Against The Grain

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Chapter 24

“Congratulations, battle! You went out there.” I replied to Private Chapman.

She smiled joyfully. Her smile was so bright.

“Thanx.” She replied.

“You did an excellent job! I am so proud of you!” I told her.

Both Butler and Kennis were near us.

“Yeah! Good job, Chapman!” Private Butler replied.

Private Kennis sat there without words. She peered up at us and then back down at her sandwich. Just then Private Clinton spoke up to Kennis from where she sat next to Private Blackstone.

“Why you didn’t fight? Scared?” Private Clinton asked Kennis.

“Well, next time you should carry yo’ punk a$$ out there and fight.” Clinton jeered.

Kennis instantly turned flush.

“I don’t have to take no crap off of you, Clinton! I didn’t see you out there.” She remarked.

“You gone take crap off of me ’cause you a coward!” Private Clinton proclaimed.

Blackstone sat next to Clinton, smiling mischievously at Kennis.

“You know, I was so scared at first. But I knew if I didn’t go out there I gonna be in trouble.” Private Chapman interjected.

“Chapman, you did it because you’re strong.” I encouraged.

“Oh battle, you’re so sweet.” She said, reaching out to give me a hug.

We hugged each other and Blackstone rolled her eyes. Clinton slightly turned and proceeded to talk with Blackstone.

“I hated them.” Clinton whispered, while shaking her head from left to right.

Back at our perimeter, the drill sergeants ordered us to pull guard in the foxhole. I thought that would be great because that meant I would get to some rest. I slept for only an hour in the foxhole before I woke up to see what everybody else was doing. Majority of people were talking as if we were on personal time still. I spotted my assigned battle buddy in the foxhole and Butler sat next to her, keeping her company.

Since my so-called battle buddy was in her foxhole, not very far from me, there was no need for me to be in mine too. Others weren’t in their foxhole. I spotted Mendez and Blackstone socializing at Clinton’s. I also saw some of the males standing up laughing and joking. I got out of my hole and headed over toward the porter potties. I hated being in the field on the rag.

Private Green’s boots stuck out of his hooch. They lie flat on the ground. Therefore, I knew he was lying down on his sleeping bag as I passed the opening of his hooch. I peeked over inside the hooch to my right, which was diagonal from Green’s hooch. As I walked by I spotted two wannabes.

At first, I couldn’t make out who the girl was from the back of her head. She appeared straddled over someone’s body on the sleeping bag. Her back appeared tilted forward as if she were praying. I crept up on them, slowly. Her messy blond hair soon gave her away. It was Kennis. Once she pulled away, she lifted her hand to touch him and she moved her big head. Finally, it dawned on me that it was Kennis and Curitan. Perfect! I thought. They’re both stupid.

The minute I stepped foot into the porter potty, the horrid smell of idol waste invaded my nose. The flies flew around my face while the blue toxic fluid attempted to overpower the smell of the leftovers in the toilet. I took down my BDU pants and began to look at the porter potty walls as the writing illustrated the attitudes of the wannabes at boot camp.

‘Three more days and a wake up’ one blog of graffiti read. The number three was drawn larger than the words in black sharpie marker. An eye with long lashes appeared at the top loop of the number. I looked over at some more graffiti that read, if black is beautiful than I just s#!% ted out a masterpiece.

I then looked down and realized how much urine was on the floor as I stood in front of the toilet replacing my maxi pad. I discarded the plastic into the toilet, pulled up my pants and carried on out of there.

Our platoon had finished more obstacles courses and more CPR training in the field than we ever did at the barracks. I felt proud of my aching body for carrying itself through all the challenges so far. I was also proud of my mind for giving me motivation through all of the rainy weather and discouragement from everywhere. I was glad that I hadn’t been back to the hospital and to top it all off, Chapman informed me that we’d have a fun training at dark. She said there would be night live fire. I wasn’t sure what it was. However, I was intrigued.

I kept hearing wannabes talking about night live fire, getting excited. Everyone spoke about it as if it were more exciting than throwing a live hand grenade. Live fire from any object wasn’t that interesting to me, I just needed to graduate out of here and survive in the American economy.

“My brother said the flame is orange and it could blow up a moving vehicle.” Private Green replied.

“Cooool, I can’t wait. This is so cool! We get to fire infrared missiles!” I overheard someone say as we stood in formation.

