THE BLUE PHASE
At the very beginning of the blue phase, the pace slowed significantly and we were given a few days to learn and practice a little bit of fighting. We took a few hours one afternoon to learn grappling and takedowns, and then the next day the drill sergeants demonstrated a few pressure points and various other hand-to-hand fighting techniques.
Another afternoon was spent beating each other with pugil sticks. They are basically enormous Q-Tips packed with rubber foam that is not nearly as soft as they appear.
The drill sergeant paired me up with the biggest guy in our platoon, too. He was affectionately called Ox by everyone, as he was an unusually large specimen of a human being. I was friends with this soldier, at least friendly with this soldier, so I hoped that he wouldn’t try to beat my brains out when I stepped up to take him on.
For whatever reason, Ox went easy on me. It was clear he was holding back, because when his hits connected, they did not at all knock me back or sideways the way they should have. I even had a moment where I thought I might get him, as he missed a shot at me and I checked him with the stick hard across his chest. He lost his balance, but came back swinging from his hip.
But before he could connect, I came at him with a few shots of my own. I popped him right in the head with more force than I originally intended. The shot cancelled his last attack, and he even took a moment to grin and nod in approval before he corrected his center of gravity.
He wanted me to win.
The message having been received, I let out a flurry of shots to his abdomen, intermittently shoving him with the end of the stick in an attempt to keep him off-balance while I decided how on earth I was going to finish this bout.
But my hits weren’t throwing him off balance the way I thought they would, and he finally deflected one of my shots with his stick and tried to twist and disarm me. As our sticks clashed a second time, he smashed my left hand and I let go of my weapon for just a split second. I knew this was a mistake, and I cursed that silly impulse.
However, instead of knocking me senseless, Ox opted instead to use my own tactic against me, shoving me off my perch at full force using the center of the stick. I flew off of the platform, almost in cartoonish fashion. I landed hard on my rear, but I laid back after falling to catch my breath. As I was about to sit up, Ox came and stood over me, extending his hand and grinning.
“Y’ok, Perkins?” he asked.
I nodded. “I’m good, brother.” I accepted his hand, and he clumsily jerked me to my feet.
“Y’almost had me, man. Next time, yeah?” He patted me on the back and then gave me a playful shove.
I laughed. “Yeah, next time, buddy.”
We also had a rather unusual occurrence only a few days before our final series of tests: we were allowed to attend a concert. We had absolutely no indication that anything like this would be happening, either. After a Saturday filled largely with light yard work outside of our barracks, one of our drill sergeants told us to get ready for a break.
The drill sergeant did warn us, however, before we left for the evening’s festivities that there would be concessions being sold. He said that the drill sergeants would not be present to stop us from buying snacks, and while he informed us that it wouldn’t be prohibited, he did send a rather stern warning that perhaps some of us should skip that part. With that, we were marched to an auditorium and told to march back when the concert was over.
The concert was OK. Actually, I remember thinking that we could be in the barracks instead, sitting on our beds instead of hard bleachers listening to some shitty band that was probably made up of a bunch of semi-talented NCOs. It’s not that I was ungrateful for this break, but the whole thing felt a little out of place for what was supposed to be military training.
Still, I enjoyed myself. Of all the concessions being offered that evening, I opted for a bag of sunflower seeds and a bottle of water. I had been chewing pen caps for the duration of basic training as a replacement for tobacco, so having actual food to chew on for the duration of the concert was actually more enjoyable than the concert itself.
But the event did manage to make me forget for a few hours what I had been through. It also kept away the lingering anxiety about what might be next.
And just like that, it was time for our final FTX. We were awoken at three in the morning to begin gathering our gear. We painted our faces with camo, helped each other with our gear, and gave reassuring slaps on the back to one another. Though we were all poorly rested, we were incredibly lively for a group of poor saps who were about to be tormented by their drill sergeants all weekend. It was almost like a pep rally.
