Joined: 21 Dec 2007
Posted: 26 Dec 2007 12:26
My name is Brandon Foster. I’m the Technical Artist and Associate Producer for the America’s Army - Emeryville team that produces the America’s Army PC game for the public. Going into this I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I knew we were going to be receiving some form of BCT, but I didn’t know how they were going to administer it. I sort of went in expecting the best, but preparing for the worst. Thoughts of R. Lee Ermey-style Drill Sergeants scared the hell out of me, not necessarily from the abuse, but from fear I might start laughing at some of the colorful things they might say and get myself in trouble. We have all sorts of gear and weapons around the office for reference, but descriptions of how they work and are worn never really sunk in since I never use them in a day-to-day situation.
I’m glad I did mentally prepare for the worst, because I don’t know if I could have made it past those first couple days if I hadn’t. We were yelled at, chided, pushed beyond our physical and mental limitations, but came out all the stronger for it at the end because we endured. I went from having cursory textbook knowledge of the systems we have in our game, to being able to physically perform many of them with skill and speed. I can lock, load, accurately fire, and fix jams with my M16 without thinking about it. I can get in and out of my 60 lbs. of gear in a matter of moments. I overcame my fear of rappelling and can make my way down a 50 ft. wall. And I can stay calm in a simulated battle situation; where explosions are going off around me, smoke is obscuring my vision, and my squad and I are still able to maintain our discipline to carry out our mission. I never accidentally laughed at a quip made by a Drill Sergeant. From the moment we arrived it was all serious, all business. Most of us got in line and followed orders, while a few fell by the wayside and said this was not for them. I’m proud of myself, and everyone who stuck it out to the end. We all learned a little something about ourselves, and each other. We learned how important it was to function as a team, and saw how much stronger we were when we followed that ethos.
I’ve never been much in favor of the war in Iraq politically, but I’ve always been a supporter of our troops. I have to worry about traffic when I drive to work. They have to worry about IEDs. When I make a mistake, I can go back and fix it. If they make a mistake, people can die. They have one of the most tough and oftentimes, thankless jobs around. They have a bravery and dedication that many of us could only hope to aspire to, and they deserve all our thanks and respect.
Day 0 - Reception
I think we all had an idea this was going to be a form of BCT, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be as intense as it has been.
The first half of what was to become our entire platoon arrived a little before 1200 at Ft. Jackson. We were ushered into a classroom after securing our bags in a truck. There we were introduced to some of the Drill Sergeants and Captain Iverson. We were given some books and reading materials, which included the Soldier’s Creed. We were told we’d be reciting that every day before going to bed so we had better have it memorized. Many of us went to task on doing that while waiting for the rest of the platoon to arrive.
There had been some sort of mix up and not everyone’s gear was ready for disbursement when we arrived. I was lucky and was one of the few whose clothing was ready to go. They had the few of us change into our ACUs and boots, showing us the proper way to put everything on. We went back to the classroom to find everyone else had gone to get sized for their uniforms. The Drill Sergeant who had showed us how to put our uniforms on led us to where everyone else was getting ready so we could help them put everything on properly. He pointed us down the hall and when I entered the room I was immediately yelled at by a different Drill Sergeant who asked what I was doing there. I started to stammer out a reply but was cut short when I was corrected in that I needed to address him properly as Drill Sergeant and be at parade rest when speaking to him. I got it together and told him we had been sent to assist our teammates with getting dressed since we knew how to properly put on our uniforms. We were told to hurry up, everyone had already wasted enough time as it was. I only had enough time to help one person before we were sent out of the room to start gathering everyone who was dressed.
After everyone had as much of their gear as could be mustered (many folks were just wearing the PT sweats since proper ACU sizes couldn’t be found immediately for them) we were driven to our barracks where we dropped off our laundry bag full of gear we had been issued in a classroom on the first floor. All the while this is going on, Drill Sergeants are yelling at us saying how slow we are and need to hurry it up. We were then taken to our first training course, Fit To Win.
Fit To Win is a large obstacle course that new recruits run through when they first get to BCT, then at the end of their 3 week Red Phase, they run through it again as a timed event for bragging rights for the Platoon which completes it the fastest. Here we were separated into our 4 squads we would be in for the rest of our week here. I was assigned to 3rd Squad, led by Drill Sergeant Evans and Drill Sergeant Thomas. We were instructed to keep up with Drill Sergeant Evans and keep our squad together as he led us through the course. There were lots of different types of obstacles we had to get over/under and through. We vaulted over walls, crawled under low logs, crawled through tunnels and across wide sand/rubber pits. Drill Sergeant Evans made each task look effortless; however the rest of us weren’t quite as graceful as he when tackling each obstacle. We hit our first snag at the cargo net. The net was wide enough for 2 people so we had to go up with a battle buddy at the same time, reach the top, and descend together down the other side. One of the members of our squad stopped a couple feet from the top and declared he was done. The rest of the squad was shouting encouragement, telling him he could do it, he was almost there. Drill Sergeants were also shouting, not so much encouragement, but more than a few choice things that would make you want to get moving. Ultimately he came back down the side he went up on, rather dejected. We continued on through more obstacles, finally emerging at the monkey bars. Many of us didn’t realize at the time, but that same person had fallen behind a bit, but the First Sergeant of our Platoon DID notice. He questioned why we did not have our full squad with us, and had those of us who were there drop and do pushups until everyone was accounted for. In my mind I was thinking “great, why did it have to be RIGHT before the monkey bars”. We all got through the rest of the course without any other large hiccups. Mostly people just getting tired and running out of energy, but we made it to the end.
