Army trainees in C Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery have gone from knowing diddlysquat about Soldiers to actually being one, all in nine weeks.
By and large, their physical training scores have improved, they know a dictionary-full of military jargon, and most of all, they survived basic combat training in the unforgiving Oklahoma heat.
Even trainees on crutches and with injuries managed to hobble to and from the dining facility, endure the torture of the gas chamber, and learn to fire an M16.
Not all who began basic training will finish, but just the attempt is an act of courage.
The more restrictive Red and White phases of training are behind them, and the Blue Phase is meant to be the final polish on a dedicated recruit, or the herbicide that weeds out the under-performers.
Charlie Battery transitioned to Blue Phase July 8, during their pugel stick competitions. There was no ceremony, just a talk by the drill sergeants.
The trainees were told they get more free time and more phone time, but they also have more responsibilities, said Pvt. Shane McDonald of Warrenton, Va., who is an Army ROTC cadet in college.
Previously if a trainee screwed up, the whole platoon would have to do pushups, he said. If a drill sergeant wanted to make the goof-up feel even more guilty, the trainee would be the only one not being punished.
“So, you have to stand there and watch as your platoon suffers, and you make sure you never make that mistake again,” said McDonald.
He said punishments fall on the individual more than the group in Blue Phase.
“So if you really are messing up, you’ll get singled out a lot quicker. They (the drill sergeants) said this is where they lose a lot of Soldiers, because they’ve been skating underneath the radar and they start to stand out more.”
WARRIOR MEAL – DRILL SERGEANT ROAST
Another tradition in the Blue Phase is the Warrior Meal, where the Soldiers are rewarded with an “all-you-can-eat” buffet served by the drill sergeants and the first sergeant.
The food was brought to one of the battery classrooms, and the Soldiers arranged their rifles in neat square piles on the floor before they lined up. Paper plates were piled high with two kinds of chicken, potato salad, mac-and-cheese, rice, corn-on-the-cob, bread, rolls, and cookies. They even got to return for seconds.
As they sat in chairs and ate, several Soldiers with particularly good impersonation skills entertained the gathering by imitating their drill sergeants. The room howled with laughter, and the drill sergeants laughed as they recognized themselves or their battle buddies being made fun of.
“There’s only two things in this entire world that scare me,” mocked Pvt. Andrae Holsey. “That’s IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and spiders! If they ever make an IED full of spiders, that’s it. I’m waving the white flag.”
Drill Sgt. Michael Deserio later owned up to that one.
“Those are the two things I’m terrified of,” he said. “If (a spider) touches me, it’s game over.” He laughed.
Pvt. Dannilo Villanueva’s impression of Drill Sgt. Diego Vega’s trademark tilt of his campaign hat down over his eyes, and his deep-toned, in-your-face discipline, was a hit with the troops. Vega smiled, but looked like he was trying not to.
Pfc. Robert Costea played the role of a trainee getting yelled at, then he was piled on by about 10 other screaming “drill sergeants,” in what’s known as a shark attack. It was all in the best of fun, and perhaps even a badge of honor when a drill sergeant saw himself or herself imitated in such fine form.
RITE OF PASSAGE
There is a tradition that trainees truly become Soldiers when they don their berets, and that happens during the Rite of Passage, held a week before graduation.
After the last light disappeared from the evening sky July 19, Charlie Battery marched out to a nearby training field, each platoon singing a different cadence. The drill sergeants had already prepared the grog –a mixture of sodas, a large dose of hot sauce, and a froth of dry ice which made the mixture bubble, burble and “smoke” in the fashion of a witch’s brew.
Two bonfires lit the way, and glow sticks guided each platoon into position as the cadre and command team faced them in the darkness.
Drill sergeants barked “hurry up” as each trainee came to the grog table with canteen cups in hand, and occasionally a drill sergeant would make a wisecrack. “It’s not gonna burn you,” said one as a trainee moved her fingers out of the way of the ladle, then grinned.
When all cups were filled, toasts were offered, and the trainees responded and raised their cups as they were taught. They toasted America, the president, the Army, the 434th Field Artillery Brigade, and deployed Soldiers. When a toast was made “to our fallen comrades ” there was reverential silence in response. The only sounds were the chirps of crickets and tree frogs.
Capt. Morgan Montgomery,, battery commander, addressed them.
“This uniform, and the flag you wear on your shoulders, represents your country everywhere you go Do not disgrace this uniform. You are just about to join one of the biggest fraternities, or sororities, in the world. If you show pride in what you’ve accomplished and what you stand for, you will be successful.”
Battery 1st Sgt. Joshua Pickering then told them, “Take one of the drill sergeants that you thought was the best, that did everything correct, that you learned the most from, and try to be like them the rest of your career. You are the future of the nation’s Army.”
Drill Sergeant (Staff Sgt.) David Wells, Drill Sergeant of the Cycle, congratulated them on their transition from civilian to trainee, and from trainee to Soldier.
“I encourage you to use the Seven Army Values your drill sergeants have instilled in you, in all your decision-making processes, from here on out,” he said. “You are a Soldier both in and out of uniform, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
Then the moment came. Montgomery ordered them to remove their patrol caps and put on their berets as a symbol of their transition from trainee to Soldier. Canteen cups clattered as Soldiers reached in their pockets for the cherished berets, then worked in the dark to put them on properly.
Montgomery continued, “With the donning of the beret, everyone on this post now knows that you have completed all necessary requirements to be called Soldiers.”
The drill sergeants then distributed Army Values tags, which the Soldiers attached to their dog tags chain. Music chosen for the occasion helped set the mood, and for a minute or two they stood in the darkness, occasionally adjusting an unfamiliar part of their uniform on their heads.
The platoons then did soldierly pushups, and marched back to the barracks.