by Antony Daly
I’ll call him Jerry Garcia, because he looked like a younger version of the music icon who had died the previous year. Jerry was a robust kid, at least compared to the rest of us. He had a full beard, long-scraggly hair, and wore Birkenstocks with socks, cutoff blue jean shorts and a tie-died Grateful Dead t-shirt. I knew he’d be in trouble when we stepped off the bus on Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA) Lackland and the Air Force Training Instructors (TI) laid eyes on him.
I come from a long line of enlisted men. I knew the basic tenants of basic training. Don’t screw up. Don’t volunteer. Don’t stand out in any way. If you follow these, you get through as safe as can be expected and avoid unnecessary problems with the TIs and squad mates alike. I was a head taller than all but two guys on the bus, but made it my mission to blend from the beginning.
Basic training is where young men and women have their early identities, prejudices, fears, and any unique qualities stripped away. I just hid some of those unique qualities beforehand, so I wouldn’t need to be rebuilt as much as the others would. If you screw up, you show weakness that needs to be beaten out and replaced by confidence. If you volunteer, you show your arrogance and an over eagerness to prove yourself and you need to be humbled. I like to think that I was already a person another soldier could count on when the time came, so I avoided the pitfalls like a plague, not being lazy, just riding the happy medium. I knew the TIs job was to pick those furthest out of the bell-curve and break them . When I first saw Jerry, I knew he’d be the first target.
My foresight wasn’t disappointed.
He was the first one addressed by our picture-perfect TI. I say “picture-perfect” because Sergeant Bombgartener was a GI Joe action figure brought to life. With his reflective black boots, uniform creased to a cutting edge, drill sergeant hat covering the brim of his sunglasses, and a chin so large and square it looked like it was carved or molded ; he should’ve been on a poster.
After he yelled the obligatory, “fall in, maggots,” with a voice that alternately screamed and obliterated every other syllable from the human range of sound, he double-timed it to Jerry and drove the brim of his round cap into Jerry’s forehead. “Holy she’ite,” he spat in Jerry’s face. “What the hee’all we got here? Sergeant Smith! Look at this. We got a flippin hippie!”
Sergeant Smith, a little man, forcefully marched over to Jerry and drove the brim of his hat into the Adam’s Apples hidden behind Jerry’s beard. “Holy she’ite,” he yelled, drenching Jerry’s shirt in his saliva. He stood on his tip toes and leaned in towards Jerry’s ear. “We gonna have fun with you, boy,” Sergeant Smith whispered loud enough for all of us to hear clearly.
Sergeant Bombgartener took one contemptuous look at me and left me for Sergeant Smith, who proceeded to ram his brim into my rib cage and hurl tall person and skinny insults at me. It didn’t last long. I said, “yes, sir,” and, “no, sir,” in an even voice and refused to look down at him or show a crack in my demeanor. They only double-teamed those that cracked and did or said something stupid, or just really stood out, like Jerry.
After the TIs picked on a couple more stereotypes, giving them names like Tree and Thug, we all got five minutes to she’ite, shave and get our carcasses to the dayroom for our in-brief. It was a hectic ten minutes, with everyone losing track of time, but scared to be the last one to find a seat. I had already shaved that morning, so just touched up where I could and took my time.
The honor of being last, of course, fell to Jerry. He looked a lot different with his beard mostly shaved. The skin that had been covered looked ghostly pale. That could have been because of the fresh shave, or because of loss of blood from that long razor cut on his neck. It was shallow, but it ran from an inch below the right side of his jaw, above his Adam’s Apple, to the jaw bone in the left side and the blood flowed unchecked. When Sergeant Bombgartener yelled at him to “get the flip in the day room” before he made himself a hippy skinned rug, Jerry jumped and sprinted.
Flailing like a cartoon character, Jerry’s Birkenstock-shod feet slipped on the water-covered tile, and he planted his face on Sergeant Bombgartener’s left boot. Blood splattered the TI’s boots and trousers to the knee. After Sergeant Bombgartener herded Jerry to the day room, the TI told us how it was a “kinder-gentler Air Force,” that he wasn’t allowed to swear at us anymore, and how he pined for the days when he could make an Airman hang from his locker by his chin for hours and randomly kick him in his chimichangas.
He then called Jerry up to stand at attention as he yelled at him. I give the kid credit though, he never once cried or tried to run during the entire dressing down that took place. He never stopped oozing blood, either. I don’t think he was ever in danger. It just looked horrible and I am sure his shirt was ruined. The TI went into a fifteen-minute diatribe at Jerry’s expense about how he didn’t give a flying flip, and he insulted everything from Jerry’s sliced throat and crappy shave to his hippy-lovin’ momma and his animal-lovin’ ancestors.