When we reached the end we were all issued our 2-quart canteens which we all promptly filled up at the nearby water tank and gulped down some much needed water. With all the physically demanding tasks before us, we were told it was very important to stay hydrated. It was also at this time that we were introduced to the battle buddy system. Everywhere we ever went, whether it be to the latrine, to get water, or to go ask a question we needed to have a battle buddy. This translates into no Soldier ever being alone in case he were to ever need aid. This system was driven home again and again over the course of the next few days.
We were also issued 2 flags; each named a “Guide On” which was to be carried around by people during our stay at Ft. Jackson. The first was a sort of achievement flag which showed what phase we were in, and had attached streamers for which courses we had completed. They had our squad leader tie on the Fit To Win steamer as she was considered to have performed the best on the course. The other flag was our identification flag, designating our company and platoon numbers and name, the Bulldogs.
We then went to the chow hall for dinner. We were instructed on the proper way to move through the whole process. While waiting in line, eyes are forward on the person in front of you. You are at parade rest, until it is time to move, and then you come to attention, walk forward, and then go back to parade rest. Upon reaching the servers you get your tray and hold it at a particular orientation. You side step at attention as you move down the line of food. You are not permitted to point or lean over the edge to assess what it is you want. If you cannot see you take a step back to observe the food, and then step back forward to tell the server your selection. After you have loaded your tray you take it to your seat and set it down. You then return to retrieve your silverware and beverage. You walk with the cup and silverware in one hand (silverware pointed down) and your other hand covering the top of the cup. The silverware and drink are retrieved second so you aren’t trying to balance too many things at once and cause a mess. There are lots of people that are moving through the mess hall in a small amount of time, so a dropped tray or spilled drink will slow up the process. We didn’t have a lot of time to eat; we were hurried along and were in and out in probably 10-15 minutes. This time diminishes much more in the meals to come.
As a side note, throughout the day we were constantly lining up in formations and being addressed or addressing the Drill Sergeants. A lot of people didn’t know how to properly address the Drill Sergeants (or very will DID, but we were all so unfamiliar with the system that they would constantly make slips and say something wrong), and as such did plenty of pushups or other activities as punishment when getting it incorrect. “Drill Instructor”, “Sir”, or anything other than “Drill Sergeant” resulted in angry voices and more exercises. When some folks would apologize by saying:
“I’m sorry Drill Sergeant!”
Another Drill Sergeant would pipe up saying:
“Did you hear what he just called you? A SORRY Drill Sergeant.”
To which the result was always more punishment. I made a mental note that if I needed to apologize for a mistake I would say “I apologize Drill Sergeant!” instead of the alternative which would get me in more trouble.
Some folks were learning very quickly the nature of the game. There is no arguing with the Drill Sergeants, or validating your actions. They are always right. They will even purposely create situations where they contradict themselves, just so you have no choice but to screw up no matter what you do and accept your punishment. So long as you did exactly what you were told, you usually did alright.
We came back to the barracks and collected our laundry bags full of clothing and books we had been issued, along with our bags we originally arrived with. We separated out into squads and it was time for Shakedown. We dumped out all our bags and the Drill Sergeants told us what we could and could not take with us for the rest of the week. They locked our bags with all the disallowed items in a room for the week, and then assigned us to our rooms in the barracks. There we were taught the proper way to fold, roll, and store each piece of our clothing in our locker. We were issued linens and taught how to make the bed properly. The process is very strict, 45 degree angles at the folded hospital corners for sheets and blankets. We had limited time to get this done before we were to be back downstairs for formations. It moved faster when each bunk mate helped each other make each bed together instead of both struggling alone. At times the Drill Sergeants would stroll through, declare a part had been done wrong, pull the sheets and blanket out, then tell us to do it again. That only happened once to someone in our squad, so we got things done fairly quickly and ran downstairs to get into formation for Platoon Fusion.
Platoon Fusion is where the squads get to know each other. Typical recruits are from all walks of life, all over the country. This gives them an opportunity to get to know each other a bit before they start on the long road that is BCT. We all stated who we were, who we worked for and our titles. We also gave a short speech about what we hoped to get out of this experience. We all had different reasons, but a reoccurring theme was that we all wanted to be able to use this experience to make a better America’s Army game experience.
First Sergeant Dobos gave a short speech to us regarding our goals while we were there. He said he could understand and respect our goals to make a better game, but he hoped that through this experience we would hopefully learn something about ourselves, about our teammates, and hopefully dispel a lot of the negativity that surrounds Soldiers in the media. And ultimately through all of this, hopefully make us better Americans.
