My Life

Six Years: Boot Camp Stories

The first memory I have from boot camp is sitting in a hallway with dozens of other people. It’s probably close to two or three in the morning. We have been given our smurfs and our seabag full of miscellaneous items. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to make the shoulder straps connect, something I’m not sure I could do in seconds today, let alone half asleep in a hallway midst organizing mayhem, ears full of cursing. Someone fixed it for me, enough so that I could carry it. I am grateful to whomever that may have been, they saved me an ass chewing.

I am a few inches below average height for an American male, which meant that in my division I was among the shorter half. The shortest guy in my division was a full head shorter than myself. When marching in formation a division is put into what is called a height line: shortest in the front, tallest in the back. At the front of the formation are flag carriers, led by the guidon who carries the number of the division on his flag, in my case 082. Sorting by height means that the shortest in the division end up carrying the flags for the division. We were called “sticks.”

It wasn’t much of an honor being a stick as it meant more work when it came to drill since all eyes were on us. If we screwed it up it was obvious within seconds. The flags were significant for things we had accomplished as a division in boot camp: Scholastic, Athletic, Inspection flags, Drill. There are also the Battle E flag which designates divisions that scored above a set average and the best in a graduation group (usually seven or eight divisions) received the CNO flag.

082 was a disgrace of a division. It almost got to the point where we were all ASMOed due to not performing well as a team. As I said before, most of the people in my division we idiots. I think we had four flags total, which is nothing because every division has at a minimum two: the guidon and the division flag. I carried the Athletic flag for my division since I was the furthest right (that’s starboard in the Navy) when the division was in formation.

Carrying flags was brutal on your fingers. You can try it if you’d like: go find a dowel or something about and inch think and place it between your index finger and thumb while keeping all of your fingers straight. The muscles in your hand hurt after a while.

I also designed one side of my division’s flag. Most of the division had no aptitude for art and while they had good ideas I was the one who took them all together and translated it into something presentable. We created our flag one Saturday and it was later turned into t-shirts and sweatshirts the parents and family could buy during graduation. For the life of me I cannot remember what was on the other side, some sort of animal I think.

There isn’t a better picture of our division flag, unless there is one in among my boot camp “yearbook” which is 2000 miles away in a box in New Hampshire.

Football is the most beloved sport in the US (sorry baseball, you just don’t stack up anymore) and in the south it’s almost a religion and in Texas it’s everything. A guy in my division played high school football in Texas. He played at Katy High School, which is just a few miles from where I now live in the greater Houston area of Texas. It’s funny how things work out that way.

Many years later I realized that he played football on the same team as Andy Dalton and while we were in boot camp Dalton was named starting quarterback for Texas Christian University and would later go on to become the starting quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals.

There is more to say about boot camp and football but I will save that story for later.

I  only have one story I tell when it comes to boot camp being “brutal  and demeaning” to the recruits. There was a man in our division, who was, I think, in his later twenties to early thirties which is much older than most people who join the military. He had issues with following direction, but that was only one piece of his many problems.

RDCs tend to form pairs to become a “good cop, bad cop” routine. One of them will often be the mean one who beats the recruits. Not literally. Beating means the physical training part of boot camp. When they’re screaming at you to do push-ups, that’s beating.

The good RDC is there to make sure the recruits don’t feel alienated by their instructors, as that is counter-productive when you’re trying to train people. When the good RDC is administering the beating you know your division has screwed up above and beyond the status quo.

Our “mean” RDC was in a foul mood one night since he was standing quarterdeck watch for the ship, which is what the buildings the division’s compartments and classrooms were in. During a talk that evening this recruit, let’s call him Bob, had a case of gas. Bob thought it was hilarious.  Mean RDC did not. After warning him not to do again Bob proceeded to let her rip. Mistake.

Since our RDC was on quarterdeck duty he wasn’t allowed to stay in an individual compartment for long. He was meant to stand watch downstairs. So he took Bob downstairs to the quarterdeck for a one on one beating session. Our compartment was on the third floor. The elevators in the building are next to the quarterdeck, while the stairwells are on either end of the hallway several hundred feet away. Our compartment door was also near the elevators.

