Against The Grain

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Chapter 8

The next day came soon or at least it seemed that way when I awoke. We followed our morning routine of PT and breakfast as usual. The weather looked as if it would rain. However, we didn’t have classes like when we were in red phase. Instead, we trained outdoors with our M-16 rifles. We were introduced to various firing positions such as prone supported and prone unsupported. The drill sergeants emphasized the importance of monitoring our breathing and maintaining a good site post picture while aiming our weapon and preparing to fire. We were divided into pairs and spread out across the courtyard.

After nearly an hour or two of mock training Drill Sergeant Andrews, who stood before our platoon in the courtyard, informally commanded us to silence. Immediately, our platoon became silent. We could hear the talking and laughter of the other platoons within our company further away from us in the same courtyard.

Drill Sergeant Andrews began leisurely pacing across the grass as he started his block of instruction. However, this time when he spoke it was different. He took his time as he talked to us and I felt more like he was talking to us rather than at us. As I listened, I realized he was actually sharing with us a recollection of his military experience as an infantry soldier. He began doing his absolute best to illustrate to us the hardship that he’d experienced, so that we might understand the life of an ideal soldier. He told us about how hard he worked for his meals and the lack of sleep he, and his men, had experienced. He explained the sacrifice he made and his willingness to put his life on the line for the freedom of his country. He also shared with us a recollection of his experiences in Kosovo during the ending of the gulf war. He spoke of times when he had to pull fireguard while the rest of his men were asleep. He explained to us the difficulty of staying awake and keeping the watch out for the enemy with his binoculars. He told us to stay alert and stay alive. He said that he was so sleep deprived, every once in a while he’d spot a golden cherry pie floating through the bright starlit sky. That humored me a whole lot. I just listened attentively like the wannabes. He told us about how he had to wait for his next meal to fall from the sky. The chopper from up above dropped down their MREs in a large bundle nearly 10 kilometers from their perimeter. The unit of infantrymen moved out quickly to take on the long distance they would have to travel and they moved in close intervals. They had to get to it before the enemy did. He enjoyed telling the story.

He held an eerie glow upon his face as he recalled his experience. It was almost as if he enjoyed the hardship of being an infantryman. I listened and thought about the hardship of soldiers. Yet, I believed his experience definitely wouldn’t be mine, for the simple fact that I was a woman. Still, I appreciated his contribution. Once Drill Sergeant Andrews finished sharing some of his past experiences with us, we were to form up in our platoon area.

We were instructed to return upstairs to pack our duffle bags for white sticks. We were to dump what was in our duffle bags atop our camouflage poncho and display all of our items that we’d retrieved from our wall lockers. We were given the command to fall out and return up to our barracks and retrieve our items.

I hurried upstairs with the rest of them and I tried to gather up all of my proper belongings. When I returned underneath the concrete barracks, I walked past our platoon area by the path of the breezeway until I reached the 2.5-ton truck. I dropped my duffle bag onto the truck after I’d seen the wannabe in front of me do it and I turned back around with only my M-16 and my rucksack in my possession.

I moved into a squad just as the wannabes did. Our duffle bags were packed onto the truck and we were to place our rucksacks on our backs. I dumped out my rucksack like everyone else in the platoon. Our belongings would need to be inspected. I didn’t receive a list of what to pack in our rucksacks and I hadn’t taken a mental note of everything we were supposed to bring downstairs. I had my canteen, my canteen cup, my two covers, my carrots for the hooch, e-tool, gas mask and carrier, TA-50 cord, wet weather gear, flashlight, gloves, glove warmers, soldier’s handbook, two pairs of BDU’s (both winter edition), two pairs of PT’s and socks, my baby wipes and my sleeping bag. Marsha Price was my squad leader and she didn’t even attempt to assist me, either. I just did what I saw everyone else do.

Drill Sergeant Andrews marched over toward me and he began yelling at me. Of course, the wannabes laughed at me like they always did and of course I stood at the position of parade rest ignoring them. It felt like I was standing more at parade rest for them than for Drill Sergeant Andrews. He ordered me back upstairs to get the rest of my belongings. Although he yelled at me, it seemed as though he was compassionately lending me a second chance to perform the task that we were to carry out. Whenever we were given an order, we weren’t supposed to ask questions. We were only to execute the command we were given. However, I needed to know what to retrieve from upstairs. So I went ahead and asked the drill sergeant what I needed to retrieve from upstairs. He gaped at me as if he wanted to have violent fits.