It was probably almost 2130, and it was time for our platoon to recite the Soldier’s Creed. Needless to say, only a few of us had a grasp on it (and tenuous at best). We didn’t even get past the 2nd sentence before we were ordered down on the ground to do more pushups. We repeated this scenario a few more times, doing different strenuous physical exercises each time we got it wrong. Most of us were writhing on the ground, our muscles unwilling to answer the pleas our brains were making to them. Drill Sergeants yelling at us to get up, to do the exercise we had been asked to perform, angry and frustrated recruits yelling back that their bodies could not do what we were being asked to do. It was tense and painful to say the least. When we finally eeked out a quasi-acceptable version of the Soldier’s Creed we were dismissed for personal hygiene time before lights out. All of us were quivering and clumsily placing one foot in front of the other to get up to our bunks, the only parting gift being the hot shower we knew we could take once we got upstairs.
We were midway through undressing for the shower when someone ran up to tell us 3rd squad was needed downstairs. We hurriedly put our uniforms back on and ran downstairs. The Drill Sergeant on duty for the evening had decided we needed more practice at some of the drills from earlier. We did more pushups, leg lifts, all with quivering and taxed to their limits muscles. When the torture had ended we were told to get up and stand at attention. Our reflex time was too slow, and we got to practice getting up from the ready push up stance to attention about 10 more times before finally being dismissed. This left 3rd squad with almost no time for personal hygiene before bed. The best I got was a quick wipe down of my upper body with a wash cloth and brushed my teeth.
Lights out was at 2230, wake up time was set for 0400 so we could be on our way to the work out field by 0430. So that left us at best, 5.5 hours of sleep. Neither I, nor many of the other folks in the platoon slept well or at all this night. I think it was a number of factors for me. There was so much adrenaline in my system still from my body being pushed to its limits, and then beyond. I was also paranoid we were going to have Drill Sergeants come through at some odd hour for a fire drill or something. I was checking the door every time I thought I heard boots or voices. I also didn’t actually sleep IN my bed, as I figured I wouldn’t have the time to properly make it with the little time we had to get ready in the morning. I just used the wool blanket we had folded at the foot of our bed and laid down to a long night of repeating the Soldier’s Creed and wondering what in the hell I had gotten myself into. (I later learned this is how almost everyone else slept in their beds during the week).
Day 1 - Red Phase
One of my squad-mates and I woke up a few minutes before the official wake up time (0400) to do some washing up before heading out to PT. We were in the bathroom when the Drill Sergeants ran through the bunks yelling for people to get up and flipping on lights (they were also 15 minutes past the appointed wake up time, meaning those who just gotten up had even less time to get ready).
We lined up in formation downstairs in our PT uniforms (grey sweatshirts and pants) and our 2 quarts of water. We were informed that 4 people had quit and left our ranks. Apparently the prospect of having a week full of what we did the previous day was too much for them to handle and they wanted out. After digesting the news, we were marched to the field where we would be doing our PT exercises. Along the way we were introduced to a number of different marching cadences which we repeated after the Drill Sergeant to stay in step with the rest of our platoon.
Once there, we learned how to properly line up and space out to have enough room for everyone to do all the exercises they had in store for us. We did a variety of things from sit-ups, different bends and squats to stretch and use different muscle groups. Nothing was too overly strenuous, though my abs were still wrecked from some of the previous days workouts. We also did some walking based drills like high stepping back and forth down a set distance, and a low side step.
The last thing we had to do before our PT was complete was sprinting. 30 seconds of sprinting, 60 seconds of walking. The first two sets I held up alright. I certainly wasn’t the fastest but I was somewhere ahead of the middle of the pack. The last two completely drained me and I was shuffling back to where we had left our 2 quarts in formation to get a drink. I didn’t know it at the time, but during the sprints we lost 3 more folks who decided to quit. We lined back up and did some stretching as a sort of cool down. We then marched back and headed off to chow.
For breakfast we had some additional instructions. After we had picked up our food and beverage we were to sit with our eyes on our tray until the Drill Sergeants told us to begin eating. Then we only had about 5 minutes to consume what we had in front of us. After breakfast we went back to our barracks and changed into our ACU uniforms.
We were then led down to the armory where we were each issued an M16A2 and a blank firing adapter. The platoon marched back to the front of our barracks where we were taught how to properly hold the rifle in different situations. Attention, parade rest, presenting arms, and proper low ready while marching to name a few. We would have these rifles with us everywhere we went for the remainder of our time at the mini BCT.
After our drills on how to handle the M16, we were back in our barracks classroom for a presentation from the Battalion Commander on the Soldier’s Creed and Army Values. There was also a Q/A session afterward. It was a nice reprieve and gave us a chance to stop and ask some questions instead of running around following orders.
The platoon had lunch and then we were off to our first fun event since we had arrived, Victory Tower! The Victory Tower is a tall rectangular structure about 60’-70’ high with multiple platform levels. The purpose of the tower is to put recruits through a series of challenging situations which are designed to help them build their confidence. Here’s how we went through the tower:
1) Ascend a 3 rope bridge from a platform about 35’ away from the tower. There are 2 ropes for your hands, and 1 for your feet. There was a safety net below to catch you if you fell.
2) After reaching the tower you crawl to a single rope that you must straddle and hook one foot over, leaving the other hanging to act as a sort of pendulum. You then pull yourself hand over hand down that rope back to where you started from for the 3 rope bridge.
3) You then ascend a 2 rope bridge back to the same tower level you just left. There is one rope for your hands, and one for your feet.
