“All right you knuckleheads! Form a height line next to the bus!” The United States Navy petty officer, clad in the black uniform known as “winter blues” with a red rope adorning his left shoulder, shouted at the few dozen of us who were standing in the terminal entrance at Chicago’s O’hare airport. Myself and many of the others, bleary-eyed and a little dazed, suddenly had our senses snap into focus. We came to and rushed outside the terminal towards the waiting buses that would take us to Navy boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois. “Hurry up! Keep your mouths shut and get on my bus when I tell you to!
The year was 1999, it was December 29th, and I had just arrived to begin my enlistment in the United States Navy. I don’t planning on recounting every detail of my boot camp experience here, but instead I plan to share various stories as I remember them. Many of the stories are quite humorous in nature. At the time, only about half of them were humorous, but looking back, I can laugh about much of it now. Kinda like when I laugh at myself for liking the movie “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” when I was a kid. Hindsight and all. Perhaps I could even offer some bits of advice for those enlisting today.
My first piece of advice: Sleep! Sleep as much as you can until you ship out. Hell, sleep on the plane if you can. Once you get to boot camp, you will never sleep again. Not true sleep anyway. I made the mistake of staying out all night partying with my friends the night before I shipped out. So by the time I headed to MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) to get my enlistment package and then head to the airport, I had already been awake for twenty-four hours. I was so wired, I tried to sleep on the plane, but couldn’t. It was as if a coffee gremlin was waiting for me to doze off, then he’d shove a funnel in my mouth and pour in the black stuff.
We arrived at Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes at around 2200 (10pm). Once there, they don’t let you sleep until 2200 the next day. When all was said and done, I went over fifty hours without sleep because I stayed up all night the night before. Holy fuck balls! I’m never doing that again, haha. I was in such a zombie-like state, that Norman Reedus would’ve shot me with a crossbow without hesitation.
The first twenty-four hours upon arrival to Navy boot camp, or Recruit Training Command, is full of shouting, shuffling of bodies, chaos, shouting, and hallucinating about Smurfs from the lack of sleep. We get moved from place to place, getting various bits of gear issued, a quick phone call to the folks, filling out paper work for our service records, getting our medical and dental records started, etc. We actually got a lot done that first night and day. If our own Congress behaved this way, there’d be no budget deficit, low taxes, and a free Back to the Future DVD for everyone.
Also, I should note, that within about two hours of getting off the bus, we all got our haircuts. Of course the men got their heads shaved, and women also get their hair cut. Not shaved, but chopped to the jaw line. I saw many of the girls with tears in their eyes when they walked out of the barbers. Apparently, their recruiters didn’t tell them they were getting their hair chopped. So ladies, if you’re joining the Navy, yes you will get your hair cut in boot camp.
After that first day was over, we got settle into our routine. Which was mainly just trying to stay awake until 2200. The only time you were allowed rack time (to be asleep) was from 2200 to 0400 (10pm to 4am). And that is if you didn’t have a two-hour watch in the middle of that. A thing about the military is watch standing, so they get you in the habit early. I also wonder if it’s also so the petty officers and chiefs can fuck with you.
Standing a compartment watch in boot camp is actually straightforward and simple once you think about. You stand by the entrance to your division compartment, clad in your duty belt and canteen (because when you’re armed with only a canteen, terrorists beware!) and give a salute and sound-off whenever a superior walks in. The sound-off was pretty simple too. Just state your name, rank, division, and greet the superior. You wouldn’t believe how many idiots always messed that up. Every time.
The following didn’t happen in my division, but an old Navy friend told me about a kid in his division who could never get his watch standing sound-off right. He always screwed it up. So the petty officers made him stand his watch with the front of his body pressed against the wall, arms splayed out and the side of his face also against the wall. Whenever a superior came in he was instructed to snap to attention, salute, then yell, “Spidey senses tingling, petty officer!” And immediately re-assume his position against the wall.
