Basic Training

“MOVE FORWARD PRIVATES MAKE YOUR BUDDY HAPPY!”

Standing in a long and winding row of recruits, I obeyed the drill sergeant’s command, homophobic overtones notwithstanding. Positioned in a loose “parade rest”–legs shoulder-width apart, arms theoretically locked behind my back–I shuffled forward a few inches, approaching the rear end of my recently assigned battle buddy, John Lapp, who stood ahead of me in line. Battle buddies are two soldiers who share a bunk. Each member of the pair is responsible for knowing where his buddy is at all times.

Feeling a light brush against my own butt, I turned around and shot Travis, a fellow private, an irritated look. Embarrassed, he wiggled back a couple of centimeters. Within the hour, our line snaked through the featureless medical complex, and we received the day’s vaccinations.

Rows of bunk beds in the barracks at Fort Benning. Courtesy Robert Cohen

We were several days into Army in-processing, the experience that transforms civilians into privates—young men ready to begin basic training. The 30th Adjutant General Reception Battalion at Fort Benning, Georgia–30th A.G., as it’s been known to generations of soldiers–managed this process. For two weeks, the “Welcome-to-the-Army” nurses at Benning poked and prodded us, barbers shaved our heads, and Army quartermasters issued uniforms and gear. And we learned to wait. For hours, every day, we stood in line, inching forward to the next appointment.

Lapp and I got along from the start. While we both had Ranger contracts, he knew a ton more about the Army than I did and explained to me how one actually earned entry into the famed 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite Special Operations group. Rangers are the ultimate badass commandos; harder and deadlier than regular Army units, they draw the most dangerous missions, frequently infiltrating behind enemy lines. Listening to Lapp, I quickly realized that my knowledge of how Rangers actually function didn’t extend beyond movies I had seen about war. Tom Hanks’ World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, featured the SpecOps soldiers, as did Black Hawk Down, the movie about Rangers and the-even-more-badass Delta operatives who fought and died in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. The latter movie released in early 2002, about a week after our group arrived in Georgia. Although none of us saw the film until months later, we nevertheless had many discussions about it during our short tenure at 30th A.G.

Three 800-man battalions, Lapp taught me, comprise the Rangers’ operational element. The Regiment is a legacy of Rogers’ Rangers, a band of scouts who operated in small units during the French and Indian War of the 1750s and ’60s, mostly outside of traditional military hierarchies and massed-force tactics that armies have used for millennia. To join this elite unit, I’d have to complete a 14-week infantry basic training course, three weeks of Airborne School, and then an 18-day Ranger Indoctrination Program, or what is known as “RIP.” Graduation from all three schools grants admission to one of the three battalions. The famed Ranger School itself, I discovered, while an extremely prestigious and grueling passage, is not an option for new recruits, and not a prerequisite to join the regiment.

Lapp had graduated high school the previous spring. At 23, I was five years his elder, and I took him under my wing, encouraging him to look at schools like Brown–where I’d graduated from the previous May–when he got out. I regaled him with stories from my glamorous recent past. Just six months ago, I shared, I’d been in China, traveling in Shanghai with a Dutch-Israeli woman I’d met on the bus from the Mongolian border to Beijing. People just needed the right opportunity, I knew, and they could have what I had: a college degree, travels around the world. Lapp listened politely but didn’t volunteer much enthusiasm for my way of life. Instead, he spoke frequently about his girlfriend Lindsey, showing me his wallet photo of her, remarking on how even her name was especially beautiful.

We talked a lot about which unit we wanted to serve with. Lapp taught me the Army was built around 10 divisions, and that if you didn’t go Ranger, you could select your duty-station before signing your contract. This would have been useful information before I took the oath, as was news that recruiters don’t get credit for bringing in would-be officers, only enlisted soldiers. My recruiter’s incentives, it seemed, may not have aligned with my best interests.

Ross Cohen at Fort Benning. Courtesy Robert Cohen

Some of our fellow enlistees were real douchebags. A few guys who’d been at 30th A.G. for 10 days looked down their noses at people on Day 3, as though we were irredeemably inexperienced. Others spread rumors about a “testicle shot” that every recruit must endure. I hadn’t dealt with this particular style of immaturity in a long time.

We ate in a large cafeteria. After spending up to a couple of hours in line each day, we had five minutes to throw down a meal of eggs, grits, pancakes, biscuits ’n’ gravy, fried chicken, or spaghetti. I grabbed extra packets of syrup and ate them unadorned or with slices of white bread, the one plentiful food. We generally weren’t supposed to speak with each other while standing or eating–“SHUT YOUR COCK-HOLES!”–but the drill sergeants applied the sanction irregularly.

