including juvenile. Her recruiter helped her set up her Army Knowledge Online (AKO) account, where she could monitor her records and request assignments. She went to the MEPS (Military Enlistment Processing Station) in St Louis, where she took the ASVAB for record, got a physical exam (she had been told to remind them that she was going Airborne, because it required a different exam), and talked to a counselor, who tried to persuade her to take a different job, but she insisted that she wanted 42A. She then signed her contract, stood with several others and took the oath of enlistment. At that point she was in the Army.

Her group was bused to the USO office at the airport, where they met other enlistees who had arrived by plane. They were loaded on a bus and transported to the US Army Reception Battalion at Fort Leonard Wood. The time at the Reception Battalion can be anywhere from four days to a week and a half, until they have enough people to fill a basic training company. They were met by drill sergeants, who didn’t yell, but briefed them about what they would do, while at the Reception Battalion. They ate dinner, then were issued the Army PT uniform, which they would wear the next day. Their cell phones were collected, to be returned at graduation from basic training. They separated men and women, then were moved to a barracks and assigned a bunk and wall locker (need lock). They finally got to sleep after midnight. They were rudely awakened at 4:30 AM and told they had 30 minutes to take care of their personal hygiene then clean their living area and the latrine (bathroom), and be outside in formation for breakfast. They were briefed by various people, then the men all got their hair cut off, the women had the option of having it cut to collar length or keeping it up (like a bun) above the collar. They were issued an “EZ pay card” (with $350.00 on it) to purchase necessary items. That money would come out of their first pay. They had blood drawn, got shots and had ID card photos taken. They were marched to the PX and told what to buy. Didn’t make any difference if they had brought the item with them. They were then issued uniforms and boots. The second day was eye, ear, and dental exams, and personnel affairs processing. She had to have her bank routing number and her checking account number. The military only pays by direct deposit. The third day were more shots, photos, ear plug brief, TRICARE brief, and Red Cross brief. The time at the reception station was extremely stressful, many had trouble adjusting to the regimentation. They were lucky, they shipped to their basic training company on day four.

At the basic training company, the drill sergeants did yell, a lot, and in their face. They were separated into four platoons of about 50 people each, assigned to barracks and bunks and wall lockers, where they would live for the next nine weeks. They were marched to pay phones and told to call home and give their family their address. Everyone was assigned a “battle buddy”. Some felt like they had made a mistake, and that they had arrived in hell. Basic training is in three phases – red, white and blue. Red phase (the first three weeks) was total control. Drill Sergeants maintained strict control at all times. In red phase they learned how to stand, march, salute, etc. They had PT every morning, Monday through Saturday, they had classes on army values, life in the army, first aid, hand to hand combat, and land navigation. They spent half a day on warrior tower and they went through the gas chamber. They received their first class on the M16A2/M4 rifle. It was around week three that most began to realize that the drill sergeants really did have serious concern for their training and their wellbeing. They found that the quicker they mastered a task, the happier the drill sergeants became. It was also around that time that they began to “jell” as a platoon, they became a unit, looking out for each other. They started having fun. They also got to use the pay phone on Sunday night. In white phase, weeks four thru six, they mastered their rifle. They learned disassembly, assembly and cleaning of the rifle. They fired on various ranges, and finally fired for record. They were told by some of the drill sergeants that a high weapons qualification score and a high PT score were two of the biggest things to bring out of basic. The drill sergeants became human, not buddies, but more approachable. The drill sergeants were beyond teaching them how to act, they were now teaching skills. They threw live hand grenades, went through the obstacle course, fired grenade launchers, pugil stick fighting classes, as well as ground fighting techniques. In blue phase, week seven and eight were more firing. Night firing, moving targets, close combat firing, convoy operations, moving under fire, rappelling, rules of engagement, and squad tactical training. Finally, week nine. The End of Course Test, takes all day. It is hands on performing all the things taught in basic. Then cleaning and turn in of field equipment, dress uniform inspection and practice for graduation. The day before graduation was “family day”. After the soldiers and the families were briefed on what they could and could not do, they got to spend the entire day with their family. On Thursday morning, Graduation! Graduation was a time of mixed emotions. There was elation at finishing basic, then there was the sadness of separating with some really good friends that she acquired over the past nine weeks. Many spent time thanking their drill sergeants for bringing them through basic training. They would never forget those drill sergeants.

