So, you’ve decided to enlist (or you’re prior service and intrigued by the title). This article will provide a little insight on Basic Combat Training (BCT) and the expectations therein.
Note: I enlisted as a mortarman (11C) roughly nine years ago. I was stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia during my One Station Unit Training (OSUT) from the end of October through March. My experience, then, may be markedly different from that of yours. Additionally, I trained in an all-male setting (apologies to my female readers but this is somewhat targeted toward a male audience).
Before boarding the plane to your training site, there are some critical errands to run. First, take care of your finances. If you are paying rent/mortgage somewhere, please, for the love of (your deity), make sure the Army is aware. As long as you have a legal residence on which you are making payments, you get a housing allowance for your time spent on active duty. This is a stipend prorated for the cost of living in your area. I am dumbfounded by the number of people who turn this down over a little paperwork or confusion.
Find someone you trust, absolutely trust, and give them access to your finances. This one is a little tough but it is important to understand that you will be out-of-state and limited in your capacity to communicate. If you aren’t getting paid or someone is taking from your funds, you won’t know about it. Giving someone your power of attorney helps you maintain a presence in your home state. This person can manage your payments, mail, or anything else you can’t take care of during training.
Tell everyone who matters where you’re going. Talk to your insurance agent to get a discounted rate on the vehicle you won’t be driving for a few months. Suspend your cellphone account; you won’t be using it. I would instead take a prepaid phone for whatever passes you may get throughout training (there won’t be many). Suspend your student loan payments.
Write up an address book. Take a small sheet of paper (something you can fold up and stuff into your billfold) and write down numbers and addresses. You should be writing a lot of letters. Trust me, mail day is one of the few things to which you’ll be looking forward. Find some old high school friends and reach out to them on Facebook. People don’t prioritize letters like they used to. The more people you write to, the better chances you have of getting something to read on mail day.
Learn rank structure. This is important to discern who you’re talking to and how to appropriately address them. Know the difference between NCOs (non-commissioned officers) and officers. Only officers are regarded as sir and ma’am. Female NCOs are not ma’ams. They are still addressed as sergeant. You can find a description of rank here.
Learn the NATO phonetic alphabet. If you know this going in, it will save you a lot of trouble. You can find it here or anywhere else online. Two vital details about military linguistics: there is no “oh” and there is no “fow-er.” There is only “zero,” “oscar,” and “four.” I have no idea where people get the impression that four is pronounced “fow-er” over the net but I assure you it is a thing. Additionally, there is no “over and out.” There is either “over” (signifying that you are done speaking and waiting for a response) or “out” (signifying the end of the radio conversation, given that you are the one who initiated it). Honestly, if you have time, I’d learn the nine-line MEDEVAC report as well. You can find that here or anywhere else online.
Leave your contact lenses behind. Contacts aren’t authorized in infantry school. So, keeping them a secret means going the full length of training without lens solution. It’s not worth it. The gas, infections, dry eyes… just don’t do it.
Learn how to throw. One of your tasks in infantry school will be throwing training grenades. You will throw a lot of them (and two live grenades). I remember a handful of guys who were unable to throw. Either they’d never thrown a baseball around or the weight got to them (grenades vary in weight slightly but expect about a pound give or take a few ounces).
Say your goodbyes. No, you’re not going to die and yes, you will be seeing your loved ones again. However, OSUT is roughly 15 to 16 weeks or longer depending on in-processing and travel. For boyfriends, husbands, and fathers, this can be quite the struggle. Spend some quality time with your loved ones. Go out and enjoy some trashy food. Have a fun and memorable time. Just don’t break the law. Don’t even bend it.
Once you’ve entered in-processing, you are no longer in control of your life. It’s a strange thing to conceptualize but you will be stripped of the authority of anything outside of your own thoughts. At this point, you are pretty much property, somewhat like a pet. The clothes you wear, the food you eat (and when you eat it), the amount of sleep you get, and your contact with the outside world are all determined by the Army. This last point is important to understand. Throughout the entirety of my training, I was allowed two 10-minute phone calls from on-post phone booths. I was neither in control of the day nor time of day to place the calls. On neither occasion did any of the individuals I attempted to contact answer. For those with close relationships (girlfriends, wives, children) this will be the first of many tests. Keep in mind, though, that there should be plenty of opportunities to write letters.
From here on out, the most important things in your life will be your ID and the key to your wall locker. These should be on your person and within reach forever and always. The key comes later but, for now, keep that ID within reach.
You are paying for a haircut. It doesn’t matter how damn short your hair is, you will pay, you will sit, and you will endure the roughest head trimming of your life. So, do yourself a favor and don’t buzz your dome beforehand. It won’t do you any good.
