Dear Mary Beth,
I hope you don’t get these letters on the same day. I’m actually starting this letter after lights out on Saturday, sitting on my bunk with the red lenses on my flashlight. I hope the battery lasts when I need it.
[don’t worry, past self, you will only use this flashlight for writing letters at night and occasionally finding your way to a latrine or the woods to take a piss. After you get out of basic training, you throw it away because nobody after 1953 wants to carry around a flashlight the size of their forearm]
We bought a bunch of stuff at the PX which is like a Walmart with 1/8 of an aisle. We all stood in a line while the sergeant threw stuff into our baskets which we held out. We were forced to buy certain stuff, like running shoes. I didn’t mind buying new shoes, but the ones they forced me to buy cost like $75. The money came off our smart card which is actually a $250 advance on our pay. But a lot of stuff they made us buy came in handy. I wish I could buy more uniforms though.
[this is funny, because later there was an investigation into a collaboration between some of the sergeants and the PX. The main thing they would do was, make you buy stuff on the packing list, like “3 Towels, Brown” regardless of whether or not you already had it. This wouldn’t have been so bad, since you’re always going to need more brown towels later down the road, but it was a pain in the ass because we had so little space to store it it all in]
The first two days I was worried that I would barely get a chance to write at all, but today we had the whole day to just sit around. Literally all I did before I called you was eat three times and stand in formation five times. Some guys had to do work like painting, sweeping or doing lawn work, but I don’t have to because I’m the leader of our group, #632.
[another part of the investigation into mistreatment of privates in reception stemmed from this work detail. They made guys work in the sun for eight hours with no sunscreen and a lot of them got SERIOUS sunburns, like blistering bad. And not a big deal, but kind of funny – they made dudes paint in their uniforms which then had splotches of white paint all over them for the rest of basic training].
The leader of 633 is this private they call “Fluffer”. They hate him, because he acts too much like he’s a drill sergeant himself. I’m real laid back because I don’t want to get one of those parties where they beat you with soap in a sock at night. My job seems to just involve keeping track of the time and getting guys to line up when it’s time to line up anyway.
[We literally spent most of our days waiting in line to eat. There were so many guys that had to go through the chow line, that for example if dinner was from 5 PM to 630 PM, we would start standing outside the door at 430 PM and the guys in the last group wouldn’t eat until 620 PM, and we all had to get back in line until everyone was finished, so we wouldn’t return to the bays until like 645 PM. And we did this three times a day]
There are four Puerto Rican guys who never do anything, just lay around, lose things and jabber at each other, but they are not half as annoying as these two or three guys who are like “you’ve got to crack down on the Puerto Rican guys with your full authority.” I’m like “what do you want me to do, spank them?” It would be different if we got in real trouble because of them, but we haven’t yet. This is not even real Basic yet.
Today I sent you and my parents a letter and started like four more to friends and relatives, but got bored writing the same thing over and over. I need to conserve paper and more importantly, stamps, so further letters will be exactly three sheets long.
Today is Sunday about 9 AM. I’m standing next to a pay phone which is turned off. Today is the Protestant and Jewish church. The drill sergeant said he was going to turn the phone on today during church. Last night was the Catholic service, but I decided to call you instead.
Some kids were like, it’s Sunday, can we lay on our bunks in the daytime today? I was like, “hey it’s Sunday, right? Go for it”. I figured no-one would f*ck with us today and I wanted to sleep myself. I hate having the top bunk, since it is so hard to lie down and get up quick without anyone noticing. I slept for like forty minutes. A lot of the guys spend all day sleeping, but I wanted to try to adjust to the new schedule.
[haha, what a nerd. You can’t adjust to the sleep schedule in basic training. It’s designed to make you tired and miserable. Get your sleep when and where you can, kids]
Also, there is no coffee or soda here. However, tonight, I have fire guard. This means that one guy stands at the front door, one at the fire escape and one walks around the bunks with a flashlight. You count everybody and the three guys switch with another 3 guys every hour. Nothing ever happens, it’s just one of those things to f*ck with you and to get you ready for real guard duty.
[haha idealistic nerd, like most things in basic training, its designed to screw with your head and make you even more tired and miserable. Guard duty is important. In the real world, if you fall asleep or f*ck up the rotation, lives could be lost and equipment stolen. So you do a lot of guard duty in basic in the hopes that someone will screw up and then an example will be made of him and the other guys will learn from it. If you are smart enough to hear the instructions “Lives are at stake, stay awake and keep alert,” and pay attention the first time, well tough luck, you’re still going to have to pace around a bunch of sleeping guys from 2-4 AM three times a week until EVERYBODY learns the lesson]
Well, I heard that a month or so ago some soldiers from “downrange” (real basic training) got drunk and snuck in and beat some guys up. I don’t know if that’s a true story or not.
