You may not realize this, but not everyone who joins the military does so to be patriotic.
Most of the enlisted guys I knew only joined because they had nowhere else to go.
That was my story too.
Thirty-five years ago today I arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, for my basic training. I had just turned 18. Prior to leaving home, I was given some advice by the brother of a kid I knew who joined a few years earlier. He simply said, “Don’t make excuses.”
When I arrived at Lackland with my teenage locks and an earring that represented recalcitrance, I stood alongside a dozen other boys ferried to the base from the bus station downtown. We were all different sizes and colors. That first night the Training Instructors (drill sergeants) lined us up outside the barracks where they got in each of our faces tempting us to blink so that they could, “Put your worthless asses back on the bus to the pansy civilian world.”
As the hulking TI walked in front of me he snapped at a 90 degree angle, and the brim of his hat hit my forehead. He smiled. Then he leaned in next to my ear and whispered, “You gay, boy?” I cleared my throat. I wasn’t. But I didn’t know what to say. “Because if you’re gay, we can make some special accommodations for you.”
“SIR NO SIR,” I blurted out.
“Then I recommend you remove that earring now, before I remove it for you,” he continued in an an ominous whisper.
I removed it. It never went back in.
They knocked us all down to the same level by shaving our heads and giving us green uniforms with no name tags. And then for the next six weeks they had their way with our minds. The idea was that if we couldn’t take it in basic training, they didn’t want us around million dollar aircraft in crunch time. There were sixty guys in my squadron at the beginning. Thirty graduated.
I was one of the ones who made it. Which was a shock, considering I went in with classic ADD. Only, they didn’t have ADD back then, they had, “JIMMY PAY GODDMAN ATTENTION.” But being in basic training taught me how to turn my ADD into OCD. You want underwear starched and ironed into 6” squares that you could kill someone with if you flung it across a room? I was your guy. You want boots that looked like black mirrors? I got that. All these new rules helped me learn discipline and teamwork. But the best thing basic training did was teach me to be accountable.
Don’t make excuses.
About a month into the six-week program, we had a surprise inspection. At 3 a.m. Woken by the banging of pots and pans, we rushed out into the night in our skivvies and stood at attention. One by one the Tis would call us into the barracks and berate us until we either broke, or conformed. When they called me in, someone (the TIs) had taken my 6” square underwear and unfolded them. Three Tis surrounded me screaming at my worthlessness. It was fucking beautiful, man. But they didn’t know that I was onto their game. I stood stone-faced and took every spitting syllable. When they asked why I screwed up so badly, I just said, “SIR, NO EXCUSE SIR.”
More screaming More spit on my face.
“WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF MITCHEM?’
“SIR, NO EXCUSE SIR.”
They released me back to my squadron that was standing outside in the middle of the night at full attention in their underwear. Wide eyes locked onto me as I emerged from the barracks.
I smiled as I fell back into place and snapped to attention.
We lost five guys that night.