In last week's Military Monday, we left our intrepid soldier on her way to Reception.
The base I ended up with for Basic Training (and for typing purposes, we'll shorten that to BT) was Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. Every base has a nickname - Ft. Leonard Woods, MO is Fort Lost in the Woods; Ft. Benning is Home of the Ranger (that's where they train 'em); Ft. Huachuca, AZ is Fort We-Gotcha (When you get sent to a base, your time there is usually 2 years. At Ft. H., people get stuck there for years - they get deployed a lot and when they get back, their time at Ft. H starts over from the beginning). I don't know what the real nickname for Ft. Jackson is but my squad got to calling it Fort Smack-me-some. Not that we ever got smacked, but it kicked our ass and the name rhymed (sorta).
Reception is like paradise compared to real BT. You get to wear your own clothes for a few days until they issue your uniforms, you march from place to place but it's a pretty loosely defined version of marching. There's 2 drill sgt.'s and one regular sgt. assigned to your platoon and they are jokey kind of drill sgt.'s, nothing like the hardcore ones you meet later.
You spend your days lounging about in your bunk, waiting for your next trip to the magical land that is in-processing. There's shots to be had, records to be filled out (you get to learn all about our SSN, particularly your last 4), you get to mingle with the boys some. After you get your uniforms, you get pictures with your dress uniform on. You have to do one push-up to prove your physically fit to go on to BT proper. If you can't do that one proper military push-up (and believe me there were 2 girls and one guy who couldn't), you get an extra week at Reception doing nothing but PT to get you up to speed.
Oh, and another Pap smear. Good times.
(For the first 3 years of my Army career, 1991-1994, any female soldier going to the hospital/sick call for any reason was required to pee in a cup at some point during her stay/visit to check for pregnancy. In '94 when I got to Ft. Huachuca, they stopped doing that, but that may've just been a you-work-in-this-hospital-so-you-don't-have-to policy.)
Uniform issue day:
You stand in line and are measured. You're given a piece of paper with your measurements at the top and a huge checklist of all the things you are to receive. You work your way down the line, checking off things as you get them. By the end, you've got an Army issue duffel bag, stuffed to the gills and weighing about 50 pounds. The first thing they issue is your PT gear. PT is Physical Training and your PT gear is a pair of grey running shorts and a grey T-shirt. They issue you granny panties and ugly bras. You can wear your own bras during BT but not your own panties. Weird.
So you put on these PT's and wear them as you move down the Basic Issue line. You try on the BDU pants and jacket. BDU stands for Battle Dress Uniform and it's the green/brown camo you think of for Army uniforms (at least before Desert Storm). Despite your measurements on your paper, you end up getting what they have in stock and hopefully it fits. Back then (as now) I'm 5'2", back then (sigh) I was about 125 pounds. A girl we all called Tiny wasn't even 5' and I doubt she topped out at 90 pounds. We both looked like we were wearing Daddy's clothes. And, as I said previously, they gave me boots that were a half size too small. I said, "These are a size 8, I need an 8.5."
Issuer: Those are 8.5.
Me: (showing the pretty clearly marked '8') No, look, they say 8.
Issuer: They came off the 8.5 shelf, they are 8.5.
Me: (realizing the obvious futility of arguing with this prick) Well, they are too small.
Issuer: They'll stretch.
Me: How, they are plastic.
Issuer: It only feels like plastic, it's leather and they'll stretch.
Me: (looking skeptical) When.
Issuer: Give it a week, if you need a bigger size tell your drill and they'll get you some
Me: Can't I just take care of it now?
Me: Can I get a 9 then?
Issuer: No. And you're holding up the line soldier.
(I thought to myself, 'Welcome to the Army, Ruth.')
After you get all your gear, you have to turn in your civilian stuff. Almost all of the soldiers are going straight to AIT after BT (AIT is where they teach you the job you picked), so we've all got these ginormous suitcases with all our civie clothes. Your stuff gets catalogued and locked into a closet. After reception, it gets locked in a closet at your new digs on base. The big drill sgt. assigned to us had to catalogue our stuff. He was making stupid comments about any frilly underwear he'd come across.
