You can expect boot camp to be somewhat challenging, and to what extent depends on your personality, stress threshold, physical and mental fortitude, and a slew of other things that are hard as hell to accurately measure. No boot camp experiences are the same, at the individual level. But over time, there are trends you can pick up on based on the experiences of the masses.

One of the more interesting and somewhat preventable trends to observe is the tendency of recruits and trainees to make the basic training period unnecessarily difficult. In spite of the different training practices between branches, the different degrees of intensity, and the differences in drill instructors, there are universal tendencies adopted by recruits that make life harder for both himself and those around him.

If you’re interested in being that guy, simply do the following, starting from the time you get to boot camp, to the time you leave. This will guarantee that you and the people you’re working most closely with get your asses kicked as often as possible. If you don’t want to be, just do what you’re supposed to do and contribute as well as you can.When you ship out, you’re likely to run into at least one of each of these people. Keep it in mind, and you’ll be able to spot them immediately.

 

1) Be a volunteer DI (i.e. be a tyrant)

Or basically, mirror the behavior of your drill instructor. Doing this will make sure you’re the splinter in whatever unity your group achieves. As if the DIs weren’t capable of doing their jobs, you can go the extra mile and make sure that what they’ve failed to do gets done.

In reality, you’re painting a target on your back. In fact, you’re painting two targets on your back: one will be for the drill instructors, because you’re acting out. You’re asserting yourself and your opinion as being the one to acknowledge over theirs. They do not like this, by the way.

The second target is for the recruits who have to pay for your ego trip. They are the guys who will have to do pushups for your screw ups and incidentally, the ones who will throw you under the bus because you have no idea how to be a team player. The name of the game in basic training is teamwork. If you assume the role of the drill instructor’s mini-me, then you’re doing it wrong.

 

2) Be Gomer Pyle.

Every division in history has had one of these. If it is or was you when you went through, then you’re most likely now a better man or woman than you were before, and quite feasibly better than me. I’m not sure I could handle that role.

This persona also earns you a target during BMT (basic military training), and a large one at that. It’s most frequently reserved for the first person who blatantly, though unintentionally, screws up the easy stuff. Be this guy, and the DI will call you out, have you stand where everyone can see, and make an example out of you. Theoretically, which is to say “officially”, the military has eliminated this type of treatment in favor of training practices that better align with current pop psychology.

In fact, your recruiter may tell you, reassuringly, that this is a thing of the past, and DIs neither “make examples” of recruits or curse at them anymore.

LIES. LIES. LIES.

Not so long ago, my RDCs reenacted a scene right out of Full Metal Jacket. During this session, my division’s seaman recruit Pyle stood on a chair, being forced to eat doughnuts, while 4 more RDCs were called in to oversee a beat down session. This was called an “ice cream social”, and lasted the better part of 90 minutes where we IT’d while one guy stuffed his face. We weren’t happy about this.

The trick is to let someone else be that guy.

 

3) Be a Shit Bag 

This is the apathetic, know-it-all version of the first guy. Sure, you graduated college, your daddy is a Senator, you’ve got a trust fund and make more outside the military than inside of it, you drive a Cadillac. Expect everyone else to do everything while you sit back and criticize. You’re a big picture person, after all, and if you felt like it, you could do it better.

No one cares.

You may not be targeted by the drill instructors (because you’re not doing anything that garners their attention), but you’re sure to annoy and slow down the progress of the group. By providing copious non-constructive input and sarcastic wit, you hinder, slow, and distract your colleagues who are working to contribute to the division’s success.

If this role tempts you, but want to avoid it, force yourself to overcome your petty insecurities figure out a way to contribute positively. No one needs destructive criticism, as there’s enough coming from the guys who are being paid to dish it out. The difference, of course, between theirs and yours, is theirs is to achieve a sense of uniformity and purpose in pushing other recruits. If you assume this role, you’re just demonstrating a fear of failure by tearing others down. Solution: keep your mouth shut unless it’s helpful.

 

 

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Point of fact: in boot camp, you do a lot of seemingly stupid stuff. Remember back in school when you asked “when am I going to have to do this in real life?” Chances are good you’ll be doing that in basic training a few times, too.

The list of things that may contribute to this line of questioning may go something like this:

-effectively ironing t-shirts and uniform items

-shining boots and dress shoes

-ENORMOUS amounts of cleaning. Seriously, down on the ground, wiping dust off the floor to your quarters with a cloth or sock, taking a toothbrush to the communal sinks, toilets (aka, the head, latrine, etc), and showers. The list goes on and on.

