The blue phase was somewhat enjoyable at least. I can’t really describe to you what we did in this phase, though, because I was always simply following along (and barely, at that). We marched around with our rifles, we camped outside, and we got to throw fake grenades. It was pretty cool if you didn’t think about the fact that you were using instruments of war. I’m not a pacifist or anything, but I always felt a little sick when I was popping off shots with my M-16. It felt unnatural in my hands.
The drill sergeants by this point were no longer very tough on us. For the most part we knew what to do and where to be at what times. Each platoon had a few soldiers designated as leaders, and we had no problem following their orders, especially if it meant the drill sergeants left us alone. We were sharper, we were in better shape, and we also worked very well together.
Even Pvt. Walker had rejoined us, free of her crutches. She began participating in PT every morning, and she also began running the obstacle courses with us. It didn’t seem like anybody was giving her any guff any more, either. In fact, the word “shammer” had not been uttered since the white phase, towards Walker or anyone else.
By this point, however, the pain in my knee had become far more frequent. It wasn’t debilitating, but it was enough to keep me from going as fast as I really wanted to go on my runs. I felt like the bones were grinding from the impact of beating the pavement too often without a break. I talked to one of the drill sergeants about it, but he insisted that once I lost more weight it would go away.
I tried my very best to believe that the drill sergeants had a plan. Maybe they thought I was doing a good job and were just going to pass me based on that. It wasn’t impossible, was it? I didn’t prefer that outcome, but at this stage I knew I would simply have to accept it.
I still had to focus on passing the PT test. I had to pass and pass clean. I couldn’t just pass because they let me. That was a bullshit outcome. I had to pass on my own.
As the last major exercise of the blue phase, you do a seventy-two-hour field training exercise (or FTX) out away from your regular training site. You march into the woods and play war games, shooting and jumping and hollering and, if you’re me, simply mimicking what your buddies are doing. It was an exciting exercise, regardless of how tired I was or how little I understood. This was the first time in the army that I began to feel a little manly, too.
Following our FTX, we were given two days of rest. During that time, we cleaned our field equipment and turned it all back in to the drill sergeants. The rest was certainly productive, though I took the opportunity to train up for the final PT test.
I was feeling accomplished, albeit nervous. My optimism came and went. I had done everything I possibly could have to squeeze off the extra weight and to get in better shape. In fact, I was certain that I had pushed myself a little too hard, but there was no turning back. Whether or not I had an actual knee injury would just have to wait a few more months as I negotiated the second half of the training phase.
But there’s almost no point in setting these things up anymore. I failed. Again.
This time, I was not upset with myself. I was upset with the army. Why hadn’t they let me go back when they had the chance? Why did they let me go all the way through basic training not having passed their tests? I didn’t want to leave basic training half complete. I couldn’t even imagine how much harder it would be to learn even more specialized skills if I was already deficient in all the core areas.
After this most recent failure, I was informed by one of our drill sergeants that any soldiers who failed their PT test would be given one more chance to pass in three days. All soldiers who did not pass would be recycled for real this time. No messing around. Even though I had heard the exact same thing before, I still had to take the threat seriously. The army had been many things so far, but it was becoming less and less predictable all the time.
My target run time was 17:35 for two miles. I had seventy-two hours to prepare for my retest, and in that time, I needed to fit in a Rocky-esque montage of bicycling, climbing a mountain, and chopping wood if I was going to pass. This had to be one of those near-impossible transformations that only happen when the hero wants it badly enough.
I trained for forty-eight hours in every manner I knew how. However, one of the drill sergeants said I needed to give my muscles a break, so I took his advice on the last day and rested. I tried to talk to the drill sergeant about why I was never recycled, but he wouldn’t give me an answer. He simply told me to focus on the task at hand. He said that if I dug deep enough for this final test, I would have nothing to worry about.
You know, I’ve always hated those stupid phrases. They insinuate that you’re not trying your hardest. I was already fucking digging deep. This is what me digging deep looks like, understand?
Whatever, sarge. Your words are starting to mean less and less all the time.
The day of the final test came. Again. I was so sick of PT tests and frankly I was sick of the army, but there was no way they were going to defeat me. I honestly didn’t care about what the army wanted from me. What I cared about was that I accomplished what I set out to do. Nothing else mattered.
