The Academy of Brotherhood.. Basic Training/Boot camp

home-of-the-combat-medic-corpsman-and-pararescue_mousepad_LOGO-MPAD-1_larger_1378527981_largeI arrived at boot camp on May 15, 1989. There were too many people to remember, mostly my father and his friends, who told me how to handle the Drill Instructors. Mostly, the advice I received was “let them scream at you. Look at their nose.. in one ear, out the other”. The advice was extremely helpful. We flew in from all over the country to Lawton Oklahoma, the town that hosts Ft. Sill. We were ushered into an old army barracks for chow and sleep. The following morning we brought our “one small carry on bag” to a commercial bus that would take us inside the gates of Ft. Sill. There were some cocky kids, some quiet kids, fat kids, skinny kids, all different ethnic backgrounds.. yet only one guy who caught my eye. A dark skinned Asian looking kid who looked old. He had a mullet. He was kind of standoffish and wouldn’t let anyone sit next to him on the bus. One big black kid, with a look of determination in his eye, pushed him gently over and sat next to him. I found the distraction helpful because my adrenaline was pumping so fast I couldn’t swallow. My hands were sweating and I was looking around for guys who looked like I felt…

We pulled up outside a small, tan colored, non descript one level building with soldiers standing in a row in front of it. Each soldier had a round brimmed, brown, hard wool felt hat on.. to me it resembled the hat that Ranger Smith wore in the Yogi Bear cartoons. Nobody told me anything about Ranger Smiths in the Army. Some kid in the back of the bus sternly advised us to not look those round hats in the eye… “they hate when you look them in the eye”. That turned out to be good advice.

As soon as the doors of the bus opened and the conditioned air from it poured out we began to feel the scorching Oklahoma heat. As I looked out at the round hats standing there in perfect formation I had the feeling I can only assume small rodents feel as they are about to walk into a small field of blood thirsty lions.  I “eyeballed” one round hat through the sweaty window glass… he appeared to be drooling and smiling.  As we exited the bus, one by one, we entered the loudest, fiercest arena of angry men I have ever witnessed. Screaming and spitting as they erupted commands from their thirsty mouths… none of which made sense. I followed the kid in front of me, who in turn,  followed the kid in front of him.. a dumb philosophy as it turned out. We were soon surrounded by round hats telling us to stand in a single line, shoulder to shoulder. I thought to myself, “Gee guys. if you would slow down and talk clearly we would understand you better.” I am eternally grateful for my dads friend who told me never ever EVER correct a drill instructor. Keep all criticism to yourself. I watched kids cry, stutter, panic,  trip… one kid tripped over his “one small carry on bag” seven times. Seven times. I will never forget that number. For the next 9 weeks the round hats refered to him as Private Seven.

The next several hours were a painful, exhausting, humiliating lesson in how to stand. I never thought about standing before.. I just kinda always stood up and expected my body to hold up my head. I never worried about my droopy shoulders … or the way my toes kind of point outward in a relaxed stance. Above all else.. I took for granted the placement of my hands. I mean.. they were just hands, before this day, for Pete’s sake. I used them as I needed. I never had to answer so many questions about my hands. As I tried to explain myself to the round hats I learned A LOT of other lessons. How to address them… how to speak.. how to stop talking and do push ups when I answered rhetorical questions. NO ONE ever asked me if my mother had square nipples before.. ive never seen my mothers nipples. “How the heck do I know what shape they are.. “. I have never regretted an answer so much as that answer to my mothers nipples shape.. before or since that day. I don’t expect I will for the rest of my life.

That first day was the longest day of my life. By nights end I was at what I now know to be called “muscle failure”. As we were given bunk assignments we were also assigned “battle buddies”. Your “battle buddy” is the other half of you. If one half fucks up.. both halves suffer consequences. If your battle buddy failed a test, you both failed the test. If your battle buddy couldn’t qualify with a rifle.. you were both “potatoes”. We would be sharing a bunk bed with our newly assigned battle buddy for the next 9 weeks … if we didn’t die first. However, as in all things with battle buddies, if one half of the battle buddy dies.. the other “better be fucking dead right next to him”. My new battle buddy’s name was Frank Lifang. The Asian guy with the mullet on the bus. Upon receiving news of this I experienced what is called “shrinkage”. I found that odd because we had no air conditioning in our barracks.

In order to move forward I had to look backward…

home-of-the-combat-medic-corpsman-and-pararescue_mousepad_LOGO-MPAD-1_larger_1378527981_largeI am going to write a lot about the relationship I had/have with my father. In the years following my ETS (end tour of service) I spent a lot of time on “the couch”.. aka seeing different therapists of one form or another. I have done a lot of work on myself at their direction.  Its important for me to acknowledge that the information I have now as a 44 year old man is not the same information I had as a child, a teenager or as a newly discharged veteran of combat at the age of 23. I know today that I did the best I could with the information that I had at the time.

My father was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, IL. 79th street and Racine to be exact. He is of Irish Catholic descent.. which to the south side Irish.. is the only Irish there is.. Catholic. His father left when he was an infant. He remarried and moved to Indiana… somewhere. Ive never met the man. My father never mentioned him during my childhood. His mother worked at least two jobs, sometimes more, just to keep a roof over his head and food on the table. As a child and teenager we saw Grandma bird (she was the grandma with birds) on holidays. We would go to her apartment in Chicago and eat dinner.. exchange gifts.. hang out for a few hours… then go home. My dad would loose his patience with her a lot… and she seemed to always be walking around on eggshells in his presence. I didn’t question it… it was normal. I was baptized Protestant. The only church time I got was at funerals or weddings. God wasn’t talked about in the house. We didn’t pray. When we went to church for “services” we stood back as Dad entered first. He would do the sign of the cross, receive sacraments, and recite the prayers. He would approach the caskets, we would stand behind him as he got on his knees and made the sign of the cross. Then him and/or mom would speak to the adults who were grieving. The message I had from a young boy was that God didn’t apply to me. God was for the folks who knew what to do in church. It didn’t bother me much.. God seemed like a jagoff anyway. He didn’t want me.. I didn’t want Him. Fuck it.

