I joined the Army in November 1990. I did my basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Joining the military was not a shock to my system, it was more like coming home. I understood the roll drill instructors held, I understood the basic expectations placed on me as a recruit. I actually thoroughly enjoyed my basic training. Well, not mornings – but I’ve never been a morning person! I wrote letters home to my husband and my family. I wrote letters to former teachers, the pastor of my church. I was able to call home occasionally. I was completely comfortable, and in my element.
I was so comfortable that I often got in trouble…for laughing at inappropriate times mostly. I laughed at my squad members. I laughed at my drill instructors. I laughed on the firing range. I laughed in the chow line. I did a lot of push-ups for laughing at the wrong thing, or at the wrong time. I did KP a few extra times for laughing too. So you are probably wondering – what exactly did I find so funny? Well, mostly the fact that the drill instructors LOVED their jobs…they loved being able to intimidate young recruits. They loved to yell and boss us around. But their façade had cracks…they were human, and sometimes the drama of 60+ women between the ages of 18-25 is just too much. The sheer idiocy we showed was just funny sometimes. And the incredulity of our drill instructors when we did something really stupid…well I just laughed.
You’ve seen it in the movies I’m sure, some hapless recruit being screamed at by a larger than life drill instructor unable to do anything but respond with a “Sir, yes Sir”. It cracked me up, and when asked what I found so funny, Private? “You, Drill Sargent” was apparently not the correct response.
One evening in particular, most of the way through basic training we were out on Bivouac – that’s camping for you civilians – I was with a couple other recruits and we were tasked to watch over a pile of gear and wait for the truck to come so we could load it up. Other recruits near us had some other job, and I don’t even remember what started it…but pretty soon those recruits were being punished for something. The drill instructor had them running in a tight circle, raising their weapon up and over their heads, and chanting “I am not a knucklehead, I am not a knucklehead.” “Knees up, soldier…higher…higher…keep that weapon in the air…knees up” It was HILARIOUS…and it was raining of course. My group got caught watching, and of course then I was laughing…and the whole, “What’s so funny, Private Miller?” “Just you, Drill Sergeant” thing got me and my group added to the running group of Knuckleheads. For the record, the drill sergeant was also named Miller, and he was also laughing at the group between yelling at them.
Another memory I have from basic training was pretty iconic. It’s even written in the margins of my Drill Book. You see, I was in basic when the bombing began in Tel Aviv – the start of the first gulf war. When the world became acquainted with the war on terror, and the man, Saddam Hussein. This was an OMG kind of moment – even when that particular phrase wasn’t in wide use. I was 19 years old, had pledged my life to the US Army, and a WAR started. We were gathered in the common room of our barracks, had mats out on the floor for some training activities, and on the schedule was some tactical and combat training exercises. It wasn’t conducive weather for outdoor training – rain, cold, mud, etc…so we were on the mats combat crawling as quickly as we could from one end of the room to the other while drill instructors were lobbing erasers at our butts telling us to get down, duck your head, crawl faster. Yes, I was laughing…No, my drill instructors were not amused. For the record – I was NOT the only one laughing. We were having fun on a rainy afternoon…crawling around racing back and forth with one particularly funny Puerto Rican drill sergeant really letting loose on us. Drill Sergeant Figueroa was so stereotypically Puerto Rican most of what he did was funny. About 5’7”, stocky build, thick PR accent…and constantly yelling at us in English and Spanish. Finally after the millionth round of stop and give me 20 to our whole group for not focusing and too much laughing…he attempted to get us to sit in a group and pay attention. We needed to take our training seriously, because someday soon it could be Saddam Hussein launching scud missiles at us instead of just drill instructors launching erasers at us! We aren’t just killing time here, we’re trying to teach you how to survive in a battle! That kind of brought us up short. We were in the US Army. There was a war that just started. Our country and our lives, values, family, and FREEDOM were at risk. It was a reality check, and much of the next few weeks were full of quiet conversations about our advanced training coming up and how close to “combat” we might actually get. Back then, the roles that women were allowed to have were limited to non-combat, mostly support roles. But I will probably always remember the combat crawling on those mats that rainy night with Drill Sergeant Figueroa launching scud missiles at our butts in the form of chalkboard erasers.
I will also remember basic training, because it was the first Christmas that I was away from my family. Most of us called home and talked to family. Many sat in groups with our ranger buddies talking about life and war and home. At one point that morning I happened to be walking past the cadre offices when Drill Sergeant Figueroa was calling home. It was like an alien had possessed him. This grouchy mean obnoxious Puerto Rican man was talking baby talk to his 3 year old daughter. “Daddy loves you sweetheart, I’ll be home soon.” Aww…my heart melted. And I laughed to myself as I quickly kept walking to avoid being caught eavesdropping.
I loved my time in the military. I loved serving my country, and I truly enjoyed most of the men and women I served with. I’m sure I’ll share many more stories of my time in the Army, as it was a time of great personal growth for me. And I will certainly remember a few key phrases, words of wisdom imparted by drill instructors – and most of them are accompanied by more laughter.
“I am not a knucklehead”
“I don’t care what color your skin is, you’re all a bunch of little green shitheads to me”
“No more Drill Sergeant Figueroa, No more Drill Sergeant Figueroa” (sang in formation on our way to the parade deck for graduation day!)