From Chapter 3
The next few days were a whirlwind of activity, most of which involved sitting on our butts in a giant classroom. I’d been expecting lots of physical activity in the beginning, so this came as a surprise. The physical activity would come, but first came the indoctrination – and lots of it.
One particular day, our instructor was a tall drill sergeant I hadn’t seen before. Beefy and bespectacled, Drill Sergeant Millner looked like a gym rat and a scholar rolled into one. I tried not to think about all the other drill sergeants lining the walls, carefully monitoring our every tinky, tiny movement.
I pulled out my pen, army-issued notebook, and The Soldier’s Handbook, the Bible of Basic Training and our constant classroom companion. Aside from useful nuggets about the importance of brushing your teeth and bathing with soap and water, The Soldier’s Handbook was filled with chapters covering everything from army history, rank structure, and drill and ceremony, to field sanitation, rifle marksmanship, and tactics (fire team formations, fighting positions, foot marches, and the like). It seemed like an enormous amount to absorb in 10 weeks’ time – and most of it didn’t interest me in the slightest, if I’m to be honest.
Drill Sergeant Millner’s booming voice brought me back to the present. “Today, we’ll cover the seven core Army values,” he said. “Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. You’ve heard all these words before, but what do they actually mean to you?” He glared at everyone and no one in particular.
Pain, agony, and regret, I thought.
We were all silent.
“I’ll tell you. Nothing. Most of you have never gone anywhere or done anything in your life. You have no idea what it means to be loyal. To have respect. To serve others selflessly.”
He paced the floor slowly and methodically before continuing.
“These are words you will live by,” Drill Sergeant Millner said. “They will define your life in the army – not just in basic training, but all throughout your career. This is what being a soldier is all about.”
I peeked discretely around the room. People were varied in their response. Some listened with rapt attention. Some shuffled in their seats. Others were falling asleep – at which point, a drill sergeant would stride over, jab them on the shoulder, and order them to stand in the back of the room. There would be no sleeping in this class.
“What is loyalty?” he asked, eyeballing a Joe in the front row. “Loyalty is baring true faith and allegiance to the US Constitution, the Army, your unit, and other Soldiers. That means you are devoting yourself to something much bigger than you.”
The Joe in the front nodded vigorously.
“Duty,” he barked, walking on. “Fulfill your obligations, but more than that – do it as a team. If you don’t do your part, who’s going to suffer? Your battle buddies, that’s who.”
Makes sense, I thought cautiously.
“Respect. Treat others as they should be treated – with dignity and appreciation. Respect yourself. It’s easy to do when you know you’ve done nothing but your best in every situation.”
It sounded good. Who wouldn’t want a soldier to be respectful? To have honor, integrity, and personal courage? I couldn’t disagree with the army values on the surface, but I wondered what would happen if one day I disagreed with my leadership. What came first: loyalty to the US Constitution, or loyalty to the Army leadership and their directives? Surely it can’t be assumed that an army directive will always be constitutional.
He didn’t delve anywhere near such minutiae, but he didn’t have to. As he finished the Army values, I realized that our job as soldiers was to listen and accept the directives of our leadership – not to analyze or ask questions.
“FOURTH PLATOON, GET UP,” Drill Sergeant Hallman bellowed from his perch at the back of the room. Class time for the day was over.
From Chapter 4
Very slowly, some initial blue phase restrictions started to ease up. Although we were still sidestepping our way through the line at the defac, minor chit-chat was generally allowed or at least ignored by Drill Sergeant Hallman. Our daily schedule had morphed into a regular morning routine, and classroom activities almost felt like a typical day at school (with really mean and impatient teachers).
However, I was perpetually sore from constant PT. We all were. Most of it was “good” sore, but due to a fear of being yelled at and subsequently punished, I’d pushed myself harder than I should have on some of the group runs and ended up with a sprained ankle.
Thus, by the end of October, my muscles were shot, my ankle was swollen to twice it’s normal size, no one would let me go to the doctor to get it checked, and I found myself wondering if I would turn into one of those sorry recruits who gets washed out because I couldn’t hack it. I knew I could hack it; what I couldn’t do was run on a sprained ankle.
