Everyone has a concept of boot camp. From movies, TV shows, word of mouth. I certainly did. When I got off the bus and my feet hit the concrete of Newport Naval Station, I was cocky. This will be a breeze, I laughed to myself. I’ve seen what happens, I just won’t screw up. I won’t take it too seriously and I’ll be fine. No big deal. I can take a little yelling. I grabbed my bag along with the other recruits, who looked armed with a paradoxical mix of nerves and confidence. I caught the eye of a kid I talked to on the way over. We smiled and gave each other confident grins. We’d be fine, unlike all these poor bastards around us who looked like they were walking on death row.
Right at that moment, a tall, lanky, black man from southern Alabama named Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Askew opened his mouth. With a mixture of insults, profanities, and a Southern drawl, he clarified a few things for me. These next two weeks ain’t gonna be easy.
I am in the Boston College Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, or NROTC. Before I arrived at BC to begin the best, fun-filled four years of my life, I had to go through two weeks of, well, hell. Since the Navy cannot enforce military discipline on us at all times across the BC campus, they put every incoming Midshipman (our official rank) through two weeks of boot camp to instill military discipline and values that we will carry with us (hopefully). Of course, physical things like pushups and running are a big part of this, but the little things, the things you don’t even figure into the equation before your first day are the things that really get you. Not being able to talk to any of your fellow Mids. Having to sit upright on the front of your chair at meals and face forwards at all times. Not being able to sit down all day. Blisters from brand new boots that are worn at all times. Marching around in blazing heat in heavy combat uniforms. Never knowing what time it is. Lugging an M16 that seems to keep gaining weight around all day. Having about a minute to get dressed every morning. All these things add up. While you will certainly be affected physically, it is the mental strain that really gets you. You spend your time wondering if you really are cut out for the military, if all of this is worth it.
I’m sure by this point, you get the picture. Boot camp is hard. Damn hard. But to merely pass it off as the two worst weeks of my life would be grossly unfair. Because believe it or not, those two weeks of hell may have been the two greatest weeks of my life. Granted, here I am writing this in the comfort of O’Neill, almost five months removed from those 5 A.M. formations, those never-ending marches, that brutal August sun boiling the pavement. But in those two weeks I made some great friendships, despite not being able to speak to anyone for most of the days. They say suffering brings people together– I hadn’t realized that was true before.
Even beyond that, I have never laughed more in my life than I did in those two weeks. Granted, most of it was under my breath. You see, the best way to survive in that kind of situation is to find everything bad amusing. That’s easy when your world is so serious and closed in because the tiniest things become funny. Plus, when forty college freshman are thrown into a situation like this, we do stupid shit. I still laugh to this day about some of the insane things that went on. Above all though, it was a growing experience. I matured drastically in those two weeks. From discipline and respect, to comradeship and teamwork, I changed, and grew up. I went from a laid back son to a college freshman enjoying the simple pleasures of the last summer of my childhood to MIDN 4/C Griffin Keegan, U.S. Navy.
When I think back to those days, one little blip in time truly encompasses all of my time in Newport. It was about midway through the first week. It seemed like I had just gotten into my rack (bed). The Navy has different names for many common objects, Suddenly, there was a flashlight in my eyes and the distinctive screaming voice of Platoon Sergeant Connor King in my ears. “GET UP. GET THE FUCK UP YOU WORTHLESS LITTLE SHITS.” My hooch (room) mate and I rolled out of our racks and ran out into the pea way (hall) to get “on-line,” or in a formation to count off. Still more or less asleep we screamed “PRE-sent” when our names were called. Then we ran back in, put on our uniform blouses, and ran back on-line to scream “PRE-sent” again. We repeated the process for each article of clothing until we were in full uniform, standing ramrod straight and at attention, rifles held tight against our legs. The whole process took exactly two minutes. We were ready to go at 5:02, something that comes to mind often when my roommates bitch and moan about their 9 A.M.’s.
From there, we about faced and marched out onto the parade grounds, silent except for the dull clump of our boots on the not yet steaming pavement. We assembled in formation, me taking my position of Squad Leader, 3rd Squad, 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company (3/2/B) at the far right of the third and final row. In general, this was a good place to be. I was out of sight from the front of the Platoon, where the training staff would normally stand, and thus, I was an infrequent target. But today, when it came time to march in formation, I was at the head of the line, and any mistake I made would not only obvious but it would copied by all those behind me. But that was yet to come. For now, we merely stood at attention in the early morning light, and as the sun rose over the hulk of an aircraft carrier in the distance, Gunnery Sergeant Askew strode onto the field.
Gunny was in charge, no debate on that front. He walked towards us purposefully, leaning slightly forward, hands completely straight, legs and arms moving with a sharp mechanical rhythm, huge biceps bulging, and an expression somewhere between totally blank and a snarl. To say we were afraid of Gunny was an understatement. His eyes missed no mistake– any slight imperfection was caught and swiftly punished. While he did yell occasionally, most of the time his criticism came in a calm, hard, steely cold voice. He knew how to get his point across, how to strike the fear of God into us without screaming. He had it down to an art. And even worse, he had a extremely dry, but very biting, sense of humor that could effectively humiliate you in front of all of your terrified, humor-starved comrades, who would all fight to keep in the waves of laughter at your expense.