They exchanged high fives and smiled with excitement.

One squad at a time, we formed a line at the trailer. We were served meatloaf, mash potato, string beans or broccoli for our meal and to drink we had orange Gatorade. We also had the option of milk. When my squad was called I was the first one up to the trailer to receive a meal. I just knew they would say something to me about being the first one up there in my squad. Yet, I was the first one on my feet because I knew they were required to feed me.

Fortunately, the drill sergeants said nothing to me. They stood around in their crowd of three and made small talk as they casually called us by squad ranks to approach the trailer for their dinner. The best part was that the drill sergeants didn’t get their meal until after we received ours. I grabbed a hot plate of meatloaf, mash potato, string beans, an apple, and some Gatorade. My weapon, I kept slung across my shoulders in order to be in uniformity with the wannabes.

“You ain’t earn that meal, McCoy!” Drill Sergeant Andrews yelled.

The other two drill sergeants just stood there with stupid grins on their faces. I didn’t even glance up at him. I just kept moving to my reserved space in the circle. I ate my meal slowly to savor every last bit. Everyone else around me ate their meal quickly. We were used to eating fast. So I decided to eat slowly for the sake of my poor stomach. The meatloaf was great and it was actually seasoned. It didn’t taste like bland cafeteria food. I could taste pepper and onions. It tasted like real meatloaf should taste and it was juicy too. The potatoes were lumpy, but I couldn’t expect them to be perfect. I didn’t peer up at anyone because I didn’t want anyone to ruin it for me. It was my relax time. I ate my meal and drank my Gatorade last.

The dark night coated the scenery. The box-shaped lights lit at each wooden post were fluorescent orange. Mosquitoes circled directly underneaththem,as if they were their own private source of energy. We also remained beneath the lights in an organized structure. Each platoon lined up in their respected squads.Firstplatoon lined ahead ofsecondplatoon, then fourth platoon and lastly our platoon. Our platoon was last because we hadn’t won any recent challenges against the opposing platoons.

We first listened to a briefing about night infiltration. We all watched as the range instructor provided us with a demonstration. He aimed the nine-millimeter tracer at the idle junkyard vehicles stationed approximately a mile or so out. Then he fired it into the night air. The tracer was a vibrant orange flare that shot out onto the vehicle. It would have been exciting if something had blown up, however, the tracer didn’t even start a fire. It didn’t even burn anything, from what I could see where I stood. Instead, the tracer hit the vehicle and burned outlikea light blub. Sparks flew once the tracer hit the vehicle, but that was all.

Boring, I thought to myself.

Once we were given a briefing we were ready to conduct night infiltration training or in other words night live fire. We approached the drill instructor shouting, “no brass, no ammo” before we were allowed to proceed into a lane. Same old stuff again, I thought. Instead of our usual brass ammunition, we were given a nine-millimeter tracer with an orange tip. They looked different than the previous ammunition because the rounds were smaller and the tips were orange instead of green.

I waited and I waited with the bolt of my rifle pulled back to the rear. My M-16 stood upright in my hands, with the muzzle facing up in the air to my left, brushing against my flack vest. I stood silently like the wannabes in the long line.

The drill sergeants were the only ones talking and joking around about nothing. The male drill sergeants acted like brothers. They had inside jokes, chants, and stories to entertain one another. They laughed a lot and threw sly taps at each other. Majority of the drill sergeants had country accents. They were hard to understand at times. The more they joked around the more I could hear their different accents. They were comfortable dragging their words with a drawl, leaving outbeginningorending letters of words, and emphasizing certain syllables as if they were singing in a choir. A picture of who they actually were underneath their uniform became relatively clear as they hung around laughing with each other. It seemed the less the drill sergeants had to say to us, the happier they were. All smiles and excitement left their tone of voice when it was time to give us commands.

“Martinez!” Drill Sergeant Wilkinson shouted.

“Turn yo’ doggone tail around!” he yelled.

I assumed that Martinez quickly did as he was told. However, I didn’t dare turn my head to glance back and check. Not after the way he snapped at him.

The line couldn’t have moved any slower, yet I had to consider that the entire company was participating in this training. As I stood in line, I took in a good whiff of the chemicals in the air. I could smell the sent of carbon or maybe it was sulfur floating around in the stiff night.

