The Red Phase
Basic training was divided into four phases: red, white, blue, and gold. The first three phases were roughly two and a half weeks long and were divided by physical assessment tests. The punishment for failure was being sent back to the beginning of basic training to start again with the next group. This practice is commonly known as ‘re-cycling,’ or ‘recycling.’ I never ascertained which one. One suggests you’re going through the cycle again and the other implies that you’re garbage. They both make sense.
After few days of easy in-processing, we were plunged into the red phase. This phase is nothing more than where the drill sergeants try to break you down. They were constantly yelling, and you were always having to stop and do push-ups for some reason or another.
There were no days off from the beatings, either. Every morning we were awoken far too early, given far too little time to pull ourselves together, and then shouted at until it was time to lay down again. Even then, we’d have to take shifts cleaning the barracks all night for something called “fire guard,” which, by the way had precisely nothing to do with fires.
After not getting enough sleep, we all had to get up at 5:00 in the morning to conduct Physical Training (PT). PT was a combination of running, push-ups, and other strange exercises that made muscles in my body ache so intensely I couldn’t help but wonder what evil scientist came up with the program.
Outside of all the exercise, there were a lot of classes during the red phase. First aid, self-defense, and recognizing rank were all among the lessons we were given during the first two weeks of training. It was often difficult to concentrate during these classes, however, because I was so exhausted. It certainly didn’t help that the drill sergeants deliberately kept the heat in the classrooms on high.
That was a typical day in the red phase. Get up, PT, shower, march to your meal, march to a class, repeat. Hurry up. Stand in line. Have a seat. Get up. March. Do push-ups for not marching in a straight enough line. It was honestly the most structure I had ever known. The army was already helping me get my life in order by not letting me oversee myself.
Unfortunately, my friend Hudson was moved to another unit for arguing with a drill sergeant. It was a stupid thing to do, but I suppose I understand why he did it. The drill sergeant was just being an idiot that day. I think ninety percent of all people in that situation would have chosen to comply, but Hudson for whatever reason refused.
The drill sergeant even sat the unit down to talk to us about what happened. He told us never to do that. We were supposed to comply. There was a reason for every order they gave. If I told you to blah blah blah in the blah blah blah, then you damn well better blah blah the blah blah blah. I felt the drill sergeant lost a little bit of cred with me when he acted like there would be others who would try and test him, especially since I could have sworn he was looking at me half of the time. I already respected the drill sergeants. I did not need a refresher. Unlike my buddy Hudson, I would be homeless if I made anybody mad and got kicked out. They didn’t need to worry about me being anything but fluid and compliant.
In the beginning, I was hopeless. I couldn’t do a dozen push-ups or sit-ups, nor could I run a mile. My run was pathetic. I couldn’t run for more than a few minutes at a time, if you could call my wonky shuffle running at all. This was a little sad considering how active I had always been in high school.
After two weeks of the red phase, however, I had begun to be able to keep up. The exercises still hurt, but I was able to power through them. I couldn’t always finish a set of push-ups, but I was doing significantly better, having more than doubled my maximum. However, my run time was still way too high. I needed to run a mile in about twelve minutes, but I was finishing at around eighteen. I knew that I was getting a little faster, but when you’re as big as I was, even that much running around won’t take all the weight off in a couple of weeks.
I tried to step up my game by cutting my rations. For all three meals, I only allowed myself broiled fish, milk, and two pieces of wheat bread. The cafeteria often had V8, and since nobody likes that stuff, I would take as many cans as I could get away with. I didn’t know anything about dieting, but I guessed that these things were probably the healthiest options.
With the white phase fast approaching, I found myself still falling short of the standard. I was impressed with my own progress, but a practice PT test revealed that I was nowhere near where I needed to be on my run. I wasn’t sure what else I could do to get faster, so I basically braced myself for having to be recycled. I made peace with my shortcomings and hoped that I would benefit from another two weeks of the red phase.
I knew I would pass on my second attempt. I was beginning to understand how basic training worked, so even though it would be unpleasant to start over, I would be armed with a small advantage knowing what was ahead. For a guy who knew he was going to fail, I certainly was optimistic.
The day of the PT test came, and the results were as expected. I was able to get a little more than the minimum required number of push-ups, but I was still short on my sit-ups and just plain bad at my run. I had finished at seventeen minutes, a full one-minute improvement in only a few days, but there still needed to be a great deal of progress before I was able to move on.
Immediately after failing the test, I was taken to a room with a few other soldiers where the drill sergeants said we would be wait to be recycled. We spent an afternoon sitting around trying to cheer ourselves up, only to be told in the end to go back to our units. No explanation was given.
I didn’t like this move. I had failed, and I wanted to be out. This didn’t exactly seem like an army decision. This seemed like somebody just said, “screw it.” I didn’t want anybody saying “screw it” at crucial points of my training like this. It completely went against my understanding of what the army was.
What did this mean for me? What did this mean for the army? Would I still make a good soldier having only partially fulfilled a set of standards? My morale was still high, but my faith in the system had become a little shaken. What could the army possibly do with an incomplete soldier?
Despite my failure, I rolled over to the white phase. I tried to shake off the feeling of defeat and just keep going, but by the third week I was completely wiped out. I felt as though I was getting a cold or a sinus infection, and I was experiencing sporadic pain in my right knee. I tried to talk to the drill sergeants about both of my issues. For my sinus infection, I was sent to what is called ‘sick call,’ where a medic evaluates your condition. Apparently, my condition was minor, because I was given sinus pills and cough drops and told to suck it up.
As for my knee: lose more weight and your knees won’t hurt.
I knew the drill sergeants weren’t there to coddle us, but I felt that in both cases I was dealing with something that was not as simple as the people in charge said. I felt that I needed antibiotics and bed rest. I did not believe that soldiering on was the solution.