In that instant, Private Price proudly approached me. She explained that I was supposed to retrieve my ballistic helmet, my muzzle protector, an extra pair of boots to carry in my rucksack and I needed to bring down my flack vest with my flack protector belt properly put together. I hated Private Price in that moment. Now, she wanted to so-called help me. I was so fed up with everyone around me. I just wanted it all to be over. I turned around and hurried back upstairs to retrieve the proper gear. I tried to remember what Price had just told me. As I walked through the breezeway that led to the stairwell, I could feel a cool breeze upon my face. The weather was the funniest during the end of January beginning of February. I just knew it would be a cold, cold day and that would make things even worse for me.

Before we were called to attention we had nearly two minutes to properly secure ourselves along with our weapons. We were to dress in our flack vests with our protector belts assembled properly and snapped across our waist. We had to secure our ballistic helmets atop our heads and place our rucksacks on our backs before we could stand at attention in formation. Attached to my protector belt, on the left side was my canteen within its can and cover. Attached on my right was my empty ammo pouch with my muzzle protector inside. I grabbed it and placed it on my weapon just before we were called to attention.

Once we were called to attention, we were given a right face command and we were marched out of the company area. We headed out towards the courtyard against the cool breeze. We carried our rifles at the low ready position with our muzzle protectors tightened securely at the tip. We remained in a tight formation although we rough stepped across the grassy hill nearer to the road. Drill Sergeant Andrews quickly separated us into two squads and we began moving out along the open paved road. I slowly moved along in second squad and I paused, like everyone else when I approached Drill Sergeant Mayor. We had to wait for him to give us his hand signal to begin marching again. Drill Sergeant Drake and Drill Sergeant Mayor stood alongside our squads, prompting each interval to ensure our platoon was aligned properly. Drill Sergeant Mayor finally gave me the signal to march along in the alignment. He also shook his head at me like he was ashamed of me as I walked by him. I ignored his expression and took wide steps to catch up with Private Green who proceeded ahead of me. Our silence and organized structure reminded me of predators creeping through the night.

A dark cloud hung over us and I felt my spirit hanging low like that cloud. I felt a deep sadness forming inside of me like lightning and thunder forming inside a cloud. I tried following suit, but his legs were much longer than mine. So I only did my best to keep up with him.

Drill Sergeant Andrews led the platoon down a wide dirt path that divided our PT field from another large portion of perfectly green field grass. As we marched, I peered up at the turbulent sky. The weather conditions were worsening by the second. A warm wind picked up and it smelled like rain. I could feel the moisture from the humid air against my skin. I didn’t easily sweat, but my skin was oily due to the air. There was a cool breeze that brushed alongside my neck. In that moment, I wished I could’ve felt the air against my back and chest, but I couldn’t due to my heavy flack vest. I listened to the rhythm of my heartbeat, which helped me to control my breathing. Listening to my heartbeat also helped me to stay in step with the wannabes; it helped me maintain a steady pace. Private Green had longer legs than I had, so I had to pace twice as fast to keep up with him. Private Johnson marched behind me and his legs were also longer than mine, but it didn’t matter. I was in control of my breathing and Johnson couldn’t step ahead of me.

I could honestly say my legs were comfortably stimulated after an hour of marching. I knew I was out of shape. Here I was nineteen years old and I couldn’t even last two miles. I knew I needed to exercise for my wellbeing, yet I’d never made the time to do it.

Ahead of us, nearly 50 feet away I could see that there was another paved road. The yellow paint that made up the lanes was vibrant enough to see from afar. Drill Sergeant Andrews remained the head of the platoon while Drill Sergeant Mayor centered himself between our two-squad segments and Drill Sergeant Drake led from the rear.

When Drill Sergeant Andrews came within nearly fifteen feet of the open road, he turned around and provided us with a hand signal to halt. We all stopped dead in our tracts. He then gave us another hand signal that meant for us to prepare to cross a danger zone. He took his right arm and diagonally moved it up and down crossed his chest at least twice. He looked as if he were pulling down and then releasing an invisible seatbelt. The wannabes ahead of me turned around and mocked the gesture on down the squads. They gave the signal for a brief moment before they turned back around to watch him.