Once he was done with a round of beating our RDC made Bob race him back to the compartment. Bob had to take the stairs. Our RDC took the elevator at his leisure. The first time Bob didn’t make it in time so back down to the quarterdeck for another round they went. The second time Bob beat him by seconds, crawling into the compartment on his hands and knees, wheezing for breath.

Bob didn’t last much longer in the division. He wasn’t just ASMOed. A week before live fire he was processed out of the Navy for mental instability.

There are three major academic tests you take during boot camp. They are rote memorization for multiple choice tests. I aced them, I think my final record was 98, 100, and 100. For the last two I was told I would be given additional phone calls home. That never happened.

Because my personal scores for inspections, academics and PT were stellar I was in competition among the graduation group to be promoted coming out of boot camp. My contract already stated I would come out as an E-2 but meritorious advancement would have made that E-3.

After Battle Stations was over my Chief took me into the RDC office to show me some paperwork. In the competition for meritorious advancement I came in second. She wanted to tell me herself because she felt it was her fault I didn’t come in first.

The one inspection I received a sat on (the one they refused to let me stand due to my wisdom teeth) is what kept me from having the highest individual score.

During boot camp you learn to operate on little sleep. Lights out is at 10:00 PM and on a typical day you wake up at 5:30 AM if not earlier. That doesn’t account for having watches in the night, which last for two hours or waking up when it’s your scheduled time to use the irons. Yes, you iron your clothes in the dead of night. There’s no other time for it.

Unless you’re like my division and just sign your name saying you ironed when you didn’t. I estimate half the division did that, and we all got beat for it. I told you my division sucked.

Also after Battle Stations I have eye witness accounts of the following: showering, changing clothes, getting into the proper height line to go downstairs for breakfast, eating breakfast and then returning to the compartment. The problem with this is I have zero memory of any of that since I was asleep the entire time. That’s how automatic boot camp becomes.

Boot camp is easy if you follow three rules.

  1. Do not think for yourself.
  2. Do what you’re told, when you’re told.
  3. Do not half-ass anything.

If you follow those you can make it through boot camp in your sleep.

I did. Literally.

Six Years: Boot Camp, Part 2

Boot camp is a blend of classroom and hands on training. Each week is broken down as follows:

  • Week 1: Processing Days
  • Week 2: Confidence Building
  • Week 3: Hands-On Training
  • Week 4: Live Fire
  • Week 5: Career
  • Week 6: Fire Safety
  • Week 7: Battle Stations
  • Week 8: Graduation

Processing Days

The late arrival is intentional. With people coming from all over the country it’s designed to bring everyone into RTC Great Lakes at the same time. P-Days are some of the worst days in boot camp as it is a lot of waiting and since it begins near midnight there little sleep.

Among the first things you do is change all your clothes and change into what are called “smurfs”, blue sweat pants and sweat shirts emblazoned with Navy symbols. These are what you wear during P-Days until your uniforms, which you’re measured for, are ready. This is also your first exposure to the “no privacy” and team first mentality. All of the changing you do (including your underwear) is done in front of everyone you arrived with, people who you don’t know at all.

During the first night you are issued most of your uniform items that are not tailored such as covers (hats), under shirts, underwear, socks, shoes/boots etc. All of your reading material is given as well, the Blue Jacket’s Manual and training guides.

Loads of paperwork is done, a lot of waiting. It’s all a blur at this point. I think I was lucky enough to sleep for an hour on a desk since I was processed ahead of a lot people due to my last name.

The rest of the week consists of more processing: medical, paperwork, dental, paperwork, along with preparing all of your assigned gear, better known as stamping your name on everything.

You’re given more routine medical exams and shots during these days than you’ve probably had since you were a baby. The Navy doesn’t care whether you’ve been inoculated against every disease in the world, they’re going to give you every inoculation in the  book. It’s an assembly line for shots, one in the left arm, another in the right, another in the left.

Yes, they do stick a needle in your ass cheek. Yes it is weird feeling.

Confidence Building

Week two marks the beginning of what most people imagine boot camp to be like: a lot of physical training, marching around, over tired and being screamed at until you’re deaf.

The reason it’s called confidence week is because it is designed to break down ~100 individuals and make a team out of them. To start to train them together, to reshape people who think of themselves first into people who think of the men and women beside them first.