The Navy equivalent of the drill sergeant is the Recruit Division Commander, or RDC for short. They are identified by the red ropes draped from their left shoulders while in uniform. If you keep your mouth shut and do as your told, it’s not so bad for you. But there is always a moron who will never, ever, get anything right. So when that person screws up, the whole division is punished.
If you’re wondering, yes, they yell a lot. Especially if you don’t do what you’re told, but most of the yelling is in the first few weeks. Once, we were in the chow hall, and I saw a kid getting chewed out by an RDC for something. The shouting of the RDC went out around the chow hall like some kind of jungle mating call. “Ahhh! Ooooh! EEEHH!” As the sounds of the shouting were picked up by nearby RDCs from other divisions, they all ran towards the kid who was getting his ass chewed, and joined in the yelling fray. The newly arrived RDCS obviously had no idea what infraction the kid had committed, or why, just that he was a knucklehead! Rawr!!
One of my RDCs yelled so much, we used to joke that this was his preferred method when he proposed to his wife. “BABY! WILL YOU! MARRY ME!!!!…DROP!!!”
There’s also lots of profanity going about from the RDCs. Don’t be surprised. This is the Navy after all. I remember our chief was cussing us all out in the compartment, all the while there was a post on the wall behind him that said something like, “Profanity is not a sign of quality leadership.” During one particular ass chewing session, he even addressed the poster with something along the lines of, and I quote, “Fuck that poster! You little fucktards won’t have the slightest clue how to be a leader even after you get to the fleet! Now I want you to field day this compartment because it looks like a bag of ass!”
When I joined up, I was already overweight, but just barely squeezed by on the tape. There was another kid in my division who was heavier than me. I remember he was a nice guy, but because he was the division Chunky dude, the RDCs loved to fuck with him. Once, when we were in the chow line, our chief decided to secure sweets. During lunches and dinners, they would offer some kind of desert with our meal, like a little cake or a cookie. The vast majority of the time we couldn’t touch it, but merely look at it as we passed by. Anyway, while in the chow line the chief calls out, “All right, sweets are secured! Did you hear that, Chunky? I said sweets are secured! I’ll bet that just breaks your fucking heart!”
One thing I remember doing a lot of, is folding clothes. We had so many uniforms and other bits of clothing issued to us, it was enough to make a dry cleaner close down in protest. Every piece of clothing had to be ironed, folded, and put away in a very specific way. They called this “attention to detail”. One particular bit of “attention to detail” was our skivvy stacks. These are our underwear and white t-shirts. They had to be stacked just so with the underwear, or skivvies, on top.
During an inspection after six weeks there, two kids still couldn’t get this concept right. They got in trouble because their skivvies were stacked on the bottom. As punishment, the chief made each one of them wear their own skid-marked underwear on their heads. Then he had the walk around the compartment during the remainder of the inspection while singing, “Skivvies on top!” and “Hey, look at me! Look how stupid I am!”
You can bet your ass they never failed that inspection again, haha.
Have you ever done push-ups in the snow while it was negative 5 degrees outside? Remember the date I shipped out for boot camp. I spent my 10 weeks there while in the middle of winter in Great Lakes, IL. I’ve never been so cold in my life. We were issued several layers of clothes to wear while outside, but were still freezing. While standing outside at 0430 (4:30am), the icy wind coming in from Lake Michigan driving the temperature well below zero, and freezing the only bit of you exposed to the elements. This happened to be your eyes. Have you ever been in a place so cold, your fucking eyeballs were freezing?
I supposed if you’ve ever had sex with Donald Trump, then you have an idea of what I’m getting at.
The 10 weeks I spent at Navy boot camp became a blur in time as it came to an end. In the beginning, it seems like an impossible mountain to climb. I have 9 more weeks of this? Fuck! You just slog through, day after day, and the next thing you know, you Pass in Review with your family looking on in the bleachers. I’m sure there is more to tell, and perhaps I’ll write a part two to this. I’m glad I did it and made it through. Would I ever go through boot camp again? Fuck no.