We kneeled down where we stood and quickly regrouped, forming into two arrowhead squads known to us as alpha and bravo team. The first two wannabes between our two teams proceeded to rise. They move across the open road while there were no vehicles in sight. Once they hustled across the danger zone the next two followed behind them until we all crossed.

After we all made it safely across the road, we marched atop another green field of grass. We made our way under the large pine trees that toppled pinecones to the ground. I tried not to trample over them, yet the wannabes crushed them under their boots. As the scenery changed, I began to feel as though this was a journey across Ft. Jackson in our tactical formation. The silence allowed my mind to wander although I’d have rather called cadences.

There was a sudden roar of thunder and I jolted. Yet, I kept marching as if I hadn’t almost jumped out of my skin. The dark cloud that followed along with us proceeded on rumbling with vibrations of sound. It hovered low and spread darkness above our heads. It seemed as if it were a bomb that would explode into ashes any minute. I saw lightning striking up ahead in the obsidian sky. We marched on despite the signs of the weather.

Nothing but dirt surrounded us. I could hear my stomach shuffling air bubbles. I was hungry and my mood always shifted whenever I grew a little hungry. Although I journeyed alongside the wannabes, somehow I was still isolated. I felt like I was wasting my time at basic training and I was only an idiot like the wannabes and drill sergeants had said. Most of all, I felt like they were going to continue hating me. I couldn’t be one of them. My heart felt heavy as if the muscle was sore from a wound. I could hear the sound of my heartbeat slowly drifting away from my concentration. I looked down at my feet because I wanted them to stop moving. Yet, I couldn’t stop moving, I didn’t want to fall behind everyone else. They would think they were stronger than me. I began to talk to God in my mind.

Dear Lord,

I need your strength if I'm going to pass this road march and the victory forge one too. Why did I even join, Lord? I must be a fool.

In that moment, I wanted to cry. I could feel my pace slowing down, but I had to get my mind out of the negative so I could hear my heartbeat again. I closed my eyes for a brief moment and listened for the rhythm. My pulse had slowed, so I needed to speed up the pace. I walked a little faster, trying my hardest not to let the dark cloud bring me down with it. I took a deep breath and exhaled. God, thank you for the fresh air, I praised. I hoped that my praises would be righteous in His eyes and in return He would have mercy on me.

In the distance, I could see that we were headed upon a woodsy terrain. We patrolled towards it quickly and without precaution. The atmosphere grew darker and we became surrounded by bare, white sycamore trees. They appeared eerie to me, as if we were on the set of a scary movie. I could hear rodents creeping pass us as we moved. We had completed at least five miles of marching by the time we reached the woods. My body had become overworked.

I spotted a one-ton truck parked just up the dirt road as we marched. Drill Sergeant Mayor lifted his arm at a ninety-degree angle in the air and made a fist. We all imitated the signal and passed it down as we slowed to a halt. I noticed several large brown boxes in the back of the truck and I was grateful. I knew that meant it was lunchtime and we would be eating MREs. Lunchtime couldn’t have commenced at a better time. My body was ready for a break. I assumed we’d been moving for at least three hours. Our intervals moved closer together as everyone stopped and held up the signal.

Drill Sergeant Mayor directed Private Price to lead the 360 formation. He pointed her in the direction he wanted her to move. He wanted us to veer off to Price’s left into the field full of trees. Private Price quickly began to execute the command as she was instructed. She hastily moved far out to the left and then curved to the right while our segments of wannabes followed behind her. She had to create a circle large enough for all of us to fit. At the end of the alpha team’s segment bravo team began to follow. Private Green was the white male wannabe with the sharp pointy nose who stepped forward ahead of me. I followed along like the rest of them with my weapon at the low ready.

Once we were all included in our wide circular formation, I noticed the three bare sycamore trees within our formed circle. The drill sergeants commanded Private Carter and Private Price to hurry over to the one-ton to retrieve the platoon’s MRE lunches from the deck of the carrier. They both slung their weapons behind their backs and rushed over to the one-ton parked on the side of the dirt road a few feet ahead.

Private Carter and Private Price retrieved a large box from off the one-ton and placed it in the center of our formation. Drill Sergeant Andrews commanded them to open the box and choose their meal. After they were done choosing their MRE, we were called to the center of the formation one squad at a time. None of us picked through the bag, searching for any particular meal. Instead, we just grabbed an MRE from off the top of the box and returned to our place in the 360.

