(First Published in CALYX: Volume 27, #1)
It wasn’t until Advanced Individual Training (“AIT” in Army-speak) that I lost respect for a drill sergeant. I’d already been through boot camp, and although training certainly hadn’t been easy, I had no reason to hate drill sergeants, just dislike them. They were the agents of perpetual discomfort, strain, embarrassment, and dread. Besides forcing you to push your body to the limit, they said things like, “I joined the Army because of Rambo.” They destroyed the barracks while you were out training all day, tipping the bunk beds like dominos, spilling cans of Ajax on the floor, and tying different sized boots together and flinging them. Their spittle landed on your face when they were particularly angry, particularly close. Their solution to any problem you might have, from missing laundry to a sprained ankle, was “drink water, private.”
Much of their asshole nature served a purpose, and when you think about it, the whole strategy was pretty smart. With each new cycle of recruits, the drill sergeants played out the same narrative, because it worked. At first, the platoon bonded because of the “us vs. them” mentality. Then, something I like to call the “gruff parent syndrome” set in. Maybe psychologists have a term I don’t know about for this, but because it was so hard to please the drill instructors, we craved their approval, just like kids crave to please disgruntled dads who rarely give praise, let alone encouragement. For weeks, like starving cats, we lapped up scraps as small as “So you’re not useless after all.” And then came a gradual shift. The drill sergeants seemed less and less pissed with each passing day, until, at times, you could almost describe them as friendly. The morning of graduation, we all scrambled out of bed as Reveille blared over the speakers. We toed the line at attention as the drill sergeants walked in the barracks, ready for our usual bout of pushups and overhead arm clappers. But the instructors just beamed at us, laughed, and told us to get dressed for PT. Finally, I thought, we’d earned some respect from those it was hardest to wrestle from. It was all downhill from here.
A year later, AIT turned out to be just as hard, if not harder than boot camp. And in week three of job training, my new drill sergeants crossed a line into the unforgivable.
We were in school to be fuelers, a job specialty in high demand in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003. It was a Saturday. After cleaning the barracks, (a dilapidated labyrinth of rooms that should have been condemned), the females headed outside for formation. At 11:40 a.m. we were slated to march to chow. By ourselves. Up until then, one of our platoon’s two drill sergeants, Drill Sergeant Jennings or Drill Sergeant LaMonte, had marched us the half mile to the mess hall, like day care kids.
“I can’t wait until we get off-base passes for the weekend,” Johnson said as we waited. “Just spending a night away from this place is going to be heaven.”
I couldn’t wait either. An off-base pass meant leaning on walls, getting more than five hours of sleep, eating whatever I wanted, watching TV, and talking on the phone longer than a few minutes. And it meant wearing civilian clothes. I’d been dying to look like a girl after spending weeks inside baggy camouflage pants and shirts. It wasn’t that the guys didn’t notice we were female. They were annoyingly aware of the fact, and had already put out a “list,” high school fashion, of the hottest girls, according to consensus. The problem was we didn’t feel like women, couldn’t act like women, couldn’t stand with one hip out, couldn’t let our hair fall down below our collars, couldn’t wear jewelry or make-up, couldn’t own a sports bra that wasn’t black, white or gray. We were even reprimanded for plucking our eyebrows.
Come 11:40 a.m., all of us females were standing in loose formation outside our barracks. A few of the guys had started to trickle down, but we were nowhere near ready to leave. We stood and chatted, surveying each other’s ironing jobs and boot shines. We did this out of concern for the collective, not just concern for the soldier who happened to look “ate up,” (i.e., like a mess). An ate up soldier could get the entire platoon smoked, depending on a drill sergeant’s mood. I hated platoon smokings for two main reasons. First, I loathed being punished for other people’s mistakes. And second, I could never keep up with the pace of eight-count push-ups and squat benders and whatever other torturous commands they gave us. I almost always reached muscle failure before it was over and had to admit defeat. And that was the point of a good smoking. Failure. Hence embarrassment. Hence regret. Hence, hopefully, we wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
“Where is everyone?” I asked Santos. It was already 11:45, and I was getting agitated. I had grown keenly adept at recognizing the atmosphere of a pending punishment, and we were fast approaching the point of no return.
He shrugged his thick shoulders. “Buffing the floor I guess. That’s what they were doing when I left.”
