Most young people today have little or no idea what the expression “basic training” means. If they’ve heard of it at all, they could be forgiven for thinking it was a course on the Internet for Dummies.
Firsthand experience with basic training, also known as boot camp, has become far less common since Congress ended the draft in 1971. The draft, for young people unfamiliar with it, was conscription into the armed forces. Young men received “greetings from the president of the United States” ordering them to report for military service, the first component of which was boot camp.
Boot camp involved weeks of being shouted at and humiliated, coupled with grueling physical exercise and instruction on how to march, shoot and perform other military activities.
There were two things you learned quickly. One was to blend in. Standing out meant being singled out for extra humiliation and grueling exercise. The other thing you learned almost immediately was that boot camp was something you never, ever wanted to repeat. Right up there with fraternity hazings and chicken pox.
Jeff Currie is an exception.
Currie, who lives in Homedale, repeated basic training in the army reserve at age – wait for it – 48.
Almost all of the other recruits in his company were teenagers. He wouldn’t have stood out more if he’d been wearing tights and a tutu.
I happen to know something about standing out at boot camp. When the Navy sent me to San Diego, United Airlines sent my luggage to Chicago. For four days, I was the only one of thousands of recruits who was marching around in beige slacks and a black trench coat. This did not escape the notice of my drill instructor, who made those the longest four days of my life.
What would possess someone to subject himself to boot camp at an age when most men are scheduling prostate exams?
“I ran into my old battalion commander from when I was in the reserve at Gowen Field 17 years ago. … He said I was an idiot because I had 13 years in the reserve and left without completing my benefits. He said I should go back in and finish. I thought I was too old to do that, but he said I wasn’t. That came as a complete shock to me.”
A financial advisor, Currie realized that the advice his old battalion commander gave him was exactly the advice he’d give a client. He’d be saving $700 a month on health insurance alone.
Patriotism also was a factor.
“There’s always a patriotic element,” he said. “It’s tremendous not just to be a veteran, but to be someone who’s actively serving. I like the job and the people I work with. It wasn’t just about the benefits.”
So he signed up. His case was so unusual – returning after 17 years away and as an enlisted man (he’d previously been a combat engineering officer) – that he had to apply three times. Final acceptance came with an unexpected twist.
“The boot camp requirement was a bit of a shock. They initially told me it it would just be a six-week refresher course, but at my swearing-in they said not enough guys had signed up so it was canceled and it would be full-on boot camp. I looked at my wife and said, ‘Well, I’ve done it before. I can do it again.’ That might have been misplaced confidence.”
A thought that surfaced repeatedly during his ten weeks and four days at Fort Jackson, S.C.
“Not that I was counting.”
The training included up to four and a half hours of grueling exercise a day – running, marching up to 13 miles with a heavy pack, obstacle courses, pushups beyond counting … Drill sergeants were constantly in his face, shouting things that are unprintable in a general-circulation newspaper. Their nickname for him was “old man.” His fellow recruits were more creative – “Grandpa,” “Pops,” “Father Time.”
The training was divided into three phases. The first was classic boot camp. The second and third involved less shouting and exercise and more skill-oriented training.
That was one of several surprises. The food was better than it was his first time at boot camp, about a fourth of the recruits were women, and “the instructors really want you to succeed.”
“On the rifle range, they wanted everyone to shoot at expert level. My first time in basic training, they didn’t care what you shot as long as you met the minimum requirement. This time, we really did have to qualify at expert level.”
The hardest part of Boot Camp II?
“The kids. The women were more mature and a pleasure to work with, but the guys weren’t very kind to me or to each other. They had a hard time thinking about their fellow soldiers or anybody but themselves. When I was in basic training the first time, we had to learn to stop thinking about ourselves and help the weakest member. With a few exceptions, that doesn’t seem to be happening now.”
That said, he adds that the training at Fort Jackson was for non-combatants – clerks, cooks, mechanics, etc.
“Combat people are held to a different standard. In the volunteer army, people who won’t be going into combat are being treated differently to get them to stay in long enough to do their job to support the combat troops. And maybe it works.”
Currie will be a clerk this time around and plans to stay in the reserve until he’s 60. Not as challenging as being a combat engineer, but the right fit at his age.
Having done it twice, would he do it again?
He would. He’s an exception to the rule that nobody ever wants to repeat boot camp.
And for him, it worked out okay. He’s a youthful 48. And he wasn’t wearing slacks and a trench coat.
Tim Woodward’s column appears in The Idaho Press one Sunday a month, often more frequently, and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org