Army Training (But Not Bill Murray In “Stripes”)

Silhouette of runners in a marathon.

21MAR2011. I was up before my alarm clock went off (0500), and since the anticipation of the first day loomed, I jumped out of bed. My heart was racing so I took some deep breaths to calm down, which only made me dizzy. (What would today hold? Would I be impressed? Would I be disappointed? What if I didn’t like it? What if I couldn’t hack it? What if I was in over my head? What experiences and qualifications did the other social scientists have? Had any of them deployed? What if I made a fool of myself?) My mind wondered into some dark places as I got ready. And when I sank too far down the hole of doom, I’d take deep breaths and tell myself to relax (get a grip!).

The dress code was business casual and I wanted to look professional, but I’m not a suit person, so black slacks and a button-down collared shirt it was. I was out the door at 0630 (no, it didn’t take me 1.5 hours to get ready…I lounged around a bit). I headed to the hotel lobby to grab breakfast. I had a lot more time to kill so I indulged in a hearty meal of eggs, hash browns, fruit, toast, and coffee. I sat down to eat and looked around to see if I recognized anyone from yesterday’s onboarding session. A few people looked vaguely familiar but I kept to myself, which is my usual response when I’m feeling anxious.

By 0700, I was on the road. My GPS estimated the time of arrival at 0725, so I was doing well on time since training didn’t start until 0800. As I approached Fort Leavenworth, the GPS sent me in the opposite direction. Apparently training wasn’t being held on base. I headed toward downtown Leavenworth instead, looking for the building that my GPS had identified as the training location (if you’ve never been, downtown Leavenworth is small, quaint, and every bit like something you’d expect in a Norman Rockwell print).

I parked my red PT Cruiser (this was another thing on my do-list: change the rental car to something less speeding ticket prone), and headed into an old brown office building that had seen better days. There were no markings to indicate that much was going on there. It had very low ceilings and a musty smell. I entered on the ground floor and made my way upstairs, but still couldn’t find where I needed to be; I was starting to get worried about showing up late. But I did find a Mexican restaurant named Tampico (a place where I’d enjoy more than my share of enchiladas verde de pollo over the next three months).

I exited on the other side of the building, and all I found was an empty parking lot (was I in the wrong place? Shit, what if I was and needed to haul ass somewhere else?!?!) I ran into an equally perplexed fellow grunt, Dan, who was as lost as I was (at least I wasn’t alone!). By 0755, I was getting very nervous because as I’ve mentioned, I’m a stickler for timeliness. From the way things were going, I was going to be late (ugh!). Dan and I went into the building again and exited on the side I’d originally entered, and happen to run into someone who was a part of the training staff. He led us to where training was taking place – the basement of this dilapidated building. It was now 0805.

As we made our way into the room, I could see that training had already started. I was mortified because the trainer addressing the group of 30+ people made sure to point out the importance of being on time (no shit!). Obviously, I wasn’t going to tell him that I’d arrived a half-hour earlier, I just took a seat and kept my head down. The only seats available were the ones in the front row. (Oh joy! To be chastised in front of a group of strangers and take the only available seats in the front. This was a great start, no?!?!)

I quickly pulled out my notebook and pen and started to write down some of the stuff the trainer was saying. He was quite Napoleon-esque in stature, with the conviction to match. He was dressed in the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) and tan combat boots, and stomped around the room as he spouted off some information about the U.S. Army. I’d come to learn that he was a Colonel in the Kansas National Guard (I think) and not a trainer. He was actually the Training Director (way to make an impression!).

A Colonel (Full-bird or O-6) is the highest-ranking field officer in the Army with the insignia of an eagle embroidered on the front of the ACU and cap. He came across very serious, wanting to ensure to the group that he meant business. His demeanor was anything but welcoming, and I tried not to make eye-contact (99% of soldiers I’ve worked with have been awesome, but every so often, you get one that’s, let’s say, interesting).

Colonel N, as I’ll call him, continued by telling us about the Army’s sexual harassment policy and the procedures entailed in launching an investigation (I wasn’t sure what prompted this). He also rattled off the Army Values – loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage (LDRSHIP…clever, huh?!?!). Then he proceeded to stomp his foot a few times, which I’d come to learn meant that the information was important; something that would most likely appear on a test (we were going to take tests?!?! WTF!).