At that moment, Drill Sergeant LaMonte sauntered out of the building, hopping down the front step with a carefree abandon that matched his degree of absolute power over us. I liked Drill Sergeant LaMonte, even though he was impossible to please, condescending, conniving, unforgiving, and unforgetting. Maybe it was because he was so small. Standing just 5’4,” including the Smokey-the-Bear hat, he sometimes looked like a steely, drill sergeant doll you could pick up and squeeze. Or maybe it was because he put on such a performance, one minute raging like a madman, the next cracking jokes. Upon seeing him, we all shut up and straightened our stance.
LaMonte took his time walking down the short strip of grainy sidewalk leading from the barracks’ entrance to the wider sidewalk we stood on. He paused to scuff a crack in the sidewalk, bent over to examine a dropped pen, whirled around to admire the front of our home sweet home for another two months, and finally stopped in front of a particularly tall and gangly male named Richards. Making a face, he noisily sucked his teeth, then said, “How’s life treatin’ you today, Richards? Do ya feel gooooood?”
“Yes, drill sergeant,” Richards answered, no hesitation.
“Yes what? I asked you two questions. And one of them was not a yes or no question.”
“Yes I feel good, drill sergeant.”
“So I guess life’s treating you all right?”
“Yes, drill sergeant.”
“What about Newman, Banks, Greene, Lee, Quinn, bla bla bla bla? You think life’s treating them all right?” By this time Drill Sergeant LaMonte was standing inches from Richards, smiling up at him, his dark face glowing with amusement. The fact that Richards was a foot taller than him failed to disturb LaMonte. He seemed to enjoy intimidating large people.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?” LaMonte was on his toes.
“I don’t know, drill sergeant.”
LaMonte backed off. I shifted in my boots, growing more lethargic and irritable by the second in the sweltering Virginia sun. It was a CAT 5 day, the highest heat category ranking the Army had. CAT 5 days were anything over 90 degrees, although lately the weather had been in the low 100s. Regulations stipulated that on CAT 5 days, soldiers could only do ten minutes of hard work per hour. However, we all knew that if the Army actually followed these precautions, nothing would ever get done.
A drop of sweat worked its way down the middle of my back. My Army-issue wool socks (knee-high) made my feet and calves burn and itch in my boots. I imagined myself in a bikini back home, ready to dive into Flathead Lake. Flathead was fed by pure Montana snowpack, so it took until August for the water to reach just 65 degrees.
The guys continued to dribble downstairs, but Drill Sergeant LaMonte didn’t let them join the regular formation. He siphoned them off to the side and started an all-male formation next to us. Everyone knew they were in trouble; it was the degree we were unsure of.
After everyone was accounted for, Drill Sergeant LaMonte trotted back inside and reappeared with Drill Sergeant Jennings. She was a big-boned woman, wider than LaMonte, and a few inches taller. Unlike her male counterpart, she lacked a sense of humor entirely, yet a scoffing sneer often played about her lips, as if she found our antics comical. I knew she had children, and this fact helped me break down the impressive aura drill sergeants have: that they are inhuman, that they never need sleep, never utter a term of endearment, never buy things like birthday presents, never fit into the role of wife or husband. As for LaMonte, it was hard to imagine him in any civilian or domestic context. All we knew about his life away from us, was that he was a runner, and in the early morning hours, he could be seen trotting all over base.
“What a hard, hard time y’all are havin,” LaMonte began, pacing in front of us in that slow, sauntering way of his. “You just can’t seem to do the simplest things. Now the females, they got it down. Johnson, what time were all y’all females out here?”
“11:35, drill sergeant.”
“Okay. Vance, did you have a different time than 11:40 written down for formation?”
“No, drill sergeant,” Jim Vance said, eyes uncertain. I felt sorry for him. He really wasn’t cut out to be platoon leader with that cautious demeanor of his.
“Then why didn’t you get the males down here on time? Wouldn’t that be one of your responsibilities?
“I must have lost track of time, drill sergeant. I told all the squad leaders to make sure everyone got to formation on time.”
“Yet you yourself was late, Vance. Do you see the problem here? You delegated, but you can’t trust the squad leaders, and you can’t trust yourself. So who can you trust?” LaMonte rocked up onto his toes and bounced, looking at us wide-eyed and innocent.
“Looks like you can trust the females,” said Jennings, covering a yawn.
“Vance, you’re done.” LaMonte waved a hand dismissively. “Johnson, you’re the new platoon leader.”
The sun beat down on us, the heat releasing the sterile smell of the starch from our uniforms. I yearned for the air conditioned mess hall.
“All you males in the first formation, fall out and come over here,” said LaMonte.
Heads ducked low, the guys arranged themselves in one formation while we tightened our own tiny female formation of twelve.
