Two things I came across recently prompted me to write about my initial transition long ago from civilian to military status. One was a recent video from a military speaker pointing out that less than one percent of the entire population of America is serving in the military service. And only 8 percent have ever served at all. That one stat kind of awakened me to the idea that civilians have so little understanding of how great the leap is from civilian to military.
The second prompting was a recent reading of a personal recount of an old friend of mine who reflected how difficult his own experience was in transiting from civilian to military. He too was Air Force and his flight from home to San Antonio, home of Lackland Air Force Base, center for basic training for all Air Force recruits, and mine were nearly identical. He wrote of the shock and newness of severe disciplines, of being screamed at sixteen hours per day, to have all notions of tenderness and sympathy withheld for the duration of your basic training, of the uniformity stressed, and individuality suppressed, of the constant effort to form you into an individual who will learn to place the needs of your unit ahead of your own needs, of the learning to sacrifice for a greater good...and finally to learn to love and respect your country, for that is who you are pledging your life to during the course of your service.
The first thing that struck me about my friend's account was our own differing reaction to this startling and frightening leap from civilian to airman. While I empathized with his stories of 24 hour Kitchen Patrol (KP), long marches, humiliating trash clean-ups, strenuous exercise and obstacle courses, long, long nights scrubbing an old open bay World War II barracks, spending hours getting underwear squared in four inch displays, socks folded such that the "smile" greeted the Training Instructor during his inspection walk through, belt buckles shined, beds made with 45 degree corners and tight enough to bounce a quarter on....all were trying, exhausting efforts to instill discipline and unit commonality.
My friend wrote that he lay in his bunk that first night and sobbed. I was somewhat taken aback by that. He was older than me when he enlisted, he had finished four years of college, so had learned to live away from home, and I fully expected that he would have weathered "the great leap" far better than I. Apparently, not so.
I did not cry in my bed, though god knows I missed my family and my girl friend...and home. I succeeded and failed in somewhat the same manner that my contemporaries did. After three weeks of training we were finally let loose for a few hours, granted the freedom to sit down in a BX cafeteria and have a cup of coffee, or a hamburg and fries...so confined were we in the beginning that the most modest granting of personal freedom was reason to rejoice.
And it was just about at that three week point that we all began to grasp the concept of unity, of sacrifice; that helping others made us better people and better airman. And keep in mind, by helping others learn to spit shine boots, or make their bed or properly display their footlocker, we were likely to hear less hell from our Training Instructor (TI). Those were the days when TI's could still yell and harass the recruits. There was plenty of yelling and harassment so we worked like hell to perform well and get a little less of it.
And so, after weeks of training, after learning to help the other guy, our flight was shocked late one evening, when we were taught still another lesson that seemed to go against everything that we had learned to date. About midnight, we were all in deep sleep in our open bay barracks when we were rudely awakened by the cries of "oh shit! So and so has slashed his wrists!". It seems that one of our fellow airman, a guy who came from a very sheltered childhood, who had difficulty in nearly every phase of training, finally decided to end it all. Sometime after lights out, he got into his foot locker, pulled out a razor blade from his shave kit, and slashed his wrists. As soon as he was discovered we all gathered about his bed, slipping on the blood running freely on the floor below, as we grabbed towels and pressure bound his slashed wrists. Someone had already sounded the alarm and soon the T.I. arrived along with an ambulance. He joined the medics and they rushed the airman to the hospital.
None of us were able to get any sleep that night so we just sat on our bunks and talked about it, each one of us wondering what would have caused him to want to take his life, wondered what we might have done different to help him, and both empathized and sympathized with him. Soon the dawn light began to make its way through the dorm windows and we began wondering if we should carry on, get dressed and march ourselves to the chow hall...or wait for further directions.
Just then our T.I., a Tech Sergeant Carnes, walked in, followed by our fellow recruit with the slashed wrists. We were shocked to see him back so soon from the hospital. Apparently, his cuts were more shallow than we thought for here he was standing before us. Our T.I. then walked over to the fellow's foot locker, pointed at it, and screamed at the top of this lungs for this coward to pack his stuff as quickly as possible and get out! "I don't want these fine young men to be around a coward!, he screamed. "You are the lowest form of shit the world has produced!", he yelled into the kid's face. The kid has tears streaming down his face and we were all in a total state of shock. The T.I. then appointed someone to help the kid stuff his duffle bag, only with underwear and his reclaimed civilian clothes, as our T.I. attested to his shaming the uniform.
The fellow was given a general discharge and sent home. We later learned that his mother wrote our T.I. and begged him to take her son back; she was in desperate need for someone to make him a man. Sadly, we were all up to our elbows in the Vietnam War and no one had the time to rehabilitate those who couldn't hack the regimen.
We all survived that day and went on to graduate and head out to tech schools or unit assignments. I
don't know how the others resolved this seeming conflict in organization ethics. I only knew it was a brutal way to deal with failure. Later on, after doing a couple of tours in Vietnam I resolved that my old T.I. may have saved the kid's life. Though he may have later lived a less consequential life, at least he wasn't left, frozen in fear, as a V.C. mortar round came in and took him out...or a stray Ak-47 round heading his way.
After 22 years in the military I learn to face far more brutality than a suicide attempt, followed by a hostile response from our leaders. But each "hit" I endured, each challenge I faced over those many years came in "graduated response"...after I was more adept at meeting and overcoming those challenges. But it was the night of the suicide attempt, a night when my head and heart were still a bit too tender, to filled with innocence, when I finally took that first "leap" from civilian to military. There would be far wider chasms I would be asked to breach during those military years...and I thank God I survived them all...with some residual damage, some PTSD long before I knew what it was...but I'm still here.
But as I look back over the many years I still marvel, am still wondrous about the degree of innocence I carried into the night of the "great leap". If men did not war the souls of those who must fight them would be far better, far more tender than the world now allows them to be.
And so when I hear Taps, when I see a soldier sent to his rest, I feel chills run down my spine and I am both saddened...and thrilled that a "brother" can put all the wars aside, all the brutality aside, cast off all the old nightmares, and cross back to a land of peace and innocence...a time before the "great leap".