-“properly” folding uniform items

-“properly” making a bed

-aligning your belt buckle according to uniform standards

 

In addition to having to do all of the above with enthusiasm that no rational person would ever actually apply to these things, you’ll also be inspected, and probably ‘punished’ for how effectively or ineffectively you did them. Boot camp instructors undergo an enormous amount of similar, and more intense training in order to get qualified for their job, and a part of that training is picking your performance apart, regardless of the quality of your work in order to drive home a point.

Make no mistake, your execution may be spot on, but if there’s anything lacking whatsoever, you will be called out on it. Gone are the days, though, that you’ll be physically beaten or anything like that (no one is allowed to lay a hand on you), and officially, Navy and Air Force boot camp instructors “don’t even curse at recruits anymore” (LOL). By beaten, I simply mean IT’d (intensive training’d, or rather, intensively trained) by way of pushups, lunges, or whatever the instructors decide.

I suppose one could bitch all day about the absurdity of these practices, but rest assured it wouldn’t do any good whatsoever. Let me be clear, if an instructor steps out of line (shit happens) by sexually harassing or causing unauthorized physical harm to a recruit/trainee, that’s a different story and he/she should absolutely be held accountable. But in most cases, these seemingly sadistic Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen are some of the most motivated, admirable service members you’ll ever meet with enormously high ethical standards, albeit INCREDIBLY rough around the edges…

All that considered, the basis for this behavior is twofold.

-First, you’re the FNGs (F*@#ing New Guys). The Big Military isn’t going to let you carry a gun the first day. So goes the theory, at least, that you have to earn the privilege of greater responsibilities. In the meantime, the FNG has to first prove that he/she is capable of properly handling an iron before being given those privileges.

-Second, the devil is in the details. So, as goes the theory, is effectiveness. Focusing on the details ensures that the job is done properly the first time. A prevalent fact in the private sector, people frequently manage to fill the time they’re given, regardless of the task’s significance. Often, in the private sector, the quality of the work hinges on how that person feels about how they’re paid or how they perceive the significance of that job. In the military, you’re forced to observe the details are ‘ironed out’ (sorry, that was low hanging fruit) before moving on.

These approaches eliminate feelings of entitlement that recruits show up with from wherever it is they’re coming from. You might say that recruit life is the great equalizer of the enlisted man. If you came from the hood, you’re on par with the trust fund baby across the room, you both get equal opportunity to prove yourself regardless of your feelings about it.

Second is 60-90 days of focusing on details gets you used to paying attention to aspects of tasks most people on the outside ignore or don’t even notice. This habit, long after boot camp, is something you will be glad to have learned when it comes to finding work as a civilian. Eventually, you’ll probably stop caring how to properly fold you underwear, but the principle and habit is still in place. Even if you lose it for a while, old habits return without much effort.

 

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Disclaimer: Due to the nature of this website, and the military experience in general, I have to advise anyone with a propensity for getting offended by coarse language, lewd references to male or female anatomy, strange, questionable, or otherwise irrational behavior, mistreatment of animals, and anything else I haven’t covered but may decide to-you should probably stay away.

 

I intended this post to be a quick and dirty one. Instead, it ended up taking quite a bit to consolidate all the hilarious and troubling stuff that I came across, both in researching recruiting/boot camp stories as well as trying to extract at least one crazy anecdote from everyone I can think of who was in the military. At the risk of sounding disjointed, below you’ll find a collection of things that I’ve heard about, read about, heard from others who heard from others, ad nauseam.

When you leave for boot camp, you’re thrown into a completely foreign environment, with people from all kinds of different economic backgrounds, intellectual level, cultural behaviors, hygienic practices, religious beliefs, skin color, languages, etc. When this happens, everyone is not only robbed of their routines and creature comforts, but also expected to function as a unit. 

This is challenging.

And as a result, it tends to bring out the worst in people, even if that worst is just for a moment. Most fairly balanced people with the ability to compartmentalize their emotions have at least one irrational breakdown at some point or other, while the slightly, moderately, or extremely ill-adjusted may just break time and time again. That’s one of the points of boot camp, and there’s nothing wrong with it when it happens.

On the other hand, sometimes for these same reasons, people do some stupid, stupid shit.

1) Makeshift Drug Use: In boot camp, you will undergo a dental exam to determine whether your molars will be a problem down the line. In some cases, you won’t have to have them extracted. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t ever have to have them taken out, it just means that you won’t have to have them taken out in the next couple years. This saves the military some time and money.

courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/defenceimages/

Generally, the only pain you’ll feel is not during the actual extraction. Although you will be awake for it (sorry to be the bearer of bad news-it is free healthcare, after all. They “call the shots”), you will be shot up 12-15 times with lidocaine and walk away with a numb mouth and drooling all over yourself for the next few hours, still numb.