“Pa-toon! Atten-huhn!” The males snapped to attention on LaMonte’s command. “Riiiiight, face! Ford, march!”
LaMonte marched the males across the road and into a field of tall weeds. “C’mon. Fall out,” Jennings told us. “We’re just going to go single file. You’d look ate up trying to march with three ranks.”
We crossed the road, boots clumping on the hot pavement, and waded into the grass. Jennings lined us up on a small knoll overlooking the field where LaMonte had halted the boys. The air between us was blurred with heat. My clothes felt heavier by the minute, and clung to my damp skin at every crease and fold. I wanted to take my cap off so bad I settled for lifting it a couple seconds while pretending to check my hair clips.
“The bear crawl!” LaMonte shouted, his voice especially nasally from far away.
“The bear crawl!” the boys echoed, taking crouched positions, asses in the air, hands on the ground in front of them, ready to lumber forward. Of all PT exercises, the bear crawl is the most awkward and embarrassing.
“Down to the road and back. Go!”
Bumping into each other, grass hitting them in the face, our 37 males, most of them under 20 years old, lumbered to the road and back as fast as they could. Even at a distance, I could see they were already breathing hard when they reached the starting line. Their chests were out, jaws raised. Some had hands on their hips. But that was just the beginning.
“The flutter kick!”
This went on for fifteen minutes. The performance did not impress LaMonte. “Alright, line up. We’re going to do two-to-three-second rushes, okay? Where’s your rifle? Pretend you have a rifle. Down to the road and back. And I want you yelling. I’m up, they see me, I’m down. Go!”
Two to three second rushes are how you’re supposed to advance under fire. You start in the prone, lying down with your rifle, popping a couple shots off. Then you push yourself up, sprint for two to three seconds, and throw yourself down, letting the butt of the rifle help break your fall. To time it out, you’re supposed to scream “I’m up, they see me, I’m down,” while you’re running. In short, they are exhausting, even when the weather is mild.
Our guys had no rifles to help break their falls. And by then the searing heat had reduced them to putty. Some didn’t get up after they flung themselves down. Some encouraged each other. Others avoided each other. Muller’s cap fell off and he took his time picking it up. LaMonte was right there, in his face, the thick tendon in his neck straining. “What the fuck you doing, private!” Muller slapped his cap back on and took off running and yelling “I’m up, they see me…” LaMonte charged at Dupont next, who was crouched in the trampled grass, a hand pressed against his stomach. “Get up! Get up, right now! Who told you to stop? You’re pissing me off. You’re all shit pissing me off!”
I looked around at the other girls. They stared at the yellowed grass at their feet, or out over the field, trying to look impassive, and failing. Guilt and sweat slicked our faces. While I hated being punished for other people’s mistakes, I didn’t want to be spared just because of my sex! Did he think we couldn’t handle it?
The yells of “I’m up, they see me, I’m down,” trailed off. Santos stumbled and barely caught himself. Brown doubled over, dry heaving. LaMonte switched back to flutter kicks, and one last round of bear crawls.
Back in one formation, we could smell the crushed grass and dirt on the boys’ uniforms, the sweat soaking their undershirts. Their breathing was loud. Some of them had trouble standing upright. I wanted to reach out and steady Vance in front of me; he kept tilting slightly from side to side, but I was afraid moving would attract more of LaMonte’s wrath.
At the chow hall the guys sat picking at their food or eating nothing, staring into space, faces too tight or too loose.
“Aren’t you starving after all that?” I asked Richards, who sat across from me, unmoving, one hand wrapped around a plastic cup of ice water.
He raised his head a few inches. “I’m too sick to eat.”
I set down my fork, ashamed of my perfectly pressed uniform, my immaculately polished boots, my full stomach, my muscles taught with energy.
The guys on either side of Richard nodded.
“I think I’ll puke if I swallow anything right now. Anderson already puked.”
On my way to return my tray, I saw Anderson, dumping his untouched lunch in the garbage. Dark, foul-smelling patches marred the back of his jacket, and I overheard him telling Lee, “He made me roll in it.” Whether this was true or not, whether LaMonte actually ordered him to roll in his own bile, or Anderson fell in it while trying to do as he was told, didn’t matter. A hatred for both LaMonte and Jennings that had been growing in me for the last hour cemented. LaMonte had intentionally harmed soldiers he was charged with taking care of. He’d forced them into heat stroke, against Army regulations. He’d humiliated them. And he’d driven a wedge between the males and females while he was at it. They’d probably never forgive us for being spared their punishment, even though we were guilty as hell about it, and didn’t want to be singled out in the first place. Jennings, having watched the whole thing without lifting a finger, was almost as bad.