He also told us to turn to the right and left and take a look at the person seated next to us because some of us wouldn’t make it through training, let alone deploy. He actually said that of the 30+ people in the group, only half would make it through training and possibly deploy (quite inspirational, I tell ya). It sounded like we were on a reality show like Survivor, except it wouldn’t be your fellow grunts voting you off the proverbial island, but the trainers and other circumstances that weren’t necessarily in their control (inability to secure a clearance, pass medical standards, etc.). Shit just got real.

The program entailed 3.5 months of schoolhouse training where we’d learn about the U.S. military, specifically the Army (kind of like the How the Army Runs course, but not really since that course focuses more on the procurement process). In addition, we’d learn about our specific job responsibilities and what to expect once deployed. This was followed by a 2.5-month training program dubbed Combat Advisor Training in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

We were told that in order to pass the course and deploy to Afghanistan, we had to successfully:

  • Transition from a contractor to a Department of Army Civilian (DAC) equivalent position;
  • Obtain a security clearance (have you ever filled out a SF-86? It takes weeks just to get the info together, seriously);
  • Pass a thorough medical exam, with lots of shots (I had 10 in one day because I didn’t have my shot records);
  • Complete a series of Department of Defense (DoD) security and safety online courses (and print multiple copies of certificates to take with us);
  • Withstand the stress, anxiety, and pace of the program; and deal with the shenanigans of some of the trainers;
  • Build rapport and trust with fellow grunts, or at least tolerate them (some of whom were clearly not qualified to deploy); and
  • Survive field training in Ft. Polk at the peak of summer (110+ degrees…not even counting the heat index…an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone).

By 1200, my head was spinning from all the new information that was thrown at us (well, new to me and some of the others, but not for those who’d already served in the Army or had gone through training before). I was also pretty hungry and decided to join a few others for lunch. They all seemed very nice, and those who were familiar with the Army joked about how long and boring the training was going to be. Not for me…not at all. I was hoping to survive and be one of the 15 or so who’d actually complete training and deploy. This attitude was a departure from how I previously felt (that is, unsure I even wanted to be here; reluctant to take the position…). I now viewed it as a challenge to make it all the way through (and I LOVE a good challenge!).

I felt like I’d started school all over again, but this time, I was learning a new language (Army speak) in order to understand the lessons. I took this pretty seriously, and since I’d gone through proverbial academic boot camp as a Ph.D. student, I felt pretty confident that I at least knew HOW to study. We were assigned a shit-load of reading, which was fine. During my doctoral studies at Berkeley, some of the classes I took included twice as much reading and way more writing assignments (bring it on!). The difference was that as a Ph.D. student, I knew the subjects well (psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, philosophy, etc.). But I didn’t know “Army speak” or much about the military.

I do, however, remember an Army commercial from the early 1980s: the Be All You Can Be one, where the announcer chimes in and says, “we do more before 9am than most people do all day.” I remember it vividly because even though I was about eight, it made me feel like a lazy bum: here I was chilling at home during summer break eating ice cream and watching cartoons, while soldiers were doing way more than me (what a loser I was, I thought.). That commercial left an impression that Army soldiers were very hard-working (and got up way too early). Maybe the impression I’d formed at that age imbued a feeling of respect and security in knowing that I’d be okay in a war zone with our soldiers.

I’d also come to accept that a daily Starbucks run was not going to happen unless I added about 30 more minutes to my commute (um, no thank you). No more venti, single-shot mochas for me. It was either regular coffee, tea or water (I grew up in a tea-drinking home, so no tea for me). It was during this time that I stopped drinking fancy, foo-foo coffee drinks (mochas, lattes, cappuccinos, etc.). But I wasn’t too thrilled with the swill that passed for regular coffee during training, so I made sure to buy an insulated mug that I could fill with something that actually tasted like coffee (first-world problems, I know).

By 1700, the first day had come to an end, and while others in the group were planning their evenings (dinner venues, bars to hit), I just wanted to get back to my hotel room, grab a quick bite, review my notes, and get some much-needed sleep. I was drained, but at least I’d figured out where training was located, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to be late again.