After graduation, Jane and some others were given bus tickets to the St Louis airport, and plane tickets to Columbia, South Carolina – Fort Jackson, for Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in MOS 42A Human Resource Specialist.

The military liaison office at the Columbia airport put them on the proper bus which delivered them to their company on Fort Jackson. The barracks in some companies slept four to six people to a room, with a communal bath. Jane was lucky, in that in her company there were three people to a room, with its own bath. They got to keep their cell phones, ipads, laptops, etc, they just couldn’t use them during duty hours. Their day started with a 5:00 AM (05:00) wake up, clean barracks, PT formation at 06:30. PT lasts until about 07:30, then it is breakfast, personal hygiene, and be in formation at 08:45, to be marched to class. An hour for lunch, the DFAC (Dining Facility) was close, back to class, then march back to the barracks and released at 17:00 (5:00 PM). They could wear civilian clothes when off duty. After getting settled, Jane went to the ASK key (Assignment Satisfaction Key) on her AKO account, and saw that she was tentatively scheduled for assignment to the 82nd Airborne Division. During the first half of the course, they were free to go anywhere on post evenings and weekends. During the last half, they could also get off posts passes. During the eight weeks and two days of the course, six weeks were spent in class and two weeks in the field. They studied; Researching Human Resource Publications; Prepare Office Documents Using Office Software; Prepare Correspondence, Identify Human Resource Systems; Maintain Records; Interpret the Enlisted Record Brief & Officer Record Brief; Create Ad Hoc Query; Perform Forms Content Management Program Functions; Prepare Suspension of Favorable Action; Prepare a request for Soldier Applications; Process a DFR packet; Process Recommendation for Award; Process Personnel Strength Accountability Updates; Perform Unit Strength Reconciliation; Conduct a Personnel Asset Inventory (PAI); Issue a Common Access Card; Maintain Emergency Notification Data; Prepare a Casualty Report; Create a Manifest; Employ the Deployed Theater Accountability Software (DTAS); Prepare strength accounting reports; Process a Request for Leave, Pass, and Permissive TDY; Perform Personnel Office Computations; Review a Completed Non-commissioned Officer Evaluation Report (NCOER); Process Enlisted Advancements for PV1 – SPC; Process Semi-Centralized Promotions; Research Finance Actions; Determine Entitlements to Pay and Allowances; and Employ the Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) System.

After graduation, Jane and a few others who were going airborne were given bus tickets to Columbus, Georgia – Fort Benning. At Columbus they caught the bus to the Airborne School. Monday of the following week training started. The very first period is the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) and the Flexed Arm Hang immediately after the APFT. The Flexed Arm Hang is; Hang on the pull up bar, arms completely straight, palms facing you, pull up until the chin is above the bar, and hold that position for 20 seconds. The purpose is to make sure a person can pull down on the parachute risers with sufficient strength to guide the parachute away from other jumpers or obstacles. Jane did it, plus she weighed 120 lbs, 10 lbs over the minimum for a paratrooper. Intense PT and long runs every training day, Monday through Friday. The first week (ground week) was spent learning parachute landing falls (PLF). They did them on the ground, they did them off 2 foot platforms and 4 foot platforms. Then they did them when being dropped from a swing landing trainer. The second week (tower week) they jumped from a 34 foot tower, in a parachute harness and slid down cables to a mound a couple hundred feet away. Then, the 250 foot towers. They put on a parachute, which is deployed and attached to a metal cage above the jumper pulled up 250 feet, then released. That is to teach jumpers how to maneuver their parachute. And the final week (jump week), they made five parachute jumps including one at night. On Friday or Saturday they graduate and receive their wings, which they wear on all uniforms as long as they are in the Army.

