I spent my 39th birthday at military boot camp. Well, in the interest of full disclosure, it was US Air Force officer school, specifically for doctors, lawyers, and chaplains. I went there expecting Full Metal Jacket. What I got was closer to Disney on Ice. I'm pretty confident that the Salvation Army has a tougher boot camp than what I attended.
To be fair, there were aspects that sucked. Each day started at 0430. We were in Montgomery fucking Alabama from August 27th (my birthday) through the end of September. If you are unfamiliar, Alabama in late summer produces some of the hottest, swampiest, sweatiest, shittiest weather that I have ever endured. On day one my flight commander was providing a safety brief. He discussed what to do if you get injured, protocols in case of fire, inclement weather instructions, and so on. "It can be incredibly hot and humid in Alabama this time of year," he barked, "You MUST drink enough water. If you do not stay hydrated in this heat it WILL make you si-..." SPLAT!!! With his words still lingering in the air like a cartoon balloon out of his mouth, a young lady from my flight proved his point and puked all over.
By some stroke of luck, my roommate was former enlisted troop who knew the ropes. As we prepared for lights out on day one, he warned me that the MTIs (Military Training Instructors - the Air Force's version of Drill Sergeants) would come through at 0430 banging on doors and ordering to stand at attention outside our rooms. In order to minimize the early morning shock and awe, we set an alarm for 0415.
Minutes after the alarm woke us, we heard harsh banging down the hall (we were in the very last room in our hallway). BANG, BANG, BANG. "Get up!!! Get out by your door, NOW!!!" BANG, BANG, BANG! "Get up. Stand at attention outside your door!!!" We heard the banging and yelling outside get closer and closer. BANG, BANG, BANG. "Get up, now and get outside this door." BANG. BANG. BANG. "Get up and...Ma'am, go back inside your room, put on some clothes and get back outside this door!" I have no idea who this woman was or what she wasn't wearing, but my roommate and I had a good laugh. By the time the MTIs hit our door, we were ready. BANG, BANG, BANG. "Get out here and get by your door." My roommate and I instantly appeared outside our door, dressed in our PT (physical training) gear, at attention. The MTI gave us a side-eye suggesting he wanted to ream us for being ahead of the game, but he didn't.
There was a strange dynamic between the people in my COT (Commissioned Officers Training) class and the MTIs. As doctors, nurses, lawyers and chaplains, we were already commissioned officers, not officer candidates. I went through this training as a captain. The MTIs were enlisted, so we outranked them. They had to toe a ridiculous line between the type of harshness you might expect, even want from a Drill Sergeant, while not actually being disrespectful to an officer. For weeks, stern, booming voices would bark things like, "Sir, you must move with a military sense of urgency, please," "The way you're wearing your uniform is out of regs, Ma'am."
One day, we were being herded somewhere. Surrounded by MTIs shouting, "Let's move it, please!!" "Walk with a military sense of urgency, sir." "Ma'am, let's pick up the pace, please!!" a young lady, literally crying real tears, says to her friend, "I just can't believe the way they talk to us." Overhearing this, I thought to myself, "Is she fucking kidding me? These MTIs have nothing on my old man. Shit, they even call me 'sir.' My old man called me a lot of things while dressing me down. Never 'sir.'" This would not be the last time I would privately wonder how the fuck our military manages to win wars.
During our six weeks of officer training, it was paramount that we learn to march a flight (unit), standing at attention, yelling out commands, counting off the march, "Hup, twoop, threep, fourp" (yes, that's really how it's done). Imagine my disappointment when I learned that after six weeks of honing this skill for several hours each day, I would never again, in my seven years of service as a military officer, march a flight. Case in point, this was another time that I privately wondered how the fuck our military manages to win wars. Thank heavens for actual combatants (as opposed to doctors, lawyers and chaplains), I suppose.
One sweltering morning, our flight commander had us fall in at about 10am. From our formation, he called out a particularly small, shy, mousey young lady and instructed her to march the flight to the D-Fac (Dining Facility) approximately 50 yards away from where we stood. It was 10am. Lunch was at noon. The D-Fac stood a half a football field away. This flight commander knew something the rest of us did not.
