I enlisted in the Army in September 1992 when I was still in high school, through the Delayed Entry Program, in which you could sign up but then wait to ship out until after you graduated. Because I was only 17, my parents had to sign off on my joining. Although my military aptitude test scores were high enough for me to get any job in the Army, I chose 11B Infantry because I wanted to be an Airborne Ranger. Boyish dreams of tough-guy military glory, and all that.
I graduated high school in May 1993 and shipped out for boot camp on 28 July. About a week before I left, I met and fell in love with M, the girl who would later become my wife. We started a relationship despite my departure, and missed each other very much throughout my time away in the service.
My boot camp was at the Infantry Training Center at Sand Hill, Ft Benning, Georgia. After about a week of in-processing, I went to train with my actual assigned boot camp Battallion in early August. I was in 1st Platoon.
Like pretty much everyone else in boot camp, I hated the Army and regretted my decision to join. I missed my friends, family, and girlfriend terribly, and wrote horribly whiny and wistful letters home to them. And I was surrounded by guys who seemed only interested in talking about cars, booze, and women. Didn’t have much in common with any of them, so I felt pretty alone. I spent my 18th birthday in boot camp.
But boot camp wasn’t all bad all the time (some parts of training were pretty fun), and I did my very best and trained conscientiously. My gear was always squared away, boots highly polished, my fitness scores were good, I was always studying training manuals, etc. And I was excellent at shooting. I qualified “Expert” on the M16A2, first time out.
Around the 3rd or 4th week of training, I got a complete stress fracture in the metatarsal of my right foot, on account of tactical marching on a paved road carrying a heavy rucksack. I wasn’t too robust a specimen, to start with: on my first day of boot camp I stood 5’ 9” and weighed only 113 lbs. So it’s not at all surprising that my bones were cracking.
I didn’t know at the time that my foot was broken. It hurt a lot, but I managed. When I was wearing my running shoes or boots laced up tight, it kind of “held together” well enough not to be too painful. I never went on sick call because of it. When you went on sick call, you’d get harrassed a lot: the drill sergeants would call you names and accuse you of malingering, etc. So unless you were really, REALLY sick or injured, you just didn’t go on sick call. It wasn’t worth the hassle.
Problem was, because of that injury, I started favoring the other foot. Which of course led to a stress fracture in it, too. So now I had two feet that were both really painful. But the running and road marching of course continued, and got longer and heavier throughout training.
I started having trouble running, and falling back on road marches. Nothing pissed off our drill sergeants more than trainees falling out of road marches. On a short 3-mile march on a Saturday sometime in mid-September? I guess it was? I fell out completely. My drill sergeant screamed ferociously at me and pushed and threw me around. I thought he was going to beat the shit out of me. He told me to go on sick call on Monday, and if they said I was OK, he was actually going to (beat the shit out of me, that is). For the remainder of the weekend he made me stand behind the rest of the platoon in formations and wouldn’t let me eat with the rest of the unit and did other stuff to isolate and humiliate me. That made the already-difficult boot camp experience almost insufferable.
So I went to sick call that Monday. The clinic doctor took one look at my feet and without even touching them said, “Yep. Your feet are broken. I’m sending you to the hospital.” So they gave me crutches and I rode the bus to Martin Army Hospital there on post.
At the hospital the x-rays showed three fractured bones in my right foot and two in my left. They let me see the x-rays; one of the metatarsal breaks was bad enough that the bone was basically just three or four big fragments, with some grinding and splintering. They gave me a choice: either try to let the bones heal naturally, which they might not ever do, possibly causing me problems later in life, or have a metal pin inserted into the worst break, and get sent home for 30 days on convalescent leave. Well, you can guess which option I took. They operated, and one time during my few days of recovery in the hospital, that same vicious drill sergeant brought a couple of platoon mates over to visit me. He didn’t have to do that, and I always thought it was kind of his way of apologizing.
I spent most of October at home, with a pin in my foot and a great big lower leg cast on. I drove around in my (automatic transmission) car anyway, using my left foot on the gas and brake. I ate a lot of fast food and junk food that I had missed.
Going back after convalescent leave was heartbreaking. My great-aunt drove me back to Ft Benning from Tennessee, because my parents couldn’t really take the time off work.
Maybe the worst part was, I had to restart training at week 1, day 1, with a brand new cycle of recruits. Had to re-do EVERYTHING I had already done. It was with the same unit, though. And on the bright side, I had earned the respect of my previously-vicious drill sergeant. He was impressed that I had soldiered on so long with both feet broken. He put me in charge of the domestic aspects of the platoon barracks and called me the “House Mouse”. He also lauded me in front of the new recruits for being tough in the face of injury. “A bad motherfucker” he called me. In the good sense, that is.