This morning, he zeroed in on a Virginia farm boy named Drake Becka. Gunny’s first command of the morning was “PRE-sent AAAHHms,” and poor Becka was but a second late. Askew looked at him, his face a mask of disgust, for almost thirty seconds. The early morning air was still. No one spoke. The silence was deafening, overpowering, worse than any fit of screaming. Finally, Gunny opened his mouth. “Becka, if ah was in a cave with you, Osama bin Laden, and Sah-Dam Hoo-sane and had a rahfle with two bullets, well shit Becka, I’d shoot you twice.” We all struggled to stifle our laughter, and thirty-nine of us succeeded. One didn’t.
Ricardo Albino was a cheery Puerto Rican kid with a thick accent and a constant smile, As a result, poor Albino became a very special target of Gunny. Gunny jumped on him right away. Tried many things to wipe that goddamn smile off of Albino’s face during our time in Newport. Tried screaming. Tried cold, biting, insults. Tried humiliation. Nothing worked. Albino would just grin and say, “Yees, Sir Gunnery Sergeant.” Every single damn time. It frustrated the hell out of Askew, and amused the hell out of us. In a world of submission and oppression, Albino was our little symbol of rebellion, and we loved it.
After we were counted off and in formation, we began to march. Marching, some might say, is easy. You put one foot in front of the other in rhythm, just left right left right left right left. It ain’t so easy. I, in particular, am a miserable marcher, but was made squad leader–head of the line– anyway. Needless to say, it just about always ended badly. This particular morning, as the sun rose into the sky, and we took off marching, I was really, really, fucking up. Averaging around five hours of sleep per night for the last week, the left-right-left thing just wasn’t translating from the brain to the feet.
Of all the offenses one could commit, a marching related felony was something Gunny took especially personally. He took great pride in his own marching ability, and when he saw someone who didn’t share his enthusiasm and skill, it was a personal affront to both him and his beloved Corps. So there I was, waddling along, doing my best, knowing I was fucking up but praying it wasn’t too obvious, when I heard his voice. That low, growling Southern twang rang out over the parade ground, and while he wasn’t yelling, damn well everyone in half a mile heard it. “Keeeeeeegan, Keeeeeeeeeegan. Jesus Fuckin’ Christ Man! It ain’t that fuckin’ hard! Is there somethin’ wrong in yo’ goddamn brain, boy? Y’all are just walkin’ f’Christ’s sake! Get it together, dipshit!” Sources later confirmed I turned bright red, stiffened, and gave everything I had to the next fifty feet of marching. And still failed miserably. Gunny was seen shaking his head in disgust. Finally, he had had enough of the embarrassment that was everything Midshipman Griffin Keegan. He swooped by, grabbed me by the elbow, and took me out into the middle of the field– out of the earshot of my comrades, but damn well the center of attention of every soul on that field.
He spent almost a minute questioning my mental soundness. Once convinced that I wasn’t a total retard, he, with a touch of sadness in his voice, asked why in the name of God I could not march. It was a question that this poor Midshipman could not answer. “Gee Gunny, I’m tryin’ my best. It just isn’t coming to me,” I weakly mustered. He shook his head.
“Christ, man, look.” He grabbed my M16 and started marching. “Ya just put one foot in from of the other. Ya just WALK, man, just don’t think about it, just walk.”
I nodded vigorously, anxious to prove myself to this deity of all things military. I started to walk as he announced the rhythm, and goddamn, I was getting it. A minor slip-up here and there, but I was getting it. I turned, face flushed with pride. Gunny Askew, that fierce, tough sonavabitch, that had made our lives so supremely difficult for the last week, was smiling. Sure, it was just a little smile, but it was a smile. It vanished as quickly as it had came, and was replaced by a frown, coupled with a stern “Get the hell back there,” but I had accomplished something. In a world where you were never right, never good enough, I had done something correct. Seems stupid now, but in that mindset, it was a big deal.
We continued to march around until mid-morning, although, since part of the mental torture was not knowing the time all week, I couldn’t say exactly when. But judging by the fact that every part of my body was killing me, I’m guessing we marched for over four hours total. I was hot. My boots, a half size too big, had given me the mother of all blisters. And my M16 seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. In civilian life, in movies and video games, it seems cool to walk around all day with a gun, seems real badass, but let me tell you, after an hour, it ain’t anything but heavy. By the time someone screamed chow call, I damn near jumped for joy. It had been quite the morning.
Boot camp was an unreal experience. It was hard, it was demanding, and at the time it was hell, but never in my life have I had a more transformative experience. I went in just another incoming college freshman, and left a proud member of the U.S. Military. I gained and improved many personality traits, from discipline to mental toughness, and the bottom line is, I came out a better leader, and more importantly person, than I was when I went in.