In-processing is a sort of limbo. There isn’t much here for you other than sitting and waiting. You wait for boots, uniforms, equipment, and the like. Also keep in mind that you will not be resting your back outside of sleep. You will be restricted from leaning against walls and you will be sitting on the floor quite often. Surprisingly, this puts a lot of strain on your back.
You’ll be getting a lot of shots and you’ll be getting sick. You’re taking cold showers, sleeping next to people who just came from all over the country/world, and under a lot of stress. There is no getting around illness.
Shaving is mandatory. As long as you’re in uniform, you’re shaving your face everyday. There are shaving profiles (medical documentation that relieves you of this responsibility) but I’m sure they’re nonexistent in basic.
Finally, you will be taken to a post exchange (PX). Here, you will buy ugly towels, shaving cream, toiletries, shoes, etc. You will also be able to buy AT&T prepaid phone cards. I can’t help you with how many minutes to pay for. With the exception of my daylong pass, I only had two opportunities to use the payphones on post. It really depends on your drill sergeants. I did, however, hear of guys using payphones during church services (more on that later).
On the last day of in-processing, you are given all your gear, including everything you brought from home, and marched up to Sand Hill. Coming from mountainous Montana as a hiker (with a mere backpack full of personal effects) to near-sea level Sand Hill, this wasn’t too physically demanding. For many others, this was taxing.
You are marched to an open field where the infamous “shark attack” takes place. The stories you’ve heard about this event are probably exaggerated. This is your first true experience with chaos in the Army. No one knows what the hell is going on but you make some sort of formation, hold some of your gear above your head, and wait. Some of you will be getting screamed at. Others will fall under the radar. It all depends on where you are, when you are, and who you are. Either way, the end goal here is to find out where you’re going and to whom you belong.
I was with F Company 2-54 Infantry Regiment, 3rd Platoon. We were a mortar unit, though the majority of the recruits claimed to have enlisted as 11B only. For them, it was a first-hand reminder that they were no longer in control. If the Army needed 11Cs, they were getting 11Cs.
We were sectioned off by last name. “Myers” landed me in 3rd platoon, surrounded by the end of K through the beginning of S. We were shown our barracks, which was square with bunkbeds lining the walls, assigned wall lockers, given locks and keys, and a few rules, namely “DO NOT STEP IN THE KILLZONE.” The “killzone” was the center of the barracks and it belonged to the drill sergeants. It was outlined by a blue stripe and if you were caught stepping over that line, may God have mercy on your platoon.
It’s going to seem like the drill sergeants hate you at this point. Well, that’s because they do. Don’t take it personally. You just haven’t earned the right to wear the uniform yet. There is a lot of yelling, a lot of “smokings” (getting “smoked” means doing physical exercise to exhaustion), and a lot of impossible time hacks to meet. You as an individual, you as a group, will be failing a lot.
Infantry school was my first experience attending an educational institution with uneducated individuals. I cannot accurately express in writing how cretinous, dim-witted, unintelligent, and flat-out ignorant some of these recruits were. How these people managed to cross a street or order a cup of coffee and live through the experience, is beyond perplexing. And it affected everyone. If one fucks up, all are punished. Keep that in mind. Straightening out the guy next to you is in your best interest.
I believe the training schedule is laid out by color-coded phases: red; white; blue; black; gold.
Red Phase is focused on smoking you and taking Army Physical Fitness Tests (APFTs).
White Phase is focused on marksmanship.
Blue Phase is about working tactically in teams.
Black Phase is field training exercises.
Gold Phase is a final ruck-march, run, and a lot of cleaning.
Obviously, there is more to these phases than listed. Furthermore, I may have mixed up the order.
Things to expect:
Most Sundays, you are provided the opportunity to attend church services. When church isn’t available, a chaplain will be. I highly recommend you utilize this right; even if you’re not religious. This is an entire hour you get away from the same people with whom you spend every minute of your life; an hour of self-reflection; an hour of peace. Moreover, Sundays in the barracks were spent cleaning: waxing the killzone, cleaning the toilets, sweeping, mopping, dusting, and scrubbing the floors with a brillo pad and a bucket of bleach water. If anything else, church was an hour break from cleaning.
As I mentioned before, some people used church as an opportunity to utilize the payphones. Sometimes they were caught. More often they got away with it. I never risked it.
You eat three times per day. Depending on where we were in line as we filed into the dining facility (DFAC), we had between 4 and 9 minutes to eat. I could never eat quickly, so I was frequently hungry. You sit, wrap the sling to your weapon around your foot, eat, and remain silent. If there is no room to sit, you eat standing.
There’s no music. Without phones, electronics, or radios, you won’t be getting any tunes. And that sucks. We used to ask each other to sing parts of songs to remember how they went and in hopes of getting the songs stuck in our heads. Cadences are as close to music as you’re going to get.
