I never questioned why the word “boot camp” was used to describe basic training when one enlists in the military.
And, after having gone through US Navy boot camp, I think it sounds much nicer than “kick-your-ass-camp”, although that is actually a much better description. Hey, they gotta get us in the door first, and any friendly-sounding euphemism that will help achieve that end wins.
But getting an ass-kicking is pretty much the reality when you’re there. And even though Navy boot camp is not as physically demanding as what the Marines or Army had to go through; to any civilian thrown into this mix, boot camp is boot camp, and there’s no quitting once your name is on the dotted line and your backside is in the hands of the Recruit Division Commanders or RDC’s, which is the Navy version of drill instructors. From the minute our bus pulled up in the parking lot late that first night at Great Lakes, IL, we all knew the clock had started, and even though we had no idea what to expect, we didn’t think it would be so bad. But that was tossed out the door the minute the RDC’s got on that bus and began screaming at us; it was obvious we were all in a never-ending hell for the next two months straight.
For the first few weeks we were endlessly screamed at, cussed at, and told that we were expected to do everything exactly as we were instructed; even things as mundane as underwear had a specific way to be folded, and if it was not done the exact way, we were in for ugly surprises. This one day we came back to our long barracks room only to find absolute chaos; almost everyone had failed inspection, and had their personal effects thrown everywhere, but that was nothing. Some folks had so thoroughly pissed off the RDC’s that their stuff had been thrown out the 2nd story windows down to the ground where it was littered all over the courtyard below. Folks gathered the shreds of their pride along with armfuls of underwear, tears in eyes, sobs being held back, realizing too late that they couldn’t run from this; the only thing they could do was figure out how not to have this happen again.
We all realized we had no control over anything, except working together, and helping each other succeed. The most important lesson we had to learn was to abandon our selfish pursuits and put individualism aside; we had to learn to work together as a large group, or not at all. And that meant when one person made a mistake the rest of us were punished for it. This happened over and over, all day long, everywhere and anywhere. Hearing the loud booming voices of the RDC’s snarl at us, that someone had fucked up and we were all going to take a beating for it.
“You numb-nuts will all “drop” right now, and push the ground until we get tired!” they would scream in unison.
And we did as we were told, doing endless push-ups, sit-ups, or laying flat on our backs and putting our legs out to flipper kick until the RDC’s were satisfied we were getting the point. When the RDC’s said we were all going to “make rain” it did not mean a charming day wondering around outside with umbrellas. No – it meant taking a hardcore “beating” inside our long barracks room with all the windows and doors closed – which would create a condensation from all one hundred of us breathing in the humid air, working out, sweating. This absolutely drained us all within minutes. But it motivated us to learn how to do exactly as we told, no less and no more.
The first couple weeks were merciless; I saw a lot of tall, strong folks break down crying as the stress of being absolutely helpless for the first time in their lives ate them up. A lot who broke were men, in fact. I remember one particularly strong guy who fucked up and spoke while standing at parade rest, which is a huge sin we all learned right away no to do; if you have to speak, stand at attention; but do not speak at parade rest no matter what. Somehow, this guy just forgot this one day. But the RDC’s were going to make sure he never forgot again, as I saw one RDC run up, screaming, ripping the absolute ass off of him in front of the rest of us, his face red as he stoically took the chewing. You could tell he was holding back tears as the RDC hurled cuss words at him, threatening to have him held back; when two months was absolute hell any amount of time over that was unimaginable. He had it down pat after that.
All of us slept in long rows of old, beat-up metal bunk beds. I got assigned a bottom rack, and my bunkmate was this pretty gal, but not very well put-together, who came dragging 5 different pieces of matched luggage behind her. She came in, throwing down all these suitcases with this ugly floral pattern on it next to our bunk, and I watched as her eyes got really large when she saw how little space we had in all actuality.
She cried as she told me that her recruiter had told her she could bring as much stuff as she needed. “He fucking lied to me!” She exclaimed that first day, right before we were marched out to get our first sets of shots, and have urine tests done.
I saw all her stuff and asked her “When do you think you’re going to use your curling iron or hair dryer?” What was she thinking? This wasn’t a Miss America pageant, after all. This was the frigging military!
Meanwhile, I had a more practical recruiter; he instructed me well in what to show up at the gate with. So all I had was a couple pairs of white skivvies and sports bras, a toothbrush, some toothpaste, and a moldable constitution. That was it for me. Everything else came issued in my sea-bag “Except Happiness”, as the RDC’s let us know every day. This was probably why I ended up making it, while she ended up popping positive on a pregnancy test, inevitably getting shipped back with her luggage to where she had come from.
The one hundred plus females who made it through those first days thought we had gotten past the hard parts; we were all in for a hard surprise. Some gals insisting on talking, laughing and chasing each other around long after lights were out at “taps” or about 10 pm. Shit hit the fan when folks trying to sleep finally got fed up and would scream at them to “Shut the fuck up!” We had to get precious sleep to wake up at 4am, and most of us agreed on doing that. Not to mention that we were told that if anyone got caught talking after lights out we all paid for it.
