Fort Bliss, Texas. So this is what an Army base looks like. The name of my new home kept bouncing around in my mind as I gazed at the dead, dry landscape surrounding the base. I failed to see anything that fit the name. I thought something like Fort Hot or Fort Dusty seemed more appropriate. Or maybe, Fort Bummer. Yeah, Ft. Bummer covered it pretty well. But hey, who am I to complain, now that I’m a buck-private who is given free clothing, free room and board and cheap haircuts?! On top of that, they’re actually paying me to have all this fun!
After a restless few hours of sleep at the reception station we were rudely awakened to much screaming and then formed into a motley looking formation in front of the building. Two drill sergeants were staring at us impatiently. We stood at attention, nervously waiting. Finally it came; a verbal dressing-down like I’ve never heard before. In a very colorful language the drill sergeants proceeded to tell us what they thought of us. Words such as, “scum-bags” and “maggots,” rolled off their tongues with amazing ease. And those were the more polite ones. Also, they noticed that a couple of recruits were carrying cameras, so they admonished us not to ever take a picture of a drill sergeant. If they suspected someone took a picture of them, the drill sergeant explained that they would open the camera and examine the film. If no drill sergeant pictures appeared, the camera would be closed and returned to the recruit (it seemed that some drill sergeants thought they were part-time comedians). Anyway, regardless of what the drill sergeants thought of us at the moment, the Army was about to begin an intensive 8 week training process that would transform us into real soldiers.
Next, it was off to get an Army regulation haircut followed by issuance of uniforms, boots and a few other odds and ends. I’ll never forget the odd smell of all the new clothing. And, nearly everything was green. Well, actually the color was olive-drab; fatigues, hats, helmets, ruck-sacks, duffle-bags, etc. Even the interior walls of our barracks were an odd shade of green. I was beginning to develop a strong dislike for the color. Anyway, now that we sort of looked like soldiers, we were given a small advance on our pay and then marched to a small PX (Post Exchange) so we could buy the customary toilet articles. After that, it was time to head to the “hill” as it was called and begin our initial training. No matter what you wanted to call it; Boot Camp, Basic, Boot, BCT (Basic Combat Training), this was it. As it turned out, a few weren’t going to make it.
It soon became apparent that barracks life does not lend itself to any form of privacy. Every aspect is communal; showering, sleeping, relieving and whatever. The rigorous training regime certainly made it easy to sleep though, despite the sometimes noisy living quarters.
Most of our training took place in the desert which was incredibly grueling in the unmerciful summer heat. Since most of the rifle ranges and related training facilities were located miles from our company area, we were often transported in what we called “cattle cars.” Basically, they resembled a semi-truck trailer, except the spartan interior was equipped with chromed-steel hand-holds that ran from floor to ceiling. There were no seats and very few windows. In fact, the “windows” were just small openings near the ceiling for ventilation. We were crammed into the cattle cars like sardines and despite the vents, it still got unbelievably hot inside. And since there were no real windows to look out of, the ride was usually very nauseating.
When we weren’t running, crawling, jumping, climbing, pushing, shooting, punching, swinging, falling, wrestling or marching we were cleaning, polishing, buffing, dusting, scrubbing or organizing in preparation for the never-ending inspections. Well, we were allowed to eat now and then, if we were good. Oh yeah, there was one other thing; the people in command never could make up their minds about the location of the white-washed rocks bordering the flag-pole and walkways. One day we would carry all of them down to the creek bed and the next day we would bring them back and line them up perfectly where they were the day before! This might’ve had something to do with training, but I vowed to never become a drill sergeant at this point.
None too soon the 8-week basic training ordeal was over. Right after graduation ceremonies we were given our training orders for AIT, or AdvancedIndividual Training. This was the moment of truth for draftees as the Army now assigned their MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). For many (probably most), it was on to Advanced Infantry training. The remainder were shipped off to various other schools to become cooks, mechanics, clerks, field artillery gunners, engineers, armorers, medics and a multitude of other specialties that the Army needed. Generally, enlistees chose their desired MOS at the time of enlistment so there were few surprises at their AIT assignments. Still, there were many tears shed that day, particularly for those drawing Infantry MOS’s. With the war in Vietnam building it almost guaranteed duty there. For me, it was off to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma for 8 weeks of field artillery radar training. I felt Vietnam wasn’t in the cards for me. As it turned out, I could not have been more mistaken.