Things you shouldn’t expect:
Pugil sticks- We didn’t train with them. There is no point. When in a combat setting are you going to need to beat your enemy with a padded rod?
Bayonets- We don’t use bayonets in combat, we don’t use them in training.
Anaphrodisiacs- Oh, the arguments I had regarding this… There were rumors that the Army was feeding us saltpeter, potassium nitrate, whatever you wanted to call it, in order to kill our sexual drive. When you are presented with this crazy belief, you should question the motivation behind such an action. Why would the Army spend money to suppress sexual urges? When would a recruit have the time or resources to sate these desires? I remember another recruit asking me, “If they don’t put saltpeter in our food and drinks, then how come we don’t get boners?” What a compelling rationalization. My refutation: we are sleep deprived, fatigued, stressed, and, above all, surrounded by men who are unattractive in every sense of the word. The question shouldn’t be, “Why aren’t we getting erections?” The question should be, “Why would we get erections?”
The Gas Chamber
Here is another situation which people overemphasize. This part will be based solely on my personal experience.
Note: “Gas” is the term I’ll be using to describe CS gas. CS gas, or tear gas, is pretty much what makes up mace.
We were issued gas masks and shoulder bags to carry them. We would practice donning them in the barracks. The goal was to be able to remove the masks from our bags and seal them to our faces in under 10 seconds. The drill sergeant would then go down the line, placing his hand over the filter of the breathing apparatus and asking you to inhale. If you were able to take a breath, the mask was not sealed properly. He would then ask you to remove the mask, inspect your face to ensure it was clean shaven, then have you seal the mask and perform jumping jacks in a squatted position until the remaining recruits were inspected. Advice: remove your mask once you start throwing up.
At some point (I’m not sure which phase), we were lined up by platoon outside of the gas chamber. It was nothing more than a square building with a table, window, an entrance, and an exit. One platoon had used the building ahead of us. So, there was residual gas floating around as we entered. Immediately, I could feel my exposed skin start to tingle.
We lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder, along the walls with the drill sergeants in the middle of the room at the table. I stood in front of the window. One of the drill sergeants set the CS gas canisters on the table and then opened them. As the window had no latch that I can remember, its sole purpose had to have been to show the sheer amount of particulates suspended in the air. That tingling sensation I mentioned became more of a burn.
The drill sergeants began approaching each of us and requested that we remove our masks, recite the Soldier’s Creed, reseal our masks, and clear them. Clearing means breathing in and out to filter the air in the mask. Unfortunately, I began bleeding profusely from both nostrils and was therefore having issues in clearing my mask.
Once every recruit was in proper posture, we could leave. Regrettably, one recruit couldn’t quite handle himself and spent the better part of an eternity crawling around the floor, clawing at the walls, grasping ankles, sobbing, and wailing his apparent final words: “I’m dying! Oh, God, help me! I’m dying! Let me out!”
M4- The best advice I can give you here is to turn the brightness on your M68 down to the point that the red dot in the optic is barely visible. It should be nothing more than a speck. The smaller the dot, the smaller the miss. Here’s the problem: I had an M68 on my M4 for the entirety of my military career. So, I cannot remember if we had them or not in infantry school.
AT-4- This is an 84mm (A T 4 = 84) anti-tank weapon. A few of you will get to fire the actual rocket. The rest of you will be firing 9mm tracer rounds. That’s at the drill sergeant’s discretion.
M18A1- This is a claymore. A few of you will get to detonate one. The rest of you will be dry firing a training model.
M249- This is a light machine gun firing a 5.56mm projectile (the same as the M4). It is known as the SAW (squad automatic weapon). You all will have to learn how to load it, fire it, and clear it of any malfunctions. You will be firing live rounds. You will do this with each machine gun I mention.
M203- This was replaced by the M320 but I’m not sure what’s being used for training currently. This is a grenade launcher attachment for the M4. You will get to fire some training rounds to paint targets.
M240B- This is a heavy machine gun. It is actually my favorite machine gun and the one I used throughout my deployment. I feel they are easier to carry and clean and are more reliable than the .50 cal. The M240B fires a 7.62mm projectile.
M2- This is a heavy machine gun. It is known as the .50 cal. It was quite the pain in the ass. However, I hear there is a new, lighter model that no longer requires the use of a headspace and timing gauge by anyone other than the armorer.
Mk19- This is a machine gun. More accurately, it is an automatic grenade launcher. The Mk19 fires a 40mm projectile and is the most unreliable, lubricant-thirsty, heavy piece of shit you will ever have the displeasure of operating. Honestly, you’d might as well be dragging around an 80lb anchor. Anyway, the Mk19 is the most satisfying thing you will get to fire in infantry school.