4) Once you reach the top you then crawl on your hands and knees and climb up a staircase to the next level of the tower. There you climb down a 40’ tall cargo net and fall into an inflated mat once you reach the bottom.
I had a blast with this. It was like being at scout camp again. Sure there were still Drill Sergeants giving you a yell if you were being too slow, but it was fun having a task which was a bit more mind over matter.
After the entire platoon had finished the rope bridges and cargo net we were taught how to build a rappelling harness with a length of rope. Ultimately, we were going to be rappelling down a 50’ vertical wall from the very top of the tower. First we got to practice on a much easier version. There was a training platform set up where you could practice getting your body 90 degrees to the wall face, and then you could step down onto a 45 degree ramp that went back down to the ground.
Once we had our practice it was time to ascend the tower a final time. We climbed back up the cargo net we had come down earlier, then up some stairs to the topmost platform of the tower. Before hooking in to rappel we first had to swing across a netted pit Tarzan style. The captain was having us each yell something as we swung across. Cries of “I’m a geek!” to “I’m the king of the world!” could be heard as we sailed over the pit. Then the time came. 50’ down to the bottom, and only I was controlling my descent. There was a safety at the bottom, but the psychological impact that if I let my hand slip, I would fall, had a grip on me. I had tried this once before at Boy Scout camp, and had frozen up and had to be lowered down, so I was determined to conquer this. With an icy grip I slowly lowered myself over the edge of the wall. Once I was steady I gradually let out slack to start walking down the face. After getting over that initial few steps, I felt so liberated. I even got bold enough to kick away from the wall and let myself fall 8’-10’ at a time.
Everyone in the platoon completed the Victory Tower, even a few who were deathly afraid of heights conquered their fears and did everything from the rope bridges to the rappelling.
As we were all lined up, still on our high from all the fun we had just had, the First Sergeant yelled out,
“Where are my Guide Ons?!”
One of the flag bearers replied, “One of the Drill Sergeants instructed us to leave them at barracks when we were issued our M16s First Sergeant!”
“[TOS Violation]! Those Guide Ons represent your platoon, and when you leave them behind it tells me you’re embarrassed to be identified as my platoon!” First Sergeant Dobos exclaimed.
We then proceeded to do pushups in the large gravel parking lot where we were in formation. While doing these we cannot leave our weapon on the ground, so it was balanced on our hands as we eeked out what we could. When asked again, the reply was the same. A Drill Sergeant had told them to leave the flags behind. Wrong answer. Now we were doing the military press, an exercise where we lifted our rifle above and behind our heads. Granted it’s only about 7.75 lbs. but that gets pretty heavy after 50 reps. First Sergeant asked again and this time we were all silent. I think some of us realized by now we had been set up. There was no right answer. We were learning the hard way that we should always have our Guide Ons with us. We did a few more exercises to drive that point home, then we loaded up onto the bus and went to dinner.
After dinner we assembled outside the barracks for our first phase change ceremony. Each phase of training in real BCT is 3 weeks long, and each phase focuses on teaching different skills to the Soldiers. During our BCT we had 1 day for each phase so today our Guide On was changed from Red to White. This signified we would be moving on to M16 training and BRM (Basic Rifle Marksmanship) next. It also meant that the Drill Sergeants would be opening up a bit more, allowing us to ask questions and get more in-depth explanations and information on things we did not understand.
Once the ceremony had concluded we broke up into squads and were issued more gear. This included:
· 1 IBA (Interceptor Body Armor): A Kevlar vest which had a ballistic ceramic plate in the front and in the rear of the vest.
· 1 LBV (Load Bearing Vest): This was a mesh vest which had lots of utility type attachments. Magazine pouches (5 magazines in 3 pouches), grenade pouches (no actual grenades, dang), and 2, 1 quart canteens.
· 1 Rucksack: This was a small external frame backpack which we had to stuff a very large sleeping bag into (one of the biggest pains in the butt), a poncho, and knee/elbow pads.
· 1 Kevlar ACH (Advanced Combat Helmet): This was a Kevlar helmet with pads on the interior and a chinstrap.
We spent time making sure everything fit properly; as we would be wearing this gear almost everywhere we went for the remainder of our training. All the gear together was roughly 60 lbs. We learned how to properly stack all of the gear neatly into piles in a room which was locked for the night so we could quickly retrieve it for the next day.
We lined up outside again for another go at the Soldier’s Creed. We fared much better this time since we all had some time to actually learn it the previous night. No additional PT for us this evening. We were sent off for hygiene and a lights out time of 2200. Wake up would be 0500 the next day.
Day 2 – White Phase
This morning’s drill was nearly the same. Wake up, get into our uniforms, put on all of our new gear, and line up in front of the barracks. We took the bus to breakfast (which was quite cozy wearing all the gear). We lined up and stripped out of all the gear (IBA, LBV, Rucksack, Kevlar, 2 Quart, and M16. Then we went in for chow. We would repeat this on/off process with the gear a lot as we went to do things where the bulk would be a problem. Drill Sergeants would constantly tell us we were taking too long, and by the end everyone became very quick putting it on and taking it off. We also learned working with our battle buddies at certain steps sped the process along quite a bit.
