By Paul W. Barada
---- — The other day I was rummaging through some books at home and came across the “year book” from my days in the Army. The year book was a chronicle of the time spent in Basic Combat Training (BCT) and a little about Advanced Individual Training (AIT). As I thumbed through the book, memories came flooding back about what it was like being a “trainee” at beautiful Fort Knox, Kentucky in August 1968. I imagine anybody who has ever been in the Army experienced many of the same things I did, but I thought it might be interesting to share some of the memories of those days with you.
To start, there probably is no greater shock in the everyday world than going from civilian life to Army life. There’s just nothing quite like if for most young people who, for whatever reason, have made the decision to join up. Suffice it to say, life in Basic Combat Training is a rude awakening to an entirely different world!
I had a slight edge on most of the guys in my basic training platoon. As I’ve written before, I was fortunate enough to have spent four summers at Culver Military Academy; and I already knew how to march, how to do the 16-count manual of arms, how to make a military style bed, and the invaluable lesson of doing what you’re told to do and keeping your mouth shut about it.
The first step in the transition from civilian life to Army life is called the Reception Station. We were under the gentle tutelage of a crusty old buck sergeant who wasn’t about to put up with one ounce of nonsense. He was what we used to call a “lifer.” Anybody who was going to spend 20 or more years in the Army was referred to as a “lifer.”
One of the first things we did while at the Reception Station was go for haircuts. A haircut in the Army means, and I suppose always has meant, a total buzz. It only took the barber about a minute – maybe two – to cut off all your hair down to about a quarter of an inch! Upon reflection, I think getting a buzz has at least two purposes. One is to let you know dramatically you’re not a civilian anymore. Second is for reasons of hygiene. As many guys as they ran through the process during the days when we had a draft in this country, you never knew who had clean hair and who, well, didn’t.
Another common exercise at the Reception Station was being fitted for uniforms. In the Army, the term “uniforms” takes on a broader meaning than one might first suspect. Being issued uniforms in the Army means from the skin out and from head to foot – dress shoes, (called low-quarters), combat boots, olive drab socks, underwear, fatigues, caps, field jacket, steel helmet and liner, web belt with brass buckle, and duffle bag – just to mention the stuff I can immediately recall. While all this was going on, your last name is imprinted above the pocket on all your olive drab fatigue shirts. Above the other pocket was “U.S. Army.” I’m fairly sure the duffle bag was issued so you’d have enough room for all the stuff you’d been issued. As I recall, the duffle bag was full by the time we had been issued all our equipment and probably weighed at least eighty pounds.
The next fun exercise at the Reception Station was the physical exam and vaccinations. The actual medical part of the process was rather perfunctory, if you didn’t mind standing in line in your brand new underwear for a couple of hours. The inoculations were another matter altogether. There were six medics standing in pairs, each holding a device that looked like a paint spray gun. We were warned to stand still when we were given the vaccinations. If you jerked your arm, your skin would tear because the actual shots were injected into your arms. No needles were used – probably would have taken too much time. So, you got two shots at a time, one in each arm, by the first pair of medics. The same process was repeated three times. In all, we got six injections in about three minutes. We were even inoculated against the plague! I also remember one guy who had been acting pretty tough until he was about to get his first pair of injections – he turned white as a sheet and passed right out on the floor! That experience took a little of the swagger out of his step!
A highlight of basic training was marksmanship instruction. We were all issued M-14 rifles, (keep in mind that in 1968 the Army was transitioning from the M-1 to the M-16 and the M-14 was an intermediate weapon in that process.) It weighed about twelve pounds, but I thought it was a great rifle. I recall one morning we were supposed to march the five miles out to the firing range. It was pouring rain – and this was in late October, so it was very chilly outside. I can remember thinking, “They’ll never make us march out there in this weather.” Yes, they did. We had on our steel pots, ponchos, and rifles slung upside down underneath our ponchos. We slogged the five miles out to the firing range with water dripping down the back of our helmets inside our ponchos drenching the back of our shirts. The firing range had been used for a very long time, so there were indentations in the ground at each firing position. I can remember thinking, “They’ll never make us lie down in all that water.” Yes, they did. My particular firing position was filled with about five inches of muddy rainwater. For those of you who’ve been in the Army, you’ll recall that the prone firing position means lying flat on your stomach. In this case, we could rest our weapons on a couple of sand bags to help steady our aim. I was so cold I couldn’t have held the rifle steady any other way.
Please be aware that going through Army basic is nothing compared to being in actual combat, which I never was – thankfully! Maybe on some other occasion, I’ll tell you about First Sergeant Bell. “You people are gonna remember Sergeant Bell!” He was right. I still do.
That’s –30—for this week.