As I hobbled my way to formation one morning with Ellery, wondering how I was going to fudge my way through the day without doing too much additional damage, Ellery had a different problem on her mind.
“Schwabbie, that guy keeps trying to ask me out,” Ellery said as she not-too-discretely pointed at Beckett, one of the guys in our platoon. As luck would have it, he turned and cast a sorrowful glance in her direction at just that very moment. “What should I do?”
“Um… he does know you’re taken, right?” I asked as we lined up. Beckett was quite a smart guy and very nice to boot, but Ellery was engaged to her high school boyfriend Ryan.
“Yeah,” she said, “but it makes no difference. He’s not giving up.” She shrugged. “I’m trying to be nice, but it’s getting annoying.”
I wanted to feel bad, but there’s only so much bad one can feel for someone gorgeous and popular. “At least he’s cute and speaks in complete sentences,” I said. “It could be worse.”
She rolled her eyes but giggled. Ellery enjoyed the attention, like most girls would, but even if she’d been single, basic training was not the place to engage in such endeavors. We’d been warned that fraternization of any kind was forbidden in a training environment, and that the repercussions for ignoring this rule would be severe.
Just then our beloved Drill Sergeant Hallman strode to the front of our formation. I expected his usual stony expression of vague, haughty disinterest, but today he was … smiling.
I nudged Ellery. “He looks way too happy.”
She grimaced. “That can’t be good.”
“Today,” he started, looking away as if to mask his suspicious smile, “we’ve got a little something special planned.”
I frowned. First, Drill Sergeant Hallman never smiled. Second, it didn’t take a genius to realize that “something special” was military code for “enjoy living in the suck, privates.”
Ellery and I exchanged glances. It was going to be a long day.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard about the NBC chamber,” Drill Sergeant Hallman said casually. “Now you get to experience it for yourselves.”
The NBC chamber. Otherwise known as the infamous gas chamber.
We’d all heard the stories. This isn’t something you go into basic training knowing nothing about – oh, no. Not even me. Everyone knows that every new recruit must endure the painful fumes of the gas chamber, sans gas mask.
We’d spent the last few days training with gas masks – putting them on, clearing them (removing any gas that got inside), and generally getting used to breathing with a giant stinky suffocating mask over our faces. Now we were about to find out how well we’d paid attention.
To further exacerbate matters, it was a drizzly, gray day that promised buckets of rain and related nastiness. Once again, we piled onto waiting buses for the short but anxiety-ridden ride through the woods. After a quick briefing under a tent with bleachers, we huddled under the trees in a giant line to await our turn in the suck.
If you’ve ever read self help books, you know that visualization is constantly pushed as a way to change your life circumstances. You are what you think, or something like that. If you don’t like what or where you are, visualize what you want in your life.
So that’s what I did. I closed my eyes. Instantly I was alone on a giant, peaceful, sandy beach, enjoying the gentle breeze, sunshine, and blue-green surf. I was sitting under a giant white umbrella with a very blue and very alcoholic drink in my hand. I took a deep breath of refreshing, salty air. I felt the warm sun on my skin, listened to the sound of the tide lapping gently on the shore, and took a nice, cool sip of sparkling blue liquid.
I popped an eye open.
“Are you OK?” Ellery peered at me and frowned.
I sighed. The drizzle had turned into a steady downpour. I was soaking wet and chilled to the bone, my uniform clinging in all the most uncomfortable places, and I was about to be blasted with CS gas. I’d seen better days.
“I’m fine,” I said, teeth chattering from cold and nerves. “Just thinking.”
“We’re almost up,” Ellery said, and I realized we were only a few people away from our turn. We quickly put on our masks.
I didn’t know this going in, of course, but there is a secret strategy for surviving the gas chamber that the drill sergeants neglect to tell you. It’s simply this: Remain calm.
The purpose of this exercise is to give you a taste of wearing (and not wearing) a gas mask in an environment wherein there is gas (in this case, orto-chlorobenzylidene-malononitrile gas, commonly known as CS gas or tear gas). That is all. There will be pain in the sinuses, you will flush out some boogers, and your throat will burn like a raging inferno, but it will not kill you.