The 2 drills assigned to us were a small light-skinned black guy with hazel eyes and a reasonably mellow attitude and a behemoth, dark-skinned black guy who was always joking with us but turned into a bully when even slightly crossed. I can't remember their names, so we'll just call them Smith (small) and Jones (big).
DS Smith liked to go around saying, "That looks like an abortion!" which made a couple of people in a platoon full of women turn pale. The women, when alone in the barracks, would say things like, "Why does he have to say that? It's so offensive!" And, from an older girl, "I've had an abortion and that shit ain't nuthin' to joke about."
(When we took our pictures, I remember taking DS Smith aside and telling him how some of the girls found that phrase offensive and would he mind picking a different way to insult us.
Yea. I know. I'm a total, idealistic dork. When I think back to the absolute naivete that prompted that, I don't know whether to laugh at it's existence or cry that it's gone.)
The regular sgt. assigned to us was a good guy. (His name also escapes me, so we'll call him SSGT., since that was his rank - Staff Sgt.) He was always nice and pleasant and always smelled really good. Eternity for Men, I think.
One day, towards the beginning of our stay in Reception, SSGT. and DS Smith were standing around the common area when Tiny came running out of the barracks and found me. She said, "Ruth, there's a guy in our barracks and he's in the upper bunk from you!"
Me: Whaaaat? No way.
Me: There can't be a guy in our barracks, the guys are no where near here!
Tiny: He's there - I swear.
Me: Look, I'm going to go check it out. You go get DS Smith and have him come see, too.
As I was heading into our barracks to see, I was closely followed by DS Smith who'd overheard our convo. As did most of the other girls who were hanging around the common area. One hears and with all those females, it spreads like wildfire.
I went to my bunk and there was someone on the top bunk. Certainly looked male, gotta say. But as we introduced ourselves, Cindy and I got it all straightened out. DS Smith left the building laughing and went to calm down the other women. (Speaking of straightening out, as butch as Cindy looked, turns out she wasn't the gay one. The gay one was this really pretty, feminine, big-boned girl named Breaux. More about that in a future post.)
Our barracks in reception consisted of a big open room (think reception or banquet hall) called a bay. There's all these wall lockers and bunk beds lined up in rows down the middle. You have about one foot of space between your bunk and your wall locker. You can house over 100 people in these bays. No privacy for anyone. Communal showers and bathrooms. The only privacy you'll ever find there is to lock yourself in a bathroom stall. If you do that, they soon come looking for you.
Towards the end of our week in Reception, we were all hanging around the commons again. The SSGT. came over to me and said the usual thing I'd hear, "Riggs, you need to fix that hair, soldier." Except for the 4 years of high school when it was really short, I've always had really long hair. Really long (at least mid-back), really straight, really soft hair that doesn't like to stay up. I've also always been really hair-styling impaired. I'd twist it into a bun and wrap a scrunchie around it but the softness and straightness of it - it'd slip out within minutes. Especially with physical activity. So my hair was always sort of half coming out of my scrunchie. But it was up above my collar and not terribly messy so I didn't understand the actual issue at hand. "SSGT.," I said, "What exactly do you mean? I put it up and it stays up but you still tell me to fix it. If you could just, please, be a bit more specific, I'll do my best to take care of it."
This is when I almost get thrown out of the Army on my 5th day in.
DS Jones is standing there the whole time listening. After I ask SSGT. to be specific, Jones reaches out with his big paw and grabs my bun of hair. My whole body stiffens and I automatically put my arm up to push his away. He sees this, grins smugly, and starts yanking my hair back and forth, up and down to emphasize his words, "This soldier. This is what he's talking about. You don't question, you. Just. Fix. It."
When he's done yanking, he stands there with my hair still in his mitt. He's at least a full foot taller then me and standing to my side - I look at him as best I can and say, "Take. your hands. off me." He laughs, lets go and starts to walk away. I talk to his back, and quietly yet firmly say, "And if you ever touch me again, I will Fuck. You. Up."
He stops. Stops dead in his tracks and stops laughing. He whips around, heads back my way, gets right in my face and says, "What did you say to me, girl?" I look him dead in his eye and say, "You heard me. You're not allowed to touch us and I'll just be defending myself."