Hollywood perpetuates this image of abuse in military training. For one, it’s easy. The majority of Americans haven’t experienced it, and it’s nearly impossible to accurately explain. And two, reality just isn’t exciting or challenging or drastic enough for the big screen. So what most people think they know about drill sergeants and boot camp simply isn’t true. No drill sergeant I’d ever run across actually wanted to hurt someone. Quite the opposite. I’d seen them carry rucks for injured soldiers, go without water so someone who’d forgotten to fill his canteens wouldn’t faint, and track down boxes of MREs after long road marches instead of sending us to bed hungry. That’s why I just couldn’t comprehend LaMonte’s needless cruelty. In any case, as simple as that, it was over. I despised him from there on out. Sure, I still had to do everything he said, but now it wasn’t because I wanted to earn his respect, it was merely because I had no choice. Just like I had no choice about being at AIT in the first place. I’d joined the National Guard before 9/11, at 17 years of age. To say I was naïve is a painful understatement. At 19 it was finally starting to soak in exactly how stupid it was to sign a six-year contract with an organization I knew very little about, for a little college money. If I could have walked away without legal repercussions, I would have. But on threat of court martial or dishonorable discharge, all I could do was try to ride out the rest of my time as best I could.
Just about everyone else got over the CAT 5 smoking incident in a week or two. “I can understand why he did it,” they said, or “It was harsh, but I’m not one to hold a grudge,” and once they could move without wincing, the guys announced, “it wasn’t that bad anyway.” I started wondering if I was being petty or silly or wimpy, or all three.
About three weeks after the heat stroke smoking, I was outside pretending to polish my boots with my battle buddies, Johnson and White. Johnson had the hots for Lee, White had been eyeing Kirtner, and I had fallen hard for Santos, despite the fact that training romances were banned. We weren’t allowed to touch or even flirt with the opposite sex, on threat of getting an Article 15, (a formal reprimand that could have you doing anything from pulling guard duty every night, to forfeiting part of your measly paycheck). But when you’re nineteen years old, the idea of carrying on a forbidden love just makes the whole thing more romantic.
Santos was a muscular guy with beautiful brown skin, dark eyes, and a surprising emotional maturity for a 21-year-old Army recruit. He wrote me poems. He took No Doze so he could nudge me awake in class when I started to drift off. He would find ways to touch me throughout the day, even if it was just running a finger over the back of my hand when he passed. Because the boys lived on the second floor, and we were on the first, he bought walkie talkies at the PX so we could talk after lights out.
That night, all six of us were outside next to the gazebo, our boot-shine kits spread out in front of us in case a drill sergeant walked by. The sun went down. We migrated closer to our boys. A few fireflies came out. We split off into pairs, still loosely in a group. The warm evening air and the silhouette of the gazebo against the sunset and our puppy-love giddiness tricked us into thinking we weren’t really far from home, weren’t entirely bound by the rules of this strange prison.
“Let’s go sit against that wall,” Santos said, jerking his head toward the barracks. “Out here in the open, anyone inside could look out the window and see us.”
“Why don’t you want anyone to see us?”
“Because I want to kiss you.”
I wasn’t supposed to be more than an arm’s length away from another female, but I knew I wouldn’t get another chance at my first kiss with Santos for four days, when we were due to get an off-base pass, if we didn’t screw up somehow.
I got my first kiss. I got my first five or so before drill sergeant LaMonte rounded the corner. Because we were up against the wall, in the shadows, Santos and I could see him, but he couldn’t see us.
“Hey, what are y’all doing out here, Johnson? It’s lights out in five minutes.”
“Nothing, drill sergeant,” Johnson said. “Just shining boots.”
Santos quietly scrambled a few feet away from me, and I rushed to grab my boots and shine kit. I had just popped to my feet, ready to inch back toward the other females, when LaMonte turned and saw us. “Aw, hell no,” he drawled, stalking up to me. “Where’s your battle buddy, del Duca?”
I pointed at Johnson.
“No, she’s not your battle buddy. She’s too far away. You don’t have one. Y’all thought you’d sneak over here and do a little face suckin’? Huh, Santos?”
Santos stood up and snapped to parade rest. “No drill sergeant, we were just doing boots, using the light from the windows.”
“Bull shit. Both of you come with me.”