If you’re a mortarman, you’ll be working with all three systems: 60mm (M224A1), 81mm (M252A1, which is new), and 120mm (M120). You will specialize in and test on 81s. However, you will get to hang a 120mm flare and hip-fire some 60s.
I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of obstacle courses online and in movies. Confidence courses are obstacle courses involving heights. During this training, you will learn how to make a seat harness out of rope and rappel down a tower. You will also have to utilize rope bridges. If you’re afraid of heights, this is a great opportunity to get over your fears.
Combatives is your hand-to-hand combat training. This is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. You’re pretty much learning some basic MMA moves at the fight house. Combatives always begins with a smoking. This is to wear you out so you don’t have the strength to hurt your partner. One of the last things you do here involves being punched without the ability to hit back. This is the one time an NCO will hit you (keep your cool though, you’re wearing head gear).
My field training exercises were conducted during the winter. If you have the same training period, I would highly recommend placing your boots in your sleeping bag. This keeps the sweat from freezing and makes putting them on a little less painful.
If you’re afraid of bugs and insects, this is a great opportunity to get over that fear. The ground freezes over at night, motivating all the creepy-crawlies to seek warmth. The first few nights I slept out in the field, I would wake from formication, get up, strip my clothes, and brush off the little bastards. A few more nights in the field, and I was too tired to care.
Stairway to Heaven
Your final ruck march is the longest. I hear guys constantly claiming their ruck was anywhere from 10 and 20 miles long. I honestly have no idea how long my final ruck march was but it was long.
A truck will follow at the end of the formation. Should the truck catch up to you, you load into the back and fail. The drill sergeants smoked our legs beforehand. I’m sure you can expect the same.
One of the best things you can do here is manage your weight. Find a good balance in tightening your waist straps and shoulder straps so you don’t have too much riding on either your hips or shoulders. Pack your ruck so that the heaviest items are at the top and against the frame and the lightest are at the bottom and away from the frame. However your pack is resting on your body, make sure it’s comfortable. You’re going to carrying it like that for several hours.
Just keep walking. You don’t get to rest.
The three things I remember most about this are holding in my diarrhea (vegetarian omelette MREs), walking sideways to piss, and trying to break up and thaw the ice in the hose of my camelbak.
At some point during the ruck march, you will ascend what is known as “the Stairway to Heaven.” This is a seemingly endless uphill struggle. Here is where recruits start dropping left and right. As you pass them, just consider how much stronger you are instead of wondering if you’ll be next.
This endeavor ends with your pinning ceremony. Here, you will earn your “blood rifles.” This refers to the infantry cross-rifle insignia that is punched into your flesh, causing you to bleed and thus signifying the term “blood rifles.”
- You really can’t do more than your best. Don’t focus on what you can’t do. Focus on what the others can’t do. As long as you can outperform the guy next to you, you are in the clear. That doesn’t mean having to be the best. It just means not being the worst. So, when I ran my PFTs, I didn’t think about falling behind or not being able to make my time requirements. I just kept trying to pass the next guy ahead of me. Every runner I passed fueled my motivation to pass the next guy ahead of me. Each smoke session wasn’t spent fuming about the punishment; it was a personal competition to outlive my comrades. Bear in mind that the guys drawing the drill sergeant’s attention are generally the first ones to give up.
- Be financially responsible. For many of you, this is the most money you will have accrued and saved and the temptation to piss it all away will be overwhelming. A little insight on your environment: every base has a parasitic town full of money-sucking leeches feeding off the naive lower enlisted personnel venturing unsupervised from post. These towns consist of car dealerships, tattoo parlors, bars, drugs, and prostitutes. All these goods and services are available at twice the price and half the quality of those offered in any other locale.
- Don’t address anyone you don’t have to. I would recommend bottling up any questions, verbal outbursts, or general speech unless directly addressed yourself. This is a rule that should be followed when in the vicinity of anyone higher ranking than specialist.
- Keep an eye out. The drill sergeants are almost always watching. I can’t tell you how many they tried to sneak into the barracks undetected.
- Don’t hide anything. They’ll find it. Whatever it is and wherever you try to put it, they will know. I don’t know how but they are seemingly all-knowing. We had strips of paper stashed all over our barracks with notes reading, “Not a good hiding place.”
- Food stays in the DFAC.
- Keep track of your weapon, ID, and wall locker key. This is essential. I wouldn’t entrust anyone with any of these items.
- Always keep your weapon on safe, even when on the range. The safety comes off only when you are about to fire. Make thumbing that safety an instinct. You should always feel it on safe.
Final note: I ETSd as a track commander of a 120mm mortar crew at the rank of sergeant. If you have any questions, concerns, or desires for similar posts, please feel free to contact me through the site’s “contact” feature or in the comment section. Thank you for your readership.
-Chris C. Myers