Ken served 8 years in the U.S. Army as a 46Q, photojournalist. He was named the 2013 Paul D. Savanuck Military Journalist of the Year.
I was sent to basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia: Home of the Infantry.
The experience was probably exactly how you picture it.
It started before dawn on a cold October morning at the Denver MEPS station. I remember being shuffled through the building from one room to another, signing one form after another, and being handed a folder containing my paperwork at the end. I was the newest cog in the world’s deadliest and most colossal machine, and mundane paperwork was part of my life now.
We were herded into a parking lot to stand in single-file lines – Marines in one line, Navy in the next line and so on. The Army line was the longest. We all stepped into place and stood there shivering, our breaths puffing in the air, chattering nervously to each other: “No going back now, huh?” “It’s about to get real heh heh.” “I think I’ve made a big mistake haha.”
Finally, five huge white government busses – the kind I would become intimately acquainted with over the next eight years - rumbled into the cement courtyard as the sun was just creeping into our eyes, and we boarded for our new destinies.
The Army’s control over you is immediate and absolute. Every freedom you didn’t realize you’d been enjoying your whole life is suddenly gone. I’m sure it’s overwhelming for an 18-year-old, and it completely sucks for a 40-year-old.
We rolled into Fort Benning the next day in an indiscernibly different big white bus. The second its wheels came to a stop the first drill sergeant I’d ever seen in person hopped through the folding door like an over-caffeinated bulldog and started barking orders too fast for us to understand. I’d seen this scene a hundred times in movies and TV shows and now I was living it.
When we didn’t respond properly to his commands, the drill sergeant snatched his hat off, paused, looked at the floor and shook his head sadly; so very disappointed in us all.
“You all have a looooong way to go,” he sighed. “But we’ll get you there.”
He was a pretty good actor, I thought.
Then he raised his eyes and focused on me.
“You look . . . seasoned,” he said, tilting his head. “How old are you?”
“Forty, drill sergeant.”
His eyes nearly popped out of their sockets at that.
“Forty?? Holy shit I’m forty and I’m about to retire! I’d cut my own nuts off if I had to start this shit all over again now.”
And that was my first five minutes in the military.
The Army’s basic training program is designed to make recruits miserable and keep them miserable, to see how they handle stress in all its forms and glory. After more than two centuries of fine-tuning, I can attest they’re horribly good at it. I hated every minute of it.
The first week is called Reception Week and is spent “in-processing,” which involved doing lots and lots of paperwork (told you it was part of my life now), receiving vaccinations and haircuts, and getting issued our first uniforms and equipment before being sent “down range” where the real basic training would begin. Drill sergeants controlled every minute of our day. It was the first of many tests they used to siphon out anyone who can’t handle being a Soldier.
The anguish of basic training amplified the anguish of my broken marriage. Eventually I just surrendered to them both to keep from choking to death. I remember standing in formation (lined up in neat rows) many dark mornings with tears trickling down my cheeks, not knowing or caring which agony was causing them.
One afternoon eighty of us were gathered into a large meeting room, ordered to sit on the off-white linoleum floor in neat rows, and wait. And wait. And wait. (This is a game the Army loves to play.) After what seemed like hours, six drill sergeants burst through the doors, boots clomping on the hard floor and looking even more pissed off than usual.
“Stand up if you want to leave!” bellowed one of them, sending a ripple through the room.
“If you want to leave at this point we don’t want you here either,” he screamed. “All you have to do is stand up! This is your last chance to get out of this!”
My heart was in turmoil at the time, and the thought of leaving was very tempting. We were only a couple weeks in and I was a hair’s breadth away from completely losing it, but I didn’t move. I had a suspicion that opting out wasn’t as easy as the drill sergeant was implying.
It wasn’t. Five recruits did stand up that day, and were quickly ushered out of the room. For the remainder of my time at Fort Benning, those five people served us in the dining facility (DFAC). I suspect they were there scooping slop onto platters long after I left. For all I know, they’re still there.
This I learned: The Oath of Enlistment is serious business, and the Army expects you to stick to your end of the deal. If you refuse, the Army will extract its pound of flesh from you one way or another.
I knew there was no going back after that. I had signed a contract for five years, so I was going to give my country everything I had in those five years or die trying.
The hardest part of basic training wasn’t the physical challenges, or the sleep deprivation, or the constant belittling. It was living in a barracks bay for three months with 60 other idiots who were dumb enough to join the Army.
After a few weeks a kind of madness took over. We became consumed with pleasing the drill sergeants (who couldn’t be pleased). Homoerotic joking escalated to a ludicrous level. Longing for the outside world got sharp and intense. You’d think we’d been cut off from everything and everyone we loved for years the way some of us acted. Once I saw a recruit sell a Snickers bar out of his MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) for $40. One night we were woken up at 3 a.m. and smoked (ordered to do rigorous physical exercise) for two hours because two recruits in our company were caught trying to sneak out of the building to buy junk food from a vending machine across the street. It was straight out of a movie. If one of us screwed up, all of us were punished. That’s the Army way.
Except for that first charmer on the bus, I was older than every one of my drill sergeants by at least a decade – which led to some unique moments. At times I’d get “invited” into their office, where they’d take off their hats in exasperation and ask me what the fuck was wrong with these kids, Scar? I never had the right answer.
Graduation day filled me with pride and relief, and a tinge of sadness as I watched my classmates with significant others and families there celebrate. I didn’t have any family or friends there – but the feeling of accomplishment as I stood on that field was glorious. The clouds broke over me, just a little.
After soldiers graduate basic training they’re sent to advance individual training (AIT) to get honed in their military occupational specialties (MOS’s). I came in as a 46Q, photojournalist, so the Army sent me to the Defense Information School (DINFOS) at Fort Meade, Maryland, where I spent three months in a kind of time-warp back to my college days attending photography and writing classes.
Towards the end of AIT we were given our “Dream Sheets” – forms we fill out listing our top three choices for duty stations. This is when I discovered I’d grown up less than two hours from one of our nation’s largest military bases, Fort Carson, and never registered it was there.
This was great! I put it down as my number one choice so I could get stationed back home, where I could easily share custody of my kids. I even used some of my journalistic skills to track down the contact number of my branch manager (the person responsible for placing all 46Q’s in duty assignments) and eloquently implored him to station me in Colorado. I was confident he would, now that he knew my whole compelling story.
Two weeks later I received orders to report to Fort Hood, Texas.
I was furious, and posted several blistering editorials on my social media accounts condemning the Army and its complete lack of empathy. It changed nothing, of course. The Army puts its assets where it damn well pleases. That was my first taste of how brutal it can be as a cog in the Big Army Machine.
In March 2010 I packed up what was left of my life at my parents’ house. It barely filled a 4X8 trailer. I hitched it to my Toyota 4Runner, and drove it to Killeen, Texas with my dad.
Killeen is the town that’s attached to the largest military base in the United States - Fort Hood - like a bunion.
I assumed a town that’s full of Soldiers would be a pretty squared-away place. Turned out that’s not the case. Killeen has one main highway, the 190, running through it lined with strip malls, pawn shops and chain restaurants. Turn off the 190 and you’re driving past smaller strip malls, pawn shops and chain restaurants. It’s not exactly a destination location. In my time there, I was robbed twice – the second time while I was home in Colorado on Christmas leave and for pretty much everything I owned including my car.
Every U.S. military base has a Killeen. From what I heard from other Soldiers during my career, most of them are shit holes. Studies should be done on why that is.
------ Next up, Part 3: "The Garrison Life" ------
© 2019 Ken Scar