Basic military drill is instructed. Roles are meted out among the recruits for various positions, people placed in charge of various tasks within the compartment and division. This week memorizing everything Navy gets into full swing: ranks, people, General Orders and more.

Routines that are expected during the rest of boot camp are taught. How to make your bed, how to prepare your uniforms, how to fold your uniforms, how to position the items inside your rack.

They teach you how to do everything.

The making your bed part was done over and over again until everyone in the division could take a stripped bed and make it perfectly within a minute. We stripped and made our beds so many times I have scars from my knuckles scraping into the metal frame of the rack.

Rack Scars

Hands-On Training

This is week is all about all hands on deck, literally. The division is instructed in basic seamanship, which means deck work. On a mock up a ship recruits are taught how to moor the ship, memorizing all the roles, where things have to go and again, it’s all about the team work.

Flag signalling is also instructed this week and the division is trained in man overboard procedures. The week is capped off with a simulation of unmooring the ship, then “sailing” and then simulating approaching the pier to moor the ship again. You can count on man over board being called at some point during the exercise.

I don’t remember much else about this week except that I think this is the week I had my wisdom teeth pulled. That meant I spent two days in my rack doing nothing but sleeping.

Mine came out without a fuss, though I have heard horror stories of broken pieces of teeth left in. Also of recruits waking up to people all but crouched on their chest yanking on a stubborn tooth.

The two days spent sleeping would later come to haunt me because my RDCs (Recruit Division Commanders) wouldn’t let me stand for an inspection because I was assigned to be sick in quarters. This meant I didn’t fail the inspection, but I couldn’t excel either. I was given a sat.

Live Fire

You could call this gun week if you wanted. All the training was emphasizing the proper handle and use of a live weapon. This is the week that will get you into trouble if you think you know what you’re doing. The Navy doesn’t care if you’ve been shooting guns since you were three, you will shoot it their way, when they say.

You do NOT mess around during live fire week.

They first teach people how to properly fire a weapon with laser pistols weighted to feel like a real weapon. If you don’t pass this don’t even think they’ll consider you for live fire. They also teach the proper treatment and care for the weapon and proper procedures for turning over a weapon.

Live fire consists a course with a 9mm pistol, executing what they say and how they say it. It involves fire a certain number of shots when they say, reloading when they say, switching dominant grip when they say. Depending on how you do you’re given the Pistol Marksmanship, Pistol Sharpshooter or Pistol Expert. You also fire a shotgun, mostly to see what it feels like.

When I say you don’t mess around during live fire I mean it. This is the only time I saw someone get assaulted by an RDC. To work the live fire range you have to be a certain kind of crazy: you take people who have never shot a gun in their lives and you’re counting on them not to lose their heads and do something stupid.

Some kid decided he was going to turn out of the booth with the shotgun in his hands. He froze when everyone screamed at him and was promptly tackled by an RDC then verbally berated as he was escorted from the room. I never saw that kid again, and I assume he was ASMOed.

(ASMO is short for Assignment Memorandum, which means delayed in training for either a training deficiency or to heal from an injury or to brush up in areas where they are weak which is common with non-native English speakers.)

A side note regarding the shotgun kid as well. The gun was empty as he had fired the only round loaded in it. It’s the principle of the matter though. The gun was still a live weapon.

Technically I was not supposed to attend live fire because I had pink eye that week. Since the actual live fire course is on a Friday it had for the most part cleared up and my RDCs looked the other way for me. It helps that I was one of the few people in my division who wasn’t an idiot.

Career

This is the week they talk about your future. There are financial classes among other training. A lot more emphasis is placed on drill inspections, uniform inspections, compartment inspections.

It should just be called inspection week.

Until now most inspections were prepared for individually. This week the three major inspections coincide in one week, leading to preparing for all of them together. The focus is teamwork because to pass everyone has to do it together, especially the compartment and drill inspections.

Fire Safety

Fire fighting. This week is all about training in the fire building. Learning how to use fire hoses, CBAs, proper dress,  and working as a team to fight fires.

Recruits are also trained on proper egress in the case of smoke.

My firefighting and egress chamber experience was… nothing.  I didn’t end up doing it because the day we were scheduled for the live exercise there was a power issue in the building. We didn’t have any fire and we didn’t have smoke. We just pretended as best we could.

