A Lesson I Learned in the Army

A while back I decided to run for 30 minutes. And, at a certain point the running was kicking my butt, but not really. I was just tired of running, mentally, but not physically. And I started thinking about Private S., one of my classmates when I took the U.S. Army Basic Combat Training in Fort Sill Oklahoma, way back in the summer of 1994.

As a grossly overweight, stutterer white kid from one of the southern states, Private S. had no business being with us in basic training. We were young, athletic and gorgeous. The only reason why he had gotten in was that his dad, a tough-as-nails retired Marine Sergeant Major, had pulled some strings to get him into the army. This fact tells you a lot about SM S. and his son. Marines prefer to lose a limb rather than sending their kids to any other branch of the military -- well, at least it wasn't the Air Force. SM S. got his son in the Army out of desperation.

Anyways, and being completely serious now, this is why I thought about Private Steinem. It was basic training, and we were in 2nd Platoon, the "Death Dealers." Our platoon's nickname was chosen by our Platoon Drill Sergeant, a sadistic, poor-excuse of a leader. He had spent a full month as a Forward Artillery Observer behind enemy lines in the first Gulf War. That experience left a mark on him -- or at least that is how I rationalized his behavior. He beat us and humiliated us constantly from day one to graduation.

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Make no mistake, since I was 10 years old or so I have read about how these rites of initiations go and why they do what they do. I was not surprised. And, initially, I thought that Drill Sergeant Cordero's attitude (for that was his name) was just a show. A show, just like the other Drill Sergeants were putting up. A show -- part of the initial two hell-weeks in which they break you and got you thinking and acting like a soldier (or so they think). But Cordero wasn't putting up a show -- he genuinely enjoyed torturing us and he was horrible as a trainer and as a leader as his only tools were fear and violence.

Everyone in my platoon hated him and everyone in some way or another was abused by him. No one suffered under him like Private Steinem though. Cordero had it for him. He had it for me too. He had it for me because I could barely speak or understand spoken English. For him I was an embarrassment and he reminded me often how poorly I made Puerto Ricans looks for not knowing English. Then again, I could read English and what I could not memorized from demonstrations I learned from from the field manual which I read non-stop. So, I knew he could not break me, neither physically nor mentally. But that wasn't the case for Private S. Cordero berated him non-stop, always in his face, called him Private Pig, Piggy, or any variation of it. Thankfully Cordero wasn't the most creative person.

Private S. was constantly abused and humiliated by our sadistic Drill Sergeant and hated, despised, by us, his classmates. The abuse we took we visited upon him, never violently but through isolation and derision, but abuse nonetheless. I know for I was part of it. "Hey don't go all Private Pyle on us,man," I once told him trying a cheap shot to look cool before my classmates. He looked like he was about to cry -- I walked away. That episode changed my take on him and on myself. I was not going to become a little "Cordero" (which is Spanish for Lamb).

Taking it on Private S. would have made me just that, a little Cordero. Thankfully I had pull among my platoon mates so when I changed my behavior towards Steinem so did others. Instead of making him the enemy or ostracizing him, we focused on helping him not to mess up and keeping him out of trouble, out of Cordero's sight. We never succeeded on the latter but we did help him and he got much better.

At first, he could not finish the two-mile run which is part of the physical fitness test. He could not do the bare minimum push-ups or sit-ups to pass the test either. He was far from the bare minimum. And if you don't meet the minimum standards in all events you flunk basic training. Others struggled physically too but no one was even remotely close to his ordeal. He was put on a strict diet while the rest of us gorged ourselves but still remained hungry, never enough calories. During breakfast I would eat twice as much as what I eat normally in a whole day. And that wasn't my biggest meal. I can't even imagine how hungry he must have been for 13 weeks, 13 WEEKS! So while he struggled with physical activity he went hungry.

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Struggled he did and he kept getting better but a few weeks before our final physical test he was still far from the minimum standards. While he tried to reach those minimum standards, the rest of the platoon was confident of passing the test. A few, myself included, focused on getting a perfect score, maxing out every event, and earning a Physical Fitness Master Patch which you get if you score 290 or more of a possible 300.

Cordero made it worse for Private S. and almost broke him a few weeks before the test. After a whole day of combat exercises capped by a 12 miles muddy march, Private S. went to bed without cleaning and shining his boots. And we were too tired to worry about him. Next day he wore those boots and Cordero lost it. After the physical and verbal abuse Cordero forced him to wear his dirty boots around his neck with a sign that read "I'm a little piggy." He had to wear the boots around his neck and the sign at all times. No one laughed or liked it. We hated Cordero for it -- but no one dared say anything -- we were too close to graduation to fuck things up.