For the next three weeks Jerry took the brunt of the TIs’ abuse. There were others. Tree got it early because his feet were too big for the boots in stock when we were all issued ours. Wearing sneakers with a battle dress uniform, he got it every time a different TI saw him, and they saw him a lot – but Jerry was still the center. It all came to a head one night when we all tried to sleep in our cots after lights out without unbuckling anything. Jerry was mumbling incoherently and on the verge of completely breaking down. He was being serenaded with a chorus of, “somebody shut him up before the TI hears,” threats of blanket parties and other punishments, but mostly a bunch of panicked whispers of “shut up!”
As I said before, I tried not to stand out in any way. I believed it was better for my health. But, when I saw Jerry’s sanity ready to crumble, I knew someone had to say something before Sergeant Smith busted out of the office and punished us all. No one else seemed calm enough, and Jerry’s cot was beside mine, so I decided to have a small chat with him.
“Hey man,” I tried to say in an assuring voice, “why you so worked up?”
“Because they’re out to get me, man,” Jerry shrieked in a whisper. “I can’t iron my socks right. I got latrine duty. Sergeant Smith yelled at me ‘cause I didn’t clean the toilet right. My mom’s gonna send a postcard every week. They’re gonna make me read every one of them to the flight. They got it out for me, man.”
I stifled a laugh remembering the week the TIs referred to him as the endearing term his mother called him in a postcard. Tampering with mail is illegal, but apparently everything visible without opening an envelope was fair game. “You can’t think about all that crap, man. Just go to sleep,” I replied.
“I tried. I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said with a whimper and a snivel.
“Close your eyes,” I told him, deciding to take him through a calming exercise my father had taught me. “Now, tell me what you see.”
“There’s a bunch of pictures and they’re flying all around,” he said, telling me something that I’d hoped he’d say. I’ve tried this technique with a few other people since then. Not everyone thinks in terms of pictures.
“Focus on one. Tell me what it’s about.”
“Sergeant Smith’s yelling at me about a stain in the toilet.”
“Well, today was the last of your latrine duty,” I said, trying to use logic. “Put it behind you. You polish the chrome for the next few days. It’s not that bad. Put it behind you. What’s next?”
“He’s yelling at me about my socks. I can’t get the heel flat.”
“Alright, tomorrow you iron my shirts. I’ll iron your socks. Only wear two pairs. Keep them in your dirty cloths bag and leave the others for inspections.”
“Okay, now I see my mom writing the postcards and everyone laughing at me in the dayroom.”
“Dude, we aren’t laughing at you. We’re scared our parents are going to be dumb enough to send us postcards or a care package of cookies,” I told him, knowing my parents were smart enough to steer clear of those pitfalls, well, the postcard at least. My mother did like to bake. “Although, it is funny when she calls you sugarloaf.”
He chuckled a bit, despite the nerves and ran through the rest of his images. He wasn’t able to hold any more of them for very long. To me, that meant they didn’t matter that much for the short term and we didn’t need to waist time on them, so I asked him if he saw any black around the corners of the pictures. He said he did, and I asked him to focus on the blackness and push the pictures out of the way. Within fifteen minutes the guy was snoring and the tension had drained from the room.
After that night, Jerry gradually got in less and less trouble, and the TIs started singling out other guys. Thug was our flight leader for a while but got in a lot of trouble for purchasing t-shirts and leaving them in his locker for inspection with the cardboard still inside to keep the fold. Another kid had his bunk flipped in the middle of the night because he had hidden his socks in the bed above him to help him get dressed faster in the morning.
I was able to stay out of trouble and even got some cushy extra duties. My secret was, I didn’t volunteer for the horrible jobs they punished us with if we eager enough to raise a hand. I found ways to help those where I could discreetly, but I found a bit of myself slipping away every day. I had always been creative and a bit of a smart aleck , and my foresight helped me realize I would get in a lot of trouble if I maintained those qualities in basic, so I shut them down before I got in. At the time, I had no idea how much of me that was or how hard it would be to get back. It took years, but life and service continued, my emotional state notwithstanding.
A month after we graduated basic and headed to our separate technical training schools, I was passed during the run portion of our Fitness test by a thin man who looked a lot like Jerry. He said, “Airman Daly, thank you,” and gave me a thumbs up as he flew past me, much stronger than he’d been the day we’d met. I found myself unable to keep up and falling farther behind. Once he rounded the corner, I never saw him again.