Anyhow, after the operation, to minimize the pain, you will probably given a prescription for vicodin, or other low level, albeit habit forming variant of legal heroin. This is where people get stupid, and it’s not hard to imagine how. My own RDC (Recruit Drill Commander) had one recruit decide it would be a good idea to crush and snort his vicodin. For those who don’t know, that’s an effective and fast way to absorb substances as it bypasses the blood-brain barrier. Although a creative and clever idea, this recruit, who had been presumably substance free for at least 4-5 weeks (about the time molar extraction happens in boot camp), didn’t consider that he may be a bit more sensitive to substances after having taken some time off of them.

This recruit mysteriously failed to muster (aka “report to”) at the designated time, and was found 4 hours later, passed out in the division laundry room. Needless to say, he didn’t finish boot camp.

 

2) Stealing from the PX, MCX, NEX, etc: I guess some people just enjoy stealing. This point of reference is based on a couple of different reports from DIs (drill instructors) from a couple of branches in which the trainees/recruits thought it would be wise, surely in the interest of thrift, to secure their boot camp necessities by pocketing shoe polish, body wash, razors, etc.

Many military exchanges are stocked really, really well. Often, they’ll look more like chain retail stores and stock the what you’d expect out of a private retail establishment, and then some, be it clothing, shoes, groceries, and booze. Military exchanges also sell uniforms, ribbons and medals, combat boots, cutlasses (Marines and navy), and offer services such as uniform alteration and name tag attachment. You get the idea. These facilities provide an enormous convenience to local service members and their families, there’s also the added bonus that most exchanges (not all) do not charge sales tax. Incidentally, though, the one or two located on most recruit training facilities are stocked with a minimum of these items.

What makes this more entertaining is that recruits are not given much control over their finances in boot camp. Everyone is paid the same amount of money for the first few months, and it’s generally understood that if you are going to have to spend money, it will be on training items. Put another way, in addition to being tax free, the stuff you need to get through boot camp doesn’t add up to much. Don’t steal it. You just showed up, don’t think stealing is something the military won’t kick your ass out for.

courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/via/

3) Fraternize With Recruits of Opposite Gender Contrary to popular opinion, there’s a certain friction that exists in a newly gender-integrated military. I know the argument: “But women have served in the military for decades! It’s nothing new!” and supposedly that’s a long time. But really, bringing women into the military beyond support roles is young as concepts go, and the kinks haven’t entirely been worked out. Sure, there are rules in place, but how often does written rules stand in the way of behavior between genders? It’s silly to expect people to be entirely rational in strange environments where stress and strain are daily occurrences and people regularly launch into survival mode.

D.I.s keep a close eye on recruits during this time, for obvious reasons. Shit still happens, of course, in any number of circumstances. When recruits are caught, however, the repercussions are drastic and humiliating. Is it something you can be kicked out of the military for? Sure, although it’s not guaranteed every time.

Best course of action: stay away from recruits of the opposite gender until after basic. Obviously, when working alongside one another, simply keep it professional.

 

4) Drinking On Liberty, Pass, Furlough, etc Weekend

When you finally wrap up the weeks spent in basic training, chances are you’ll have earned a couple days off. Depending on your branch, as will be covered later, the times and days and duration you’ll be given free time all vary. During this much anticipated and well earned free time, you’re expected to refrain from certain behavior that you may otherwise exhibit if you didn’t still have a couple days left to go before your reassigned orders to your next station.

During this time, people make even more mistakes. Drinking is forbidden on these weekends, as history has proven that after 2-3 months of not consuming alcohol, military personnel binge, overestimating their current tolerance, drink illegally, etc. It’s easy to fill in the blanks as to what happens from there: fresh, newly graduated recruits end up going UA (unauthorized absence) or AWOL (absent without leave), over-imbibe and end up in the hospital, drink and drive (driving is also a no go for the weekend), get into fights and other physical altercations, not to mention poor performance the following day, if further training is on the plan of the day, and possibly the call for medical involvement due to extreme hangover symptoms.

5) Indiscriminate, Poorly Thought Out Tattoo Decisions

While there is nothing wrong with tattoos in the military, for the most part, right after basic training invites both the opportunity, the finances (you’re about $3,000-$4,000 richer after boot camp before taxes and deductions), and certainly the motivation, for some reason, people are inclined to make some dumb decisions about what to put under their skin.

This isn’t anything you’ll necessarily be kicked out of the military for unless you violate military regulations by getting something on your face, neck, head, or hands (last one exempted for the army). Because of the post boot camp high, new recruits feel untouchable and don’t spend as much time thinking things through as they otherwise would. It’s an exciting time, once you’re finally on the other side of the line.