It started raining almost as soon as we hit the trail, and it didn’t let up for the duration of the FTX. For the most part it was only a gentle drizzle, but the drizzle was persistent. After a great deal of trudging, we arrived at our campsite. All that was left to do was dig a foxhole and set up our tents. The drill sergeants explained that after those two simple tasks were completed, we would be free to turn in for the day.
That’s all we had to do.
A foxhole, as it is referred to in the military, is supposed to be the length of two and a half M-16s and as wide as one (lengthwise, of course). Furthermore, the hole was to be as deep as the shortest person’s shoulder. Boomhauer and I both stood over six feet tall, meaning we would be digging five and a half feet into the ground, just a few inches shy of a standard grave. Don’t think for a minute that I didn’t have this on my mind as we were digging.
We were also informed that our campsite itself would need to be fortified. Aside from digging a foxhole, it needed to be sheltered with sandbags and branches. All displaced sand was to be put into bags that we would lay around our fighting position.
Also, we needed to have a small trench ready to fall in, just in case we were ‘attacked.’ This trench was called our hasty fighting position. This position was to be as long as we were tall, as wide as an M-16, and about six to eight inches deep from top to bottom. Finally, we needed to set up our tent, dig a trench around it, and cover the bottom with pine straw so the water from the rain on the ground wouldn’t leak in (I guess… I was just doing what Boomhauer did).
Just like the first day of basic training, more and more tasks unfolded as we went along. The drill sergeants made our tasks even worse by firing all sorts of spectacular weapons into the air and causing blank explosives to go off everywhere we tried to go.
After about ten hours of grueling work, we established our guard roster and turned in. It was probably only eight or nine in the evening, but after a day like the one we had it was well past our bedtime.
Day one was complete.
The next day was spent conducting all sorts of crazy exercises on and off for about another twelve hours. After our meals we simply went back to running around. Day two turned out to be as exciting as it was exhausting. That evening we all marveled at how we breezed through the FTX so quickly. This meant that we were finished; the next day was supposed to be only for a closing-down briefing from the drill sergeants, followed by a mass packing of our gear and a march to our checkpoint.
But the drill sergeants had one final trick up their sleeves before they were going to let us go home.
It was right before sunrise on the third day when Boomhauer and I were relieved of our fire guard duty. I scrambled to the tent to lie down and Boomhauer went to one of the portable latrines. If I was a good battle buddy, I would have gone with him. After all, that was the rule while we were in these combat scenarios.
But screw that. I was tired.
As I was lying down, I heard a soldier in the distance shouting “Gas, gas gas!” This was the signal we were supposed to give in the event of a chemical attack. The chemical for our exercise was CS gas, the same gas grenades we used for the exercise in the white phase.
Oh man. Some poor saps are getting a rude awakening, I thought to myself.
That’s when I saw the stick.
For some reason, my instinct forced me to sit up. I wanted to see how far away the “attack” was, just to make sure that the same wasn’t about to happen to me. However, as I rose to poke my head out of the tent, a curious-looking stick met me halfway. I could barely make out the stupid thing because the sun had just begun to rise, but I could have sworn that I was looking at a stick that had some kind of can tied to it.
And that’s when I realized I was already way too late.
We were taught to go straight for our gas masks when under attack, but panic set in and I did my best to cover my face with a shirt. The shirt did nothing, of course, so I kept fumbling around until I found my gas mask, trying to keep a cool head while the CS gas had begun to burn my eyes and my face.
We were taught to exhale before putting on our gas masks, but I was already choking by this time. I breathed out as best as I could, but a reflex caused me to involuntarily attempt to take a huge gulp of air. I began to choke uncontrollably, and I found that my basic motor functions were beginning to fail in the throes of my panic.
Frantically, I threw off my mask and scurried out of my tent on all fours, blinded, drooling, crying like I just huffed an onion, and groping for nothing in particular, save a remedy for my miserable state. I began rubbing dirt on my face in a vain attempt to quell the discomfort. Spitting, cursing, and gasping, I propped myself on all fours and let my various glands try to clear themselves out.
