Despite my failure, I rolled over to the white phase. I tried to shake off the feeling of defeat and 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 ‘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, I was told: lose more weight and your knees won’t hurt.
There was also the fact that I was experiencing various degrees of physical withdrawal symptoms. I was certain that my immune system was probably weak just like my muscles were.
I knew the drill sergeants weren’t there to coddle us, but I felt that in both cases I was dealing with something that wasn’t 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 enough to make me wonder if I was going to have problems with it 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 had 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 mousy 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, though, and you could see on her face that she felt the exact same way.
I was able to talk with Walker one day, and I found out that the story was true. She did injure herself in the previous cycle, and she had 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, whether it was her or the drill sergeant, 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 mean 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. A few dickheads in the unit decided to break off and form a gang that 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 a 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 off. 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 in. How could anybody know how hard I was 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 shamming 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 happened to the Kleins after training? What kind of soldiers did 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 my 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 had to Pvt. Walker? Would her fate be my fate, to just get dressed every morning and hobble along with everyone, being randomly dissed by strangers all day?
After another forty-eight hours of trudging along, my 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 at the point where I barely slept at night despite the physically arduous days. One night I didn’t sleep at all because of 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 filled me with hope.
The previous night, another soldier was sent to the hospital for having pink eye. 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 swollen 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 was all I needed, a bed and a couple days’ rest.
The drill sergeant took one look at me, and immediately sent me 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 that 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.
I still felt a bit of guilt over what I had done. I had cheated to be able to see a doctor, but the drill sergeant had forced my hand. This was not the way I wanted to get through basic training, but I didn’t think that ignoring problems was the right way to go either.
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.
In the end, I made peace with my decision. Perhaps if I had let the sickness go on a little longer, I could have gotten more bed rest, but the way the drill sergeants were acting, I doubt they would have let me stop at all. Up until this point, I felt like they knew what they were doing. Maybe they were right about my knee. There would come a point in my military career when I wouldn’t be doing all this strenuous activity every day. Maybe it would stop hurting. Still, I was really sick, and both the drill sergeants and the medics ignored it.
What else did they ignore in the army?