Also this week is the wonderful gas chamber experience. The division is given gas masks and lined up in rows inside the chamber. As your row reaches the front of the room everyone in the row removes their mask together, throwing it into a trash can at the front of the room.

In each corner of the room they are burning tear gas. Down the line the RDCs go as the recruits recite their name and SSN, without choking or screwing it up. Only once everyone has said their part can the row exit the room. Some people have trouble spitting it out, to everyone’s dismay.

One fun fact about tear gas is that water activates it again. When you go to boot camp in the middle of winter they make you wear scarves over your mouth, with a ski mask on top and a wool watch cap on top of that. It gets hot when you double-time march across the entire base because it’s below freezing. The tear gas on your skin reactivates on the march.

It isn’t pleasant.

Battle Stations

This  is the part of boot camp I’m not supposed talk to most people about. What I can say is this: all the training from boot camp leads up to this moment. This is a live exercise that takes everything and puts it all together.

Battle Stations starts at 10:00 PM and runs through the night until 9:30 AM on board what is called the USS Trayer (BST21). It is a mock up of a Arleigh-Burke Destroyer that serves as the platform for Battle Stations. All the team building and training comes to together as the recruits work together in small teams all night to complete the exercise.

Battle Stations mimics events that have happened in the past as a way of training future sailors. The USS Tripoli hitting an Iraqi mine during the Gulf War and the USS Cole bombing in the port of Yemen are only a few of the real life combat situations that were used to inspire the simulator.

The only part I ever tell anyone about is the fact that I had to evacuate Battle Stations. Among all the alarms going off inside the ship a real set of alarms for the building went off. Everyone had to evacuate. For me this meant leaving the building into three feet of snow while we waited for the all clear. It also screwed our egress exercise, which we had to repeat once we went back inside.

At the end of Battle Stations there is what is called the capping ceremony. While most people consider Pass-In-Review to be graduation from Navy boot camp, and it is, Sailors see the capping ceremony as their true graduation from boot camp. Each recruit exchanges their RECRUIT ball cap for the NAVY ball cap, marking them as US Navy sailors for the first time.

Graduation

Pass-In-Review, the formal ceremony in front of family and friends and the chain of command for RTC Great Lakes. This  is where all the drilling comes in, as every division performs their drill exercises as part of the ceremony.

This is where all the pictures come from and after this ceremony most sailors are given liberty to leave base with their families, or on their own and go out into town.

Most of them end up at the Gurnee Mills Mall.

I say most sailors because I was what is called “Grad and Go”. That meant after Pass-In-Review was over we packed our things and were on a bus to the airport within a few hours. We didn’t get liberty, we were shunted off quick as they could get rid of us.

My parent’s drove out to my graduation as well, despite my being grad and go. After the ceremony my parent’s bought some T-shirts and sweatshirts with my division’s logo on it.

Too Cold

It was far too cold to be standing around taking pictures. You can see the scar on my hand.

They also brought me a suit case of civilian clothes and a lot of my electronics (cell phone, video games etc). While they couldn’t give it to me at RTC they met me at the airport in Chicago and I was home free from there. Not really, I was on my way to Pensacola, FL.

Next up: a collection of “boot camp stories” from my time at RTC Great Lakes.

Six Years: Boot Camp, Part 1

Recruit Training Command Great Lakes is in Great Lakes, Illinois. The recruit training commands for the Navy located in San Diego, CA and Orlando, FL were closed in 1995 and 1998 respectively, leaving RTC Great Lakes as the only command for basic recruit training.

Amanda shipped to boot camp on September 17th, 2007. She graduated boot camp in November and my family drove from New Hampshire to see her graduation ceremony. This gave me a unique experience, both with Amanda going before me and that I attended her graduation.

During her training Amanda sent me letters describing what she did each week, so I had an inside view of what was going on from week to week. Being at her graduation meant I could see the base before I was scheduled to leave as well. In the end seeing Great Lakes ahead of time gave me nothing beneficial for me once I was there.

