A couple of years ago I posted a series of blog entries about part of my military experience [My Military Experience, Parts 1-3, plus Pictures from Boot Camp - see blog entries on the right]. They were lightly edited parts of a very long letter I wrote to a female high school student in the summer of 2001 who was considering joining the military, and who had some questions for me. (Yeah, it was a long letter, and it wasn’t all I wrote, either. I tend to get long-winded. My love affair with the English language is somewhat handicapped by a reluctance to edit.)
You have to wonder about cosmic timing sometimes. I was, at the time, temporarily assigned to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, between duty assignments, getting some training that I theoretically needed in order to perform my job at my next duty station. As it turned out I didn’t need the training, but I did need the break from my job. I had just finished up a horrid three year tour (my second tour in the Navy) that had me depressed and upset to the point where I actually sought out counseling – which is an extraordinarily dicey thing when you have a security clearance. Fortunately, I ended up with an awesome counselor, (who was a Navy medical officer – a psychologist, I believe), whose primary counseling technique was to tell me I was totally awesome – every week. She’s why I made it through the last few months of that awful tour of duty.
The thing is, my first tour of duty, while challenging, was overall a very positive experience for me – I ended that tour knowing that deciding to enlist was one of the best decisions I had ever made. I found out what I was made of, and my division chief told me after I had been there for a couple of years that I was one of the finest CTIs he had worked with during his entire career. This chief was one of the finest Ru-lings (Russian linguists) in the Navy. So yeah, that meant something.
But the second tour was bad, and most of the bad stuff is what I wrote about in that letter. I mentioned good stuff too, like getting to travel, meet and work with people from all over the country, the sense of a shared mission, pride in the uniform, stuff like that. If the young woman had asked me her questions at the end of my first tour of duty, though, my response to her would have been (probably) more detailed versions of all the positive stuff I just mentioned – very different than what I ended up providing her three years later after my second tour. I’m pretty certain she ended up not joining.
And I knew even as I posted that letter to my blog a few years ago, that it wasn’t the whole story. So here’s some of the rest of the story, my military experience, part I – boot camp, A school, C school, and my first tour of duty.
I joined the Navy as I was in the process of dropping out of college. I had spent four years at the University of Missouri-Rolla, originally as an electrical engineering major on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, which was going okay until I anchored the curve on my first physics exam my sophomore year (lowest score in the class). I couldn’t comprehend how I could be a science geek my whole life, and make it through college level calculus and chemistry, but not physics – does not compute! And I was way too proud then to get tutoring (if it was even available – I really don’t remember). So I changed majors to psychology – and I lost my Air Force ROTC scholarship, and was kicked out of the ROTC program completely. Losing the scholarship was hard, but on top of that, I felt even more like a miserable failure because humanities majors on engineering campuses are a joke; I knew this because I had been one of those people who made fun of them. A strange thing happened, though, once I started my intro psych course the next semester. After a few weeks of classes, I noticed that I enjoyed my class! Well, that had never happened before. How weird!
So I stuck with the psychology classes, and enjoyed all of them. I occasionally made forays to the geology building, though, because they had a limited rock display down in the basement, and as limited as it was, I still loved looking at the rocks. All these years later, I wonder sometimes – why didn’t I change majors to geology? UMR was one of the best schools in the country for studying geology. I had even taken an academic interest survey my freshman year, and geology was one of the top five interests on my list (and electrical engineering wasn’t!). I can only assume it was the physics thing. I had done very badly in that class, and at the time it must have seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Being a female on a male-dominated campus dedicated to male-dominated career fields might not have helped much either.
Well, as I mentioned previously, humanities majors on engineering campuses are a joke, and are not well-respected by the students or the administration. As I was completing my fourth year of school, I unhappily realized that I was going to have to go through yet another year of school in order to get my degree, because UMR had significantly higher graduating requirements for their humanities majors than most other schools (presumably to discourage people from enrolling in their humanities programs in the first place). I couldn’t stomach the thought of yet another year of school and accumulating yet more school debt, so I decided to drop out and enlist. (In addition to my two years in Air Force ROTC, I had a long-standing interest in the military.) The plan was, after five years in the Navy, I would know what I wanted to do with my life. That had also been my plan before entering college – that I would know what I would want to do with my life once I finished college. I’ve liked that plan so much, I’ve stuck with it in various forms, over twenty years later – because yeah, I still don’t know.
So I dropped out of college and ran off and joined the Navy, shipping out to Recruit Training Command, Orlando, Florida in December 1992 for boot camp. December is a good time to go to boot camp in Florida because the weather is pretty mild and there are a lot fewer recruits there than during the summertime. However, it’s also a bad time to go because I missed Christmas and New Year’s at home. And the Navy likes to give its recruit company commanders (CCs) extra time off during the Christmas holidays, which meant at least a few days of doing a whole lot of nothing as a recruit – ugh! – and probably delaying our graduation date.
My company commander made me the division’s yeoman (secretary), which meant I did a lot of my division’s paperwork, so I had a lot of work to do in addition to doing the normal boot camp stuff. And I was just such a worker bee, I never really questioned this setup. However, I also did really well and my CC named me honor recruit – best recruit in the division. Most of my fellow recruits had no idea why. They just knew me as the uncharming type A person who was always irritated and short-tempered (while trying to get my work done, which often required their cooperation, usually unwillingly given) and who insisted, in accordance with boot camp regulations, on being addressed at all times as Recruit Petty Officer First Class Smith. One of the few things I discovered about myself during boot camp was an ability to yell so loudly that people nearby, upon espying me draw breath for an announcement or summons, would plug their ears and scatter. I remember feeling that vocal power all the way down in my lungs.
Learning how to split other people’s eardrums was really one of the few positives I took from the miserable experience of boot camp (a skill, sadly, that I have since forgotten). The main reason boot camp sucks – at least for smart people – is not the company commanders or even the lack of sleep. It’s the dumbass fellow recruits who can’t follow simple orders like “shut up.” Most of them were eighteen years old and had either never held down a real job or just never cared to do a good job at anything, and they saw no reason to change their outlook regarding work at boot camp. To a certain extent, their attitude was understandable, because you really don’t do a whole lot of important stuff at boot camp – if it’s really important, you learn it later in A school. Boot camp wasn’t much different from kindergarten in that respect, so it was more like a two month long initiation ritual – with most of the torture being provided by your fellow recruits.
Subsequent Subsection b – my experiences at A school in Monterey, CA, C school at Goodfellow AFB, TX, and training at my first tour of duty in Hawaii.