I was so happy to take my ballistic helmet off my head. I knew my hair looked like crap. It was sweated out and ugly. I didn’t care. It was in a ball on the back of my head like the military required. We all sat on the grass and ate our lunches. I could hear conversations beginning around me, but I had no motivation to jump into one of them. I quietly ate my beef minestrone in silence as I sat within the circle of wannabes. I just kept my face down and looked at my prepackaged meal. I didn’t want to socialize with any of them because I was already down and I didn’t want to hear any criticism.

After lunch, we assembled back into our same segment. Therefore, I remained between Private Green and Private Johnson. I didn’t want to participate in the road march anymore, but I had no way out of it. However, I felt somewhat refreshed from the meal and I reminded myself that there were others in this world that couldn’t afford a meal. The only thing I could aim to be was positive.

A long, powerful bolt of lightning struck against the beautiful, dark sky. In that very second, I knew that the power in the dark sky was a sign from God. He was trying to tell me there’s a power in being positive. Stay in the positive, Brenda. Try hard, I told myself.

I took the time to glance around at everyone else assembling into the proper alignment behind me. I lifted from the ground and followed behind them. It didn’t take long to gather in the proper order. I made sure I was in uniform with the wannabes. I held my weapon at the low ready position like everyone else and faced forward. The wannabes ahead of me were beginning to march. They were taking the time to march off one person at a time to create the intervals. Private Green began marching upon Drill Sergeant Drake’s hand signal and I started marching nearly 15 seconds behind him by that same signal.

Suddenly, the brimming cloud burst open over our heads. Large raindrops flooded from the sky, changing our surrounding from dry to muddy and humid. The drill sergeants gave us a closed fist signal to halt as we hoped they would. We were provided eight minutes to retrieve our wet weather gear and place it over our BDUs. I took my rucksack off my back and my whole body felt relief. I held my rucksack in one hand and shuffled through it with the other. I quickly retrieved my wet weather gear and began to step into it. I pulled my wet weather pants up over my BDU bottoms and I pulled my wet weather jacket down over my BDU top. I placed my arms into my rucksack straps and swung it across my back again. On the Drill Sergeant Andrews command, we began to move out.

We passed fields, streams, trees, and some rodents both dead and alive. While we marched, not one of us made a noise. The only sound that could be heard all around us was the sound of footsteps shuffling in the wet mud. The rain wasn’t so bad, but the mud began to build. After nearly thirty minutes, my body began to throb from my hips on down to my two big toes. The mush of the mud wasn’t helping. It made walking difficult.

My back felt like it would break right along my spine. My back constantly throbbed from the flack vest that weighed at least four pounds and the rucksack that weighed a good twelve to fifteen. I thought the rain might hide my tears because the cold also made me extremely uncomfortable. My uniform felt damp and cold, despite my wet weather gear. While we progressed forward, I eased my hands behind my back and searched in my rucksack for my glove warmers and gloves. Once I found them, I put them on immediately as I continued to march. My face dripped sweat and I could feel grit like dirt piling up on it. I couldn’t wait until this task was complete.

The temperature changed and it grew cold. Not too cold, but cold enough. I was wet and I couldn’t feel my limbs anymore. Yet, my back throbbed only to remind me of my painful existence. I just kept on marching forward like everything was fine. I had to do something if I wanted to continue. So, I began to slow down.

My nose was very cold and I could hear a clicking sound in my eardrums. There was nothing I could do. It wasn’t like I had a choice. It wasn’t like I could stop and take a break. My breathing was fine, yet my irritation level was high. I had to keep pushing despite the minor body aches and discomfort. Wasn’t everybody else throbbing with intense pain such as mine? I’ve had it with this stupid march, I thought.

“Hurry up, McCoy.” Private Johnson demanded.

I remained silent and continued at my same pace as he filed behind me. I didn’t even care that he wanted me to pick up the speed. I just kept at my same dragging pace. Quickly, he promenaded around me and flashed me a dirty expression through his basic training glasses. I was moving too slowly for his long slender legs.

By the time ten good minutes rolled away I was at the very end of the formation with the muzzle of my M-16 dragging in the mud. Drill Sergeant Drake awaited me like a snake coiled up in a garden. She waited for me to fall back on her.

“Yo’ weak body tired, huh, McCoy?” Drill Sergeant Drake snapped.