More than any other subject, we traded gossip about when we’d at last ship off “downrange”–to the real basic training. Rumors flew that a surge in post-9/11 enlistees, like us, was clogging the system, turning a one-week process into who-knew-how-long.

“One group spent a fucking month here.”

“Yeah, but that was during Christmas. Timing sucked for them.” Sources were always shoddy, and we never developed a good sense of the truth.

After 13 days, the 30th A.G. cadre herded us, along with two very full Army duffel bags, into cattle cars. They drove us over to Sand Hill–the section of Fort Benning where every infantryman in recent decades has completed basic training–and we officially began.

A new batch of angry drill sergeants met us, shouting long, punctuation-free sentences: “FIND YOUR DUFFELS PRIVATES GET YOUR BAGS FORM UP BY HEIGHT YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES GO GO GO!!”

We sprayed into action. A couple of guys took the initiative; grabbing bags, they yelled out our IDs, the three-digit numbers assigned to us and stenciled prominently onto a lot of our gear. “4-1-7! 4-4-1!” As they distributed the duffels, I retrieved mine and then hustled over to the formation area. At about 4 minutes, 30 seconds, we were actually in pretty good shape to hit the time hack.

Didn’t matter. “TIME’S UP GET DOWN DO MOTHERFUCKING PUSHUPS YOUR MOMMY AIN’T HERE FOR YOU NOW!” It was a warm day, and I quickly sweat through my olive-green T-shirt. For the first time, the “Army” was real.

The drill sergeants–two white, one African American, and one Hispanic–inspected us with a disgust I found to be a little forced. Clearly, they were acting; they couldn’t possibly bear me any personal animus. Drill Sergeant Casco approached me, and I looked him in the eyes while awaiting his command–a rookie mistake; you’re supposed to look straight ahead in formation, not at your drill sergeant.

“WHAT THE FUCK YOU LOOKIN’ AT PRIVATE? I GOT A COCK GROWING OUT MY FOREHEAD?! THAT LOOK GOOD TO YOU?!”

What? Oh. “No, drill sergeant!”

“THEN WHY’RE YOU STARIN’ AT ME LIKE I GOT A DICK THERE?!”

Uhhh… “I’m not, drill sergeant!”

“You callin’ me a fuckin’ liar?!”

Before I could reply in the negative, he called over to one of the white drills harassing recruits a few yards away: “Drill Sergeant Thomas, this private thinks I’m a liar!”

“Sounds like he doesn’t respect you, Drill Sergeant Casco. That’s pretty fucked up, if you ask me.”

Casco got in my face, a couple of inches from my nose, lowering his voice to a growl. “Drill Sergeant Thomas thinks you don’t respect me. Is that true, Co-hen?”

I was pretty sure there was no right answer; if I said no, then I’d be calling Thomas a liar. Casco, fortunately, had to move down the line: more troops to harass. He left me with a look of disgust and an order: “Do push-ups until I tell you to stop!”

He was “smoking” me. A term meaning intense and painful punishment by way of exercise, smoking serves as the Army’s primary means of correctional training or did in 2002. We heard stories about how much tougher it used to be–to include hitting–until President Clinton clamped down, following complaints of abuse.

Smoking didn’t include any physical contact with the drill sergeants, but beyond running in place, push-ups, and sit-ups, it did involve a diverse array of muscle-twisting exercises with names like monkey fucker, mountain climber, flutter kick, iron Mike, and low crawl. For the first few weeks, we experienced an intentionally severe amount of smokings, with the drill sergeants constantly in our faces about the tiniest infraction. A few specks of dust, for example, found in a private’s wall locker during a surprise barracks inspection, might prompt a platoon-wide mass punishment. I didn’t like this system. It didn’t seem fair.

The drill sergeants employed language like “cock-holster,” “grab ass,” “dummy,” and “numb nuts.” They spoke frequently throughout those first few weeks of “Jody,” the mythical guy from back home who cuckolds every soldier, doing all kinds of things with your girl. One representative cadence ran:

Jodie Boy’s a real cool cat
Jodie drives a Cadillac
Jodie’s got your girl at home

Now you’re sittin’ all alone

As you advance through basic, though, discipline relaxes. After a month, we could talk quietly in line. After nine weeks, we earned the title “Soldier” and received weekend passes. My parents, brother, and sister visited me in Georgia for the trip. I spent the two days mostly sleeping in their hotel rooms. For the final five weeks, we could read books and magazines; before, we were allowed only religious texts, so I’d chosen the Bible, having never before read the New Testament.

