Back to basics in basic training

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

My son completed "basic" last month at Ft. Benning, Georgia — 2nd Battalion, 54th Infantry Regiment, Delta Company, 4th Platoon. Dylan is 32, older than most of the recruits (though not the oldest). A police officer in Willowbrook, he joined the Illinois National Guard this summer to further his career goals and because he's had the itch for a long time.

Scratching that itch involved an immersion experience beyond most immersion experiences — 14 weeks of being grist for the mill, run through the wringer, coming out the other end as an infantryman. His bus arrived at Sand Hill in early September. When the doors opened, the drill sergeants boarded in full throat and ran everyone off the bus — and they didn't stop running until Thanksgiving weekend, followed by three weeks of AIT (Advanced Individual Training), ending a week before Christmas, when loved ones arrived to attend the graduation ceremonies for, as they put it, "Your Soldier."

In the official letter that served as our only communication with the United States Army ("Dear Sir or Ma'am"), we were informed that "our mission is to transform civilians into well-disciplined infantrymen who embrace the Warrior Ethos and live the Army Values. … Your Soldier will be trained to the highest standard. Infantrymen must be physically fit and mentally tough. … Over the course of 14 weeks of training, your Soldier will be forged into a tough, adaptive, and flexible Infantryman, able to close with and destroy the enemies of our country in close combat."

Some of this, I admit, sounded promising. There is much to be said for discipline and transformative experiences (when they lead to a greater good). I'm all for "physically fit." The fact that our soldier was quarantined for three and a half months — without his cellphone or access to the internet — was A-OK with me. No junk food, being forced to eat healthy items he had never tried before and discovering he liked them (Brussels sprouts!) — what parent could argue with that? 

I gave him stamps and envelopes before he left and was rewarded with the first four letters my son has ever written to me. The more fully-dimensional person who emerged from those letters, who I knew was in there but had only glimpsed in brief intimations, now came through loud and clear.

Being away from the comfort zone cocoon for an extended period had a formative and transformative effect on me when I spent a summer working in a national park in 1971, and this seemed to have a similar effect on him. Absent one's place of origin, the heart does grow fonder. He's also a decent letter writer, something that warmed this father's heart.

A maturing person, who seemed eager for even greater maturity, made for enjoyable reading. And wonder of wonders, he was lucky enough to be assigned a drill sergeant (SSG Sean Jolin) who didn't just berate but also taught life lessons that my son found helpful, the main one being, "Bitter or Better — with any kind of adversity, you have two options, get bitter about it, or use it to get better."

All of this I deeply appreciate.

The part about being "able to close with and destroy the enemies of our country" could stand some clarification, such as how we define "enemies" and how we "destroy" them. 

My first close encounter with military culture was a trip, no doubt about it — and there is precious little doubt in it. Supremely self-assured, that culture is self-referential and self-reverential, reinforced by an adoring public. The history is sacred and cited often. The large field upon which graduation exercises took place — adjacent to the impressively appointed U.S. Infantry Museum — was literally sown with the soil of many of this country's most famous battles, beginning with Yorktown, which decided the Revolutionary War.

Yet the recruits, as they always have, see through the excessive solemnity and regimentation, even as they embrace the "Warrior Ethos." 

And that extends beyond our soldiers. As I told him in my first letter, we all need to develop the warrior within — the toughness, perseverance and determination that life demands as it tests us — but a warrior without wisdom has too much to "prove" (mostly to him or herself). And warrior wannabes who find themselves in positions of power tend to overcompensate and drag others into harm's way.

The Lord of the Rings (Gandalf), Star Wars (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien) present memorable embodiments of the wise warrior. In real life, our outgoing president managed to temper the warrior-in-chief with wisdom whereas our incoming commander merely plays one on TV. With a son now in the military and at the mercy of his whims, that worries me.

Nonetheless, I'm proud of Dylan for completing this grueling exercise. He cut a fine figure in his dress uniform, with his beret and the blue infantry cord fastened to his right shoulder. Our journey to Ft. Benning — where my father completed boot camp before entering World War II — inspired me. 

