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US Naval Basic Training Post Mortem

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So it turns out that "Contract Extension" Sailor Ripley had me sign was actually a Naval Enlistment. Very funny asshole. Seems like sort of an overreaction to my lighthearted hijinks of telling his mom he had cancer and drowning his dog. Anyway it turns out those things are binding so I showed up at the Military Entrance Processing Station looking forward to a long weekend of water skiing behind aircraft carriers and shooting whales with torpedoes but it turns out whoever’s in charge of this stuff has no idea about what’s cool. Instead what I encountered was a good deal of screaming, sweating and swearing, a little blood and some tears, all neatly wrapped in a package of tighty whities and brown plastic framed glasses. Actually it was a lot like hanging out with SydneyCarton.

Male or Female, the so-called "birth control goggles" can be a tough look to pull off.

Now one of the defining characteristics of Basic Training is that it is populated by eighteen-year-olds and one of the defining characteristics of eighteen-year-olds is that they are eighteen years old. In case you don't recall, eighteen is an absolutely magical age where not only does one know everything about anything but also so interesting and important is everything one has to say that it cannot be contained by any power of God or nature nor lawful order from military superior. Alas lesser creatures like you and I and RDCs (Recruit Division Commanders; the Navy’s version of Drill Instructors) sometimes fail to appreciate this universal truth and tend to respond by commencing intensive training or IT sessions. These sessions might last anywhere from a few minutes for a garden variety "beating" to several hours for longer sessions including the dreaded "ice cream social" where RDCs from throughout the ship (other services might call them barracks) are invited to participate, ensuring that as many recruits as possible receive a personal touch. Even these actions however, serve only to temporarily impede the phenomenon of late adolescent gab. You can’t stop it, you can only hope to contain it.

Now speaking of RDCs, they range from tolerable to admirable with the best of them functioning much as a coach: coaxing, cajoling or threatening as necessary in order to extract the desired results from their charges. Of course the more experienced have this down to a science and when watching it happen to someone else, it’s fascinating and even amusing to see these people operate; their good cop/bad cop would make Starsky and Hutch feel like a couple of rookies.

Now no matter the relative quality of RDC they almost all need to be acknowledged for the job they do. Imagine if you will, 80 or so of the aforementioned eighteen-year-olds. You’re going to be there to Rev them (scream at them to get their asses out of their racks) at anywhere from 0400 to 0600. You then get to spend eighteen hours or so with these cats, trudging around with them through the elements of a northern Illinois winter trying to train them to march in step and develop some semblance of military bearing (to say nothing of just shutting the fuck up) and after you Tap them out at 2200 you finally head home to try to catch your own four hours of sleep or so. This is the routine you can look forward to for the next eight weeks (there’s talk of extending boot camp to thirteen) and your desperate hope is that you might just get a short break before your next group. In the unlucky case of my four RDCs they had to pick up their next division the very day after mine left. I feel extremely sorry for two of them. Now they do try to rotate shifts somewhat to alleviate some of the stress but we’re still talking about 100+ hour weeks of this stuff. I want you to go look up what paygrades E-5 through E-7 make and tell me if this sounds like the job for you.

Why on earth would anyone do this you ask? Yeah, I asked the same thing and got a bullshit answer about it being personally rewarding from someone for whom I knew it to be false. She then grudgingly mentioned a few words about how career enhancing it was and I let forth with an "ah-ha!". Then I did eight count body builders for 20 minutes. Some astute observations are best marked inwardly. Still, one of the rewards for these folks is undoubtedly the day of the-ahem-Confidence Chamber where recruits stand in a tear gas-filled compartment and, when ordered, remove their masks and state their name, rank and service number before exiting. If one has been known to make wry remarks about one’s RDCs or perhaps (hilariously) mimic their speech or mannerisms one might be asked to also recite the Sailor’s Creed and perhaps a verse or two of Anchors Aweigh. Or so I’ve heard. Anyway, while all this is happening, the RDCs watch gleefully from the safety of an enjoining observation room, cackling and pointing out to each other their ‘special kids’ as each takes his turn coughing, crying, gagging and/or vomiting. If, during the process, you manage to grin and wink at them you may feel free to savor the moment but rest assured you’ll pay for it later.