On Sunday, December 16th, 2007 I went down to Boston so I could go through processing and ship out the next day. I don’t really remember much about the processing except that it was a lot of waiting and signing forms. The Navy put me up in one of the Hiltons in Boston before a bus took me and dozens of other armed forces recruits to Boston MEPs (Military Entrance Processing).

We waited some more before given our orders and bused to Logan International. Despite arriving at MEPs early in the morning I did not reach RTC Great Lakes until close to midnight.

That would be the beginning of a long 72 hours.

Six Years: The Beginning Of A Journey

In 2007 I was finishing my senior year of high school. Most of my friends had already been accepted into colleges or had decided they weren’t continuing their education. I turned 18 in February and had no idea what I wanted to study if was going to college. My family didn’t have the money pay for college and I was not motivated enough to pursue scholarships. I didn’t want mountains of debt for a degree in a field I may not even like in four years.

I was not the best student in high school. A lot of it had to do with whether or not I liked the teachers or the class. Sometimes both. I failed some classes for not attending or not doing the work and then I did well in AP classes that I enjoyed. To this day I’m not sure what was the motivation behind my apathetic approach to schoolwork. It could have been my lack of a vision for my future.

One day in the spring my sister Amanda came downstairs and asked my mom what she would think if she joined the Navy. Mom said “You’re absolutely not allowed.” Amanda was 23 at the time. She said “Well, I’m going to talk to a recruiter.” I said I was going with her.

Amanda wanted to do something with her life. She wanted training and education, the opportunity to travel, money and to be part of something bigger than herself and something that mattered. She figured the only place she could find all of that would be in the military and that the only branch she could see herself in was the Navy. I had considered the Navy before but didn’t vocalize it.

I wanted the GI Bill, at the time called the Montgomery GI Bill. I figured maybe in four years I would know what I wanted to study (I’m still not sure) and then the military could pay for it.

We talked to a recruiter in Leominster, MA a few days later. He was GSE1 Bocash. We talked about things in general and he asked the basic questions. He then scheduled us to take the ASVAB in Boston, which would determine was ratings we were eligible for. He also asked us what we were interested in so he could show us ratings that would be interesting to us.

Bocash wanted to recruit me as a “nuke” which is the nuclear power engineers on carriers and submarines. The training pipeline in rigorous and requires extensive study to pass. My having failed a math class due to disinterest had set me back and despite written recommendations from teachers I was not accepted for the nuclear program.

Once we had taken the ASVAB we were told we were able to apply for almost any rates we wanted (except nuke in my case) and Amanda had passed the DLAB, the Defense Language Aptitude Battery. The test is designed to measure how successful the taker would be in learning a new language. This meant Amanda could have the rating she wanted as a CTI – Cryptologic Technician (Interprative). I was still unsure of what I wanted so I began to look at ratings online and found the CTN – Cryptologic Technician (Networks) – rate.

When I mentioned CTN to Bocash he misheard me and thought I said CTM (Maintenance). Reason was because he had never heard of CTNs. The rating had been stood up in 2004 and had only been available to public recruitment for a few months before I had found it. I told Bocash I wanted CTN but if he couldn’t find me a placement for it that shipped by the end of 2007 (recruitment was limited to waves) I would take the DLAB or I would go in as a Hospital Corpsman (HM).

In May we finalized our contracts and since we were joining to become a CTI and a CTN we had what are called Advanced Technical Field contracts or ATF for short. This meant we agreed to sign a two year extension to our four year enlistment in exchange for our training and being advanced to E-4 (Petty Officer Third Class) automatically upon completion of our schooling. Normally you have to test for and be selected to advance to E-4. Inside the Navy these contracts, and the people who have them, are called “push-button E-4s” or just “push-buttons”.

As a sign on bonus Amanda was given $8,000. There was no cash bonus for CTNs but I was able to collect the “college fund” kicker, which gave me 400 more dollars a month for three years as part of my GI Bill. So it works out to a $14,400 kicker onto my GI Bill money.

On May 28th, 2007 Amanda and I went to Boston to swear in as part of the US Armed Forces.

Neither of us shipped out for bootcamp for a few months. In the meantime Amanda and I were part of what was called the Delayed Entry Program. This meant we had to go to Leominster once a month to participate in “training and workouts” though it was not much of a regimen. We had to memorize certain topics and be able to perform physically compared to how we would be expected to perform in bootcamp. This did help in bootcamp but in the end it wasn’t that serious of a program.