After breakfast we loaded back up on the bus and drove to an EST (Engagement Skills Trainer) trailer. This is an indoor M16 firing range simulator. The rifles have been retrofitted to fire a laser and have recoil when shot. There are 2 screens, one where Soldiers practice their marksmanship against targets or over 100 simulated environments where enemy soldiers advance on the Soldiers positions. The other screen displays recorded video situations where Soldiers must assess who may be a threat, then fire/don’t fire accordingly. Soldiers can come here to practice without using any live ammunition, so it’s a great cost savings device. Everyone got to try at least one of the 2 simulators before we packed up and moved onto the BRM range.
Our squad was assigned the task of preparing the targets we were going to be firing at for the day. So we were stapling targets to the silhouette of an upper torso while everyone else was getting instruction on how to use the M16. We got paired up on lanes. One person would load magazines while the other took their turn firing at the targets. Our first sets of targets were just black circles on white paper. The Drill Sergeants weren’t looking for us to hit the circle, but to have good grouping. We would be adjusting the sights of our weapons in the next exercise. My groupings were a little inconsistent. Sometimes they were very tight, others were all over the place. From looking at how I was shooting they were able to determine what I was doing wrong and correct how I was sighting and firing. I wasn’t placing my eye at a consistent location during each round of firing. I was also squeezing the trigger at both the top and bottom of each breath when it should be all at the bottom. After these suggestions I started shooting better.
Once we were familiarized with the weapons we set about calibrating them. We fired at a target which was gridded such that we could look at the grouping and determine how many turns on the adjustable parts of the sights needed to be changed up/down or left/right. The center had what a target would look like at 300 meters. After making our adjustments we should be able to hit that target. So we went through the process of zeroing our weapons and then we broke for lunch.
Between rounds of firing my battle buddy and I got to talk a lot with Drill Sergeant Evans. He was a bit of a gamer too, so we got to pick his brain about what sort of things bothered him in some of the military shooters he has played. It was cool getting feedback and making notes on things we could implement, or were already in the process of implementing in the new 3.0 version of America’s Army. It was nice (and a little weird) to have a conversation with someone who’d been yelling at us the past couple days.
For lunch we had a special treat, an MRE or Meal Ready to Eat. They’re meals that the Soldiers eat out in the field. They come in a heavy duty plastic container which you rip open to find lots of smaller plastic containers inside. You take your main course meal packets (in my case it was a Salisbury steak and a side of baked beans) and place them in a bag that has a small chemical packet at the bottom. You pour a little water inside and the thing heats up very hot, very fast. You then let that sit for awhile as it heats your food. There were other non-heated items to snack on while waiting for your main course like crackers, bread, raisins. The big ticket item though is your dessert. I guess these are traded around a lot out in the field. I got some toffee with walnuts squares. Other folks got things like M&M’s, chocolate bars, or even milkshake powder. The meal wasn’t so bad. Granted it’s not the best thing you’ve ever tasted, but I’ve had my share of crappy dehydrated food on backpacking trips, and this was way better.
After eating it was back to the rifle range and qualifications. We were given 3 magazines. One had 20 rounds, and the other two had 10 rounds. We would fire 20 rounds in the prone unsupported position, 10 in the crouching unsupported position, and 10 in the standing unsupported position. Upper human sized torsos would pop up from mounds at 25 and 50 meters from our firing position. The first 10 prone targets presented themselves for about 4 seconds each. The second 10 were only up for about 2 seconds. All the others were up for about 3-4 seconds. Scoring went as follows:
23/40: Marksman, passing grade.
I ended up shooting 28/40. I was pretty happy with that considering I’d only fired a rifle once before in my life, and did rather poorly when I did! Over 75% of our platoon qualified marksman, and we had 1 hawkeye and a few experts.
Next we were introduced to some Advanced Rifle Marksman (ARM) drills. We learned how to fire in controlled pairs. We were given 4 magazines with 15 rounds each. We were firing at the targets from the previous exercise from 10, 7, and 3 meters. The goal of the exercise was to have our rifle at high ready, when the target presented itself we would switch our weapon to semi, fire 2 quick shots into it, then reengage the safety. If we ran out of ammunition or had a jam we would take a knee and deal with the issue, then stand up and continue.
Once everyone had their turn performing the controlled pairs exercise our platoon was assigned the fun task of cleaning up all the brass from the range. All the spent shells needed to be picked up and dumped in boxes near the entrance. This took some time as we fired a lot of shots. We were further encouraged to find every piece by the First Sergeant who said we’d be doing 5 exercises for every piece of brass he found. Plus we were also on a time limit since we still needed to eat dinner and then hike out to where we would be camping out for the night.
Dinner had been brought out in large serving trays and was dished out to us by members from our platoon. We were informed to create a circle to eat, with all of us facing out. While we ate we had different Drill Sergeants telling us to face in, then quickly get yelled at for facing in when we knew we should be facing out. Chow concluded and I was one of the folks put on clean up detail. The sun had nearly set at this point so it made picking up garbage a little difficult. One of the latches on the containers snapped on my thumb and gave me a big nasty blood blister. This evening was starting off great.