The pain in my knee was also enough to make me wonder if I was going to have problems later. We had a few soldiers with injuries in our platoon, and it didn’t seem like they were treated with much dignity. We had a female soldier in particular, Pvt. Walker, who sustained a knee injury in the previous cycle. A drill sergeant explained to us that she was “shamming” and “crying to go home.”
Walker was a short, thin girl with mousey brown hair and no real defining characteristics. She was pale, she mumbled when she spoke, and she wore thick-rimmed army-issued glasses that were far too large for her small face. She looked a mess every day, too. She looked as though she was trying to get dressed with a broken arm, not a knee injury.
She also looked intensely demoralized.
Walker would go everywhere we went, but she was on crutches and was simply directed to stand on the sidelines and watch us. She was not made to march in formations, but she was still required to keep up with everyone. It seemed a little pointless having her along, however, and you could see on her face that she felt the exact same way.
I was able to talk with Walker one day. I found out that the story was true. She did injure herself in the previous cycle, and she asked to be discharged. She figured if she was already getting scuffed up in basic training, there was no point in continuing. Her explanation seemed perfectly reasonable to me, but at the same time I felt that there was some information left out of the story by somebody.
Who knows? Maybe she was shamming. Regardless, did it have to be that this soldier was a coward? Why was that a necessary part of her narrative?
Before long, my fellow soldiers started using the word on each other as well. A few dickheads in the unit decided to break off and form a gang who picked on the fat soldiers. Since there were soldiers fatter than I was, I was normally in the clear. However, this one skinny guy, Pvt. Klein, called me a shammer at PT one day. I gave Klein one finger salute as he ran by me on the track, but after the run was over I told him that I work my ass. He told me I was too slow and that I slow the group down. He also told me I should have been recycled.
I mean, he wasn’t wrong, but… I dunno… fuck him.
I took it on the chin like I was supposed to, but deep down I wanted to knock that guy’s teeth out. How could anybody know how hard you are working? That was my problem with the accusation of shamming. “Sham” means that something is pretend or fake. It’s a stupid way of using the word to begin with.
But I digress.
The part that pissed me off about it was that it should have been obvious that not everybody was cut out for military service. I don’t think you should give a person grief over not making it through what has been specifically designed to filter out people who are not strong enough. If you know how to do a backflip, you can’t just go around talking trash to anybody who can’t do a backflip. That’s just poor sportsmanship.
Klein finally shut up on his own accord. It didn’t surprise me to have a guy like that among us, but it did make me wonder how things would be later in my enlistment. What happens to the Kleins after training? What kind of soldiers do they make? Would I be seeing more people like him?
Cracks were beginning to form on the already fragile ice that was my faith in this plan. The pain in my knee was something I felt that would need to be addressed at some point, but what if something happened to me like it did to Pvt. Walker? Would her fate be my fate, to just get dressed every morning and just hobble along with everyone, being randomly dissed by strangers all day?
After another 48 hours of trudging along, the sinus infection was turning into something much worse. Whatever remedies the sergeants were giving me at the sick bay were not doing a thing. I was to the point where I was barely sleeping at night despite physically arduous days. One night I didn’t sleep at all because of all my coughing. I rose at four in the morning and dragged myself to the bathroom. What needed to happen before the drill sergeants realized I wasn’t faking? Did the drill sergeants think that I was a shammer?
A glimpse in the mirror suddenly filled me with hope.
The previous night, another soldier was sent to the hospital for having pinkeye. This was the one malady that a drill sergeant would not ignore. Pinkeye is gross, and it spreads quickly, especially in damp, sweaty environments like the one we were in. I believed that I needed a doctor to look at me, so I had switched that soldier’s pillow with my own once he left. Unsurprisingly, it worked right away.
I was simultaneously relieved, fascinated, and appalled as I beheld my half-shut eye. It was gross, but it was what I wanted. The other soldier had not yet returned from the hospital, so in my mind that meant I would be quarantined until my pinkeye went away. That’s all I needed: a bed and a couple days’ rest.
The drill sergeant took one look at me, and immediately sent me to go catch a shuttle to the hospital. When a doctor finally saw me, he ordered me seventy-two hours of bed rest and gave me three different medications. I had developed an ear, nose, throat, and upper respiratory infection in addition to my pinkeye, which explained all the coughing and the overall feeling like I was dying.
I don’t know what kind of medicine I was given in addition to antibiotics, but I probably slept about sixty out of those seventy-two hours, maybe more. I awoke on the third day feeling incredible. I wanted to get out and run around now that my lungs had cleared up and I was rested. I felt so good, in fact, that I started to believe I could pass the next set of tests that were waiting for me.
However, there was still a bit of guilt over what I had done. I cheated to be able to see a doctor, but the drill sergeant forced my hand. This was not the way I wanted to get through, but I didn’t think that ignoring problems was the right way to go.
I didn’t want to be locked in a battle of wits and will with the army. I know me. I’ll always put up a fight. I’m not a guy who suffers injustice. In my mind, this was an injustice, and, as is my way, I dealt with this injustice with quick thinking. Again, this was not at all the way I wanted to get through, but these were the same drill sergeants who were pushed me through the red phase in spite of failing my test.
In the end, I made peace with my decision. Perhaps if I let the sickness go on a little longer, I could have gotten more bed rest. However, the way the drill sergeants were acting I doubted they would have let me stop at all. Up until this point, I felt like the drill sergeants knew what they were doing. Maybe they were right about my knee. There would come a point where I wouldn’t be doing all this strenuous activity every day. Maybe it would stop hurting. However, I was really sick and both the drill sergeants and the medics ignored it.
What else did they ignore in the army?