Eventually, it was time for Private Kennis to approach the ammunition booth. She stood one wannabe ahead of me. Directly in front of me stood Private Kunert, who would move to the ammunition booth next. Private Mendez stood behind me.

Kennis approached Drill Sergeant Drake at the ammunition booth as I watched her from behind. I could only see her blond strands tightly bound to the back of her small head as she moved forward. She approached Drill Sergeant Drake and stopped right next to her. Drill Sergeant Drake dropped a single nine-millimeter tracer into Private Kennis’ open ammo pouch and then she marched forward in line.

Then it was Private Kunert’s turn. I watched them both so I would know how to proceed. When it was my turn, I pushed forward toward Drill Sergeant Drake and I proceeded to stand in front of her. She dropped the orange-tipped tracer into my ammo pouch as she glared at me. I continued forward without expression.

We all continued to stand and wait in the line that was arranged like a maze. Eventually, I reached the front of the line where Drill Sergeant Mayor rushed me forward with a hand gesture. He then snapped at me to ‘come on’. He looked at me like I was the scum of the earth, but I slowly moved towards him anyway. As soon as he had me in his reach, he snatched my rifle out of both my hands and threw it down.

“You ain’t participating in this training!” he commanded.

“Pick up your weapon and fall to the rear!” he shouted.

“You’re done for the day!”

There was definitely no arguing or negotiation with him. I smiled at him in my defense while I bent over to pick up my rifle.

“Hurry up!” he hollered at me again.

I browsed over at Drill Sergeant Drake, who scolded me with her eyes. I smiled at her just the same and kept moving to the back of the line where all the wannabes who had already participated gathered freely.

Many of them talked quietly among each other further apart from the ones who were still waiting to shot their tracer. I spotted Parker and Nguyen sitting Indian style in the grass not too far away. They didn’t act vicious, so I decided I would ask them if I could join them. They were much quieter and relaxed than some of the others.

“Is it okay to come over here and talk to you guys?” I asked, before sitting in the grass.

Parker held in her right hand an orange glowing flashlight. It was the same flashlight we used during PT. There were two boxes of them along with glow sticks for our night training. The boxes rest outside the range near the wooden posts.

“Sure,” Private Parker and Private Nguyen replied.

“You missyoufamily, McCoy?” Private Nguyen asked, in her thick Asian accent.

“Yeah! Where you from, Nguyen?” I asked.

“China. I, Chinese.” She explained.

“Is your family here?” I asked her.

“Only brother,” she replied

“I staywit’ him ’til I get on feet. Father and mother come here soon. When they get paper,” she continued.

“I so happy. I miss family. They count on me to get them here. I need citizenship inarmyto help get paper. Dat why it important to me,” she shared.

I listened to Private Nguyen with a ball of guilt in my heart. Parker looked dead into my eyes as if she could see what I felt.

“And you, McCoy?” she asked.

“Why you die to be here?” she joked, sarcastically.

A smile painted across her face and I only peered at her.

“I don’t know.” I lied.

Peering down as I spoke to both of them.

“You no like here?” Private Nguyen asked.

“I love here. They save me.” Private Nguyen replied, without letting me answer the question.

“Nope, McCoy doesn’t wanna be here.” Private Parker agreed.

“No, I don’t wanna be here.” I snapped.

I quickly tried to fix my attitude.

“I’m sorry, I’m just tired of it,” I said, trying to cover myself.

“It’s not that I don’t want to be here. I just know what I want out of the military, not so much what the military can get out of me,” I confessed out of frustration.

“I already know who I am. I don’t want to be turned into anyone else. I don’t want to pretend. I’m just without a suitable income to afford a good life. I need income and benefits.” I told them.

Nguyen’s eyes became bigger and she covered her mouth with her right hand. Then she alluded to Parker who shook her head up and down, compassionately.

“I understand, McCoy,” Private Parker assured me.

“Just be careful of what you say around here.” She cautioned.

I was surprised, yet greatly pleased with her calm and considerate manner.

Nguyen only smiled at me and I returned it.

“I know . . . I know . . . big brother is always watching.” I responded with sarcasm.

“Be strong, McCoy. We almost finish.” Private Nguyen told me.

I gazed at her smiling before I remembered that Parker never expressed why she was here.

“Parker, you never said why you joined the military.” I reminded her.

“Oh . . . I was just tired of where I lived,” she started.

