I had heard that it always rained in Seattle. Standing in formation inside the back gate at Fort Lewis, Washington at close to three o’clock in the morning it began to drizzle. Since most of us raw Southern California recruits didn’t bring a raincoat or jacket the rain and lower temperature got uncomfortable real quick.
A jeep’s headlamps soon flashed at us. Moments later it came to a halt as the brakes squealed.
A young soldier (I think he was a PFC) jumped out of the jeep and distributed packages of rain ponchos to all of us. Without uttering a word he got back in the jeep and drove off. It wouldn’t look good for the army if their recruits were to catch pneumonia.
Over the next two hours until the sky let in the dawn I listened to a lot of bitching & moaning (my US Army vocabulary was growing fast) from the second row of our four-row squad. A guy named Henderson who had recruited two other dissenting voices led the squawks. On the opposite side an older recruit and two black men let Henderson and company know that their bitching was more irritating than the precipitation.
The sun had just lit up the horizon. Two figures marched in our direction in perfect cadence. Their black mirror boots hit the pavement simultaneously with hats perfectly balanced. Their clinched fingers barely brushed starched khakis.
The two drill sergeants stopped in front of us, legs spread wide apart. They placed their hands on their hips and looked the platoon over like we were all for sale.
“Ten, hut,” Drill Sergeant Leroy Gratts barked out.
From the back row I viewed the troops’ interpretations of getting to attention. I put my feet together and held my hands to my side.
The older recruit executed the maneuver perfectly. The two black men next to him had sense enough to copy him. The older guy responded to Gratts’s angst by yelling out, “The man said attention recruits!”
“What’s your name soldier?” Gratts said to the veteran.
“Wagner, Harold, sir.”
“Step out here Wagner.”
“Show these California girls what it means to come to attention.”
Over the next few minutes we would discover that one of us was indeed a soldier. Drill Sergeants Gratts and Gaines tipped their D.I. hats as a kind of tribute to the art of discipline.
We had mastered the technique in a way that Drill Sergeant Gaines referred to as, “Half-assed.” He ordered Private Wagner back into line and barked, “All right girls, let’s march over to the mess hall.”
The recruits listened to the two drill sergeants sing, “Gimme your left, left, left right left,” as we attempted to march.
Later at the mess hall D.I. Gaines yelled out, “You’ve got ten minutes, ladies,” which opened the eyes of the recruits near the end of the line (I stood near the middle).
The ten minutes was reduced to about seven minutes when Henderson told the cook he had gotten short-changed on the eggs. Drill Sergeant Gaines was on Henderson like a “fly on shit” just as the the cook had promised. Gaines yelled in Henderson’s ear, “Get down for fifty, ree-cruit.”
Henderson’s reply, “Fuck you,” stunned us all.
The six and a half foot, two hundred and fifty pound Drill Sergeant Gaines grabbed the skinny Henderson by the collar and dragged him outside the mess hall where we could only imagine what transpired outside. The complainer was quieter after that but everyone could tell that he was one bitter recruit.
Over the next six weeks the two drill sergeants’ scare tactics were the norm for the short education of us recruits on how to become soldiers. Boy did we learn how to march: in the cold drizzly morning; in the hot sun afternoon; and in the dark. The two drill sergeants taught us self-defense, how to assemble and disassemble an AR-15 rifle, and the proper way to toss a hand grenade (although I could never picture myself in a real combat situation).
The complainer Henderson and his buddy went AWOL one night during the second week. We never saw them again although Drill Sergeant Gratts wore a short grin while relating the incident to us. The two men had been apprehended in a dumpster behind a bar outside the front gate.
We learned fast. Almost all the guys in our platoon were headed straight to the Viet Nam War after basic training. Some, like the older guy were headed to Green Beret school in Georgia or North Carolina. The older guy’s brother had been killed in ‘Nam and he was headed over there to reek vengeance on “Charlie” and win the war for us.
I never had such expectations. I figured (rightly) that signing up for a military school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey would save my skin. I would be trained as a Strategic Microwave Radio Tech (Military Occupational Specialty–MOS–26V-20) and would hopefully stay away from the “action.” It would turn out to be one of the smartest moves in my life (considering that my signing up had been a mere accident) …