THE WHITE PHASE
We did a lot of weapon maintenance in the beginning of the white phase. The drill sergeants taught us how to disassemble and clean our rifles, and for the duration of the white phase we were required to perform some kind of maintenance on our weapon every day. In fact, we had to carry the damn things with us everywhere we went for the rest of basic training. Every morning, we would have to go to a supply closet and retrieve an M-16, sling it over our shoulder, and carry it with us.
And there were consequences for not taking the responsibility of the rifle seriously. You were punished for putting it down, you were punished for not holding it correctly, and you were especially punished if you ever dropped the thing. These were all necessary measures, of course, as all deployed soldiers were required to carry their weapon at all times. However, I simply didn’t appreciate the reminder that my intended line of work may still involve the use of weapons.
The training on the M-16 was almost constant. That’s why I was so pissed at myself for never hitting the targets. There was a method of training for every single aspect of the rifle, from how you breathe to how you brace yourself against a foxhole wall. There was even a clever acronym for what you do when your weapon gets jammed and ceases to fire: SPORTS.
S – slap the weapon as a warning for being insubordinate
P – pull out the thing
O – observe the thing
R – replace the thing
T – tap the side of your weapon politely and remind it of its purpose
S – squeeeeeeze that trigger, soldier
At least it was something like that. I have the general theory of it. One thing I can say about the army: they are absolutely thorough in their protocol and training. I don’t ever want any readers to glean from my words that the military didn’t offer a thorough enough program. A detail-oriented freak such as myself couldn’t help but admire how specific and tedious everything was.
There was another activity introduced when we were given our rifles: Drill and Ceremony, otherwise known as DNC. Have you ever seen a high-profile event where a group of soldiers are marching and snapping their rifles? That’s basically DNC.
In between firing exercises, we had to learn how to form up and moved in a synchronized manner. The only difference between this and our combat training, essentially, was that this was purely for show. However, this set of exercises did teach us a few commands that we would have to follow for the rest of our careers. For example, DNC taught us how to line up correctly for formations and how to get into step. Sure, DNC itself was designed to be part and parcel to a display of military superiority (if not only through the virtue of intense discipline), but it was also generally quite useful. You’d be surprised how hard it is to sync yourself up with fifty other people while you’re jogging in boots.
Regardless of the pageantry element to it all, it came as no surprise that DNC was just as grueling as anything else we had done so far. Dexterity was always something I never had much of, so having to execute crisp starts and stops along with snapping my rifle and raising it at just the right times was something I could not manage in the beginning. Even though I had no idea we’d be doing anything of the sort before I entered the army, it did not surprise me that I sucked at this as well.
But believe it or not, I did get better. Muscle memory is key; one thing we didn’t account for was how taxing these specific motions would be… when repeated fifty times. In its own way, DNC put a few extra touches on my physical development.
And more importantly, DNC helped with my confidence. I was OK at the theory of the rifle and all the maintenance involved, and since we did not actually go to the rifle range until over a week into the white phase, I was actually feeling pretty confident about being a soldier again. As a matter of fact, at the end of the cycle, our platoon was selected by the drill sergeants and the commander as being the best of the four platoons at DNC.
It made sense to me that we had to do something like DNC. Soldiers also need to appear organized and neat in addition to rugged and ready. They need to be able to live in both worlds, ideally, or that’s what I supposed. Who really knows? Maybe it’s a control thing. Maybe it’s to show how the general can make his circus perform by the sound of his whip. I’m trying not to be cynical here, either. The truth of the matter is that I always found it to be superfluous, but to be fair, very few soldiers have to do this kind of thing after training.
In fact, there are special units that train specifically for DNC, just as there are soldiers who train specifically for the army marching band (yes, that is a thing). The next time you see a group of soldiers performing DNC, I hope my half-assed description of it makes you able to appreciate how much work goes into that nonsense.
White phase also gave us our first FTX of the cycle. However, it was merely a warm-up FTX, as all we did was march to a site, set up our tents, and then learn how to set up a rotating guard.
However, there was an upside to this FTX: this was the first occasion in which soldiers were allowed to finish eating their “chow.” We were all given MREs, and we spread out all over our camp site to enjoy our first peaceful meal in a month.