All of life, it seems to me, is basic training (followed by advanced individual training), where we learn to handle whatever gets thrown at us, where discipline works best when it comes from within rather than imposed from outside, where we are all on a long march, fighting a great battle, and where a warrior without wisdom is simply a machine that destroys. 

A warrior with wisdom, on the other hand, is worthy of honor.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

Reader Comments

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Comment Policy

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: January 14th, 2017 10:13 AM

I don't drink sugary beverages, Ray. I leave the Kool aid to the right wing nut jobs. Oh, and Ray? It's spelled Kool AID, not "aide." There's no assistant involved.

Ray Simpson  

Posted: January 14th, 2017 7:46 AM

I understand that the commanding general for the DC National Guard has been relieved is of 12:01 1/20/2017. He commands the security forces in place for the inauguration. We may be witnessing the reason the framers gave us the second amendment This was reported in ""Stars and Stripes"

Ray Simpson  

Posted: January 14th, 2017 12:27 AM

@ Dwyer - I guess you have drunk the kool-aide! There is no reasonable conversation with you! You lost as you deserved to. Lousy campaign, lousy candidate and the threat of another 4 year continuation of a lousy predecessor. Liberal progressive ideology was soundly rejected as a lousy idea. Please spare us the "Fake News" the Russia thing is a lie that the Dems can just pile onto the heap of dishonesty that is your party's legacy.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: January 13th, 2017 10:10 PM

Oh, the facts about his collusion with the Russians are already out, Ray, with lots more coming. Your hero is a fraud who just paid $25 million to settle a class action consumer fraud case he insisted he'd win, and he's an accused pedophile- I'm happy to share the sworn affidavits with you if you want. Your guy will go down as the biggest embarrassment this country has ever endured. And after the debacle that George W. Bush foisted on us, that's quite a dark accomplishment. And I'll truly enjoy telling you I told you so.

Ray Simpson  

Posted: January 13th, 2017 8:40 PM

@ Dwyer - I hate to break this fact to you but, he is your president for at least 4 years, or do you plan to move - I will kick in a couple bucks toward your one-way ticket to Canada. I hear Canadians are kind of fussy about who they let in - you better check to see if they will have you.You accuse Pres Trump of "treason" - do you have facts? Bottom line is you lost the election, by the rules and now you think by holding your breath and closing your eyes till you turn blue things will come out different. Grow up!

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: January 13th, 2017 5:23 PM

I know who's post I was responding to' Brian. And it wasn't yours. . . And Ray? You're going to be hearing from lots of people who reject the treasonous buffoon who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million. I spent eight years listening to unfounded garbage about a good man who actually won both the popular and electoral votes, so if you want an argument, I'm more than happy to oblige. No mercy, no quarter when it comes to your sociopathic president elect.

Ray Simpson  

Posted: January 12th, 2017 9:53 PM

@ Bill Dwyer - I was a medic with the 25th Division decades ago and we were never told not to wear class A uniforms on leave. I understand that that changed on 9/11 and military personnel were encouraged to keep a low profile. My point was Ken Trainor's visceral hatred for "guns" and his running a photo of his son sporting an expert marksmanship badge. I now see the tack you sore losers are going to take. I am no longer a racist, but am now ignorant. You guys are so dower, I would check to see if your underwear has knots in it.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 12th, 2017 7:59 PM

@ Bill Dwyer: That should be directed at me. The question is not whether they are on leave except in transit and therefore don't display insignia, badges or medals but what the penalty is for being in full uniform and removing your hat for the National Anthem. Bill, this is your third such mistake and second message about Trump. I think you are losing it and you should go talk to someone.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: January 12th, 2017 7:10 PM

If you'd served in the military, Ray Simpson, you'd know that sworn military personnel do not wear their uniforms on leave, except in transit, and therefore don't display any insignia, badges or medals. Is this sort of ignorance what we should expect in the looming Trump era? Spare me the nonsense.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: January 12th, 2017 5:09 PM

Ray, what is the penalty for being in full uniform and removing your hat for the National Anthem? Nice list of fictional warriors I must say?

Ray Simpson  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 2:11 PM

I note an "Expert" marksmanship badge on his chest. Does he remove it when on leave?

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