FORT SILL, Okla. (June 8, 2017) — The yelling. Long days and short nights. PT before dawn and classes all day. That was pretty much the first week of basic combat training for C Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
But at the start of the second week, the trainees got to do real Army stuff.
Assembled at Treadwell Tower — the bane or boon of a trainee’s existence, the 214 recruits listened intently to their drill sergeants and instructors on Day 8 of training, May 31. The looks on their faces were a mixture of worried concentration and dread as instructors in black “Team Destroyer” T-shirts demonstrated every aspect of the rope and rappel course.
For some, the challenge was to conquer a fear of heights. For others, it was to remember where to put feet and hands on the ropes course. The worse they screwed up, the louder the yelling. But then, it wouldn’t be basic training without the auditory enhancements.
“Today’s a fun obstacle course day,” said Staff Sgt. Aaron Eller, HHS, 434th Field Artillery Brigade. “People pay to rappel in the civilian world. Here you get to do it for free, correct?” The automatic answer: “Yes sergeant.”
“Wrong!” he retorted. “You are getting paid and fed by the United States Army to rappel.”
He continued, “This should be a fun, easy day. The only thing you have to do is participate, and keep your discipline so drill sergeants and us aren’t yelling at you.”
Nevertheless, the constant shouting soon became background noise. “Put your hand the other way. THE OTHER WAY! Bend your body into an L shape. BEND YOUR BODY! Now cover your face and fall. FALL!” Some were more colorful in their admonishments, but the trainees took it in stride.
Pvt. Cailin Cinnamon of Garber, Oklahoma, said it’s all exactly as she expected, including the drill sergeants.
“When they’re in your face it’s pretty scary,” she acknowledged as she waited her turn on the rappel course. She had a little trouble on the first horizontal rope and said the one higher up was easier because it was slanted. The hardest part for her is “doing all this physical activity in the uniform and the heat.”
Cinnamon, who will be a high school senior, said she wanted the college benefits to study sports medicine. Her aunt in Nebraska served in the Army, Navy and National Guard. She is one of several high school students who joined the National Guard through the Split Option program, which allows 17-year-olds to join in their junior year, take basic, then finish high school before heading off to advanced individual training (AIT).
“I like all of this,” said Pvt. Kylie DeLoach of Hainesville, Louisiana, after she completed the tricky rope course. “I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie.” Last week she expressed concern that she might flunk the physical fitness tests.
“I’ve gotten better at my pushups and my running time. And better at controlling my breathing,” she said. She can do 26 pushups (the minimum is 13) and she feels better about her chances of succeeding.
DeLoach will complete her senior year in high school before she goes for training in her military occupational specialty (MOS) of 92Y supply.
Perhaps the easiest task of the day was a Tarzan-style rope swing across a pit filled with “water buffalo and vicious cobras.” They were told to just swing, not jump, so as not to give themselves rope burns or risk falling into the “pit of doom.”
At the 40-foot rappel tower, they were treated to a demonstration of what not to do. Drill Sgt. Diego Vega played the role of a terrified trainee and shook his head stubbornly when told to climb down the wall. The trainees laughed, as much to release tension as to enjoy the humor.
The “trainee” also jumped before he was told to, whined that he wanted the drill sergeant to catch him, and found himself upside down on the rope because he didn’t follow instructions. A moment of levity.
Pvt. DeJon Riley of New Orleans, Louisiana, another high schooler in the Split Option Program, was belly down on the mini-wall waiting for instructions to rappel down as a drill sergeant disciplined an inattentive Soldier on the belay who didn’t prepare her replacement properly.
“Why didn’t you brief him to take his gloves off? That’s your whole job to tell him your job so you can go away.” Then he lit into the belay replacement. “Eye level with your hands! Loose grip! LOOK AT THE RAPPELLER!”
He turns to Riley, who is still belly down next to him, looking at his belay below. “You might die if you fall,” he says facetiously. “I wouldn’t trust him as far as I can throw him.”
“Yes drill sergeant,” replies Riley.
He tells Riley to put his legs over the edge and stand on the ledge a few feet down. “Keep your legs straight! KEEP YOUR LEGS STRAIGHT!” Riley walks himself down the wall as instructed, then takes up the belay.
Once done with that, Riley easily swings over the pit of doom and talks himself into tackling the dreaded tower.
“Come on, you can do it,” he tells himself aloud. “It’s just high, that’s all.” He shakes his hands and arms as if shaking the fear away. Then he runs, jumps on the thick blue mat, and carefully scrambles up the ladder.
Once on top, he crawls on all fours as instructed, for safety. The drill sergeant tells him to put on his gloves, then attaches the belay rope to his Figure 8 (which helps him descend slower than with a carabiner).
“Look at the ledge,” he tells Riley, who complies. Then he swings his legs over, stands on the ledge, and gives three test jumps before taking the plunge.
The first leap is ungainly, more of a slide than a jump. But Riley regains his composure and his balance, and in four graceful pushes is on the ground. He backs up as the belay pulls the rope from the harness. Another drill sergeant yells, “Look away! LOOK AWAY!” so the rope doesn’t smack him in the face.
Afterward Riley said, “I was scared at first because I didn’t trust my equipment, and I didn’t trust my drill sergeants because they kept saying they were going to kick me off if I didn’t go.” He made a face with a half smile. “But it was exhilarating, and I basically conquered one of my fears. In a way I showed personal courage, one of the Army Values.”
Riley was raised by his grandmother and had to help raise his little brothers. He said he joined the National Guard “because basically we’re on the front line to protect our own family and our country.”
Riley said the in-your-face drill sergeants sometimes make him wonder if he made the right decision.
“But then when things calm down, we’re all having fun, working as a team, then I’m like, yeah, that’s why I joined the Army.”
And the yelling?
“Yelling gets to you sometimes, but it hasn’t cracked me yet.”
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series following six trainees in the National Guard’s Split Option Program as they take basic combat training in C Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery.