The Boots We Earned

Put me on a silver jet, now that’s a ride I won’t forget.

The first two lines of a fairly popular cadence, while I suppose it’s mostly true, some of the details were a bit off. The anxiety, and excitement of what was coming certainly kept me awake, and I do remember most of the flight, my plane was white. You can’t really blame the cadence, it didn’t know that times had changed, and besides, white isn’t enough syllables to keep marching time. The flight from New York to St. Louis, was a long one, but the ride didn’t end when the plane landed, it had just begun. Nine weeks doesn’t seem like a long time, about a summer vacation, which have a terrible habit of flying by. The nine weeks of basic training however dragged on, for the longest two months of my life. Though, looking back on it, they were some of most exciting, and fun two months I’ve ever experienced.

While the flight was long, and filled with excited thoughts, and nervous musings, it certainly was not the most memorable part of basic, and certainly not the worst. No, the title of the worst time in basic training goes to the three or four days I spent in the reception battalion. Reception, is the most devious kind of hell. No torture, no flames, or terrible demons poking you with sharp sticks, just lines. Hours upon hours of lines, making sure every little detailed is squared away in your file before they ship you out to your training companies. Inactivity, and the constant looming threat of dozens of wondering Drill Sergeants somehow made reception at once the most boring, and stressful part of the entire experience. But we did get one thing in reception, it seems small, and an odd thing the focus on, but you got your boots. They were nice, and clean and new, and you hadn’t really earned them yet, but you would. Your boots were an important part of your experience, because unlike the old black jump boots, that were cleaned and polished, these tan ones weren’t cleaned. Your boots were your markers, they alone showed what you endured. Your uniforms were stripped of their mud, and blood, and sweat at every trip to the cleaners. It was your boots that bore witness, and showed to the world that you had worked in them. Our boots also separated us, those who hadn’t earned the free foot wear, and those that had. The reception battalion also processed those returning to advanced individual training, their boots weren’t clean, they had earned theirs. So we were a wayward family together, our own insular group, with our clean boots, and our fear, anticipation, and excitement of what was to come.

That boredom gave way instantly once we got to our actual training units, in an event whose name will likely draw either a nostalgic grin, or a slight look of terror from people who have gone through it. Shark attack. The shark attack, is the name we use to describe the few minutes, (or in some unlucky cases much longer period of time) where you are ushered off the bus outside your new barracks, and meet your Drill Sergeants. It’s a nice warm greeting they give, full of respectful nods, and friendly handshakes. Oh, that was graduation, no the shark attack is the epitome of what you see in the movies. Several Drills run up and down the ranks, getting your your face, and screaming obscenities I won’t list here. All this while they make you do ridiculous amounts of push-ups, and lift your sixty plus pound duffel bag over your head, until you drop it, at which time they call you weak, and make you pick it up again. Now, as I said before, this wonderfully exciting time varies in actual length, mine in fact wasn’t all that long.

What’s the purpose of this you might ask? Basically, the whole point about nearly everything in the early stages of basic training, is to create a high stress environment, in order to show you how you will react in far more dangerous situations. If you can’t stand some large man with a big green hat on yelling at you, perhaps a profession where the possibility that you’ll be shot at is fairly high, is not the right job for you. After the shark attack, our boots had their first scuff marks, the front edges just a bit worn, and through it, our small family grew closer, we had our first shared experience, and all of our boots were scuffed up the same amount.

Push. We heard that a lot, and honestly after a while I can tell you there is no other combination of four letters in the English language, that are more annoying. While push-ups were the most common exercise we were forced to do after any mistake, bumble, screw up, or when the Drill Sergeants were bored, they were by no means the worst, nor the most interestingly named. In my experience in fact, the funnier an exercise sounds, the more god awfully painful it is. All the exercises, combined with all the minute tasks that needed to be accomplished, plus your isolation from the outside world, these are the things that make basic training hard. In fact the absolute worst days of the cycle, are the ones that we had nothing specific to do. They used it to try to separate us as well, punishing the whole group for one persons mistake. But it only worked for short bursts, once our anger at being smoked subsided, we could look down at our boots, and realize, they had paid to, and in the end it was only exercise anyway.

Training was fun, plain and simple, I can’t think of any other situation where you get paid to shoot guns, blow things up, and run obstacle courses. It’s the things they surround the training with that take it from the realm of amusement, to the realm of work, and pain, and annoyance. And it was the training that wore the deepest grooves into out boots, and buried the most dirt into their fibers. It was also the training that brought us closer together. Most things we did required the guy next to you to help you through, and for you to help him. Whether it be words of encouragement when your will was shaken, by fear or a previous failure. All of us grew closer, as our boots got dirtier, we began to enter another world. Because, what basic training really is, is a journey, to become part of a larger family, a brotherhood. Military culture can be a unique beast, and it all starts with your boots.

Through out all of these experiences, your boots gained character. That persistent red dust that clung to it’s fibers, showed the mud you had waded through. The small nicks, the underbrush you had dragged them across. The worn treads showed the miles you had marched, run and limped along. That small brown stain bore witness to to blisters that burst, and bled enough to soak through sock and leather. At graduation our uniforms were clean, our haircuts were brand new, our bodies a little bit harder then when we started. But in the end, it was your boots that remembered everything, and your boots that told your story.

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