I lived in a neighborhood on the border of the south side of Chicago. A town called Calumet Park. Everyone lived in the same type house. Everyone had a backyard.. the more wealthy families had a swing set. We played on the street until the streetlights came on. It was a ethnically diverse little neighborhood. A Mexican family lived across the street. Next to them was a polish family on one side and an Irish family on the other. We had a black family next door to us and some family on the other side of us who kept to themselves. Girls played double dutch jump rope all day and the boys played baseball in the summers football in the fall.. winter we stayed inside and watched hockey. In the winters, when it snowed, my dad would shovel the porch and sidewalk in his combat boots. I asked him about them once as a small child and what I remember is a wordy explanation of military service. There was no feeling behind it.. no pride or emberassment. There was no romance behind his words or passion. Just an explanation. So I moved on. They became just old black boots in the hallway closet.

Dad got a raise when I turned 11. Around the same time gangs started to infiltrate the schools. I remember being taught the hand signs for the street gang the Desciples from a new kid in my 5th grade class. Later the gang became known as the GD’s or Gangster Disciples. Around the same time kids were being robbed and jumped for their bikes. At the end of 6th grade… we moved. My dad, my mom, little sister and I headed to Oak Forest… about a half hour south of where we were. Oddly enough 30 minutes south was like moving to another country for me. The houses were huge.. some folks had swimming pools. A lot of families had two cars. Everyone wore expensive clothes that they got from a mall.. a fucking mall??? The mall in itself was impressive. I was intimidated to say the least. I met a brother and sister within the first few weeks of moving who lived behind me. They took me to the mall. They knew everyone.. but the girl was cute. I couldn’t help but notice. She smelled nice and always talked slowly and softly to me. The boy was possessive of me. It was kinda awkward.. but I had a sister too so I understood. At the mall one day, the girl took me in the arcade. An ARCADE???!!!???  My mama gave me $5 when I left to take to the mall. I spent it all in the arcade in 5 minutes… the arcade was definitely a place I would want to come back to… hopefully this girl would bring me. We could ditch her brother. As we left the mall that day I ran into some kid who didn’t like me with the girl. The brother was already mad at me for spending so much time with her… before I knew what happened this kid punched me four or five times in the face. The brother, sister and now this kid were all laughing at me as I stood there confused. I was a 12 year old pussy who just lost his girlfriend to some asshole at his new favorite place. I DEFINITELY did not like my new house, friends or the fucking mall…

So at 12 the things I knew to be true was God the jagoff was for church goers, kids in my new neighborhood stole my girlfriend and laughed at me, my father gave wordy long explanations about shit I had questions about.. and if I go to the mall some rich kid is gonna punch me in the face. I was pissed off.

In a nutshell…

home-of-the-combat-medic-corpsman-and-pararescue_mousepad_LOGO-MPAD-1_larger_1378527981_largeI enlisted in the United States Army after completely fucking up my first year at college. I barely graduated H.S.. My senior year of High School I took my ACT test (college placement exam) at a local H.S.. I was seated, by the proctor across from an awkward looking sophmore female. Before the exam began we were warned of the consequences of cheating. We were also warned that proctors would be walking around looking for cheaters during the exam. I introduced myself to the awkward sophmore who informed me this was her second attempt to score a perfect score on her exam. She had scored a 30 as a freshman (35 was a perfect score). With my grades being below standard to participate in athletics during H.S… I saw this as an opportunity to advance myself. I copied every answer from her at the risk of being caught. (We) scored a 27 on that ACT. A score that got me accepted into Western Illinois University. My father, with his ultimate wisdom, told me he would pay for ONE year of college for me. We would take my collegiate career on a year to year basis. He couldn’t promise how much he could cover financially, but he would never leave me uninformed. However, If I fucked it up… I was on my own from that point.

I entered basic training at Ft. Sill Oklahoma (home of the artillery) during the summer of 1989. Having wrestled my 4 years at highschool, albeit ineligible to compete due to my grades, gave me an edge that most others didn’t have. I loved to run. Running, as it turned out, was the foundation of becoming a soldier. I flew through basic as a stand out. I mastered the rifle qualification required to be a soldier… due to an obsession of learning fighting skills I had a child. I was normally the smallest kid in my class. In my experience … small kids get picked on. Girls thought I was “cute”.. “adorable”.. etc.. but my lack of physical prowess amongst my male contemporaries weighed heavy on me.. Especially since bigger kids had no problem physically dominating me in fights throughout my childhood. I had a chip on my shoulder… and had something to prove. I learned early that normally the first one to throw a punch controls the fight. This theory helped shaped the soldier I would become. “Soldiering”.. as it turned out.. was something I could excel at.

After basic, I went on to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio Tx. for a 10 week school. Graduates of the school went on to become “combat medics”. Failures became 11B’s … Infantrymen aka Grunts. My father was a medic in the Air Force. As a young man I was driven, STARVING, for the approval of my father. Failure wasn’t an option for me…