Your fellow veterans get it. Unfortunately, your loved ones, who never shared the experience, just don’t understand boot camp. What happened there? Why have you changed? The following was documented to help you start that conversation. They will never really know. Maybe they can at least understand.
“The content of one’s character” is a phrase we hear often. We each have character; some just have more content than others. Or, so we are led to believe. How do we know how much content of character we have? At what point do we reach our bottom? How do we react when we stare into that abyss? These are the questions basic military training, known affectionately as ‘boot camp’, allows each one of us to answer for ourselves.
During the summer of 1989, I had the distinct pleasure of serving as a Cadet Training Officer for Air Force ROTC at Dover AFB, DE. This was a six-week encampment designed to both mold college students into leaders of American warriors and to weed out those unable to meet stringent USAF officer requirements. Along with the rest of the staff, I reported a week early for mission review and plan development.
Just hours before the cadets would arrive at daybreak, my true mission was completely revealed. After spending the evening together as a staff for R&R, I looked around the room only to realize that I was left alone with the Commandant of Cadets, a Lieutenant Colonel of impeccable credentials. He asked me to sit close to him and began to speak out of character in soft tones, “Civilians will be arriving here in a few hours. I’m counting on you to make sure officer candidates leave.” Expecting this was the complete thought, I responded with the customary “Hooah” to acknowledge I understood my mission and accepted its challenge. But, he went on.
As he spoke, I felt his intensity rise. Though he never got loud, his passion and sincerity captured my attention and filled me with great anticipation. I was no longer having a casual conversation. I was experiencing one of the most memorable moments of my life which would lead to a significant emotional event in the coming weeks. “I want you to break every cadet that comes through that gate. Break them mentally, break them physically, or break them emotionally – but, break them! Then, they’ll know the depth of their character.” I sat there, mouth agape, obviously taken by surprise and pondering deep thoughts as he finished, “They can’t be rebuilt Air Force… They can’t lead Airmen to war… Until they find what they’ve got deep inside.”
It was almost four weeks later until I internalized his words. I was checking the barracks at o’dark thirty, expecting the cadets all asleep; yet, knowing they might be shining shoes by the light of the moon or studying by flashlight. These things had to be done at night. Time was not permitted in the daily routine for cadets to accomplish all assigned tasks. Nonetheless, as the night-stalker, my duty was to punish anyone caught. It was a game. They had to do whatever necessary to pass courses, inspections, and physical fitness tests; I amped up the difficulty level. There was only one cadet up that night. He was out in the open scrubbing the floor to a high polish when I came upon him.
Within minutes I had him outside doing push-ups. As he counted them off, “1, 2, 3, 1, sir…1, 2, 3, 2, sir” I detected a comical flippancy to his cadence. He had done this before. He knew the game by now and was prepared to wait me out so he could return to his barracks and feign sleep until I left the area. The Commandant’s words returned to me. I didn’t quite know how to accomplish my mission. I did know: failure was not an option.
This was a huge specimen of a man before me. Had he not chosen to defend freedom, he could have easily decided to spend his time chasing a football as he broke linemen in half and ate quarterbacks for a light snack. He proceeded past 50. I lectured. I told him he was government property now and he was not taking very good care of that property. By the time he passed 100, I was extolling the virtues of sleep and the body’s need for rest. It was not until close to 200 four-count push-ups that he even began to slow. But, by 250 he was mine. I didn’t need to yell. I had learned that a whisper was much more powerful. I put my lips ever-so-close to ear and questioned his manhood. As his arms began to shake from lifting his mammoth frame so many times, I knew his strength was leaving him. A few more and he was physically unable to continue. I had forced him to the end of his physical limits. He tried to push himself up; but, his arms were no longer cooperating.
“Have you had enough?” I barked loud enough to change the mood; yet, not so loud as to wake those sleeping inside. “No, sir,” he returned crisply, now with serious desperation in his tone. I invited him to quit, “Maybe my Air Force isn’t the place for you, cadet. Say the word and you’ll be back in your mother’s arms before this time tomorrow.” I barely completed the sentence when he belched out, “I will not quit, sir.” His body didn’t agree. He was done. I called him to attention and stood nose-to-nose with him. “This isn’t the job for you,” I prodded softly “why don’t you go back home to mommy. There’s enough Air Force in me for the two of us. Say the word, cadet.” His face began to tighten. His muscles, though fatigued, grew taught. His eyes pierced me like daggers. His gaze was chilling.
I was no slouch myself. At 6′ 5″, 220 lbs I was not only the Athletic Training Officer, I was also a martial arts fighter with the state record for the fastest knock-out in Pennsylvanian history and a soon-to-be Air Force athlete for that sport. Though I had faced large men in the ring, what stood eyeball-to-eyeball before me was more than a man. He was a giant of which epics are written – a mountain given voice. As I noticed the muscular definition of his tree-trunk-like arms, I believed I could almost smell his rage.
Just as I prepared for the worst, I realized it was not rage in the air. It was the content of a man’s character I was witnessing. A tear rolled down from his right eye. “I will not quit, sir” he bellowed out as his voiced cracked, “there is nothing you can do to me…” Both eyes were tearing now. “Nothing you can say to me…” The resolve returned to his voice. “…to make me quit, sir.” He straightened his shoulders even more, tightened his fists, stood at attention in perfect form and finished, “We can stay here as long as you want, sir….as long as you need to… ’til you understand, that I WILL NEVER QUIT!” We didn’t need to stay any longer. My work was done. He had found his bottom and saw the content it contained.
Weeks later, at his graduation ceremony, he saluted smartly then extended his hand in friendship. “I’ll never be able to thank you properly for that night,” he said as his eyes dropped from mine. I took his hand and shook it with purpose, responding, “And you’ll never need to, Hooah?” His gazed affixed firmly to mine as his grip strengthened and he ended our time together with one parting thought. For there was but one thing he could say to show his complete understanding: “Hooah.” This was a leader of warriors.