We lined up into 2 columns and began our first march with all of our gear. The Captain set the pace and there were to be no gaps in the columns. If there were you had to catch up without running (this was a march after all). If someone was holding up the column you had to pass by and keep moving. For me, this wasn’t so bad. I’ve been on enough backpacking trips to know to keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep breathing regularly and everything would be fine. That wasn’t the case for many as gaps started growing in the ranks.
We had probably marched less than a mile when we stopped in a wooded area with tall thin trees that ranged from 1’-2’ in diameter. The ground was covered with lots of twigs, stumps, and logs. The First Sergeant was waiting for us by a small tent he had constructed. It was called a [TOS Violation], and was made from a poncho (though this was not revealed at the time). 2 adjacent corners were tied between 2 trees at knee height. The other side was secured to the ground with stakes creating a triangular wedge shape. Then a larger stick was used to prop up the middle so it would cause rain to fall off the sides. We were told we had 30 minutes for everyone to have theirs built. The next 30 minutes can only be described in many cases as pure chaos.
Squads immediately split up and found areas where we could all set up our hooches. I pulled out the poncho and saw all the eye rings in the corners and figured that this must be what it was made out of. I told the rest of my squad then went about constructing mine. I found one small length of rope in my rucksack and some frayed pieces connected to one of the eyeholes. I was able to secure 2 ends to the trees just barely with the length of cord I had. Others weren’t as fortunate. Most folks had no rope to speak of, so representatives from the squad went to secure some from the Drill Sergeants. The whole time everything is going on we can hear yelling going on all around us. Mostly coming from the Drill Sergeants calling out the time, or telling people how they were constructing the hooches incorrectly. If it was too tall or too low, they’d come by and cut the cord and have you do it again. I was frantically trying to find sticks small enough to use as stakes. Just as my eyes would get used to the darkness, one of the camera crews that had been following us around all week would shine their light and cameras over at us, then leave, completely blowing our eyesight. As I was trying to push in some stakes Drill Sergeant Evans stopped in front of my [TOS Violation]. He said the front was too high. Now, my first instinct was to reply that it was in fact, my knee height. However I realized that was not a battle I would win. I said,
“My mistake Drill Sergeant! I will fix it immediately!”
To which he replied, “You’d better, there’s only 20 minutes left until these all need to be done”, and he moved on. I’d been spared having my tiny length of rope cut. I lowered it and secured the stakes. At this time I noticed someone was yelling for help a short ways away from our squad. He was saying he’d been shot and needed 4 people to come move him back to his squad. He had been caught without a battle buddy and had been declared dead by the Drill Sergeants. All I had left to do for my [TOS Violation] was put in the middle support, I figured I had time to go help this guy. I impulsively ran over to try and help him out. I reached him then started yelling to try and get more people to help me move him. Nobody was responding, everyone too preoccupied with building their hooches. One Drill Sergeant asked me,
“Foster! Why isn’t anyone coming to help you move this Soldier!?”
“I don’t know Drill Sergeant! They seem too busy with their hooches!”
“Where’s YOUR battle buddy Foster?”
I then realized the nature of the trap, and I’d fallen right into it.
“You’re DEAD Foster! Get on the ground! Get all your limbs in the air and call for help!”
So now there were two of us on the ground, arms and legs pointed skyward yelling for someone to come and save us. I tempered my pleas for help with “don’t come alone! Don’t forget your battle buddy!” so no one else would make my same mistake. Finally 4 people from a squad other than my own came and rescued me. It took awhile for them to drag me back to my squad. I was disoriented since I was staring at the tree canopy and all my gear was closing in around my face when lifted, plus I’m a big guy so I wasn’t exactly easy to carry over all the uneven terrain.
I finished my [TOS Violation] then went about helping the other members in my squad. About 2 or 3 minutes were left before our deadline and we were called to halt. First Sergeant said it was obvious we had failed at this simple task, so they were going to make it easier for us. He told us we were to pack everything back up and be ready to march to a different, easier location to construct our hooches. We had 5 minutes.
There was an explosion of activity to get everything torn down and stowed back in our rucksack. I stowed the sticks I had found for stakes in my cargo pockets. I later learned that evening that most folks who had found those perfect sized sticks had done the same. Everything was broken down for 3rd squad, but one of our members was missing his rucksack and 2 quart. Someone had picked his up and already had it stowed so there was an unclaimed rucksack just lying on the ground. Some heated exchanges took place about how could he have lost his ruck, there weren’t that many places it could be. We ended up just grabbing everything and decided we would sort it out later.
The platoon was lined back up into 2 columns and we started our march again. We hadn’t gone far when we saw our bus up ahead. When we got close, Captain Iverson stopped us and told us we were heading home. Apparently there was a sub-zero freezing advisory for the area and we didn’t have the gear necessary to endure the weather. Mother Nature had given us a small reprieve.
We loaded up the bus and went back to the barracks, more mentally exhausted than physically. We were later told that the purpose of that exercise was to cause chaos and confusion among the platoon; to get people angry at each other and start to snap. They did just that.
We had another phase change ceremony as we passed from White to Blue phase. Another streamer was also added to the Guide On for our accomplishments at BRM. We also did some more PT (because hey, why not?) before being dismissed for personal hygiene and bed. There was no definitive lights out time this evening, but we did have a 0500 wake up the next morning.
