Graduation

Having just received my first of many miracles, I was quite docile for the remainder of the Gold Phase. I was finished, on a technicality of course, but finished with Basic Training. I was still quite disillusioned over how I achieved it, though.

Granted, I did shave another forty seconds off of my time in 48 hours. That wasn’t bad at all. I did work my ass off. I did get serious like I promised myself I would. This all made me feel a little better, but for some reason the fact that I didn’t pass my PT test still meant a lot to me. I was also beginning to wonder if I passed the rifle test, or if this was all just a sham to fill slots.

But my peers were none the wiser. Jones didn’t say anything. Even the drill sergeant who taunted me on the way to the running track made a remark about my score, meaning that the news had already made it back to the unit. In the end, I quit fighting it. It was clear that nobody was ever going to find out about it, so why not just accept this little miracle and move on?

*****

In the true fashion of the military, our graduation was as grandiose as it was lengthy. We marched in a circle and performed a series of well-rehearsed rifle drills, and after about ninety minutes of that nonsense, we dispersed. Don’t ask me to elaborate any further on the rifle drills. I never had a clue what we were doing.

We were allowed to spend that afternoon with our families. My parents came up from Georgia to make sure their little monster didn’t default, but were quite pleased at what they beheld. I had my brother smuggle me a pack of Newports, and I puffed greedily in front of a stepfather who I swear was beaming at me.

There was an undeniable feeling of guilt mixed with the pride that I felt for the circumstances under which I graduated. I felt as though I had gotten away with a huge lie, and was hopelessly ambivalent about it all. Still, I grinned through the whole ordeal, accepting praise and gifts along the way. Being in the army was the only solution for a guy like me as far as my parents were concerned, so there was no need in disrupting their illusion that their son had finally found his place.

Of course, I knew it was never going to work. I had cleared the first hurdle, but I honestly had no idea how I was going to get through the next portion of the training. We were already warned that the PT standards would be higher. I barely made it through basic training. How the hell was I going to make it through the next phase? However, I never conveyed this fear to my parents, nor were the conditions of my graduation ever discussed.

I knew it wasn’t a happy fit, but my parents didn’t need to know that.

*****

On the eve of our final day, we were all packing our gear and getting ready to depart when one of the drill sergeants entered the barracks and asked us to gather around him. This was the notoriously mean guy, but he looked a little different on this day. He looked as though he had a lot on his mind. He looked upset. We eyed each other questioningly, thinking that he was going to take one more opportunity to kick our asses before we left.

As we gathered around, he paused for a minute to survey the group. He looked like he did not yet have the words to say. We began to look around at each other, because this was the first time he wasn’t glaring at us. Did somebody die? Was the country attacked again? These were all thoughts that went racing through my mind before he finally took a deep breath and spoke:

“Soldiers, I just want to say that I am sorry. You have been a part of a pilot program. We were supposed to push you all through. We’re supposed to be making a ‘kinder, gentler army.’ I never supported this idea and I don’t agree with it. This is not the real army.” He paused and appeared to be deep in thought. “Just… I’m sorry, soldiers. I’m sorry.”

And with that, he quickly walked out of the room.

*****

That night as I lay in my bed, the drill sergeant’s words kept playing on a loop in my brain. I had originally heard the phrase ‘kinder, gentler’ army from my recruiter, but I thought that it was merely one of the many tactics they used to lure people in.

I began thinking about my in-processing. I was really overweight. Did they just let that slide? What about the rifle range? Did I actually hit 23 targets?

I felt ripped off.

I wanted to fail. I had so far gone through life being too smart for my own good. In college I never attended class because I thought I was smart enough to pass without their lectures. At tech school I half-assed everything while hanging out with two rastas getting baked out of our minds all day. Even at the county newspaper I thought I was Hunter S. Thompson getting drunk in the middle of the day and driving to City Hall for a meeting. I joined the army to be forced to toughen up and fall in line.

Maybe I had toughened up a little. I was looking lean and felt somewhat strong. I certainly gained much more respect for soldiers since I had begun this journey. However, I didn’t pass any of their tests. I wanted to do them again. This was not a victory, and now I had all the proof I needed that they were letting everything slide.

What was next? What other bullshit formalities awaited me? Was my next period of training going to be the same way? If so, what was the point?

*****

Very few words were exchanged on our final day. We were far too preoccupied to think about anything but our destination, so we gathered our belongings and dispersed in relative silence. I remember Mike Jones slapping me in the balls, but I think that was one of the only interactions I had on that final day.

I was given back the civilian clothes I was wearing when I first left for basic training. That life seemed a million miles away and a thousand years ago. When I put them on, I didn’t even recognize myself. For starters, they had become incredibly baggy. Second, I was clean cut and trim now. My appearance did not seem to go with this deliberately slobbish attire.

In fact, I actually looked a little like a soldier. I had a jawline now, no extra chins (maybe just one). I looked like a guy who set out to get his shit together and did. I appreciated the person I beheld in the mirror. He looked strong. He looked decisive.

Strange that I didn’t feel any of those things.

I reflected on everything that had happened. All the sweat, snot, and tears. All the pain. All the running. All the shouting. All the sleepless nights. The road ahead was sure to be as challenging, at least for a while.

Especially if this whole pilot program thing was going to continue.

*****

A shuttle drove me and a few other soldiers to an airport in Columbia where we would be flown to Baltimore for the second part of our training. My destination: Fort Meade, Maryland, home of the Defense Information School (DINFOS). There, I would learn how to put together a military newspaper and also learn the protocol surrounding the media. As the plane began to roll down the runway, I closed my eyes and turned up my Faith No More CD as loud as it would go. I didn’t need to see what was coming next. The unknown awaited me once again, and there was no need to worry my brain any further until I was there.

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