Behind LaMonte’s back, I locked grim eyes with Santos. Inside, LaMonte led us into his office and closed the door. He got up in my face, so close I could see the pores of his skin and the deep creases of his furrowed eyebrows, and how his front teeth were squared, not rounded. Even though I was five inches taller than him, he seemed to tower over me. “So, del Duca. Why were you so far away from the other females?” His breath smelled like coffee.
“No excuses, drill sergeant,” I said, looking down at the stained and chipped tile. I knew from observation and experience the quicker you acknowledged there were absolutely no legitimate excuses, the sooner you were doled out your punishment and let go.
LaMonte backed off a step and looked at his watch. “Here’s what I’m thinking. I get off in an hour. How about you get an hour long smoking? If you do that, I won’t tell drill sergeant Jennings to take away your weekend passes.”
We both were silent.
“Yes, drill sergeant,” I said, eager to get it over with.
LaMonte scoffed at me and turned to Santos. “That seem fair to you, Santos?”
Santos gave an enthusiastic “Huah!”
That really pissed him off. “No, I changed my mind. I’m gonna smoke ya, and tell Jennings to take away your passes.” LaMonte ran his cutting glare over us from head to toe. When his eyes reached mine, I realized with a shock that I wasn’t afraid of him, or what he could do, especially standing next to Santos.
I didn’t care if I got smoked, or if I lost a pass. I wondered why I had ever cared. None of it was the end of the world. I didn’t even care if I got an Article 15 on my permanent record anymore. Santos didn’t seem worried either. Just patient, like me. Of course. Because we were in love! My mind raced through ridiculously sappy scenarios. I imagined that one day, we would tell our children how we’d stood shoulder to shoulder, knowing deep down that our five kisses were worth any punishment LaMonte could dream up, that any penalty was merely a testament to our devotion.
LaMonte stalled, looking back and forth from Santos, to me. We were both ready to drop into the push-up position, but he never gave the order. And then the atmosphere in the room tangibly changed. LaMonte didn’t seem angry anymore. Actually, he was trying not to smile. Maybe he’d come to the same realization I had—that we were past being intimidated, that we were starting to see the game as what it really was: a carefully crafted drama. He’d delivered the right lines, but we weren’t following the script. So what was the point?
“Alright, go on then,” he barked. “But don’t let me catch you again.”
Parting ways at the bottom of the stairs, I shared a look of hungry victory with Santos. We both knew that LaMonte would have made it clear if we were indeed losing our weekend passes.
“Five minutes,” he said.
I took his cue, and five minutes later I was sitting in a secluded corner of an empty bunk room, an idiotic grin on my face as my walkie talkie crackled alive.
You would think that such an unexpected favor would make me forgive LaMonte for the CAT 5 smoking incident, but it didn’t. It did change how I looked at him though. It changed how I looked at myself. Coming out of his office that night was like walking to the edge of a stage, right up to the fourth wall. I didn’t break it, but I could start to make out the audience and the guy manning the lights, and when I turned around, I could see the masking tape on the floor. I had my first inkling that everything was just an act. Sure, I had been putting on an act, but it turned out, so had LaMonte. And maybe it went bigger than that—maybe as big as it could go. Maybe the entire Army was acting out this tired tragedy by a playwright who’d gotten it all wrong, who’d based his work off a bad translation so old it was coming apart at the seams, but no one though to step out of character because the script was too complex and because everyone was so caught up in intricacies they never had the time or the energy or the vision to see the big picture, it was all they could do to keep the pages in order and follow along so they didn’t lose their place.
That night we stepped out of character for just a moment. We’d missed our cues. Or ignored them. I hadn’t felt like playing the chastised child. And I like to think LaMonte wasn’t in the mood to play the tyrant. Or the angry father. I like to think LaMonte recognized the defiant little sparks in our eyes and felt a hint of admiration. Maybe he’d been there himself, ten years ago. Of course! I couldn’t imagine LaMonte being a meek, obedient private. He must have been a hellion. Maybe he’d become a drill sergeant so he could be the one in charge for once, so he could keep pulling crazy shit, only this time he’d get away with it because he was expected to be one crazy motherfucker.
Or maybe he was sick of the script too. Maybe he felt as trapped by his contract as I did by mine. And how else was he going to pay his bills and raise a family? Maybe being a drill sergeant was all he knew, and it was too late to start over with something else. Maybe, on days when reading the script was like being sucked into quicksand, inch by camoflauge inch, his ethics cracked and he was cruel because he could be. It’s no excuse for what he did. Like I said, there are no excuses in the Army. But it’s an understanding, and that’s the most I can hope to find.