Friday, July 31, 2009

My First Day in the Army

Basic trainees getting their gear together before formation.

Me standing in the company street of my Basic Training unit, B-1-1, at Fort Ord in 1969.

Actually, my first day and night. I enlisted in the Army and was given a reporting date of April 28, 1969. On that day, I presented myself to the Los Angeles Entrance and Examination Station (AFEES) for formal enlistment into the Regular Army. At this facility, they processed enlistees and draftees at the same time. Here we filled out forms, took a few tests, took the oath, and were given a (cursory) physical examination. It doesn't sound like much, but it took all day. This building was a big, old-fashioned office building with ceilings in all the rooms as high was the rooms were wide. There were different colored lines painted on the floor directing you to go to this or that place. Sometime during the middle of the day, we were given a meal ticket and told to get our lunch at a restaurant across the street. I wonder how many guys took that opportunity to disappear??

During this process, the enlistment aspect never let up. The Army had offices in the AFEES where they would snag enlistees and inductees out of the line based on initial test scores that demonstrated specific aptitudes. For example, if your test score for the ALAT (Army Language Aptitude Test) was above a certain number, they hauled you in to talk to an ASA (Army Security Agency) recruiter. My ALAT score was above the specified number, so I went this route. I was taken into an office where an old, owlish-looking E-7 sat behind a desk. This crew-cut fellow in GI-issue gray plastic glasses gave me the pitch about what an honor it would be for me to serve in the ASA, which was an elite outfit that was charged with protecting certain aspects of national security, blah, blah, blah. The bottom line was, I would have to add another year to my enlistment for this privilege. Well, I hadn't been in the Army for a full day yet, but even at that early juncture, I just knew that I did not want to add another year to my enlistment. I declined. Late, I found out that the ASA duty wasn’t exactly James Bond level excitement. It was mostly about communications security that consisted of electronics monitoring, including internal spying on Army elements.

After all the paperwork and other bush-wah was finished, they collected us in one large hall and for the first time, they separated the enlistees from the inductees (draftees). There was only a low partition about four feet tall in the center of the hall that divided the two lots from each other. After while, these two men in funny uniforms consisting of a khaki shirt and royal blue trousers walked stiffly into the room on the other side of the partition. In a loud voice, one of these men said, "Listenup...willthefollowingnamedindividualsstandup" (said as if it was all one word). Two men stood up after their names were called. Then the leather-lungs who called off the names said, "Congratulations, gennulmen. YouhavejustbeeninductedintotheUnitedStatesMarineCorps." Out of what must have been a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty men, two of them had been selected to do their two year involuntary military service in the USMC; the rest went into the Army.

At what what I thought would be the end of a very long work day, they loaded us onto Greyhound buses and shipped us to Fort Ord, California for Basic Combat Training (BCT), sometimes called “Boot Camp”. The buses drove up Highway 101 to Salinas, and turned left for Fort Ord. I don't know what time we got there, but it was in the early morning hours of the next day. Before we were dispatched to our BCT companies, we first had to in-process with the Army. That started when we got off the bus. We were herded into a small wood-frame WW2-era building to fill out a new battery of paperwork. To accomplish this, we were given a #2 pencil without eraser. One kid in the group held up his hand with a question, and when given permission, asked, "Sergeant, can I have an eraser? I made a mistake and need to fix it." The cadre soldier up in front who was taking us through this process didn't bat an eye and said, "Son, you're in the Army now. We don't make mistakes in the Army, so we don't need erasers." It didn't take me long to find out just how ironic and cruel this statement was. I have to think the Army in contemporary times is a better organization, but during the time I was in, it seemed like mistakes were the order of the day, not the exception. I used to laugh when I would see those "Zero Defects" signs decorating office walls. It could have been described as organized chaos.

Finally around 0400 (that's four o'clock in the morning for civilians), we were led away to the USARECSTA, or US Army Reception Station. The Reception Station was charged with getting the new trainess organized before they went to their BCT company where they received their actual training. While in the Reception Station, they issued uniforms, gave haircuts, administered more tests, gave innoculations, and kept trainees in a holding pattern until they formed up enough men for a company cycle. This is also the place where the first misfits were winnowed out. It's true, some men couldn't even make it through the first few days of Army life before the training even started. It's no wonder; after bedding down at 0400, we found out that our work day started up again at 0500 hours - after getting maybe one hour of sleep. That's certainly no way to win the hearts of brand-new solders, but it was the Army way.

I had gotten sick a couple of days before my reporting date, and was still ill on the actual day. Talk about a misguided work ethic. I went ahead, and was still ill the first few days after I arrived at Fort Ord. With the short rest hours and the burst of exertion, it was a trial. I should have taken that as an omen at the time, that fate was trying to tell me something.

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