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From my first day in ROTC, almost three years ago now, the legends about Basic Leadership Training had been circulating. Certain phrases like “You will bake until you are a potato;” “You will see your breakfast again;” “I saw the polish running off my shoes;” and “You will see your lunch again,” stood out.
Hearing all of this stuff made me wonder why anyone would willingly go to BLT. Of course, I’m sure a few people were forced to go. However, the vast majority of those who went chose to. Another phrase was often heard: “The best worst four days of your life.” People said that it was difficult, but would be fun. They were right.
On June 21, 11 of us assembled in the high school’s parking lot at 4:45 a.m. The early morning air was chilly, cutting right through the yellow physical training shirts we wore for check-in and the bus ride.
After taking care of roll call and other administrative necessities, the bus rolled out. For the next six hours or so, we drove south, stopping only once for gas and bathroom breaks. Eventually, we reached El Paso, Texas. The bus pulled into McGregor Range at about 11 a.m. At that moment, we passed into a world unlike anything else.
The bus pulled to a stop and the door opened. A Marine in desert camo stepped on. His voice almost echoed in that enclosed bus. “Alright! You all got five seconds to get off this bus! Got it?!” We bellowed back the expected “Yes, sir!” He stepped out of the stairwell and we all sprinted full tilt down those stairs, through a gate in a fence topped with barbed wire, and onto a patch of sand enclosed on three sides by a building.
The orange sand sank beneath our feet, kicking up clouds of dust as we sprinted. We formed four lines, all at attention. The Marine who had gotten on our bus, and a few others, walked through our formation and yelled at a few people. Then, they had us sprint back onto the bus, grab our gear, and sprint back off.
We formed up again, and once again the Marines walked through the formation, yelling at some of us. I almost passed out at this time. All four Marines converged on me like vultures.
They took a water bottle from one of the people in the line and made me stand in a corner with a slight overhang — the most shade there was out there — and chug the water. Eventually, they made me rejoin the formation.
Later, when I said, “I don’t know, sir,” to a question I was asked, one of the Marines got up in my face and screamed, “I! I! I! How about ‘this recruit?!’ ” Every single cadet that passed through that gate referred to themselves as “this recruit,” and referred to themselves in the third person. Laugh if you will, but it was scary.
Those four marines were the drill instructors. They didn’t teach the leadership training, but rather, it seemed their collective purpose in being there was to make the lives of the recruits as miserable as possible.
Shortly after all the recruits had arrived, all the male recruits were gathered into one room of the barracks. The DIs confiscated everyone’s watches. At that moment, the recruits lost all concept of time. For the next four days, the recruits would frequently be heard asking each other, “What time do you think it is?” We did not know how long we had been there, or how much longer we would stay. We just lived in the moment, trying to survive for one second more.
Those four days blended into one homogenous blur of misery. The DIs seemed to be there to make life hard on us. They had the us stand at attention in their formations, not moving for what seemed like incredibly long amounts of time. They had the us sprint back and forth across the barracks, sometimes running, other times carrying the mattresses from our bunks with us.
They had us hold our full-to-the-brim one-quart canteens at arm’s length, and keep them there. This was easy for the first minute, then became quite painful. They had us eat our meals with one hand, shoveling down food and staring at our plates. We also sprinted everywhere we had to go. They chewed us out — sometimes individually, sometimes as a group — whenever possible, whether warranted or not.
Sometimes, however, the hardships stopped for a while, and we had fun. Twice, the DIs gathered us into one of the squad bays, and just talked to us. They would tell stories that had us laughing our heads off.
One of the DIs told a story about how he had gone to boot camp with a man named Jackie Chong, which, if said quickly enough, sounds like “Jackie Chan.” One of their DIs made Chong karate chop the air and shout “WA-CHA!” every time someone said his name. Then, their senior DI had all the future Marines sit around him, and he talked to them. At some point he said, “Chong.”
The DI who issued the order was in the room at the time, so Chong had no choice. Out of nowhere, he jumped up, karate-chopped the air, and screamed “WA-CHA!”
The senior DI got up in Chong’s face and started yelling at him. But, he kept saying “Chong,” so Chong had to keep chopping and screaming. The senior DI tackled him, grabbed him by the throat, shook him against the ground, and yelled at him.
But, almost every sentence contained the word “Chong,” so Chong had to keep screaming and chopping as best he could from the ground. Eventually, the DI who issued the order told his superior that he had told Chong to do that.
On the last night, the DIs reminisced about everything that had happened during the week. The three platoons had basically been at war, trying to steal each other’s guidons – the flags that the platoon guides carry in formation. Once, first platoon had attacked second platoon, charging down the connecting hallway between the two.
First and second platoons a battle, each trying to get past the defenders, into the other’s squad bay and steal their guidon. Also, third platoon once attacked second platoon. Those recruits had wrenched open one of the doors and were trying to get in. The male recruits had formed a plug in the doorframe. The ladies would push at the line, trying to break through.
Then they would grab one of the guys and yank him outward. So, those of us not on the front line had to both push and pull on our fellow recruits at the same time. Eventually, they gave up.
There are so many other stories I wish I could share. There was April, and her two alleged boyfriends. There were the inter-platoon shouting matches. There was that first day, which was a fun day. There was the time we crowd-surfed a couple of recruits on mattresses. On the ride back home, I reminisced with a friend about the last week.
As the joke went, the colors of the ribbon awarded at the end of the course summed up BLT in a nutshell: sun (yellow) puke (green), blood (red) and sweat (white). We agreed that, while the hardship all blurred together, each moment of fun stood out clearly in our memories. It was horrible while we were there, but we look back on it fondly. It truly was the best worst four days of my life.