Thirty years ago today, I reported to the Armed Forces Processing Center in Richmond, VA. I spent the day with several hundred others being poked, prodded, analyzed, weighed, and measured. It was done en masse, impersonally, and followed an assembly line model of efficiency. I raised my right hand and swore to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic. By virtue of being an old man of 21, I was given “command” of twelve 17 and 18-year olds. I was to make sure these young men – none of whom had ever traveled more than 100 miles from home – made it to Lackland AFB, TX.
It was like herding cats.
Get the Hell Off This M*ther Fu*kin’ Bus Pronto!
We arrived at Lackland that night and were herded off our bus – none too gently – by a squad of fire-breathing drill sergeants. We spent the night standing for hours in formation or lying down in our beds only to be rudely roused every few minutes by a series of fire drills that continued until all 50 of us vacated our barracks in less than 30 seconds. Finally, our first 24-hour day ended and we slept…for four hours.
The next day we began the mystical transformation from civilians to airmen. Each of us surrendered all personal items – clothing, jewelry, books – and went to a room for identical buzz cuts. When we finished our 30-second stylings, we walked across great mounds of shorn hair and joined an assembly line.
The place smelled heavily of mothballs.
Stop One: Strip bare. Stop Two: Don an ill-fitting, unmarked uniform. Stop Three: Put on ill-fitting boots. Stop four: Link arms in pairs and walk together through a gauntlet of medics pounding shots into arms with air-powered inoculators. Flinched at the vital moment, and you received not a tiny pinhole, but a small slash. Regardless of the type of hole, they all bled. If your partner passed out, you carried him through the rest of the line.
Trabants Off the Assembly Line
We rolled off the assembly line like identical Trabants from an East German auto factory. Identical hair cuts. Identical uniforms sans name or insignia. Identical hats, folded identically whenever removed. After a 15 minute trip down the assembly line we became, not a gaggle of undisciplined and individual civilians, but a homogeneous organism composed of 50 identical and interchangeable airmen.
For the next six weeks, we acted as one. If one misperformed, we all suffered the consequences. If one couldn’t hack the pre-dawn, pre-breakfast 1.5 mile run, those on either side linked arms and carried him – something I did every morning for those six weeks. If one flunked a test, everyone retook it until we all passed. Only when our entire flight suitably impressed the sergeants did we all receive the first coveted perk of individualism – our last name sewn onto a blue and white name tag.
I learned many things over the six weeks. Did you know Right Guard spray deodorant removes shoe scuffs from linoleum without ruining the shine? Or, that a bad sunburn is a violation of Article 108 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (destruction of government property). Prell shampoo leaves no soap scum and I can still fold my underwear in perfect 4 inch wide rectangles, make a bed that can bounce a quarter, and produce a damn good “spit shine”.
Hint: It doesn’t involve spit, but it does involve flaming shoe polish and nylon hosiery.
Building the Better Airman
Many civilians see these dehumanizing actions as insulting and inane. They see the revocation of all individualism as a bad thing, rather than necessary preparation for the day you might be asked to sacrifice yourself. They quite often miss the point that an undisciplined, individually-focused group would run rather than stand their ground in the service of something greater than themselves without being stripped bare and rebuilt in the military’s image.
I was a Cold Warrior. I never went to awful places where people plotted to end my life before I ended theirs, though I got uncomfortably close several times. I never entered combat, but was close enough to those who did and privy to enough hyper-realistic practice warfare that I know something of their sacrifice. I was simply lucky – lucky in more ways than the obvious.
My experience made me the person I am today. I still fold my underwear in 4 inch rectangles and make my bed with hospital corners. I even walk differently – with a measured 18 inch step and perfect click of my heels. But, I also know the value of something larger than myself and see the great strength of individualism supported by homogeneity. Those six weeks taught me more about handling adversity than the many years I spent surviving a chaotic home life. They taught me that sometimes subordinating oneself to a larger goal is a powerful virtue, but also taught me that molding an unfair and chaotic world to my own needs is more powerful still. Those six weeks really did make me who I am today.
And, I wouldn’t change a moment of it if I could.