Somehow, in navigating the flight through the three or four turns the sidewalk takes between the dormitories and the D-Fac, this young officer marched us straight into a tree. As the flight approached the tree, she got nervous and froze up. There we were, 20 or so uniformed military officers marking time (i.e. marching in place) into this tree at 10:20am in the 100+ degree Alabama heat with the lead officer frozen in fear.
"Say something," our flight commander urged, "You made a mistake and marched them into this tree. Let's fix it." With tears in her eyes, this young officer stood there, silent, not knowing what to do. After what felt like an eternity marking time against this tree, my flight commander finally sent this officer back into the formation and called out another to turn us around and progress to the D-Fac, only this new officer also froze, presumably not knowing the proper commands to turn us around. Perspiration saturated my uniform. Sweat was literally running of the brim of my cap in a small trickle as I marked time against this tree, an hour of my life just ticking away.
"You're flight is marching into a tree. Do something," my flight commander pleaded. After several uncomfortable minutes, in the tiniest voice to ever leave a military leader, this Lieutenant said, "Stop?"
"Okay. Good. You said something," my flight commander encouraged. "Now, you need to stand at attention when commanding the flight, and 'stop' isn't technically a command. Let's try again." Crickets. As we continued marking time against this tree, my flight commander tried desperately, "You took a shot. Let's try again. It's okay. Let's just figure out how to get your flight to the D-Fac, okay?"
That same tiny, tiny voice squeaked, "Turn around?"
"Okay, good," my flight commander tried again, "'Turn around' is not an actual command, but that was an attempt. That was good. Let's try again." Silence. I continued marking time, melting in the Alabama heat, thinking about how I might adjust the flight's trajectory if called. After who knows how long, my flight commander took mercy and sent this troop back to the formation. "Novack!!" he yelled, "Can you get this flight to the D-Fac?!" "Yes, sir!" I responded, trotting from my position in the formation to the command position beside the flight.
"Flight, Halt!" "About hace!" "Foward harch!" "Column right, harch!" "Flight, Halt!" "About Hace!" "Forward harch!" I managed to march the flight away from the tree and essentially k-turn them back onto the sidewalk. We arrived at the D-Fac at 11:53am, nearly two hours after leaving our dormitory 50-yards away from where we now stood. "Excellent job, Novack," my flight commander praised, "After lunch, your fired. Take a demerit."
Perhaps my experiences in COT (i.e. boot camp for officers) seemed so silly and humorous to me because of my age. I was a decade older than most of the other officers in training. There were more than 300 officers there. Maybe 20 were my age or older.
Doing things late has been a theme in my life. I started my master's program almost a decade after completing my bachelors. I got married when I was 33. I completed my PhD at 34-years-old. I also joined the military at 39. My first child was born when I was 37, and my second was born when I was 40. I just started seriously budgeting my money and purposefully investing in the past few years. At 48-years-old now, I am still figuring out what I want to be when I grow up. This year, I started a podcast, started this blog, and I am about to begin an Associates degree in Culinary Arts in two weeks.
Accomplishing things later in life has some benefits. Certainly, I had enough perspective to manage both graduate school and "boot camp" without getting caught up in much drama and excess stress. I also have to stay healthy in order to play with my kids and even be around to meet any grandchildren I might have.
There are some drawbacks, too. I will be almost 60 when my youngest son graduates high school. I'm also forever out of the loop with my peers. The popular music, television programs, movies, technologies and even slang that my classmates, military peers or co-workers discuss always seem so foreign to me. Also, what the fuck did I do with my youth. How is it that for the first three and a half decades of my life, I accomplished next to nothing? I guess there are reasons for that. A chaotic childhood marked by death, violence, and instability contributed to me not taking academics very seriously. They just seemed unimportant juxtaposed to everything else, and I spent the first decade outside that environment (my 20's) trying to figure out how to live in the world. In the end, I'm just never sure whether being so late to the game in so many areas is evidence that I am finally getting my life together or that I really have no idea what the fuck I am doing.
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