I (re-)trained with this new platoon from 5 November 1993 until Christmas Exodus, which began around 20 Dec and would last until after the New Year, during which time we all got to go home for the holidays.
One day shortly before the holiday break, when our platoon was performing badly at something, our DS said, “If you don’t wanna be here, just don’t come back from Exodus! The Army doesn’t consider you real soldiers yet anyway, so they’ll just write you off the rolls!” This was a really tempting offer for a lot us, but come January, all of us came back except one, I think. We were never really sure if he was telling the truth, and we didn’t wanna risk becoming deserters. As much as I hated the Army, I was still committed to honoring my oath of enlistment.
The first week back in January was really hard, for a lot of reasons. Having to go back to a brutal environment after spending time at home with loved ones, facing the cold grey weather, etc. Plus, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was very clinically depressed. (I’ve been in treatment for bipolar disorder for most of my adult life following all this.)
On a cold and rainy Saturday, 8 January 1994, during Phase III testing, our drill sergeant was mad at us for poor performance on one thing or another, and repeated his earlier challenge: “I TOLD you, if you don’t want to be here, just LEAVE! Tonight! The Army will just write you off!”
This time the offer was much more difficult to refuse. A LOT of us were miserable and took him more seriously this time.
That night, after lights-out, eight of us fled the barracks, and fled Fort Benning.
I set off alone, still wearing my fatigues and carrying a duffel bag with some socks, a canteen, and a blanket or two in it. The other seven guys broke into the room where our civilian bags and clothes were held, changed out of their fatigues and called a cab.
I had a plan, but not much of one. I was going to call my mom up in Tennessee and ask her to drive down and meet me somewhere to pick me up and take me home. I think I knew deep down that that was a ridiculous idea, but I just didn’t care at that point. Anything to be away from the Army, at least for a while.
I struggled my way in the night through brush and bramble towards the neighboring town of Columbus, Georgia, avoiding roads and well-lit areas. I knew that being spotted would get me caught, because there would never be a good reason for a lone soldier to be out along a highway on a late Saturday night in full combat uniform.
I finally reached the outskirts of Columbus, and walked to a fast-food restaurant to use their pay phone to call home. But an off-duty drill sergeant from a different company in the Battallion spotted me, accosted me, and had a unit van come pick me up and drive me back to my Company.
Although I seriously believed I might then be arrested, sent to Leavenworth and/or shot for desertion, I felt strangely calm. Like, one way or another, I knew I had to face the consequences of my actions, and was prepared to. Plus, I knew that one way or another, my Army career would end, and that’s all I really wanted at that point.
There was of course hell to pay. I don’t even want in to go into how I was treated over the next few weeks. My drill sergeant, who had over the past five months gone from hating me to being proud of me, was back to hating me again.
I was given a company-grade Article 15 (non-judicial punishment) and had to pull extra duty and forfeit some of my pay for a while. They were going to “let” (make) me stay in and graduate. But I was adamant about wanting out entirely.
Problem was, on 28 January I would have been on active duty a full six months, and that would mean there would be no easy exit. (It was much easier to discharge someone with less than six months of service; in that respect what our DS had told us was somewhat accurate.)
Having attempted to go AWOL and getting an Article 15 wasn’t enough to get me kicked out, though. So my drill sergeant made up a bunch of bogus infractions on my record, like “not shaving”, “boots not polished”, etc, to make me look like a failure as a soldier. He had me sign them. Again, I didn’t care that I was signing off on lies. Anything to get out. I also had to write a brief statement explaining that I refused to be a soldier any longer.
The discharge was approved by the Battallion Commander, and I was released on 28 January 1994 with an “Uncharacterized” discharge–neither Honorable nor Dishonorable. Just a kind of “Entry Level Separation” (ELS) as it was called.
To this day I don’t really know why my DS worked with me on getting me out. Maybe he genuinely hated me and thought I was and always would be a lousy soldier. But maybe on some level he saw how hard I had worked to be a good soldier, and had some small amount of respect for me, and let me go. I don’t know. I also wonder if he himself ever got in trouble for doing something so stupid as to actively encourage trainees to go AWOL.
I struggled for many years with shame and guilt and embarrassment over what I had done. To this day, over 23 years later, I sometimes still grapple with understanding what happened, why I did what I did, and I feel ambivalent about myself for it. I suppose what it all came down to is that I was too young and too weak for the Army, both physically and emotionally. I was just a small, frightened boy who had some shit luck to get injured and have some bad timing.