Finally, after almost six months in the Army she was on her way to her first permanent assignment, the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. So it was back on a bus to Fayetteville, North Carolina. At the Fayetteville bus station they caught the post bus which dropped them at the 82nd Airborne Division Replacement Detachment. She spent three days there, processing into Fort Bragg, and drawing field gear, then finally, her assignment; Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC), of a Brigade Combat Team. She was assigned to the S1 Section of the Headquarters. Staff Sections of army units commanded by colonel’s and below are designated S1 (Human Resources), S2 Intelligence, S3 Operations and Training, and S4 Supply, Logistics, Maintenance, Transportation. The S1 of the Brigade is a Major, and the NCOIC (Non-commissioned Officer in charge) is a Master Sergeant. The S1 shop consists of two teams. The Human Resources Services Team consists of a Chief Warrant Officer, a Staff Sergeant, two Sergeants, and three Specialists. It processes all personnel actions. And, the Personnel Readiness Team, which consists of a Lieutenant, a Staff Sergeant, and two Specialists. They maintain personnel accountability, personnel readiness management, personnel information management, strength reporting, and casualty reporting. Jane was assigned to one of the Specialist positions in the Readiness Team.

She lives in the barracks – they are sometimes referred to as dorms now. She has her own room with a small refrig and a microwave, plus she has her own TV, stereo, and computer, she shares a bathroom with a suite mate (female) on the other side of the bath. Her weekdays start with a formation at 06:30 for PT (Physical Training). PT is about an hour. Most units do actual PT (calisthenics and run) three days a week and athletics or gym two days. After that its shower, dress, breakfast and be at her desk by 9:00 AM. Lunch time is usually noon. Since she lives in the barracks, she has a meal card, which means she eats free in the DFAC (Dining Facility). There are two DFAC’s within 10 minute walking distance. If she doesn’t like what the DFAC’s have, she can jump in her car and run to Burger King or one the other food places on post. She has been in that job about six months. She has just been promoted to Private First Class E-3. Her base pay is $1,885.90 plus $150.00 jump pay, per month. Her take home pay, after taxes and deductions is about $1,600 per month, $800.00 paid twice a month. All military personnel are paid twice monthly by direct deposit, so she opened an account in one of the banks on post, for the convenience. She has made three parachute jumps since she arrived, she must make at least one jump every three months to maintain her jump pay. At 17:00 (5:00 PM) she is off until 6:30 AM the next morning, except Friday, which means she is off until Monday morning. When she arrived at her company, her team sergeant told her about the Fort Bragg BOSS program (Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers). Last summer she went on two day trips to Myrtle Beach with the BOSS people. Cost was $10.00 for the trip down, day at the beach, and trip back. She has been bowling with the BOSS soldiers, and performed some community volunteer work with them. She has a weekend ski trip to Sugar Mountain planned with MWR (Morale Welfare and Recreation). Cost is just over $200, which includes everything, transportation, equipment, instruction, and overnight at the hotel. All details are handled by the MWR people. Being the largest Army post in the US, Fort Bragg also has great facilities. Fort Bragg also has ten Universities and Colleges conducting classes and online courses on post. PFC Jane Doe has already learned that more college hours mean more promotion points, she plans to resume classes in the next semester. She expects to be promoted to Specialist E-4 within the next year.

Next week soldier number two.


Originally published January 18th, 2017 in The Belle Banner

This is the first in a series of articles about life in the military. I came to realize, after the Veterans Day Assembly, that very few local people know anything about the military.  The younger the person the less he or she is likely know about the military.  So yes I am talking to you high schoolers.  I have talked to 17 year olds who thinks life in the military is like the movie “Lone Survivor”.  Only if you were a SEAL in Afghanistan in 2007, sent on a questionable mission in the middle of Indian country, and everything went wrong.

The Army has Basic Combat Training, the Air Force has Basic Training, and the Navy and Marines each have their own version of Boot Camp.  They all have similarities, and differences, but none is anything like life in that service.  Nor are the movies anything like normal life in the military.  I will be telling about the Army, because that is what I know.  I spent 21 years in the Army, and have kept up with it on a daily basis, since I retired.

The Army and Marines have similar structures.  The Marines do a much better job of instilling pride and esprit de corps in just being a Marine.  Whether you’re a cook, clerk, mechanic or infantryman, a Marine is a Marine.  In the other services pride and  morale are more with specific units than the service as a whole.  In the Air Force the Special Operations Command is the top of the mountain for enlisted people, although very tough to get into.  For officers, if you’re not a pilot, you are a second class officer.  The Air Force supports airplanes, they fly them, maintain them, and support them.  Airplanes are the primary interest of the Air Force. In the Navy, if you can’t be a SEAL, I suspect working on the flight deck of a Ford Class nuclear powered aircraft carrier is about at the top of the heap.   In the Navy, Ships and airplanes are their primary interest.  In the Army and the Marines, people are the primary focus.  Because no matter how advanced technology becomes, to win wars and hold territory, there has to be people on the ground.

