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Joining the Army: The Road to Enlistment and Basic Training

Charles is a US Army Cavalry Veteran from 1993-2005. He has served stateside in support of several missions throughout his military career.

Saluting the Flag

Something I Always Wanted to Do

I was at a crossroads. For many men and women in their youth, this is a common occurrence. I was 20, working a dead-end job, living at home, barely surviving above water. Both my grandfather and stepfather were Army Veterans. When I was 16, I met two older brothers who were in the Army National Guard. I remember seeing them on the weekends in their uniforms and thought that they looked cool. I looked up to these guys, they were very good friends back then. They would bring me to the Armory where we would watch TV, play video games in the rec room, the soda machine had ice-cold sodas! They would take me out to the lot where the tanks, Humvees, and armored vehicles were and tour me around. I was so impressed! I thought, how great would it be to ride in a tank or even drive one! I thought, "when I get old enough, this is what I want to do." Memorial Day rolled around, I was at the armory and the brothers asked if I would like to be in the parade! I was like, sure! They found a spare uniform and presto, chango, I was in the Army! Not really, but on that day it sure felt like it. I got to ride in a tank on Memorial Day. Here I was, 16 years old, and riding in the turret of a huge military tank, waving to the crowd and the crowd waving back. I was in heaven. If that moment did not do it for me, I am not sure what did.

From Farmer to Soldier

Fast forward a couple of years. I was living with roommates in a house in the country. I did not have much to my name other than the clothes on my back and a couple of bucks in my pocket. I quit school the year before to pursue my career as a pig farmer, working on a farm, raising pigs for the market seemed like a good deal and was really a lot of fun. I did that for a year until I met a guy that had just returned from boot camp. He was stationed in Fort Ord, California, so far away from my humble, rural southern New Jersey town. He would hang around the house and drink with us and tell stories of his military experience. This was somewhere around 1991 or 1992, the only thing on the news was Desert Storm and Desert Shield, the war in Iraq, how Saddam Hussein had invaded a small country with his much larger army, I thought that seemed unfair and I was glad that the US stepped in to help. I thought right then and there that I had to join the Army and help make a difference where I can.

Meeting the Army Enlistment Requirements

I went down to the local recruiter in the Spring of 1992 to join the Army. Sadly, I was not able to join because I did not have a high school diploma. Oh no! I asked the recruiter what I needed to do as I was 20 and I was not going back to high school any time soon. The recruiter told me that a GED or General Education Development Test was acceptable. So that is what I did. My mind was set, and I was not going to let something as trivial as a lack of a high school diploma get in my way. I found a career education assistance center where I was able to sit for the test that would provide what I needed to enlist in the Army. Success, I aced it on my first try and was soon holding my very own State of NJ Department of Education Diploma! I was so proud. Back to the recruiter I went, diploma in hand, ready to enlist and serve my country!!!

Meeting With the Recruiter

Having satisfied the requirements for enlistment, at least 18 years of age, and a high school diploma, I was ready for whatever came next. The first challenge was the ASVAB, Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. This is a multiple-choice test used to determine qualification for enlistment. The scores from this test are used to determine which job in the Military would be best suited for the enlistee. When I sat for the exam, I tried to get the highest score possible, I enjoy tests, and this was a good one! I had pretty much decided ahead of time what type of job I wanted in the Army. A lot of my friends were either prison guards or police officers and I wanted my military experience to be something that complimented a future career in law enforcement. I asked for a combat arms MOS, Military Occupation Specialty, specifically Cavalry. I had previously watched an advertisement for the US Cavalry, and it showed soldiers in tanks, dune buggies, camo paint, and running through the jungles with their M16 rifles, helmets, and goggles. To me, that looked like so much fun! The recruiter told me, “Your scores qualify you for that career field, let's get you signed up.” So here I am, 20 years old, I was living with my girlfriend, the love of my life at this time, her parents had given us their house to live in and I always joked that we were literally “playing house.” She had no idea I was going to enlist in the Army that day, we had talked about it, she didn’t have an opinion either way and just wanted me to be happy. What a shock for her when I told her what I had just done. The recruiter scheduled a time for me to come to a local Armory to begin the enlistment process. The next step was signing paperwork, oh my god what a pile of paper. It seemed like hours went by, life insurance, beneficiaries, medical history, family history, document after document until my enlistment package was complete. I went home that night and could not sleep a wink. For the next week or so I waited for my orders to arrive, I ran to the mailbox every time the mailman came. Finally, in October of 1993, I got my orders! I was to report to the Philadelphia MEPS, Military Entrance and Processing Center where I would complete my final entrance processing.

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Military Entrance Processing, Philadelphia, PA

So, the day before I was to report to Philadelphia, the recruiter picked up me and a few other recruits from the area and drove us to Cherry Hill, NJ. The Army put us up at the local Holiday Inn for the night, provided us vouchers for dinner and a room at the hotel. Cherry Hill, NJ is a short drive from Philadelphia, so I guess it was a convenient spot to stay before heading to the Philadelphia MEPS center early the next morning. I linked up with the other recruits and we headed down to the restaurant in the hotel with our food vouchers. It turns out the restaurant was this cool BBQ joint called Red, Hot, and Blues. We had a great meal, listened to live blues music, and chatted nervously about what was coming next. We hung out until probably midnight and then we headed to bed for the night. Early the next morning, we were woken up by our recruiter and assembled in front of the hotel for our short trip to Philadelphia. There must have been a thousand recruits at the MEPS center. What a sight, we were broken up into smaller groups, possibly in alphabetical order, not sure. We were shuffled from one room to the next. I had a physical checkup in one room in the next room, an interview with a doctor asking about my prior injuries, none, no broken bones, major surgeries, etc. Then off to a room where a group of us stripped down to our underwear, underwent a physical inspection of our spines, we were made to crab walk around the room, walk with our stomachs up with our feet and hands on the floor. Strange but I guess the Army needs to know if you are capable of performing complex maneuvers. I had an eye exam, found out I needed glasses. A review of all the paperwork that I previously signed and most importantly, the Oath of Enlistment, where I swore to defend the Constitution of the United States. I was on top of the world! I was provided with a one-way ticket to Fort Knox, Kentucky, wherein about a week, I would begin 16 weeks of basic training.