And I loved MREs. To me, those things were like a Happy Meal. Here’s an example of what an MRE might have to offer:
MRE #11: Vegetarian Pasta
– Pasta with vegetables in tomato sauce
– A granola bar (name brand… no generic crap here)
– A pouch of peanut butter and another pouch of crackers
– Freakin SKITTLES… an entire bag (no Halloween fun-size crap here)
In addition, each MRE would come with a little accessory pack of odds and ends. Generally speaking, it would contain a pouch of salt, a pouch of pepper, some instant coffee and a little bit of powdered creamer and sugar, and also a few practical items like matches and some toilet paper. Although the contents of the MRE would vary, there was no denying that, with few exceptions, MREs were outstanding.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the drill sergeants would come around and take your matches and your coffee. You weren’t supposed to have caffeine and you definitely weren’t supposed to be starting any fires. I was no pyromaniac, but I certainly never parted with coffee willingly. In fact, I regularly rounded up coffee pouches from my fellow soldiers. It would not be uncommon for one of my canteens on my pistol belt to be full of water, and the other to be full of tepid Taster’s Choice.
As far as the FTX went, we were responsible for setting up and executing our own watch. Our platoon once again went out with 2nd Platoon, so the two platoon leaders decided on times for shifts, and who would cover what side. That was the extent of it. The purpose for the exercise was to simulate vigilance in a combat setting. We were also shown for the first time how to set up our tents, but Boomhauer had that finished almost before I could ask him if he needed any help.
The only other thing memorable from that evening was the noticeable drop in temperature resulting in quite a few soldiers scrambling to figure out how to stay warm. No fires were allowed because we were supposed to be hidden, so we had to try and pile as many pieces of our clothing and gear on top of ourselves, because the army-issue sleeping bag did very little to keep out the cold on this particularly frigid February night.
The drill sergeants warned against this. They told us that if we bundled up with everything we had, we would still end up feeling cold after our bodies adjusted. Of course, they left it at that. No solution or alternative was presented. I’m sure they said something, but I’m sure it was something dumb, like “get up and jog in place” or simply “suck it up and drive on.” I hated when they gave us bad news with no alternatives or recourse. Basic training was good about that, too. The whole damn army was good about that.
While I was on my roving duty, I found a stray canteen. Since it is one of the most misplaced pieces of gear that a soldier will have in basic training, I picked it up and decided to keep it. I had already been punished once before for losing a canteen during an exercise (having to also pay for a replacement), so I scooped this one up in anticipation of the same thing happening again.
Just remember, friends: there’s only one thief in the army. Everyone else is just trying to get their shit back.
When I went to my tent to try and get some sleep that night, I was already having trouble because our tent was set up over some rather thick tree roots. I had a horrible time padding the ground with my loose gear and clothing before I could even lay down, and then there was the cold to contend with. Just as the drill sergeants warned us, my attempts at getting warm were met with disappointing results.
I managed to somewhat settle in, basically creating a cocoon made up of my extra uniforms all piled on top of me in the sleeping bag. I had succeeded in warming myself and getting reasonably comfortable, but just was drifting off, I realized that I had to pee.
Frustrated, I mentally tried to envision how I set up my sleeping situation before I attempted to get up to relieve myself. I wondered if I would even be able to replicate this super-comfy setup a second time. It would take a few minutes to even extricate myself from this tightly-zipped sleeping bag with all its various coats and uniforms stuffed inside.
That’s when I remembered the canteen.
I had thrown my new acquisition carelessly in my tent while I was on roving guard, so I pulled an arm free from my sleeping back and groped around blindly for it. After a few minutes of uncomfortable squirming (and a “What the hell, dude?” from Boomhauer), I managed to secure the vessel. However, I was well stuffed into my sleeping bag, so the next step was going to take a lot of work.
After struggling for about ten minutes to bring my arm back into my sleeping bag, I hit another snag when I realized that I would have to somehow roll onto my side if I wanted this plan to work. Again, with all the excess stuffing in my bag, that was no small feat, and let’s not forget the roots constantly poking me in my back and my ass. It felt like I was already being punished for the dumb thing I was about to do.
But I pulled it off. Somehow. Somehow, I managed to pull a canteen into my army-issued sleeping bag and relieve myself whilst lying on my side. I heard a chuckle from Boomhauer, but outside of that, I was able to relieve myself in peace.
It was still a struggle to put the lid on the canteen and pull it out of my military-issued cocoon, but I was able once again to free an arm and fling the canteen towards the entrance to our tent. I kicked it a few times to make sure it was gone, and then I laid back down to go to sleep.
In the morning, the canteen was gone. I always wondered what happened to that thing.
An exercise that I will never forget is the night fire exercise. For this portion of the training, we would be low-crawling under barbed wire through a pit of sand while M-16 bullets with a special kind of tracer that makes them visible at night were being fired overhead. Finally, the drill sergeants would be setting off live grenades in a concrete hole that was in the middle of the pit.