On September 17th, 2007 Amanda shipped out. I followed suit exactly three months later.

Six Years Before The Flag

In 1834 Richard Henry Dana, Jr. left Harvard College to sail on the brig Pilgrim on a voyage around Cape Horn. He thought the open sea would help his damaged eyesight after a bout of the measles. He returned to Boston from California aboard the Alert. During the two year journey he kept a journal, which he published in 1840 titled Two Years Before The Mast.

December 17th, 2013 marked the end of my six year enlistment with the United States Navy. As a Cryptologic Technician (Networks) I did not have the honor of serving aboard a ship. My service was conducted behind computer screens.

Over the next few weeks I will be telling the story of those six years.

Four Years: Conclusion

I had my last orthodontic appointment two days ago which was just to make sure the retainer was doing what it’s supposed to do. I also got my last set of photographs from my orthodontic office, so you can compare before and after. The braces are still on in those photos but they were taken the day the braces came off. My gums were also inflamed, they have since recovered.

Also general photos, before and after.

The change to my jaw is prominent, even to me, when you look at those two side by side.

It’s been a long four years but my jaw doesn’t pop out of place anymore, nor do my teeth cut into my gums and they align properly without any gaps. Despite everything in the end it was 100% worth it.

Four Years: Part 6

Part 5

There are a few topics I have not covered during the telling of my story. Plus there are a lot of pictures I still haven’t posted. My last orthodontic appointment is in three days and I should have comparison pictures then. Until then, I will do my best to wrap up everything else with this post.

Metal In My FaceThis is the X-ray of my jaw post surgery. I still have the braces on my teeth but you can also see the titanium screws in my jaw bones, the screws and plates in my chin as well as those in my upper jaw.

During talking  about my recovery the one topic I did not cover is one of the most obvious: how I managed to feed myself. Since my jaw was held shut for six weeks, and for half of that I was unable to move it despite the elastics, I was forced into eating on a liquid diet. It was eating through a tube.

To be exact it’s a rubber tube, about the size of a straw, attached to an over sized syringe. Anything I ate had to be liquid and fine enough to be forced out through the straw. I couldn’t produce suction strong enough to eat things like soup through a straw (for the first few weeks I couldn’t even produce enough suction to drink anything, let alone soup) so the syringe was the only option I had.

Eating

The big risk here is that being restricted to a liquid diet is not the most versatile diet, which means it’s easy to begin losing weight. When you’re recovering from major surgery losing weight is not ideal. My doctors didn’t want me to lose more than 10% of my body weight during my recovery and given that I didn’t weigh much to begin with I didn’t have much leeway. In the end I didn’t lose any weight during the whole ordeal, so that was a pleasant surprise, to both me and my doctors.

Food

I ate a lot of soups and blended shakes, plus some of those soups were blended as well. For a while I had only tomato soup, since it is all liquid but after a while that became boring. Soups had to be blended very fine to make it through the straw without clogging. My mom started looking for powder based soup mixed so that it would be easier for me to have a variety. The shakes were more to fill in the gaps in my diet, with a lot of protein and Ensure to round out the vitamins.

Blender GoodnessAll of my medication was liquid and taken through the syringe as well. There was a lot of them, and I had a schedule. Every few hours I was taking something. Most of them were diluted a bit with water just so there was enough liquid for the syringe to draw it into the reservoir. The red one is Oxycodone, the purple one is Tylenol and I don’t remember what the pinkish colored one is.

ReadyGiven how messy eating through the syringe was, and how often I had to take medication as well as use mouth wash to try to clean my mouth I spent a lot of time over my kitchen sink. It became the most common place for me if I was awake since I was usually doing something there. Because it was a liquid diet I ate a lot in small doses instead of trying to eat a lot at once, a lot of that had to do with the syringes had to be cleaned after usage and I only had two of them and I believe one of them broke early on. All of the bottles of medication and mouthwash can be seen all over the bar counter.

Usual SpotI owe every easy part of my recovery to my mom, since she held it all together. She managed all the food and medication, making sure it was all ready to go and taken when it needed to be.

I cannot thank her enough for that.