Picture these guys in Navy Service Uniforms and you've got it.

Alright then, let’s address what I call The Full Metal Jacket Issue. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask about similarities despite the fact that it’s a 25 year old piece of fiction about a different service set 45 years ago and no, that isn’t sarcasm. The movie is the definitive take on military basic training for just about anyone born in the latter half of the twentieth century and I found it quoted constantly by both recruits and RDCs alike. If I had a nickel for every time I had to hear a pimple faced twerp recite the steers and queers line like he made it up I’d be able to pay for Vasherized’s bar tab. Almost.

Be careful with that joke. It’s older than you are.

So to answer the question: kinda, not really. One large room as living space for 80 recruits? Yep. An RDC physically striking a recruit? No way. Humorous ravings from RDCs that one better not laugh at? You bet. Cadences that reference the enemy leader’s STDs or appraise the quality of a particular ethnicity’s lady parts? Not in today’s integrated Navy. Actually the experience I had that most closely mirrored the film was a near reenactment of the jelly doughnut scene. In the case of this particular recruit it was peanut butter but the rest of the details were almost uncannily similar. A locker is found unlocked and the contents dumped on the floor and a few moments later the dread cry is heard, "WHAT IN THE FUCK IS THAT?!" From there the rest of the night is a haze of sweat and screaming and IT set to the rhythm of the RTC Maxim: I will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those among us who do. All while Seaman Recruit Peanut Butter stands in the center of the compartment observing and consuming his ill gotten snack. Now everyone remembers the follow up to that scene and no, there was no "towel party" for Seaman Recruit Peanut Butter. Today’s Navy (and other services from what I understand) places such an emphasis on the prohibition of recruit to recruit contact that none dare help motivate the stragglers in such ways. As yet no brass have cared to ask my opinion on the advisability of that policy and hence I’ll not share it here either.

As one week gives way to the next, the group of recruits learns to stand watches, administer first aid, handle weapons, and identify and interact with officers and senior enlisted personnel with varying degrees of competency. For some the acclimation to military life is harder than for others and it is not uncommon for a roving night watchman to pass by the head and hear some sobbing. Navy boot camp is not necessarily meant as a weeding out process but it ends up functioning that way to a certain extent and the columns of the division shorten as the weeks go by. Some depart due to medical reasons, some academic, some behavioral. I was a divisional yeomen and as unpleasant as many days of boot camp were my least favorite was undoubtedly informing a young man that he was being held back due to test failures and would not be graduating with our division. Big kid, probably 6’2" and built like a brick shithouse but as his eyes welled up when I told him he had ten minutes to pack up his seabag and that there wasn’t time for him to make rounds to say goodbye it felt like I’d kicked a kindergartner.

Finally, as the last two weeks arrive the curriculum turns to basic line handling, damage control and firefighting and so intricate are the applications and so well designed are the facilities that one might actually start to catch themselves having fun at times. Just don’t get caught. The entire process culminates in an overnight, twelve hour simulation called Battle Stations, the details of which I am not allowed to divulge but suffice to say that Disneyworld ain’t got shit on the USN and if allowed, college fraternities and corporate H.R. reps would pay through the nose to take their crews out for a weekend of this stuff. Of course the difference is that their future wouldn’t depend on their performance and if they failed to learn any lessons from the experience it almost certainly will never cost anyone their lives. The same cannot be said of Division 048.

Upon successful completion of Battle Stations one takes part in the capping ceremony where the recruit ballcap is exchanged for the Navy ballcap and hence the symbolic transition from recruit to Sailor. From there it's a whirlwind of Pass in Review, Liberty Weekend, some travel briefs and before you know it you're climbing out of your rack at two in the morning to catch a plane to your next duty station. And so it is that you find yourself saying goodbye to people who you did not know existed two months before, who drove you absolutely crazy, with whom you experienced frustration and isolation and exhaustion, who you spent 24 hours a day with for eight weeks, with whom you silently shared cafeteria food on Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years, who you without-a-doubt wanted to fucking choke on at least a daily basis. And who you will never forget. Because somewhere in the midst of all the pain and sweat and ice and snow you stopped being strangers and became shipmates.

Hooyah Zero Four Eight.