Wake up time was between 0400-0500, so there we were, sometime after 0300, still dozing in the quiet night. All of sudden it sounds like an explosion went running the length of the barracks as the lights all flew on. I jumped out of my rack wondering where the fire was, only to realize it was slightly worse; here was one RDC who had brought in two metal garbage cans, and had taken one and tossed it across the room, as he began beating one with a hammer; the thrown can flying down the middle crashing and smashing loudly all over as he began screaming “Get your asses out of your trees! We’re going to fix anyone hell-bent on talking after taps, alright? Get your bunks made NOW”
From that moment we had only 5 minutes or so to get our racks we slept in made in the specific way it had to be done, with no creases or slack, and that “four-inches of crease” in the sheet and wool blanket made famous by the boot camp scene in “Full Metal Jacket”. All bunk mates helped each other throw the plain sheets over the bed and fold them, our tired sleepy hands clumsy in the still darkness. Then we all threw our uniforms on, and stood in front of our racks, at attention, inspection ready. After another ass chewing from him we were ready to not ever speak again as long as we never had to go through that raucous ever again. No one so much as coughed after “taps” from that day on. We were cured.
After our female RDC’s came back in, he left, and we were allowed to run through the showers together in long fast rows, and get on with our day; marching around the base, and eating our food 3 times a day in under 10 minutes or less in the galley together. After that we would take classes, then more marching, instruction, uniform fittings, followed by more marching and instruction. And all of this was interspersed with endless breaks to drop and do push-ups.
We would be expected to learn and use only proper nautical language, along with the old Navy colloquialisms thrown in. The words “attention to detail” “reveille reveille” and “military bearing” along with the other favorite non-stop saying of the RDC’s to “Hurry the fuck up and quit dickin’ the dog” would became well defined for every one of us.
But one thing that we all learned right away; salutes are for officers, do not salute enlisted. And no matter what, do not salute a Chief, Senior Chief, or Master Chief. The Navy is very unique from all the other branches in that senior enlisted pay grades E-7 through E-9 are elevated above the other enlisted ranks and authorized to wear the same khaki uniform as officers. The major distinction is that Chiefs wear gold fouled anchors on their collars and covers, and officers wear a large decorative insignia of a silver eagle over two large anchors, which stick out in sharp contrast to the smaller gold fouled anchors of the chiefs.
We were taught the immediate respect for this group of enlisted, and being we had a Chief as one of our RDC’s it really knocked it home. He taught us that a Navy officer cannot function without a Navy Chief.
Ultimately, the Chief’s primary role is not just to take care of his people, but also to train officers from ranks O1 to O4. When the Commanding Officer asks a question, it is highly likely that a Chief will provide the answer. When the Commanding Officer needs to gain advice regarding a leadership issue he’ll likely ask a Chief.
So Chiefs have a huge responsibility in the Navy, and with this comes an almost god-like respect placing them on a level above officers in almost all cases. But the fact remains they are still enlisted, and at the end of the day saluting them is an insult which they have no sense of humor about whatsoever.
I found this out the hard way one day after I made the sorry mistake of saluting a Chief before seeing the anchors on their collar and cover.
The Chief stopped dead in their tracks and screamed “Recruit! About face Recruit! Did you just salute me?”
“Yes Chief! I did!”
“What the hell is wrong with your damn eyes, recruit! Don’t you see these anchors?!”
“Yes Chief! I do now!”
“Good! That means I work for a damn living, Recruit! Now, carry on!” which made me stop, shaking in my boots only once to get it right the next million times. I had my first real run in with a chief, and it would not be my last.
And other than that the only other trouble I got into was saying sorry too much. Yes, saying sorry is an issue, and I sharply learned that this one day. I kept being corrected for minor infractions, and I would quietly say “sorry” in reply, and finally it royally pissed off all the RDC’s that they decided to make an example of me.
“Sorry is not authorized in uniform, recruit! One apologizes formally after one makes a mistake, but that is it. No excuses. We have to teach you all to take accountability for your actions. And sorry is an excuse. We have to break you of that immediately!”
I had a bad feeling in my stomach hearing this.
“Recruit,” the RDC’s said to me, “I want you to come over here and stand and put every last sorry in that sorry trashcan!”
And they made a big scene of having me stand over a trash can in front of everyone while spitting endless “sorry’s” into it for 20 minutes straight. It was very effective in curing me of overuse of that particular word, I must say.
And other than that I didn’t get into too much trouble, thankfully; and neither did anyone else. The motivation to get some freedom back was so great that everyone pulled the person next to them into line, and we helped drag each other across the finish line. The RDC’s were tough and relentless on us, but as our bodies and minds got used to the constant abuse, the non-stop calisthenics, daily classes and lessons made the two long months of boot camp fly by the fast and slowest I have ever seen anything go by; and we all survived to happily graduate together. It was a living hell, but it was only temporary, thankfully, we thought.
We had no idea what awaited us in the fleet…..