We set out just as the sun was going down for this particular exercise. Nobody seemed to be too terribly excited about this one. One look at the training field as the sun was setting showed us that we were in for a crazy evening.
After waiting until the sun had set entirely, the exercise began. Bullets began zipping overhead, their sound was frightening and their red glow made them that much more ominous. The bullets were being fired well overhead of us all, but they were bullets! It didn’t matter to me how much control the people firing them had! They were still bullets!
After not nearly long enough of a wait, it was my turn. The pit was at least the length of a football field, so there were no shortcuts. Just get on your belly and crawl until you feel grass.
As I began the exercise, I found myself having very little difficulty. I was much stronger by this point, and even though it was definitely taxing my muscles I was keeping a decent pace.
Then I heard the grenade.
A terrible explosion shook the ground and left a sickening smell of gunpowder in the air. For several moments I froze. For several painful moments I found movement to be impossible.
In fact, I don’t remember anything after the first explosion. I remember thinking to myself that the exercise wasn’t too bad, I remember the explosion, and I remember getting up off of the ground when I was finished, but I have no recollection of those final seventy-five yards.
There was one other major exercise during the white phase. For their training, every soldier is required to be exposed at least once to CS gas.
And what is CS gas? It’s the same kind of gas found in the grenades that police use to suppress rioters! Doesn’t that sound like fun?
The drill sergeants didn’t even get us prepped for this one. They simply told us what it was and what it was going to feel like. They said it would burn. They said your pores would open up and you’d probably start leaking from a few different areas on your face. They also said not to touch your eyes once you exited the chamber. That was pretty much it. In fact, that’s pretty much all anyone needs to know; anything outside of that can really only be left to experience.
In short, soldiers would go into a small concrete building wearing a gas mask, and exit not wearing one. Inside would be a few canisters of the aforementioned riot gas in the center of the room. A group of soldiers would line up, and one at a time the drill sergeant would tap soldiers on their shoulder, signaling for them to remove their mask.
The drill sergeant would then ask you three questions. What the drill sergeant asked of you was varied. Every time they would ask a few short personal questions, like your name and your age. However, that is where the uniformity stopped. Honestly, I say with a great deal of certainty that what the drill sergeant did from that point was based entirely on what they thought of you. However, you could not leave until you satisfied their answers. Only then would you be tapped a second time, meaning you were free to leave the chamber.
Since this exercise didn’t involve anything outside of holding your breath and keeping your cool, I had a good feeling about it. From what we were told, it seemed like there would be some discomfort no matter what. I was ready for that. Outside of that, I figured it was all controlling how much air you let out when you spoke to the drill sergeant.
I wasn’t wrong, but…
“What’s your name, soldier?”
“Devon James Perkins, drill sergeant!”
“Where are you from, private?”
“I’m from Savannah, Georgia, drill sergeant!”
I felt smug. I was already through it. I had barely used my stored oxygen. Nice try, sarge. You almost got me. My face was burning, but I was cool, calm, and in control.
But the third question didn’t come. I began to tear up. My nose started running. I involuntarily tried to pull the snot back into my head, and it burned the left side of my nasal passage. Then my head began to burn. I realized I was not going to be able to hold my breath any longer.
“Last question, soldier. How old are you?”
You son of a bitch.
“Dwenny-free, dill sahjen.” I felt a tap on my soldier.
When your body is exposed to CS gas, your lungs seize, your pores open, and you find yourself extremely disoriented while trying to sort out this fiery intrusion. For just a second, you think there has been a mistake, and you are going to be the first casualty from this supposed non-lethal gas.
Of course, what the drill sergeant did was typical for the exercise. Every last one of us thought we could game the system, but the point wasn’t to learn how to avoid the gas, it was to show us how it felt. Police trainees are forced to take pepper spray and maybe even a taser for basically the same reason.
In other words, nobody was allowed out of the gas chamber until they started choking.
But it wasn’t over there. You still had to navigate the perilous Chili-Mac Road (thusly named because vomit… tee-hee), a suspiciously rocky and winding path that had a tree planted conveniently in the middle. More than one concussion had been given by that tree, no doubt, because it claimed me that day as well. Even though I saw the tree as I was dashing away from the chamber, I was still off-balance. Though I did succeed in slamming on the brakes, my foot dug into the ground and I fell forward, smacking my dome on the base of the tree.
Great fun, indeed.