In early January of 2008, I entered basic training and AIT at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I joined the Army late in life at the age of 27 years. It was an impulsive decision on my part. However, I longed for new experiences and wanted to see the world. So I enlisted as a 19D, a Cavalry Scout for those unfamiliar with MOS designations. It was a valuable experience, and I will share some of my subjective life experiences in the U.S Army.
Army Basic Training and AIT
We arrived at Fort Knox aboard buses, and screaming drill instructors and Cadre immediately met us before we even exited the bus. We were directly ordered off the bus. We were brought inside what looked like a gymnasium and taken to an interior room where we had to give up all our items, including clothes. First, we stripped down to nothing in front of each other, and then we were given PT shorts and a shirt which we donned. Next, they led us into the central part of the gymnasium, where we were given all of our initial gear.
The Cadre told us to dump all of the gear on the floor. This was the beginning of what would become a way of life, inventory of equipment and items for the entirety of a person’s military experience. All of this occurred while Guns N Roses ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ blared throughout the building. Physical coercion was used if you were deemed too slow at the task at hand, in the form of pushing you with force. This wasn’t a widespread tactic, but some of the more enthusiastic cadres did employ it from time to time.
Basic training itself was a shock to the system for many. Several tried to kill themselves to escape, and others quit; some were injured in the various physical training and obstacle courses we endured. It was four months of no television, no real enjoyment of any kind, spent in the company of strangers. We all grew to hate one another. Any man’s infraction would see everyone punished. It was designed to break you down mentally to emerge part of a team, even if you personally detested people on your team. It worked for the four months we were there. After that, we were all ready to be out of there and on to our first duty station.
I remember thinking the whole time that perhaps being yelled at for the entirety of my existence wasn’t for me. Whatever was in others that allowed them to quit and give up just wasn’t in me. Nevertheless, I remained determined to persevere and finish basic training, not as some new man crafted from psychological manipulation but as the man I was when I arrived. I accomplished the goals I placed for myself and emerged stronger but more or less the man I always was before the Army. Our drill instructors told us our first duty station on the last day of AIT. My first duty station was Korea! I was so excited, and I had every right to be.
Korea: What a Place
I experienced some trepidation boarding the plane en route to Korea. I had just undergone basic training, which I can only imagine was similar to prison but with less freedom, ha! However, I was immediately struck by an overwhelming smell that penetrated the aircraft’s frame; once I arrived. That smell, I can only assume, had a lot to do with rice farming, but it was a smell that would stay with me for six months out of the year I was there.
I spent the first two weeks in Korea in orientation. Immediately, all the trepidation I had evaporated. This wasn’t anything like basic training or what I imagined the Army would be. Surrounded by mountains, I thought it was a long way from the Mississippi backwoods. It was like a proper vacation but in the Army. I was assigned to Camp Hovey, 2ID 7th cavalry, go Custer! I was assigned to the Headquarters unit, which I didn’t know at the time was a gravy assignment.
I immediately began training to become the armorer and eventually assumed full responsibility for all weapons and equipment in our Troop. Those inventories I discussed earlier would rear their ugly heads quite often now. Inventories, though, were the worst thing I experienced in Korea. For me, life in Korea was good and the single most entertaining and worthwhile experience I had in the Armed Forces.
The nightlife in Korea was everything you might imagine and a lot more you didn’t. Our money went much farther there than it did back home. I’d never really drunk much alcohol before the Army, but half of my blood consisted of the substance in Korea. The nightlife was so fun that I broke a couple of ribs on one occasion and struggled to get out of bed but didn’t go to the doctor for fear of being restricted to base. The fact that I was an armorer and in a Headquarters unit allowed me to avoid PT, which was helpful with broken ribs. Though I could still run ok, bending or sudden violent movements would have me grimace in pain.
When it came time for leave to go back home for two weeks, I refused to take leave. I was offered another year there but felt I should see what the Army was like stateside. That was a horrible decision on my part, as my next duty station where I would finish my tour was like basic training on Acid.
Fort Polk, LA (Fort Puke)
My next duty station was in the land of alligators and extra chromosomes. It was hot, humid, and entertaining as mowing a yard with fingernail clippers. My unit, though, was its only saving grace. I was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division 3rd squadron 89th Cavalry Regiment, and it wasn’t a headquarters unit. So we immediately began gearing up for deployment to Afghanistan, which meant training and lots of it.
It was a dull place, but notably, we flew out to Wyoming for a month pre-deployment to train for mountain fighting. The training we received in Wyoming was invaluable. However, Fort Puke’s standard on base training was too scripted and lacked enough nuisance to simulate combat conditions in Afghanistan. In addition, we faced an enemy that wasn’t a part of our unit in Wyoming. They didn’t follow a set of rules but instead were allowed to improvise, much like those we would face.
In the weeks leading up to our departure, I remember thinking that this might be my last flight and that I might not return. However, once we arrived, as we flew in a Chinook to the FOB near where we would be stationed, I recall staring out the side of the helicopter expecting to see an RPG come screaming out of the mountains to end our deployment before it ever really started. Said RPG never materialized, though, and we landed at the FOB. Upon landing, we were directed to a building at the crest of a hill with our gear. We were at an elevation of 6000 feet in a valley! The walk to our temporary barracks nearly took everything out of us, and some even fell out as we ascended the hill.
My first mission was a route clearance mission in which we came under fire from a crew-manned machine gun. That set the tone for the rest of the deployment. It generated such a sense of excitement in me as I’ve rarely experienced before; the adrenaline rush was immense. Strangely from that point on, though, I no longer questioned whether I would make it out alive. And the entire deployment took on an aura of surrealism, like a lucid dream. It all felt real yet ethereal at the same time. I experienced enemy fire in the form of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades for the duration of my time there. They were pretty horrid shots in my part of Wardak province, thankfully.
The Wrap-up for the Army Experience
I’m proud and thankful for all the experiences that my time in the Army brought me. It helped me see the world from different perspectives and allowed me to explore other cultures and be shot at by some of them. Despite combat, it was a rich experience that truly isn’t for everyone. Still, it’s incredibly enriching for those who can endure the hardships and adds layers to their character and life experience.
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