Archive for November, 2012

Forging ahead

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

As I was planning our Thanksgiving dinner early last week, the thought crossed my mind that the soldiers in basic training might be allowed to call home on the holiday. So when the phone rang at about noon, just as I was lifting the turkey out of the brine, I wasn’t totally surprised when Steve answered it and shouted to us to come quickly because Ethan was on the phone.

The last time he called, Ethan was only allowed a 10 minute call so we didn’t want to waste any time. After a couple of stressful false starts, “I disconnected him!” –  I never really did master how to put our landline phone on speaker  – we huddled around the phone to get caught up. He said he could talk for 40 minutes this time. In basic training, that’s a luxurious amount of time considering that recruits only get 10 minutes to shovel down a full meal.

Of course, our first question was to ask him what they had done for Thanksgiving; in typical non-PC basic training lingo, Ethan said he had just eaten himself “retarded.” He reeled off a list of what he had eaten that sounded like the all-you-can-eat buffet on a Carnival cruise ship including about six desserts, all of which he would have turned his nose up at when he was living at home and I was doing the cooking. Things have changed; he warned me that I had better make multiple trips to Costco before he comes home for Christmas leave because now he eats everything that’s put in front of him except the silverware.

On the way to Victory Forge

The copious amounts of food at their Thanksgiving feast tasted especially good to him and his fellow recruits because they had just come off of four days of eating MREs as part of Victory Forge, a 72-hour culminating event (that’s what the army calls it) of basic training at Ft. Jackson. Victory Forge is a tactical exercise conducted as if in a combat zone in the woods of South Carolina. It is a rite of passage, signifying the transition from a civilian to a soldier. The battalion commander –  who according to Ethan is a pretty scary guy; he kicked in the door to rescue Jessica Lynch… led the nine mile march back to the base. Even though there are still two more weeks of BCT, if you make it through Victory Forge, short of a psychotic break, you are good to graduate.

So Ethan had reason to be thankful as he enjoyed his 4000 calories of ham, turkey, roast beef, salad, mashed potatoes, red velvet cake, pumpkin pie and pound cake; he had proven to himself that he has the physical, emotional and mental endurance to could go through the refining fire of Victory Forge and come out a soldier.

Building confidence and muscle

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

When our son Ethan was in his late teens and still living at home, starting at about 11pm, he would disengage from his computer, wander out to the kitchen and start talking. Of course at this time of night, I was ready to call it a day and head off to bed. But as a parent, when your teenage son willingly engages in conversation with you, it’s an opportunity not to be passed up even if it means a couple of hours less sleep that night.

Even though he is now 24, his biorhythms still seem to be in the same pattern because in his most recent letter from basic training, he noted that the time was 2300 hours and he was at the point in the night where he can talk and talk and talk. I’m sure the drill sergeants have emphatically and colorfully made the point to the recruits that they are not their mothers, so without someone to babble to, Ethan’s only option was to put his ramblings in writing. Hence, we received a lengthy letter from him.

His letter chronicled the roller coaster of his emotional ups and downs – he succeeded at the “Confidence Climb” which is scaling up and down a 30 foot wall unassisted but failed the most recent PT test because he was three sit ups short of the required number. He explained that a couple of things could happen: he could just re-test, he could be sent to a dreaded “fat camp” even though he’s not fat; or the most drastic and scary scenario, he would be recycled through basic training and lose his MOS or specialty.

As Ethan put it, his “skill set is entirely unsuited to basic training because it’s a place that smart really doesn’t count for much.” But what we read about the way he reacted made us very proud. He is determined in a way we have never seen before and the attitude that our downsizing army is looking for. “If they want me out of the army, they are going to have to carry me off the base.”

Apparently, some drill sergeants are still up at 11pm because there was a break in the middle of the letter where Ethan said he had just discussed the physical training and testing issue with him. After their “chat” about what might happen, the drill sergeant gave Ethan what counts for high praise in BCT; the drill sergeant said to him, “You’re not a ****bag soldier.”

He wrapped up the letter saying he was feeling up and that “My career looks good.” Awesome.

Entering the final phase

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

I was unloading groceries from the car on Saturday afternoon when Jennifer Lynn came out and told me to come into the house quickly because Ethan was on the phone. When you get a call from your son in basic training there’s no “the ice cream is going to melt – let me call you back in five minutes” because the soldiers only get one shot – so to speak – at contacting their family, so I hustled in. I was also quite sure that there was a drill sergeant making sure that the call didn’t go over the allotted 10 minutes by a second, so no danger that the ice cream would have a chance to melt.