In the Army, Special Forces are the top of the elite soldiers, and although the army occasionally allows recruits to enlist directly for Special Forces, I do not recommend it.  The enlistment contract only means you get to try out for Special Forces.  The normal route is to make Sergeant, then apply for Special Forces.  About 27% of those who start the year and a half to two year training actually make it to becoming a Green Beret.  The same goes for ranger school.  If you want to be a ranger, enlist for airborne infantry, spend a few months in a line unit then apply for ranger school.

Normal life in the Army is very different for officers and enlisted personnel.  Normal life between junior enlisted married and single people is very different.  And life is different between various units.  I just said that the Army is a people organization, which boils down to leadership.  Changing commanders from company level to army level is a formal process.  The colors of the unit are passed from the outgoing commander to the incoming commander.  The commander alone, is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do, so if the commander is a good leader, that is probably a good unit, if not, it is probably not as good as some others just like it.  So, if you want to go into the Army and you want to try to get into as good a unit as possible, what do you do?  The most elite part of the Army, you can simply enlist for, is airborne.  They jump out of air planes.  Don’t panic, it’s a rip.  One of the biggest thrills in life.

In times like these when the military budgets are being cut, and the services drawn down, all units are not fully funded. When a unit is not fully funded, its training is reduced, its services are reduced, and soldiers are used to perform jobs that civilians were previously paid to do.  It affects everyone’s morale, including the commanders.

The most famous unit in the army, or in fact all the military, is the 82nd Airborne Division, and I believe that it has the highest morale.  Pride is a large part of that morale, because the combat units in the 82nd train hard all the time, and the support units run hard to keep them supplied.  It is the most highly trained, well equipped, fully funded division in all the services.  The reason is that part of it is always on standby.  It is America’s fire brigade.  If America needs to put troops anywhere in the world fast, the President calls Fort Bragg.  The division has three Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) each composed of about 4500 paratroopers.  One BCT is always on standby as the Division Ready Brigade (DRB).  Within 18 hours of notification the DRB can be loaded and “wheels up” to any location in the world.  Every member of the division is airborne (parachute) qualified, and every piece of equipment can be dropped by parachute.  The standard mission is to jump into a hostile area, seize and hold an airfield until heavier units can be flown in.  In Iraq and Afghanistan they just went and did what all other units did, only better.

Enlisting in the Army with an “airborne option” guarantees only airborne school (three weeks at Fort Benning, Georgia), but after paying for a soldier to go through the school there is about a 100% probability that they will be assigned to an airborne unit. Those are; 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy.  The 173rd is the US fire brigade for Europe.  My family and I thoroughly enjoyed an assignment there.  The 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division at Anchorage, Alaska, and the 1st Battalion 509th Airborne Infantry, Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The Army tries to assign its best officers to those units. Good Sergeants usually stay.  I’ve known dozens of sergeants who spent their entire career in the 82nd Airborne Division, minus some mandatory schools, and perhaps one overseas assignment.  Of the ten current 4 star generals in the Army now, all are airborne qualified, six are master parachutists, having spent multiple assignments in the 82nd, and two of those six are former Division Commanders of the 82nd Airborne Division.