Day 3 – Blue Phase
Same morning routine, only this time we had breakfast downstairs in our barracks classroom served out of the same sort of containers that we had dinner in the previous night.
After breakfast First Sergeant Dobos talked to us a bit about IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), one of the biggest threats to Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We learned how it’s necessary to be very observant so you can notice something out of the ordinary. That small mound on the side of the road that wasn’t there yesterday might be dangerous. To emphasize this we were put through a KIM (Keep in Memory) exercise. A bunch of suspicious objects were placed out in the large lawn in front of our barracks. We would have 10 minutes to go outside and write down everything we saw that looked suspicious, its relative location, and a description of what it looks like. The person who found the most would be rewarded with a company coin. There was everything from stuffed animals to RPG’s out there. I think I found about 10 before time had run out. I could see a lot more, but just couldn’t write fast enough. The person who won found 14. There were actually 27 different suspicious items out on the lawn, some of which were hiding in plain sight.
Once the KIM drill had concluded we loaded up the bus and drove out to Bastogne, the heavy weapons site. While there we watched demonstrations of the Claymore anti-personnel mine, M203 grenade launcher, and the AT4 rocket launcher. Each demonstration was more impressive than the last. The Claymore obliterated the human target it was facing. The head was gone, and the rest was in tatters. The M203 was impressive to see in action as well. But the real show stealer was the AT4 rocket. There was a large area, about 100 meters cordoned off behind where the AT4 was fired because the back blast can reach that far in a 90 degree arc. It was so fast. We saw the initial small explosion as it fired (and the wave of back blast), then the much larger explosion as it hit its target down range. You could feel the force as the boom hit a split second after seeing the explosion.
Next up, we were all going to try out some different machine guns. The .50 Cal, M240B, and the M249 SAW. We all received instruction on a row of the weapons outside the range where we learned to feed, clear, and fire each one. Then it was time for us all to line up to get our ammunition for each station. First up was the .50 Cal. My eyes widened when I was handed a belt of those rounds. They were huge! I handed my belt to the Drill Sergeant and sat down in front of the weapon. He fed in the belt as I racked the charging handle back to feed it in. I was instructed to fire off 5 round bursts, and between each the Drill Sergeant made adjustments to the aim to hit some of the vehicles down range. That thing was loud! And powerful! Each burst let out a huge puff of smoke and the smell of gunpowder. Drill Sergeant only had one rule as you fired; you had to yell “Get some!” Everyone gladly obliged! The other two machine guns went in much the same fashion. The M240B was mounted on top of a mock HMMWV. We fired bursts off from there at targets, but we could actually move around and sight this time. Last was the SAW which we fired from the prone supported position. Mine kept jamming so I was constantly going through the procedure to clear it. My hands were well covered in weapon grease by the end of my belt of ammo.
While the rest of the platoon was finishing off their belts of ammunition, a group of us (14 in all) had volunteered to receive some proper Army haircuts. We were driven down to the Ft. Jackson barbershop and each of us got the customary high and tight. I wish we would have done it at the beginning of the training, my hat and helmet would have fit better!
We rendezvoused with the rest of the platoon at the Ad Dawr MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain) site. It basically looked like a small town with a main street running through the middle and buildings lining the sides. There we ate an MRE lunch (veggie burger in BBQ sauce this time…yum?) while observing a platoon on drill through the site. We could see Soldiers guarding different positions, different colored smoke in the streets, and an apache and Blackhawk helicopters circling overhead. Between the rotor sounds we could also hear some Arabic music playing over some speakers in the town.
The purpose of the MOUT sites is for Soldiers to train in urban tactics with a variety of different scenarios, be they peaceful or more aggressive. We received a mission briefing and training about how to clear a room, how to safely enter and exit once it had been cleared, and what we were supposed to do when we started taking fire. Our platoon’s mission was that of a humanitarian patrol. We would be entering the town as our platoon leader negotiated with the town mayor. The actor playing the mayor spoke in Arabic, and so our platoon leader had to negotiate through a provided translator. His job was to get permission for us to enter the town in a sort of fact finding capacity. Do they have adequate food and water? Are they being harassed by insurgents? Things of that nature.
Each squad in the platoon had different roles. Squads 2 and 4 secured a pair of half built buildings at the edge of town, while squads 1 and 3 (my squad) formed columns that traveled up the two sides of the street, flanking the platoon leader. We were told beforehand that at some point a sniper would take someone out at the front of the columns. Our jobs were to then evacuate those injured Soldiers, and fall back to the previously secured half-buildings while squads 2 and 4 moved up to start clearing the buildings on the main street. Squads 1 and 3 then served as backup and kept our site secure for any future medevac.