Drill sgt.'s are taught to not use a single finger to point at people. The theory is a single finger is too personal - my theory is it's too easy to get it broken. So they are taught to use their whole hand, turned sideways with thumb folded in. They use this to shake at your face and make their point. DS Jones was coming at me with a single finger and sputtering mad.
SSGT. squeezes in between us at this point. Facing DS Jones, SSGT. says, "Riggs, go to your bunk and cool off." DS Jones realizes that SSGT. (who outranks him) is actually talking to both of us. He turns around and storms off. So do I. I go to my bunk area and do about the furthest thing from cooling off. I'm in a rage. I rip the sheets and blankets off my bed, open my wall locker and throw everything out of it, yelling things like, "Who the FUCK does he think he is?? He can't put his hands on me! I'll kill that motherfucker!" After about 10 minutes of this behavior, finally spent, I lay on my bunk.
Of course, the grapevine is out and all the girls are around my bed watching me throw this huge fit. (Not that they needed a grapevine, I'm sure they could hear me. Italy probably could've heard me.) When I've stopped and calmed down some, a bunch of the other girls told how he'd done similar things to them. One had been repeatedly poked in the sternum (single finger thing) while DS Jones was making some other point. One had been offended by his inappropriate remarks regarding her personal civilian things during the cataloguing process. And a few others that had choice words for the drills.
In another burst of extreme naivete as to the workings of the military, we got together and wrote this huge letter to the CO (Commanding Officer) about the drill sgt.'s despicable and, possibly, illegal (as far as the military goes) behavior. I believe it was something like 5 pages long. (I know. Stupid. Childish. Naive beyond belief.)
We took it to the CO's office but he'd already left for the day. We gave the sealed envelope to the drill sgt. sitting at the desk and told him to give it to the CO, first thing.
2 days later, when we were to be getting on the bus to be shipped out to the part of the base where our BT proper was supposed to begin, DS Smith asked me and Tiny to come into his office. He had her there as a chaperon while he ripped me a new one.
Smith: Who do you think you are soldier?
Me: What do you mean, DS?
Smith: You go running around here telling drill sgt.'s what they should and shouldn't say. You write letters to the CO, trying to get people in trouble. You are messing with careers here, missy. (At this point, to my abject horror, he holds up the letter. Tiny and I looked at each other gape-mouthed. Those cheating bastards!)
Smith: That's right. That drill last night gave it to me.
Me: That was a letter written to the CO. You guys stole it?? What the fuck?! And as to messing with careers, don't you think DS Jones is messin' with his own career going around doing these things he knows he's not supposed to??
Smith: You can't talk to me like that. Tiny, you're a witness.
Me: She's my witness too. If you can say the things you're saying and hold up letters that don't belong to you.... she's my witness too.
Smith: You just better watch yourself, Riggs. We drill sgt.'s stick together and where you're going, they already know allll about you.
(Here's where Tiny gasps. That statement, quite frankly, is the very last thing any soldier in BT ever wants to hear. If you keep a low profile and are invisible, the drills will generally leave you alone. I suppose that was never likely to happen where I'm concerned.)
Me: Stick together - what do I care? I'm always where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to be doing - if they're going to judge me for some bullshit here where I wasn't even the one in the wrong then there's nothing I can do about that.
Somewhere after he produced the letter, we both started yelling. Tiny is trying to get tinier in the corner and the DS and I just kept getting madder. After my last statement, the DS huffed at me, "We shall see." and sent us on our merry way.
Steaming mad again and wondering if my friend David who helped me get into the Army was right about me - that I could do it if I tried. Because, at this point, I was really questioning my ability to get through the next 8 weeks. David had told me they couldn't touch me and to just do as I was told and don't get sucked up into the head games they play at BT.
Tiny and I headed to the bus that was to take us to our new home for the next 8 weeks. We were hoofin' it because our little tete-a-tete with DS Smith made us late. As we were grabbing our linen stack for our new beds, DS McCoy (the female drill I told you about 2 weeks ago), heard my name called.
McCoy: Hmph, "Riggs"? Yea, we heard allll about you, Riggs. We gonna see how you do.
Me: I'll do just fine, DS. Go where I'm supposed to go. Do what I'm supposed to do.
McCoy: Sounds like a good plan, soldier. Get on that bus.
Still steams me to think of that jerk pulling my hair, Ruth!