The gas chamber is hard if you fall into uncontrolled panic. Lots of people do this. Blazing down the rabbit trail of terror is a guaranteed way to perform poorly. If you approach it step-by-step and calmly, you will do it and be done with it.
When it was my turn, I rechecked the seal on my gas mask for the hundredth time, even though I knew I’d be forced to remove it momentarily. I tried to brush off the vaguely claustrophobic sensation that came with sucking in sour air through a decades-old crappy mask worn by dozens before me … and followed the sergeant into the building.
I walked into a thick fog and immediately felt a burning sensation. The mask was leaking a bit. Not surprising, given its age and the fact that I may not have put it on entirely correctly. But I could manage. I kept my breathing even and slow. I could make out several masked drill sergeants standing around and directing people through the process, basically in several meandering lines from the front door to the back door. The first drill sergeant who’d led me inside motioned me forward, and I did as directed.
“LIFT UP THE MASK, SCHWAB. Give me your name, rank, and social security number.” The voice was muffled but very much a command.
I was sorely tempted to disobey. I didn’t give myself time to contemplate that. I took a deep breath as I reached up and unsealed the mask, then pulled it away from the lower part of my face as we’d been instructed to do. This time it didn’t need to come off completely – just enough to get the words out.
I blurted out the required information in one breath, feeling the burning sensation rush up my neck and into my mouth, nose, and eyes. Once I was done, I didn’t wait for permission before putting my mask back on and clearing it so I could take a breath.
Unfortunately, clearing the mask wasn’t entirely effective. It’s supposed to go a long way to remove any gas inside the mask, but plenty remained. Breathing through the burn, on top of the claustrophobic feeling of the mask on my face, took some serious willpower. All I wanted to do was book it full speed out the door and rip it off.
I could see I was not the only one. Several people just ahead of me looked as if they were panicking and trying to leave, but the drill sergeants were forcing them to stay.
A little voice popped into my head. Stay calm. One step at a time.
“THAT WAY, SCHWAB,” the same drill sergeant barked, indicating another drill sergeant down the line. I stumbled through the cloudy haze of noxiousness and stood in front of drill sergeant #2, praying for a swift end to my misery.
“MASK OFF, SCHWAB,” he roared, with far less compassion than the first. “Give me the SOLDIER’S CREEEED.”
Soldier’s creed, I thought. I can do that.
This time I had to take the mask off completely, as had been demonstrated to us beforehand. I reached up, took as deep a breath as I could stand, shut my eyes tight, and pulled it off.
“I am an …” I coughed. Everything burned, especially my eyes, nose, and throat. This was not starting out well. “… American soldier. I am a …” I coughed again. I needed to take a breath but didn’t dare. The burn was overwhelming now. “… warrior and a …” I paused and leaned forward slightly, trying to figure out how to breathe without breathing.
“OUT, SCHWAB!” the drill sergeant shrieked, pointing to the door.
He did not need to tell me twice. I opened my eyes just enough to barrel my way out the door and into the blessed fresh air and drizzle. There I was joined by several others in various stages of recovery, which involved coughing, hacking, and the expulsion of many boogers, tears, and spit. Overall, a super pleasant end to a splendid afternoon.
Thankfully the CS gas dissipated quickly. Within a few minutes, I started to feel better, although a burning sensation remained around my neck, where the collar of my uniform touched my skin. I wondered if the gas had settled somewhat into my clothes.
It was Ellery, calling to me from the bleachers. I ran over and took a seat next to her.
“We survived!” she said with a grin, her face pink and her eyes still watery.
“Yeah, it wasn’t so bad,” I said. “I never want to do that again.”
“That’s the good news, Schwab,” said Bateman, sitting nearby. “You made it. One and done.”
I certainly hoped so. That night, I used a few minutes of my precious one hour of free time to write to Andy about my gas chamber experience.
I hate this place.
Today I was marching toward the gas chamber in the freezing cold and pouring rain, and I thought of what you said about being wet and cold in uniform. I’d have to agree that there definitely aren’t any upsides to it.
There aren’t any upsides to breathing in CS gas, either. Boy that sucked. The drill sergeants were slamming people into walls and forcing them to stay if they tried to run. I came close. It’s sorely tempting to panic in a situation like that.
No amount of money is worth this.
Your miserable sister,