This is the second phone call we’ve gotten from him and the calls are so rushed that it’s difficult to get the full story but apparently his platoon had won an obstacle course competition which earned them the right to make a call.

I had an opportunity to ask him how many are in this platoon; 44 for now but he says they will probably be losing three by the end of the week. The official reason is medical discharge but he says that may not be the full story. There is a wall of shame in the back of a classroom where they hang the CamelBaks of those who leave.

After having high hopes for achieving expert level in his marksmanship test, Ethan said he barely qualified which he attributes to taking the test when the outside temperature was 20 degrees but his internal body temperature was 102. We’re just happy he passed because the army is one place where recycling isn’t a good thing. If soldiers don’t pass one of the requirements, they are “recycled” meaning that they have to start at square one and go through basic training all over again. That would be a painful phone call to have to make to the folks back home.

He said that they have completed the red and white phases and are now entering last phase called…no big surprise here…the blue phase. It is the final six to nine weeks of BCT with the grand finale being a three-day field exercise which includes a 9.6 mile march carrying all your equipment. He’s excited but a bit nervous but before he even gets to that, he has to pass a physical test later this week. He is regretting that for many years, the only part of his body that got any exercise were his fingers reaching for the shift key on the keyboard.

Delta Company is too tough for Skittles!

As he had reported in his letters, he says he’s in the hardest platoon in the hardest company. There are even rumors that the soldiers in other companies get to eat the Skittles, M&Ms, and Reese’s Pieces that are in the MREs whereas his platoon has to toss all the good stuff into a contraband pile for the drill instructors. Eat candy like Foxtrot company? Hah! Delta company eats nails for breakfast! Or so he says…


Army correspondence course

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

Last Thursday was a red letter day for us because we received two letters from Ethan…although the letters were actually more desert camo color than red. Ethan is in his fourth week of army basic training at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina.

Ethan wrote one of the letters on Sunday. I wonder how much “encouragement” the drill sergeants give the soldiers to write home during their few minutes of free time. “Send your mom a nice letter telling her that you love her or drop and give me 20, maggot!” Even if the communication is born out of a desire to avoid pain rather than being a free will expression of love, it doesn’t make me any less happy to get the letter.

The second letter was written the next day at 3:15 am. He was stuck on a two-hour fireguard shift because the alarms went down and the drill sergeants had to make sure that no one sneaked in or out of the female soldiers’ bay. The fact that he was writing in the wee hours of the morning was reflected in his penmanship. I don’t know what time it was when he finished the letter but his writing got smaller and smaller as he struggled to maintain his focus and simply stay awake.

Before he left for basic training, when he mentioned to someone within the army that he was going to Ft. Jackson, they would sometimes respond with “Oh, so you’re going to ‘Relaxin’ Jackson.'” At least from Ethan’s perspective, that’s pure myth because he ended up in what he believes is the hardest platoon in the hardest company in the base…I wonder if every soldier at Ft. Jackson has that same belief.

Ethan went onto say that he has two infantry drill sergeants who push them hard. Knowing that I’m a bit of a drill sergeant in my own way he said of them,  “Mom would approve though.” He is so right; pushing my son that so he finds out what he is fully capable of, definitely gets my Seal of Approval.

Based on the information in his letters, I’m learning that there two types of currency in BCT: push ups and phone calls. Push ups are the payment for messing up. Ethan says that 25 is rapidly becoming an insignificant number of push ups to do at any one time. Hmmm, hard to know if that’s a good thing or not.

This soldier has the same reaction as Ethan; “What is this stuff?!”

The other type of currency is a phone call which is the reward that soldiers earn for achieving a certain standard in their training. In his Basic Rifle Marksmanship test next week, he is aiming to score 36/40 which is expert and earns him a phone call. Our cell phones never leave our side now.

His stories about BCT are evidence that the army really does run on its stomach. As a child, Ethan never took much interest in what he ate; if there was a box of Triscuits in the house he was happy. So I’m surprised at how much he talks about food in his letters. He signed off his 3:00am letter by telling us that eating MRE’s for lunch and dinner should be considered a war crime. I can’t wait to hear about the Thanksgiving feast at Ft. Jackson. I only hope it doesn’t come in a pouch.