“I was tired of all those small town backward people who don’t do crap. So, I hear you.” She sympathized.

I smiled at them both sincerely.

The next day after an MRE lunch, we marched out to the training site where we would practice throwing a live hand grenade. I honestly couldn’t believe I would be throwing a real hand grenade. I hoped the drill sergeants would allow me to participate. More than likely, I thought I’d never throw an actual hand grenade in my lifetime, but that was just the reason I was kind of interested in this training exercise.

I always watched war movies where things blew up because of grenades. I knew they were loud. I also knew they would make the dirt fly everywhere. They were mini bombs. Never would I get that kind of ammunition in my hands again. For the first time, I wanted a strong and supportive drill sergeant, who wasn’t afraid to risk his life for the sake of mine, to stand right next to me. Thank God for the brave man who would throw his body over a live grenade to save mine.

A random instructor carried out a long hour briefing. He was indeed a soldier. He was a hearty white male with blond hair and dark eyes. Dirt appeared smeared across his face from the hours he’d spent in the pit, training soldiers. Sergeant Gilroy, I believe was his name. His dull safety briefing was followed by a boost of motivation.

“Are we ready to have a great army day!” the training instructor asked.

“Whoooah,” the company shouted.

“Ahhh come on, the Air Force can do better than that,” he replied.

“I said, you ready to have a great army training day!” he repeated even louder.

“Whoooahhh!” He cried out even louder than before.

I actually shouted the second time because I wanted to throw the hand grenade.

“Out stinking standing!” he merited.

“Carry on!” he commanded, as he walked off into the gaggle of drill sergeants.

It was almost as if the demand for motivation awoke the company. Everyone looked to be excited. The sun beamed down on all the bright smiles and laughter. Springtime was finally here.

Our company was ordered to stack our weapons as usual. We were then commanded to form into a single file line. The instructors provided us with plastic earplugs in the shape of screws. Everyone passed the bucket of earplugs to the wannabe standing in front of them. I knew better than to litter the small paper boxes where the earplugs were packaged. We’d all be policing up the training facility if a single one of us made that mistake. Also, nobody in line had placed their earplugs in their ears yet either, so I left mine in the box because I didn’t want to be smoked for being out of uniform.

It felt good not to have a rucksack on my back. My arms and hands were also free of the eight-pound weapon. We were able to talk instead of standing in silence while we waited outside the pit. However, once we were past the red tape marked kill zone we were to be quiet.

I just leered around at the training site to see how it was put together. There was a big concrete wall that separated us from the pit where we’d throw the grenade. The drill sergeants patrolled up and down the long company line, making sure we were facing forward and quiet. They threatened us with their facial expressions as they kept moving right on down the line.

At the start of the training, I could hear each and every bomb exploding inside the concrete-walled training infrastructure. We were able to put our earplugs in on the command of the drill sergeants. When it came close to my turn, I felt butterflies in my stomach. What if I freeze and hold onto the grenade? It’ll be over for my life, I thought. So I began to think about the steps we’d learned previously. Flip open the clip, twist pullpin, aim, throw, yell frag out, duck and cover. Flip open the clip, twist pullpin, aim, throw, yell frag out, duck and cover.I just kept repeating it to myself.

“Move!” the drill instructor retorted.

That meant it was my turn to step into the pit.

Inside, the tall firmly built male instructor was covered in dirt from head to foot. He motioned for me to come forward. The instructor next to me repeated once again for me to move out. I moved forward and stepped foot into the pit. In less than a second, I was in front of the instructor who was covered in dirt. He swiftly threw me a grenade like it was a hot potato. Surprisingly, I caught it.

“Execute!” he commanded.

My heart sped up. My shaky palms almost caused me to drop the grenade. I held the grenade just as they’d taught me. I slowly popped the clip while the instructor studied me with his eyes. We watched carefully as I twisted the pin and pulled it out. I pitched the grenade to the sky with my right hand. The instructor quickly grabbed me and in unison we called,

‘Frag out!’

The instructor hunched down overmewhile the grenade quickly exploded acouplefeet ahead of us. It felt like the instructor was giving me a huge bear hug.

“Move out!” he commanded, signaling for the next participant.

I hurried and moved out of the way. I turned around, searching through the maze of a training site. I wandered back out toward the exit, feeling a sense of greatness. I smiled as I walked out of the kill zone into the open field.