For this exercise we were all issued 2 magazines with 20 blank rounds in each. We started the mission with the whole platoon in a wooded area a short distance from the town. We got in our prescribed formations and started making our way there. Just outside the town our platoon leader met up with the mayor and negotiations began. These went on for awhile. This gave the actors playing the residents of the town an opportunity to mess with us. We were instructed to keep them away, and not to let them touch our equipment. There have been reports of insurgents using tactics such as sending children up to Soldiers to push their magazine release button, and then popping up from cover to shoot at the now unarmed Soldier. They would come up to us, offer to shake our hands, or try to touch our gear. It definitely made some people a little nervous. It probably took about 20 minutes before they finally agreed to let us into the town. As we moved forward our squad leader noticed a car battery with a lot of blocks on the top of it near one of the buildings (thank you KIM training). They made the town leader remove it before we would proceed. As we moved through the town we were scanning the buildings and alleyways opposite from the side of the road we were walking. Just as the entire 1st and 3rd squads had fully entered the town, I heard a pair of whistles getting louder very quickly. I shouted “Get down!” just as two large booms went off nearby. Everyone went prone and began scanning their different sectors. Someone at the front of the column had been hurt, but we didn’t know who. The Drill Sergeants were setting off white smoke grenades to cover our retreat. Simulated mortars were constantly going off around us as 1st and 3rd squads made our way back to the outermost buildings. We secured those stations recently vacated by 2nd and 4th squads to provide safe fallback positions while they cleared the buildings. It wasn’t until we had fallen back and secured the building that I realized how hard I was breathing and full of adrenaline I felt. Everything felt so real, felt like our actions needed to be prefect so no part of the platoon would be left unsupported. It was a real rush. 2nd and 4th squads finished clearing the buildings and the whole platoon fell back to the tree line where we set up a perimeter as everyone made their way back.
We lined up after the simulation was declared finished. Our mission was a success! We successfully evacuated injured Soldiers, and not a single shot was fired. No one ever presented themselves as a threatening target, so it wasn’t necessary to fire. The leadership was proud of our restraint and good decision making.
Of course, now we had all this unspent blank ammunition. It was time for a little capture the flag! 1st and 2nd squad versus 3rd and 4th squad. Drill Sergeants would be calling who was out. Our team played defensively at first then started sending groups that tried to flank the other team. I ended up dying while running from one cover to another. In the end the 3rd/4th squad team won. A good time was had by all.
Now we were told to put all of our gear together. LBV, IBA, Kevlar, and knee/elbow pads were to be stowed. We were only taking our M16’s and 2 quart canteens on our final Rights of Passage march. We lined up in our 2 columns, ready to march when Drill Sergeant Caldera asked if anyone was cold. We knew this was a loaded question, so most everyone replied “No Drill Sergeant!” but someone said “Yes”. That made us all the lucky winners of 100 military presses! So our arms were trashed going into our final march. We must have been heading west because there was a beautiful sunset we were chasing for most of our march until it fell behind the horizon. We had probably gone about 2 miles when we finally saw bonfires flanking a projection screen up ahead. The fine folks running the event had put together a slide show from pictures they had been taking of our exploits throughout the week. As we stood at attention and watched the show we had a nice recap of what we had accomplished over the past 3 days, even though it felt like a lot more! At the end we were treated to our own mini graduation ceremony. We had our final phase change where our flag was swapped with one that had a red, white, and blue stripe signifying we had completed all 3 phases. At the end we recited the Soldier’s Creed, this time with much more confidence and gusto than the first time we tried to quibble it out, bruised and battered in front of our barracks. All the different officers and Drill Sergeants who had been helping us came through and shook each of our hands and congratulated us. They also gave us a dog tag with the army values on it, and a neat wallet sized card with the Soldier’s Creed.
We marched the short way back to our barracks where we turned in all of our gear. I was actually sad to see my 2 quart go. It was so handy always having water at your side. Inside waiting for us was something that we had been promised if we made it to the end: A pizza party, complete with soda and candy. Sure it was your average run of the mill pizza, but it was delicious, and we actually had the time to taste it instead of just shoveling it in our mouths!
After pizza our civilian bags which had been locked up after shakedown were returned to us. I went straight for my cell phone to let my wife know I was in fact, alive. The rest of the evening was great. Everyone was in a good mood, laughing, joking around upstairs in the bunks, doing our best impressions of our favorite Drill Sergeants. It was so strange having some time to socialize like this before bed. Everyone spent the rest of the night cleaning up and packing for our trip home the next day.
Day 4 – Graduation
This was the first night I felt like I got some actual restful sleep. I wasn’t worried about having a Drill Sergeant coming in to wake us up at some odd hour, so I could finally let my guard down. We had breakfast at the chow hall, and were actually given ample time to eat what we wanted. I instinctively initially got what I thought I could eat quickly, but later went back for more.
We had a small thank you ceremony where we presented a signed and framed America’s Army poster, along with a bunch of signed game discs, to the leadership as a thank you for all their hard work and effort for putting on the Mini BCT. They hung it up in entryway, so all future Bulldogs will see it as they pass through the doors.
A bus took us all down to the parade grounds where we would watch a real graduation ceremony for 1600 Soldiers who had completed BCT. It was a real sight to see that many people marching in step with one another. You could see the pride in the Soldiers, and their friends and families as they marched past the stands on the field. They have a lot to be proud of. It’s no small feat to make it through BCT, and do the jobs that these men and women are setting out to do. I can truly appreciate that after seeing only a fraction of what they must endure in order to become an American Soldier.
After the ceremony we went back to the barracks to collect our belongings. We said our goodbyes to everyone who had made this experience possible. We boarded the bus one last time. It dropped us off at the airport, and we were bound for home.
"Do you want the mustache on, or off?"