She silithered nearer to me.

“You suck!” she spat, bitterly.

“What in God’s name made you think you was good enough to join the military? You make us look so doggone bad! I wish you wasn’t even here!” she continued.

I wanted to laugh right in her face. I don’t care if I make you look bad! I thought.

Luckily, after another mile and a half, the platoon stopped. I was so happy to see they’d stopped up ahead. I wanted to sprint off running towards my platoon as if I weren’t tired. I had a sudden burst of energy similar to the bursting of the rain cloud. We’d finally arrived.

“Just drag yo’ weak body on over there with the real soldiers. You ain’t worthy, but I’ma let you stand and participate with the rest of us, you hear? You also got extra duty!” Drill Sergeant Drake spat.

I lifted my M-16 rifle and held it like a baby in my arms. She snatched it away from me and then shoved it in my chest like she was trying to leave an imprint. Then she stopped walking and let me get a few steps ahead of her while she followed behind. On the bright side, I didn’t want to cry.

Private Peterson pulled the fireguard shift with me. I’d overheard the males calling him by the name, Big Red, and I knew they’d nicknamed him that for his pinkish-orange appearance. Peterson was also one of the tallest wannabes in our platoon. We stood atop the hefty pine brush scattered across the ground. It felt like I was standing on a messy pile of scrap papers. He only stared at me in the entrance of our perimeter where we pulled guard over our platoon, lying snug in their sleeping bags. I would’ve had someone to talk to if he would have socialized with me, but I wasn’t going to make the first move. Luckily, I was standing up with my rifle at the low ready position. Otherwise, I’d have fallen asleep. I gazed at the moisture from my breath that created a cloud of warm air in the eeriness of the night and I thought about sleep. I thought that laying my drowsy head on a pillow and dressing in winter PTs with a thick, soft blanket spun around my tired body would be pure heaven.

It was hard to keep my balance. My overworked legs locked up on me every ten minutes. I kept falling backward and having to walk myself back to the spot where I originally stood. It was only a blessing that there wasn’t a drill sergeant behind me. In the dark, I could see lightning bugs and I overheard the rodents crawling around in the night. I gazed up towards the sky and I noticed all the enormous trees with snakelike branches that blocked my view. The trees made it hard to get a clear view of the cloudy sky. I leaned my head back down and I noticed figures moving in towards me. They moved in closer and closer, but I couldn’t quite make out what it was in front of me. I was in a daze as it moved. I began to focus on them like a lens. Slowly but surely, I realized it was Private Fleshman and Private Chapman who were proceeding in my direction. The hour was finally up and they were ready to take over the duty. We were finally being relieved and I could finally go to bed.

Private Fleshman also looked to be tired, but he wasn’t complaining nor was he angry. He just held an artificial smile on his face. Chapman also seemed to be pleasant. It was almost as if they enjoyed waking up in the middle of the night to stand guard. When Chapman walked up on me we stood looking at one another. I stood staring at Chapman because I was in a comma.

“McCoy?” she asked, looking me dead in my eyes.

“Yea.” I replied.

“You're relieved.” she informed.

I smiled at her. My entire body felt relieved the minute I heard her say I was off duty. A cold burst of excitement shot through my tired limbs. The moment I journeyed away, I overheard Private Fleshman call me a space cadet. Out of nowhere, Drill Sergeant Mayor appeared and I knew he’d overheard what Fleshman said.

“This female needs a battle buddy!” Drill Sergeant Mayor called to the other wannabes.

I turned my head around to find Private Chapman slinging her weapon around her upper body and hurrying over toward me. She stood tall by my side.

“Push, you!” Drill Sergeant Mayor yelled at me.

I didn’t even ask questions, Chapman and I gladly dwindled onto the crispy, pine leaf ground and assembled into front leaning arrest position.

“Down!” Drill Sergeant Mayor commanded.

I bent my elbows and brushed my torso against the leaves as I pushed down. I could hear Private Chapman counting with me.

Drill Sergeant Mayor finally permitted us to recover after fifteen push-ups. Once we recovered, Private Chapman smiled at me and I smiled at her right back. Drill Sergeant Mayor looked at me as if I was the filthiest thing on earth, but I walked away from him feeling apathetic. Private Chapman returned to her post and I dragged myself to my hooch which was prepared by my assigned ‘battle buddy'.

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