The first two test events went very well. I had improved greatly on push-ups and sit-ups and was feeling quite confident as we marched to the track where I would make or break my military career.
As we marched, one of the more obnoxious drill sergeants had somehow managed to sneak up on me.
“What’d ya fail, Perkins?”
“Nothing, drill sergeant.”
“Hope you brought your ice skates, drill sergeant, because that cold day in hell is coming fast.”
The drill sergeant seemed impressed by my uncharacteristic bit of confidence. Too bad I didn’t believe my own words.
One of the platoon leaders, Pvt. Simpson, had volunteered to be my partner for the run. This was permitted by the drill sergeants and was a very helpful thing to have. My partner was a much more experienced runner, so he could set a pace for me to keep. More importantly, I wouldn’t have to run alone.
Seventeen minutes and thirty-five seconds. That was the magic number. On my last test I had run an 18:40, so I had to be a minute faster. It was absolutely possible. As I walked toward the starting point, I repeated that number in my mind.
The call was given, and we were off. The whole world began spinning as I poured every ounce of strength into propelling myself forward. I had no sense of space or time; I barely even remembered why I was running in the first place. I couldn’t see or hear anything, save the faint outline of Simpson drifting in front of me.
I knew that I wasn’t doing well. I felt as if I were running the fastest that I ever had, but that I was still not keeping the pace that I needed. Simpson was shouting for me to speed up, but my muscles simply couldn’t do what I was telling them. My knee started to throb, and it made my stride wobbly and uncoordinated.
I managed to stay not too far behind Simpson. My muscles were on autopilot by this point, as if my survival rested entirely on not letting this guy out of my sight.
After what seemed like an eternity, I came to my last lap. This was my storybook moment. A drill sergeant shouted that I needed to pick up the pace, so with every bit of strength I could harness, I ran.
My muscles were on fire. I felt sick. The PT test no longer mattered. I would transcend space and time and simply disappear. The only trace of me they would find would be my New Balance sneakers at the finish line, and they would posthumously give me the Medal of Honor. My parents would gloat until their last days, the legend of their heroic son becoming more and more unbelievable as they aged.
This would be my moment.
There were checkpoints where a drill sergeant would shout out the time as I passed them, but for the duration of the run I hadn’t been able to hear what they were saying. However, there was no mistaking the number I heard being called out when I crossed the finish line.
I’m pretty sure I blacked out for a minute when I was finally able to slow my poor body down. I remember feeling lightheaded and badly off-balance. One minute I was standing, and the next I was on all fours, trying not to vomit. My eyes were blurry as tears of rage began to form. I couldn’t take it. I started punching the ground in anger.
“Whoa there, soldier, get up!” The drill sergeant responsible for keeping my time put his hand on my shoulder and shoved a clipboard into my face.
Across from my name was written 15:35.
What? That was impossible. I had just heard eighteen minutes being called. I looked up at the drill sergeant, and he was smiling. He looked at the number, and then nodded at me.
He doctored my score.
“Now pull yourself together, soldier!” the drill sergeant ordered. I brushed myself off and went to go find Simpson.
I was angry over this turn of events. It was illogical that I could have gotten that much faster in three days. My drill sergeants would have to know that. This time was well beyond the minimal score. I think you could look at me and tell that I was not capable of running a mile in under eight minutes.
But nobody said a word about this obvious discrepancy in my run time. In fact, I had a drill sergeant come up to me and congratulate me for my ‘improvement.’ This was the same drill sergeant who told me to dig deep, so he gave me a brief “I told you so” lecture about believing in myself. I wanted to scream at him for being complicit in this sham, but I decided that this was just how things were going to be in the army. If I was going to get stronger, I was going to have to try a lot harder in the next phase of my training.
Thanks a lot for that, by the way.
Still, having just received the first of many miracles, I was docile for the remainder of training in the gold phase. I was finished—on a technicality, of course—but finished with basic training. I was still disillusioned with how I had achieved it, though.
Granted, I had shaved another forty seconds off my run time from the previous PT test. This made me feel a little better, but the fact that I didn’t pass my overall PT test still meant a lot to me. I was beginning to wonder if I had passed the rifle test, or if somebody had changed the score the way they did with my PT test.
My peers were none the wiser. In the end, I quit fighting against my discomfort with how I’d passed. It was clear that nobody was ever going to find out about it, so why shouldn’t I accept this little miracle and move on?