I took a great, long, deep breath of fresh air and I thanked God for my life. I thanked God that I’d never been blown to pieces by a grenade. For the first time, I felt as if I’d really done something dangerous. Parker caught me in mid-smile as we stood in formation at ease and she quickly returned it. She seemed happy to see me smiling because I almost never did.

Private Kunert and I nicely took down our hooch in the dark quiet hours of the morning. This time, I put as much as I could fit into my rucksack. Surprisingly, my spirits were high. Kunert packed her poncho in her rucksack and we proceeded to take our duffle bags to the one-ton. Everyone seemed to be moving with ease as our platoon quickly policed our site and packed away our duffle bags in the one-ton.

The weather seemed warm in the wee hours of the morning as we marched out to the open road. I could feel the good vibrations of our entire company’s spirit. We only had to leave here and wake up the next morning to graduate. It felt great! For the first time, the sergeants were making light of our training. We were driven in two one tons and a single Humvee for at least a third of the road march through the different terrains. Potholes on the dirt path made the ride rough. We all held onto the rope handle that appeared to be bolted into the interior metal above our heads. I believe we were granted the privilege of riding verses marching because we’d have to go back to our company and complete our last PT test. I was certain that the drill sergeants didn’t want any of us to get hurt now that we’d made it thus far. The fact that I had completed this training against the odds made all the difference to me.

After we all knocked out our final PT test with passing scores, it was time for us 369thDelta Company, 2ndRegiment warriors to graduate. At 0700 hours the following day, we basically awoke ourselves in our company barracks. Majority of the wannabes awoke early and lounged around their bunks talking to one another. The sunlight shined in through the barrack’s windows rather than the fluorescent lights shining over our heads. It was the kind of wake up that seemed to make people feel happy and refreshed.

Drill Sergeant Mayor came in and eventually turned on the lights. I rose from my pillow just before he quietly came in through the red double doors. I’d hopped out of my bunk only a few minutes before he turned the lights on in the barracks. Everyone held smiles on their faces because we all knew that training had finally come to an end. The atmosphere seemed harmonious and relaxing. The pressure of training was finally lifted off our shoulders.

We were marched to the same discreet building where we received our BDUsinthe beginning of training. Only this time, we had Carter as our ‘guide-on’ to carry and post our flag. I felt like I’d worked for the ribbons I was about to receive on my Class As. I put up with a lot of crap. I felt like it was my right to walk across the stage and collect my certificate. I’d obliviously marched through military training during wartime and I completed it too. I passed plenty of challenging obstacles, such as BRM (Basic Rifle Marksmanship) training with my M-16 A2 rifle. I passed all three PT tests. There were also those daily dry blocks of instruction that were provided before each task. I was also placed in a dark gas chamber and commanded to take off my gas mask. I’d marched for many miles unsure of when I’d receive rest. I gained friends and dealt with my adversaries. I’d received insult after insult, punishment after punishment and humiliation after humiliation every single day.

Our graduation would begin at noon and we’d just finished aligning the ribbons on our Class A uniforms. Once we were finished getting ourselves together we marched out of the company barracks down the road for nearly a mile before we reached the large gymnasium. Closer to the gymnasium, we came across all the supportive families that crowded the streets.

We marched across twelfth and Victory Boulevard as we proceeded towards the gym. The families waved and took pictures of us as we marched past them. Smiles and joyfulness spread across the faces of families standing behind the bollards and orange traffic cones. I glimpsed around for signs of my family, but I had to quickly remind myself that no one would be here to see me. I wanted to cry. Yet, I didn’t want to cry tears of sadness. I wanted to cry tears of joy. I wanted to burst into tears because I struggled every single day that I woke up. Yet, I just had to hang in there.

When it was my turn to go up and shake the hand of the officer, he first provided me his left hand in exchange for my right one. He then released my certificate to me. My heart was beating out of my chest once again. A big buttered up tear snowballed at the surface of my right eye. However, I wasn’t going to let a tear drop down my face. I opened my eyes a little wider to keep the tears from falling out of my eyelids, as I reached out and held on to my earned certificate.

When it was all said and done, I’d graduated no less than anyone else. Although my family was not here to see me walk across the stage, no one could ever possibly take away the experience I’d gained. I also learned a very valuable lesson. All the strength I’ll ever need exist in the depth of me.

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