[possibly, but probably not. I think we heard this from the same source (drill sergeants) who told us about the guy who tried to kill himself by tying the power cord of a floor buffer to his neck and flinging it out the window, but the cord was too long. Which I assume is apocryphal, since other guys’ drill sergeants at other posts told them the same story]
[also, I find the word “downrange” to be stupid. It’s one thing for soldiers to joke about going downrange (the part of the rifle range where the targets are), but it totally jumps the shark when its use is so ubiquitous that you get circulars from the PX urging you check out their sale on foot powder and calling cards for when you go downrange. Sort of like Hooah, which was probably cool for about 3 seconds in one particular unity, quickly became corny, then became ironic, and finally just stuck in your head and you found yourself saying it without realizing. Anyone who says HOOAH without a smirk on their face, and is aware that they are doing it should be sent to Guantanamo. This means you, cheerful and phony colonel.]
There are hundreds of guys here and most of them generally do the best they can at everything. But there are some guys that linger around here for weeks and months, a lot of them just waiting to get sent home. Some of them failed their fitness test of 13 pushups, 17 situps and a mile in 8:30. There’s actually a lot of these guys, like 50 or so. You get put in a special unit called FTU – allegedly Fitness Training Unit, but we call it “Fat Tired and Useless” You still get paid and you have six weeks to pass it, then they send you home, which means another six week wait for paperwork. Some guys have to wear an orange vest. This means that they went crazy, tried to go AWOL, threatened suicide or something. There’s about 3 or 4 of these guys. These guys don’t care about anything, nor do the guys who are hurt and waiting weeks to go home. They make noises in formation, mouth off and just generally look depressed as hell. But I don’t blame them. It would suck to be them. One guy was telling me that he got hurt when someone fell over doing pushups, landed on him and broke his wrist. He was an E-4 too and had a Special Forces contract also. Now he just slouches around here looking lonely. At first we thought he was sort of in charge because he was always telling people what to do. Then the other day he was telling stories to guys about how we are all going to have to stay an extra week in reception, and how we are going to go to the hardest company in basic training, when a drill sergeant snuck in and took his hat off so no-one saw him. Then he stood there listening until someone noticed and said “At Ease” which means you have to stand up straight, feet ten inches apart and clasp your hands behind your back. It’s what you do when a drill sergeant or other sergeant enters the room. Anyway, the drill sergeant said “Malta, you don’t know a got-damn thing” and started laughing and making fun of the kid who was telling the stories.
[as a trivial point of contention, there are two separate types of sergeants here. The drill sergeants are E-7s, and the ones who wear the smokey bear hats, are like 35 and cranky. Reception is a coveted job for them because they only have to work 9-5, show up, scare a few easily intimidated privates, and then get rid of most of the problem children a week or two later. The processing sergeants, were younger, E-5s, (maybe some E-6s). I don’t know how you get to become one of these, but it was a much worse job. They were the ones who filed us around to get our shots and had to stand there through all of the routine BS. Also, there was one on duty all the time. They were typically a little more human than the drills, but seemed to be worn out and annoyed. They were basically the adult supervision. When I was writing the letters, I didn’t know any better and just assumed some drill sergeants wore the fancy hats. So the sergeants from the anecdotes could really be either variety.]
The other day a really funny thing happened. We always walk in lines, usually single file. The other day we were walking in a double line and the guy on the left walked out an open doorway, but the guy on the right walked directly into the glass window that was next to the door. It was hilarious. Even the sergeant laughed.
[Sounds like you had to be there, but trust me, someone marching full steam into a window brings a smile to my face, even years later].
There’s one guy in our bay who lied on his enlistment about his asthma. He said that he didn’t have it, but he does, and he’s had to go to the hospital three times so far
[Turns out this guy was actually faking these attacks, hiding in the toilets faking throwing up, pretending to not be able to breathe, etc. Trust me, if you enlist in the Army and change your mind, it gets harder the longer you wait. If you bail before you take the oath of enlistment at MEPS the second time, you’ll be fine and nothing will go on your record. Pretending to be sick or refusing to train at basic training is just dumb. You had all this time to get out of it scot-free and you waited til now? What, you didn’t realize that they’d yell at you and make you do pushups and take showers in front of other men? Poor little ninny]
Another guy got disqualified for having a tattoo that was not up to snuff. It was this giant outline of an eagle across his back. I am not sure why, because it might have been a white supremacist symbol.
[yeah, the recruiters do tattoo checks. Or they’re supposed to, but because their motivation is to cheat to get unqualified folk into the Army, the drill sergeants have to double check everything. My favorite, though is the male Air Force recruiter who was giving (naked) physicals to female recruits and got away with it for 10 years before one of them at her first duty station finally mentioned to her friend how her least favorite part of enlistment was the creepy physical in the recruiters office.]
That’s all I’m going to write for now. I’m going to mail it before our Sunday night formation.
[man, getting permission from the sergeants to walk 200 yards to the mailbox to mail our letters was the closest I’d get to freedom for weeks. I wrote more of this letter in 2010 than I did in 2004, but maybe you can learn something.]