First, the Army works five days a week, Monday thru Friday. Hospitals, Military Police, Communications Centers, and Dining Facilities are some of the exceptions.  The individual soldiers still only work five days a week.  Everyone in the Army, who is not on shift work, does PT (Physical Training), first thing in the morning, usually 6:00 or 6:30 AM.  That is the first, and for many the only formation of the day.  Shift work soldiers still do PT, only at different times.  Single Privates, Specialists, and Sergeants live in the barracks.  Some barracks are now called dorms.  A normal set up for permanently assigned soldiers is a private room with a microwave and small refrigerator.  Some have baths, some share a bath with a suite mate (same sex) on the other side of the bath.  Married soldiers, who have their family with them, may live in family housing on post, which are nice houses or apartments, paid for with their Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), or they may live off post.  All married soldiers receive BAH, unless the family lives in government housing, so even if their family is not with them, the BAH is paid to provide for their family.  BAH rates vary with rank and location.  At Fort Leonard Wood, a married Private First Class (PFC E-3) (about a year in the army) will receive an extra $903.00 per month, whereas a Staff Sergeant (SSG E-6) (five to ten years in the army) will receive $1,146.00 per month.  At Fort Bragg, North Carolina the rates are $1,179.00 for the PFC and $1,344.00 for the SSG.  PT usually lasts about an hour.  Many units vary regular PT (calisthenics and run) three days per week with athletics or gym two days.  After PT, soldiers living in the barracks go back to their room, clean up, put on their uniform and go to the Dining Facility (DFAC) for breakfast.  Meals in the DFAC are free for soldiers living in the barracks, those soldiers are issued a meal card. Married soldiers not living in the barracks receive an extra $368.00 per month for meals.  Married soldiers go home, clean up and eat breakfast.  Combat line units like Infantry, Armor, Artillery, or Combat Engineers (companies that have a single mission) will probably have a work formation at about 09:00 AM.  All members of the company are at that formation.  Soldiers who work in staff sections or unique sections, such as line medics usually just report to their desk or place of work at about 09:00.

Lunch is normally for an hour around noon. Anyone can eat in a DFAC, if they so desire.  Soldiers who have meal cards eat free, those who don’t pay, or they go home for lunch, or jump in their car and go to Burger King or one of the many snack bars on post.

The normal work day ends at 4:30 or 5:00 PM, and they are off until PT the next morning.   Except Friday, which means they are off until Monday morning.

Every Fort has at least one main PX (Post Exchange), it is like a Wal-mart, and several small exchanges, they all have a commissary, which is like a giant grocery super center, and at least one service station. There is a hospital, fire stations, a main chapel, plus other chapels, theaters, bowling alleys, gyms, and dozens of ball fields.  Most also have a “do it yourself” auto repair shop, with lifts, tools, and advice available to soldiers.  The family quarters have been contracted out to civilian companies, which has resulted in improved housing and service.  Every post, of any size, has an education center where several colleges and universities teach classes and conduct online classes.  There are six schools at the education center on Fort Leonard Wood, and ten at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Soldiers are highly encouraged to improve their civilian education. So much so that one promotion point is awarded for each semester hour of college, up to 100 points in an 800 point promotion system to Sergeant and Staff Sergeant.  All soldiers are automaticaly enrolled in Structured Self Development – 1 (SSD-1) when they complete their advanced individual training (AIT).  That is an 80 hour online course of military subjects, which must be completed, plus they must attend a four week Basic Leader Course before they can be promoted to Sergeant E-5.

Military pay is based on enlisted pay grades E-1 (Private) through E-9 (Sergeant Major) and officer pay grades O-1 (Second Lieutenant) through O-10 (General). Pay for grade E-1 is separated for those with less than 4 months in service and those over.  The base pay for a Private E-1 under 4 months is $1480.00 per month.  That translates to about $1,200 per month take home pay, for a single soldier, half paid twice monthly.  If the soldier is married they will also be paid Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH).  That gets them through basic and part of the next phase, which is advanced individual training (AIT).  Then regular E-1 pay is $1,600 per month, which means about $100 per month increase in take home pay.  Private E-2 comes at about six months in service, that base pay is $1,793, which means about $1,450 take home.  Private First Class (PFC) E-3 usually comes at about a year in service, that is $1,886 base, which is a little over $1,500 take home.  Specialist E-4 usually comes at about 18 months service.  A Specialist E-4 over 2 years base pay is $2,089, equaling a little over $1,600 take home.

In the coming weeks I will attempt to portray the life of different soldiers in different jobs. In the next two weeks, I will take two different soldiers, both young women, through their training to their permanent assignment.  One enlists in the Army, the other finishes college and is commissioned into the army as an officer.  Both go into the same field and are assigned to the same unit and the same office, but their working relationships, living conditions, and pay are entirely different.

A look at what real life is in the Army, not what is portrayed in movies