Off to Basic Training and Saying Goodbye

The next week was a whirlwind of activity. Packing and getting my things in order, saying my goodbyes, just a flurry of activity. There were a couple of the things that happened that came back to haunt me at basic, I find them funny now but at the time, more about that later. I packed my bags for basic, there was a handout in the piles of paperwork that explained what I should bring with me to basic training. I did not heed that exactly. The handout said to pack enough clothes, underwear for 1-2 days. I packed a duffle bag with essentials and toiletries as well as a large suitcase with 3-4 days of clothes. Bad idea, you’ll find out why. I had my orders; these were supposed to be delivered to the Base Commander when I got to Fort Knox. Wouldn’t you know it, before I packed them, one of my buddies decided to spill his coffee on them. I was mortified! I had these coffee-stained, very important papers that I was told to safeguard, and I was supposed to present them to a very important person. I felt like such a shmuck. I was so worried about this and how this would reflect on me when I got there. Ugh. My girlfriend and her sister took me to the Philadelphia airport for an 11:00 PM flight. I had never left my little country town; I had never flown before and here I was leaving everything I knew to hop on a plane and fly 800 miles away to Kentucky. I was scared to death. I checked in and turned to my girlfriend, I did not want to go, I was so nervous. I was ready to run out of the airport that very minute. She held my hands and told me not to worry, that everything would be ok. I cried so hard, and we hugged forever. Finally, it was time to go. I composed myself, said my final goodbyes, and boarded the plane. I found some of the other recruits and sat with them. The first stop was Pittsburgh, PA. This was a quick stop to switch airplanes, a propeller plane, not a passenger jet. We then went to Cleveland Ohio. We had a slight layover here, so I found a bite to eat and sat around listening to my Sony Walkman before the flight boarded. On the way to boarding, I saw the Ohio State Football Team and members of the Kings of Comedy walking through the airport, cool! Next stop, Louisville, Kentucky.

Fort Knox, KY

Welcome to Fort Knox

Welcome to Fort Knox

Arrival at Fort Knox, KY and Reception

When we landed, other recruits must have joined our flight so there were about 20 of us now. The Army picked us up in a couple of vans and drove us to the Base. They brought us to an area on the base that was called reception and stuck us in a building that had an open floor plan with a bunch of beds. They said they would come for us the next morning and we were told to get some sleep. The next morning, a couple of soldiers came and woke us up around 5:00 AM, took us to breakfast across the street at the cafeteria, and back to our barracks. From what I was told, normally you get picked up by your drill instructors within a day of your arrival. Things were delayed so we sat in the reception area for 3 days! Good thing I packed all those extra clothes!!! During our stay in the reception area, we were issued 5 uniforms, socks, underwear, backpack, boots, helmet, everything we would need for basic training. We shoved all that gear into a large green duffel bag that weighed like 100 lbs.

Reception Barracks Life

Reception Barracks

Reception Barracks

Get Out of my Face and Grab a Bunk!

So, after the 3rd day of reception, we were dressed in our uniforms ready to go. The next thing you know, these huge soldiers with Stetson hats came barging into the room, screaming for us to grab our gear and get outside, now I see why I should have only had a small gym bag. I was running for my life with a gym bag around my neck, my huge suitcase, and the 100-pound duffel bag they had so kindly provided to me. They were screaming at us to get into these big military trucks, I later found out they were called 5 tons. I struggled to get my gear and myself into the truck, what a mess I was. From there we were brought to our barracks, they screamed for us to get out of the trucks and into the building, “grab a bunk and put your shit away!” People were scrambling everywhere, I found a room but there weren’t enough beds, every room I went to was full. I did not have a bunk. I was freaking out, instructors were yelling, people running everywhere. I left my gear in the room without a bunk and went to find a Drill Instructor. I was ready to quit, I walked up to the DI and said, “Listen, if it’s going to be like this every day, you might as well do everybody a favor and send me home now.” He looked at me and said, “what the fuck did you say, what do you think I’m your friend? Get the fuck out of my face and find a bunk!” And that was that. I found a bunk in another barracks building and grabbed a couple of the recruits to help me get it back to the room that was missing one. This was to be my home for the next 16 weeks and I never looked back. We were told to put our gear away, shower up and be ready early tomorrow morning for training!

16 Weeks of Hell

The next 16 weeks were hell. I will not go into any details, as the training we received belongs to the US Army and I would not want to get into trouble by revealing military secrets. To sum it up, Basic Training is hard, it is designed to teach teamwork, leadership, and the ability to think and make decisions under pressure. It helps to be in shape, the rigorous daily exercise can be a drag initially but once you get used to it, it is not that bad. If you are thinking of joining the Army, do not let this story dissuade you. This was the best experience of my life and I made friends at Basic Training that I will remember for a lifetime. Remember, pack light, and never quit!

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