R Day

Reception is a sacred tradition, whether it’s Shock Treatment for infantry trainees at Fort Benning, GA, or Recruit Receiving for Marine Corps recruits, or R Day at the US Military Academy at West Point.  As much as it pains me to admit it, the Army has done away with anything resembling shock treatment for basic trainees, even in the infantry, choosing instead to nurture and teach young men instead of figuratively kicking their butts until they met or exceeded the standard.  I now run the risk of sounding like every old-fogie former soldier who jaws about how hard it was back in the Old Army, which for today’s soldiers is akin to learning about how the Sharps carbine helped win the Civil War.  Too bad, it really was harder, you punks.

About ten years ago, I got to experience my first R Day at West Point, because my cousin B was going in.  He and I were never very close, but it meant a great deal to me, that he wanted me there when he took the oath of office at Trophy Point.  Today, to celebrate R Day for the Class of 2015, I’ve pasted below a letter I wrote to B after his R Day.  That cloudless summer day reminded me that “soldier” can also be a verb, and that the Army is in good hands as long as the tripod of duty-honor-country helps produce solid leaders for the future.

Congratulations, New Cadet.  I’m typing this because I type faster than I write longhand, a fact I hid from my recruiter in case he wanted to make me a clerk.  I’ll also be sending you regular letters because I remember how much mail call meant to me, all those years ago, before the earth cooled.  That’s my address on top, along with phone numbers that I doubt you’ll have time (or be allowed) to use.

How did it feel yesterday?  I can only give you our impressions of R-day, which were mixed at best.  Part of it was expected.  Your dad and brother looked a little dazed that all of this might be happening to you, and to them indirectly.  Your mother bawled when she saw D Company march off after the oath.  I think that’s when she finally came to grips with the fact that her son is a man and that it might be time to let go.  It wasn’t anything she said, but it was there nonetheless.  As for myself, I was so damn proud of you I could have been walking on air.  And, like your parents, when I watched you and your company march towards Trophy Point, I saw you as a man for the first time.  I felt a little shock – you know, the usual “Oh, Christ, they all look alike!” – and more than a little concern.  You looked a little shocked yourself, but understandable considering what I’ve heard from graduates about their own R-days.

I burned through a lot of memories yesterday, and had to put up with nonstop answers from your parents – more from your mom than your dad, of course.  I also had to convince her that I really didn’t know my way around the post, as if every soldier is issued detailed maps of every Army post upon enlistment.  I thought of myself, and a few hundred others I either know or used to know, on days like yesterday.  My first encounter with it was what they used to call “Shock Treatment” at Ft. Benning.  All I can say is that I think I, more than anyone else in the family, know what you might be going through.

Like I said in the card we wrote yesterday, welcome to the profession of arms.  Welcome to the process of molding soldiers from scraggly-assed civilianhood.  One of my drill sergeants told us on Day One that we were lower than cat puke, and that his six-year-old daughter had more discipline in her little pinky than we had in our entire bodies.  Can’t seem to remember if that was before or after we did push ups for not staying still at attention.  One of his favorites for us was to get us in the front lean and rest [push-up] position, go halfway down, and stay there.  God help us if our arms shook from fatigue or we arched our backs to take the weight off our arms.

But that’s neither here nor there, just an old memory I thought of yesterday, a memory I hadn’t really thought of in a long while.  I admit, though, I remember being scared shitless most of my first week.  Couldn’t really tell who to trust, much less make friends with.  Couldn’t tell if I was doing okay or fucking up royally, since to our drill sergeants they were one and the same.  That changed when I realized that if I were to succeed or fail, all responsibility began and ended with me.  That’s a hell of a lot to absorb for a young man who once thought the world owed him everything.  I also made lifelong friends…

You will also find yourself a little lost at times, and maybe doubting if you made the right choice.  Like they told us in Ranger School, we’re never “lost;” we’re only “temporarily disoriented.”  You might also wonder how you ever got there in the first place.  If it’s any consolation, everyone thinks that at one time or another.  You have to realize that you are not alone in any regard, whether you’re short of breath during a PT run or entertaining visions of quitting while lying on your rack after lights-out.  You have the guys in your squad and platoon, your chain of command, and if need be, me.  You also have yourself, and it’s always easiest to discount your own strengths during a trying time.  You have to remember that this is what you wanted, and that we should accept any and all consequences of our decisions.  If you hadn’t been intelligent, athletic, and showed leadership potential, you wouldn’t be one of the 10% of all nationwide applicants to be sweating and grunting at zero-dark-thirty.  George Patton said it best: “Never take counsel of your fears or naysayers.”

Welcome to the Army, an Army I cherished as my own and still do.  I’m proud as hell of you, we all are.  If you need anything, or if you just want to vent in a letter, don’t hesitate.

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