by Christian Rivera
“Platoon! Attention! Half-right… Face! Front leaning rest position… MOVE!” These words echoed through the cantonment area of my basic combat training battalion like thunder rumbles across the open plain to signal the onset of a mid-summer storm. The front leaning rest position, known as the push-up position to you civilians, has many places in the world of the U.S. Army recruit, although it seems to find its place most frequently in the form of corrective action for minor disciplinary infractions.
Enter our Drill Sergeant. Our Drill Sergeant was tall and slim, clean shaven, however rugged nonetheless. His hair was dark and the style was the epitome of high and tight. He had the steely eyes of a man who has seen the ugly face of war. On that particular day, however, his mission was to correct an entire platoon of privates for the actions of one of their own. He carried out his mission with great enthusiasm.
“Down!” barked the Drill Sergeant, like a hell hound.
“Attention to detail!” exclaimed the privates in unison, as they moved as a single unit to the down position of the push-up.
“Up!” the Drill Sergeant ordered.
“Teamwork is the key!” the platoon exclaimed, as if fully engaged in a religious experience, while bringing themselves back to the up position. Although 1st Platoon did not fully understand the reasons for the words that they were ordered to repeat, or what those words really meant for a Soldier, they were destined to find out.
At the beginning of the training cycle, not much was known about our new Drill Sergeant, except that he possessed the demeanor of a grizzly bear who had been disturbed from his winter slumber, and that he had expressed a strong desire to decapitate those who dared to cross him, and defecate upon what remained of their carcasses. Our very first meeting with him culminated in a vicious corrective action session that I will remember vividly for the remainder of my days on this Earth, although I’m happy to report that my head remains intact. Our training, safety, and welfare had been placed in the charge of an absolute savage, I thought. But as the weeks moved on, we all would learn quite the contrary to this notion.
As each day passed, we would learn new skills. As we learned those new skills, we would also get to know our Drill Sergeant a little better, and the cloud of mystery that seemed to envelop him dissolved, little by little. We learned that he had commenced his career in the U.S. Army in the late 1980’s, as a private, just like us. This seemed to put a human face on the deity in the round and brown hat who stood before us. He had trained to become a Soldier at Fort McClellan, Alabama. Shortly thereafter, he shipped to the Middle East to participate in Operation Desert Shield, and ultimately, Operation Desert Storm. We also learned that he had a brother who was a drill sergeant in a different battalion.
As time moved forward, we learned about things like hand-to-hand combat, rifle marksmanship, and drill and ceremony. And always faithfully carrying out the duty which was his charge was our Drill Sergeant. He taught me just about everything that I know about soldiering. He taught me how to march, how to shoot, and even how to make my bed. I recall a time when I was having trouble meeting the time standard on the two mile run, which is a graduation requirement. When I asked him what I could do to be able to run faster, he simply replied “run faster.” My initial reaction was one of anger. As a twenty-one year old, I was still learning to read between the lines.
As my anger cooled off, I began to brood over those two words. He knew that I needed to meet that time standard in order to graduate, yet all he could say was “run faster?!” By the next morning, however, I had it figured out. Without telephones, internet, television, radios, books, or any other creature comfort for that matter, time to think is always abundant for a private in basic training. So I used my hour of free time that night to search within myself, and extract a deeper meaning of the things I learned up to that point. I learned that I needed to dig deep within myself, and give it my all, one hundred percent of the time. Over time, I learned that this lesson not only applied to running, but to all aspects of my life.
One of the most important lessons that our Drill Sergeant taught me was that there is always more than meets the eye, to beg the question: “What’s really going on?” As illustrated earlier, I was beginning to find out that what was really going on was that there was always an underlying lesson in all that we learned.
For instance, many of us took those corrective action sessions at face value, but upon closer inspection, we realized that we were also learning that a little extra work goes a very long way in preparation for an Army Physical Fitness test. Underneath every major lesson, our Drill Sergeant was inculcating Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage into our eager minds. His values were becoming ours.
Around week six of our training, we learned that our Drill Sergeant’s brother had been killed in a training accident during a live fire exercise on the other side of the post. As a true testament of his loyalty to his Soldiers, and of his sense of duty to train us, he was back on the job, business as usual the very next day. Even as we offered our most sincere condolences to him, we were beginning to feel a bond, much like that of a family, with him and amongst ourselves.
In the ensuing weeks, our Drill Sergeant selflessly soldiered on, tirelessly executing the Army’s plan for turning a motley group of civilians into a well trained unit of highly motivated, professional Soldiers. We accomplished things that for some, were thought to be impossible. Some Soldiers overcame their fear of heights, and found themselves climbing a very tall and formidable obstacle called “the skyscraper,” (one of many obstacles located in the confidence course) without the use of harnesses or any other safety equipment, for that matter. Attention to detail. Other Soldiers, who may have been couch potatoes in their previous life, found themselves completing a fifteen kilometer forced march, with a full combat load, up hills so steep that one could literally pick the stones up off the road in front of himself. It may seem that these achievements were accomplished by the Soldiers individually; however, all of the various training events that took place during basic combat training shared one crucial element: none ofthese training events could have been successfully completed if the Soldiers had acted as individuals. Teamwork is the key.
Our Drill Sergeant wanted all of the members of 1st Platoon to be number one, and to be as one; to fully realize his or her potential; to be, as the old cliché goes, “all you can be.” From the very beginning, he taught us to never quit and to honor our commitments. He taught us of the paramount importance of integrity, and how it should always be a part of our daily lives. As our time in basic grew short, and the weeks waned into days, we no longer looked to our Drill Sergeant as the steely-eyed killer who would “rip off our heads and shit down our neck,” but as a father figure who had shown us the way. There is no doubt that it takes some intestinal fortitude to be a Service Member in an all volunteer force; only about two percent of our nation’s approximate population of three-hundred million has answered the call. However, our Drill Sergeant’s level of commitment and personal courage is a shining example of what a Soldier in the U.S. Army should strive to be. Even after seven years, his teachings continue to make me a better person, and for that, I thank him.