Unfortunately, because of this euphoria-infused motivation, recruits end up getting tattooed at locations that are built strategically to prey on the ignorance of young military people. I have no respect or regard for these businesses, and it’s important to be aware that they exist. I’ll write more in depth about these types of businesses later. In the meantime, understand that the tattoo parlors you’re likely to find within a mile or two of training facilities are often predatory in their practices. In addition to likely paying a premium for location, there’s always the possibility of infection.

That said, if you’re newly graduated from boot camp, hold off on the tattoo until technical training. My own boot camp instructor also told me recently of one of his recruits who did exactly this, contracted hepatitis, and was help back in basic training for another month until he was fully recovered from the infection. Unless you really just love the boot camp experience, chances are good you’ll want to move on to the next phase of your military career.

 

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There’s always a lot of talk and media coverage and rumors about the CS gas chamber mandatory for new recruits. As with any other new experience, there’s reason to be anxious, but chances are good that what you’re imagining is worse than the reality. Unless you’ve participated in riots or are into some weird recreational activities, most people right out of high school haven’t been pepper sprayed or serious allergic reaction, and certainly haven’t stepped into a gas chamber voluntarily. If you’ve been worried about it, then stop it. Millions of other recruits before you have stepped in and out of it without their world crashing down, and some are lucky enough to not experience any effects at all.

Chances are pretty good, however, that you will experience some mild to moderately unpleasant sensations as soon as the cs gas starts making its way into your happy, healthy lungs. The compound that makes up CS gas acts by irritating the mucous membranes in your body, which in turn causes the below side effects. Although every branch does things differently, recruit drill commanders like to mix things up a bit in terms of everything leading up to the evolution (session), often for their added enjoyment. It’s tough to blame them, though-everyone needs to have a little fun on the job once in a while.

The whole procedure goes something like this:

First, you’ll be briefed on what the most common side effects of CS gas. And they are:

  • Crying
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Temporary blindness
  • Excessive salivation (drooling)
  • Runny nose
  • Itching/pain in the eyes
  • Skin irritation

It’s not hard to see why this stuff is so frequently used in riots.

Second, your recruit commander, drill sergeant, etc will explain the logistics of the evolution. The order in which you enter, how to properly don (put on) and adjust your gas mask, when to take it off, what to say while in the chamber, put it back on, etc.

Once upon a time, Navy recruit drill commanders demanded that once you remove your gas mask, you hold it in one hand, while cupping your other hand upward against your chest, to catch whatever mucus made its way out of your head. We were told that this was to minimize subsequent cleanup time, but who knows. Also, prior to the next phase in the evolution, it’s not uncommon for a drill commander to ask who in the division considers him/herself to be a badass or tough guy. There’s  a reason for this. 

Third, your division will file into the unpolluted chamber, which allows the commanders to repeat the instructions one last time beforehand. In most cases, they’ll ensure everyone has properly donned and adjusted their gas masks, as one of the main purposes of the exercise is to give recruits the chance to see first-hand that the masks are reliable and function properly. In a real, bio-hazardous situation, it’s a good thing to be able to trust the gear. Unless there happens to be a recruit commander in the chamber supervising, the other supervisors file out into an outside chamber and observe through a glass window, or wait outdoors.

Fourth, the fun starts. Tablets of CS gas are vaporized on a plate that looks similar to a Bunsen burner, filling the room with a thick fog which is familiar to anyone who has seen video of the rioting that characterized the 60s and 70s. During the briefing, you were most likely told to recite something like “name, rank, social security number” when prompted by your recruit commander, who may be prompting from the other side of the glass or possible yelling in your face. Keep in mind another one of the purposes behind this exercise is to force you to be able to function in a high stress situation; which also sums up the whole point of boot camp. In many cases, your colleagues will freeze up, focusing too much on breathing or frivolously trying to minimize the discomfort by rubbing or scratching. You’ll most likely keep your mask on until approached by your drill sergeant, who tells you to remove your mask and recite your script. Once done, you’ll most likely be excused out of the chamber or outside to recover.

Those of us who claimed to be badasses in the briefing were given the distinct privilege of being kept last. Once our chance to shine came up, we were instructed to start doing jumping jacks as soon as our masks came off, while singing “Anchors Aweigh”, the original version, until we got it right. Lesson learned. 

Although it’s not the most pleasant experience, it’s important to remember all throughout that it can and does serve a number of purposes. Not the least of which are 1) trust your equipment, 2) although extremely uncomfortable, CS is something you will live through if ever you’re exposed to it again, 3) focus on the task at hand even when you’re stressed out of your mind, and 4) never again volunteer yourself as a self proclaimed badass.

Disclaimer: If “foul language” (aka “language”, as it’s called in the military) offends you, don’t watch this video. Or join the military. Otherwise, this is pretty entertaining. 


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