In a platoon of 54 men, I served alongside five other college graduates, an unusually high number. We half-dozen were among the first of a small surge of college grads who signed up in the years following 9/11, a 2.8 percent increase from before. I motivated myself with pictures of a fiery World Trade Center taped to the inside of my wall locker, along with a photo of a girl and me at a Brown formal in 2000. Although news was forbidden, I usually lied about attending Sunday Jewish services, instead using the time to sneak away to the off-limits rec center, where I’d log online.

With Afghanistan, as I predicted, already in the rearview mirror, America had commenced the diplomatic phase of the Iraq War. In March, Vice President Dick Cheney toured the Arab world to make the case for removing Saddam. I was certain we’d invade, toppling a totalitarian monster and sharing democracy and freedom not just with the Iraqis, but through their example, the entire Middle East. We had a chance
to respond to Bin Laden’s hate with a world-changing act of good. Liberating the Islamic world from its despots could only benefit us–we’d already seen that by the grateful reactions of the people we’d saved since 1991; Kuwaitis, Bosnians, Kosovars, and the northern Iraqi Kurds–all Muslims. I imagined walking down the street in some Iraqi city, a veteran of real battles, knowing I’d fought to liberate the country.

But in Georgia, I began to struggle. I excelled at only two things: road-marching and sit-ups. Otherwise, I realized quickly that I lacked a natural aptitude for Army life. In addition to my general disdain for obsessive cleanliness–We have to buff the floors with wax? And sorry, what is a buffer?–I didn’t get the fascination with weapons and blowing things up. It didn’t excite me, for example, to shoot the M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon–the SAW–a light machine gun that provides every infantry team’s most lethal firepower. Definitely not worth the hours of weapon-cleaning time, as I tried fruitlessly to clean the SAW’s greasy barrel. It also didn’t help that I was a bad runner and had been a pack-a-day smoker prior to taking the oath of enlistment. (A later comrade-in-arms once told me I fell out of more runs than airplanes.)

I did enjoy the camaraderie and liked my fellow recruits. I was struck mostly by how young they were, and how little of the world they’d seen. My new battle buddy, an African American from California named Anthony Jackson, had never been on a plane prior to his trip to Georgia. Jackson was a great guy, and a much better soldier than me, but like a majority of the platoon, he was young: 18 years old.

The politics of the unit leaned right. We all wanted to deploy, and to the extent anyone cared, President Bush was very popular. Some of the older soldiers affiliated with the GOP, but few gave much thought to domestic politics. Iraq–oddly, it seemed to me–wasn’t registering on most people’s radars. When our drill sergeants told us to shape up or we’d die in Afghanistan, I wondered how anyone could believe that; if we were going to die anywhere, obviously it was Iraq.

The Army is working class. In a Q&A with a drill sergeant one evening, a private asked what sort of civilian jobs an infantry background prepared one for. Drill hemmed a bit, before identifying custodial work. Serving as a janitor is an honorable profession; at the same time, the narrow scope of his answer seemed to overlook the leadership, teamwork, and attention to detail that service develops.

About six or seven weeks into basic, I realized that maybe I didn’t have what it took to be a Ranger. Before enlisting, I always imagined basic training as being the toughest part of the military; once you’re through, it’s easy sledding. Nope. Basic has one big advantage: You serve with a platoon-full of soldiers all in the same boat. When you get to your eventual unit, you become a cherry–a new guy; something to be popped. That means different things in different jobs; finance-battalion privates, for example, aren’t really hazed. But Rangers run 10 miles up and down hills every day. They tie down cherries and shave their body hair. They have the best equipment and best soldiers, and they operate at a very intense speed.

I clearly wasn’t going to thrive in that environment.

I decided instead to follow my contract from infantry basic to Airborne School; being a paratrooper had a pretty badass ring to it; an enticing word, I hoped, in the ears of as-of-yet-unmet women. The Rangers were glad to see me go; they hate quitters, and so they make quitting easy.

Ross Cohen at Fort Richardson, Alaska, where he served after basic training. Courtesy Robert Cohen

After 13 weeks and two days, I graduated from the Army’s infantry basic training course.

On the second day of Airborne School, I filled out the right forms and declined my RIP contract, making me subject to NOTA–Needs of the Army. One week later, and minutes after floating down from one of Fort Benning’s iconic 250-foot towers during jump school, I received my orders: Per NOTA, I was to be stationed at Fort Richardson, Alaska, where I’d serve with the 1st of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment–the Geronimo battalion.

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Ross Cohen

Ross Cohen

In 2002, Ross enlisted into the U.S. Army, deploying to Afghanistan. He has served on multiple political campaigns and led vet employment programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and at JPMorgan Chase.