By: Peter Sessum
This week is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel and what better way to celebrate than to talk about a real life shark attack. Unfortunately, I don’t have an underwater experience to share, but this should be one that most military people can relate to.
So there I was, in the back of a cattle car on Fort Benning, no shit. I have no idea how long we were driving around after leaving reception battalion because in typical grunt fashion I was asleep. There was a lot of nervous energy and the constant jostling meant I wasn’t in deep sleep but it was good to power down. I was sure I would need it. Someone was saying something about how they planned to drive us around for hours to build up the anticipation. That made sense and despite now knowing former drill sergeants I never bothered to ask if it was true. Looking at the faces around me it would be a waste of gas. There was plenty of people freaking out all on their own.
At some point we slowed down to take a corner and the driver didn’t get back on the gas. Before the truck could stop the doors exploded open and there was a huge drill sergeant already at full volume screaming, “GET OFF MY TRUCK, GET OFF MY FUCKING TRUUUUUCK!” To say it was startling was an understatement. The suddenness volume of it was incredible.
Privates were tripping over themselves and their gear just trying to get out the narrow exits. If they weren’t in full intimidation mode I am sure the drill sergeants would have been laughing at us. I know I am seen as strong headed but I can follow an order like a champ. You want me to step out lively, I am moving with a purpose. So, with the mass of new soldiers I was trying to balance all my gear for a short dash to the grass outside the company area of the home of the Charlie Cobras, Charlie Company 1/50th Infantry Battalion.
As I was running up the gentle incline the guy next to me dropped a gym bag with his civilian gear. I saw the look of horror on his face as he for the briefest of moments considered his options. Time slowed as he watched it fall on the ground while his feet kept moving. In that fraction of a second he did a mental inventory of the contents, if he had any identification in it, he determined it wasn’t worth the risk of stopping and moved out at full speed. We ended up in line next to each other, standing ramrod straight. I’ll never forget as Drill Sergeant Burrell was walking through a break in the formations with a blue and gray bag. Next to me Tromberg was whispering, “oh shit, oh shit.” He had not contemplated what they would do with a lonely bag on the sidewalk.
I will swear that Burrell was 6’20” that is how he is cemented in my memory to this very day. By chance I ran into him in Hohenfels, Germany a few years later and it was like he shrunk. As a drill sergeant he was larger than life, as a regular staff sergeant he was all of 5’10” which was somewhat of a letdown. But on that crisp January day in Georgia he was a giant holding a gym bag aloft and asking who lost it.
With some difficulty Tromberg raised his hand afraid for what was going to come next. The bag was dropped at his feet without ceremony and Burell said something like, what did you think I was going to do, keep it? We had been off the truck for less than a minute and one of us had already fucked up and lived. It was not a bad start all things considered.
Next we were “invited” into the company area and lined up. Honestly it gets a little fuzzy from here. I know we had to give our names, a lot of “Yes drill sergeant!” and in groups doing 20 pushups in front of the instructors before moving on and then I was sitting on my duffel bag with no real recollection of how I got exactly there. It was a nice line of brand new privates sitting on green duffels. Looking up the neat rows was kind of a surreal experience.
I would love to say that I was calm because I am so tough, but that would be a lie. I know people way more bad ass than me to stroke my own ego like that. Honestly, it was just what I expected. It seemed like par for the course. I kept telling my recruiter that I knew I would love the Army but that Basic Training would be the worst time of my life. He kept telling me that I might have fun but I thought he was blowing smoke just trying to get me to sign. I think going in with low expectations helped. Plus I had joined a peacetime Army with the intent on going Infantry to test myself so I expected it to be difficult from the start. That served me more than the guys that thought it would be a piece of cake and were startled by how extreme it was in the first few minutes. Like the guy crying on top his duffel bag a few rows down.
That first day is a really emotional time for some people. Even back then it was the worst way some entitled brat had ever been treated. The kid that had been an athlete in high school and one of the cool kids was now bottom of a very tall totem pole. Just one of a hundred privates with a freshly shaved head and if he didn’t get his mind right he might not be one of the 90 or so that graduated in eight weeks.
If anyone needed a reminder to keep their head in the game it was the sudden barking of a drill sergeant yelling at some kid that fucked up enough to warrant individual attention. There was blood in the water and as he sweated on the ground trying to push the earth farther from the sun there were a circle of brown rounds telling him exactly what they thought of him.
His original tormentor asked his name and said “You are in my platoon now. I don’t care what platoon you are supposed to go to, you are mine now!”
In his first hour he had violated the cardinal rule of privates, don’t stand out. He stood out so much the first day that he became a drill sergeant’s personal pet project for the entire cycle. It broke his heart. It was already the worst day of his life and now all he could see in his future was hell on earth.
Everyone was silently happy not to be him and at the same time kind of wishing they would go to that platoon so there would be a built in scapegoat. Not long after they started calling out names and which platoon each new trooper would go to. Too his credit he stepped out when he heard his name and ran for that line but the drill sergeant was sharp and stopped him in his tracks. “Aren’t you the kid I said was mine?” It was more of an order than a question. With defeat he admitted he was and stepped out of line. If he pushed it he might have gotten away with it but I respect his moxie for trying.
With the rest of the Second Platoon Pathfinders (later changed to Black Knights) I headed to our bay with the roster number of 222. We were out of the water and had all survived the dreaded shark attack. We stood at attention while Drill Sergeant Wadsworth explained how our worlds would work now. My friend Neil had rented Full Metal Jacket a few days before I shipped out and since no one was ordered to “choke yourself” it was not as intense as I thought it would be. In the end, my recruiter was right, the cycle ended up being a little fun.