From a distance, I could hear Boomhauer shouting, but it was far too late for consolation. I plopped down on my belly, finally able to breathe again, and shakily delivered the thumbs up like a battered Evil Knievel. That is what happens when you don’t listen to the drill sergeant and let your battle buddy out of your sight.
But after that, we were free to go. Boomhauer and I got a head start on taking down our tent, and I once again scrounged for leftover pouches of Taster’s Choice from my fellow trainees.
However, there was an issue that none of us anticipated. After three days of nonstop drizzling, all of our gear had become significantly heavier. After all, at the beginning of basic training you are basically given two dozen different pieces of heavy cloth. Let those pieces of cloth slowly soak up water over 72 hours, and you have a burden that has nearly doubled in weight, made worse by the fatigue of the exercise.
We were just lucky that the drill sergeants didn’t make us walk the entire ten miles back.
There was actually a short phase following the final PT test. It was called the gold phase, and though it only lasted three or four days, it was a very rewarding stretch of time.
We did PT one or two of the days of the gold phase, but during the day all we were tasked to do was clean all of our field equipment that wasn’t made of cloth, and tidy up both the inside and the outside of the barracks. As our assigned leaders were well-versed in delegating, we did these tasks not only with little to no supervision, but quite enthusiastically.
During the gold phase, our two platoons made plans for our final night. With the exception of a handful of soldiers whose AIT would be on the same base, we were all going to have to fly or ride out of there in the morning, which would likely afford us the time to sleep that we were probably going to miss. If the drill sergeants were going to leave us alone, we were going to try and have ourselves a last hurrah.
As we lined up for our last evening formation by our beds, there was a palpable feeling of manliness in the air. Those of us who survived did so not only under the constant stress of the physical demands, but also with the nagging reality that most, if not all of us, would one day soon be sent off to war. These thoughts were quite pervasive for this guy in particular, but an ungodly shriek broke me from my daze.
“Where is Perkins? Private Perkins, where is he?” It was Drill Sergeant Lafayette, and she once again forgot to adjust her volume to an indoor setting. She also seemed to have forgotten that we lined up by the same bed every night, as she asked a third time where I was before I finally sounded off.
“Hooah, drill sergeant,” I said, because why not?
Within two seconds she stomped across the open bay barracks and was directly in my face. I could smell alcohol on her breath, so I expected either a kiss or a firm headbutt to the bridge of my nose. I know myself, friends. I knew I deserved one of each.
“So, Perkins,” she paused, smirking. “You gonna walk out of my door tomorrow?”
I had no response for that. She was drunk. This was all for her own amusement.
Predictably, she repeated herself in a most dramatic fashion: “Do you, Private Perkins, believe you are going to be walking out of THAT door tomorrow?” She was pointing, but not at the door. I was trying not to smile at how obviously drunk she was.
“I plan on it, drill sergeant,” I responded, immediately unsure if that was what I should have said.
“You plan on it, huh?” she snorted.
But then her face became calm. All signs of amusement, frustration, and fatigue melted away for just a moment in time. I was no longer looking at a drill sergeant. I was looking at another human being.
She silently extended her hand, and I accepted.
“You did it, soldier. Congratulations.”
I honestly didn’t know how to feel about this. Every fiber of my being wanted to reject this praise, because I felt that I had not earned it. However, following the drill sergeant’s earlier revelation that we were part of a pilot program did slightly nullify the feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Across the room, Chris Moretti began clapping. One at a time, soldiers from 2nd Platoon followed suit. Boomhauer was the first to do it on our side, then 1st Platoon all joined in. I was left to awkwardly bear this strangely triumphant moment, still locked in at parade rest as Drill Sergeant Lafayette smiled a genuine smile at this young fuck-up.
I say this with no hyperbole: that was one of the single most beautiful moments of my life.