He wore them for days. Other sergeants and even a couple officers and "Drill Cadets" (West Pointers in their last year before earning their commission who oversaw our training) saw him wearing the boots and the sign around his neck. And none of them did anything to stop it for even the officers feared Cordero. And they should've said something. They failed him and us miserably.

A few days later I heard the 3rd Platoon's Drill Sergeant screaming at Private S. in the chow hall. "Son, why the fuck are you bringing those nasty boots into my kitchen?" Private S. stuttered as he always did. The Drill Sergeant got impatient to say the least and repeated the question many times, every time louder and louder. One of my classmates asked for "permission to speak" [yes, we had to ask permission to speak]. 'Drill Sergeant, Drill Sergeant Cordero ordered him to wear them and the sign at all times, Drill Sergeant!" Then the sergeant noticed the sign behind the boots. His face changed immediately, his eyes got red and I thought he would cry. There wasn't a noise in the whole mess hall.

It took him a while but he finally put his hand on Steinem's shoulder, removed the boots and the sign and told him: "Son, this is wrong, I'm sorry. If Cordero gives you any shit about this I will beat him to a pulp." We wanted to cheer, but knew we could not. I have always wondered why that Drill Sergeant was so emotionally involved. The way I have come to understand it is that maybe the sign reminded him about the lynching and mistreatment of Blacks. Here was a Black sergeant from Louisiana who towered over everybody else moved almost to tears in front of a whole training battery. That was quite something to say the least and we needed to see that. We regained our humanity that day at the chow-hall.

We went back to making sure that Private S. didn't get in trouble and that he was ready for the physical fitness test. The boots incident had completely demoralized him and the rest of the platoon. This is how bad of a leader Cordero was, he was destroying his own platoon. But Private S. came out of this ordeal stronger, in part for the 3rd platoon sergeant's actions, in part because he noticed we were with him. But most importantly, he emerged out of this stronger because he wanted to finish and graduate from Basic.

The day came and at the end Private S. failed the last event, the two-mile run, by some 30 seconds. That may not sound like much. But for a person who could not finish those two miles walking when he took his first physical 12 weeks before the last test, the improvement had being extreme to say the least. He was short of that minimum 16:36 time by 30 seconds! He was the only one in the whole platoon, actually in the whole company (4 platoons) to fail the event. He was down, so were we. No one was in the mood to celebrate.

Cordero came into the barracks late that day. "I don't know whose c*$#k you sucked but the Captain will allow you to run again tomorrow. You can have a pacer with you. Which one of you C*#%Ksuckers will be a pacer for piggy here." We were damn tired but it didn't matter. Every single person in our platoon volunteered to run again next day with Private S. Cordero picked three of us to pace him. I wasn't one of them -- I still wish I had been.

We were all there though. He had to do two long laps around a barracks complex. The end line was the same as the starting line. We were along the circuit cheering him up. Pacers were not supposed to touch him or he would be disqualified. But whenever he seemed like faltering they would grab his arms, put a hand on his back and keep him going. The sergeants pretended they did not see it. It worked, he finished with a few seconds to spare -- he almost did not make it but he did. We couldn't be happier. We had come together. Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, a Chinese and a Korean, Blacks, Whites, city and rural, educated and uneducated kids, it didn't matter; we were a team of equals, and we were not leaving Private S. behind.

Graduation came and MS S. was there in full Marine regalia, proud as hell. His son was graduating. He had lost some 40 pounds and was down so many sizes his father did not recognize him at first. He had become a soldier against all odds.

The 3rd Platoon Drill sergeant did something else. The Army gives lots of prizes that may sound made-up or unimportant. Private S. had not won any formal distinction; he had graduated at the bottom of the class. But that sergeant from Louisiana nominated him and got him, to Cordero's chagrin, "The Most Motivated Soldier Award." Some didn't get it. To be honest, it took me a couple days to get it. "Why him?" Simple, remove Cordero from the equation and for many of us Basic was a walk in the park, for others challenging but manageable. Not for this kid. Initially, he did not believe he could finish Basic. We did not believe it either. But he did and his struggle made us a cohesive impossible-to-beat unit.

So, as I was trying to finish my run and felt like "I don't need this shit, WTF I'm trying to run like if I were 22?" Private S' transformation and his motivation came to mind and I finished my 30 minutes run. This time he was there for me.