Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Army I Knew: BCT

We left off here almost exactly one year ago, with the cadre of A Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd (Basic Training) Brigade descending on the poor fools - among which I was one of the relatively-average-foolish - arriving from Ft. Dix Reception Station.

Basic Training - at least, the Basic Training they were running at Ft. Dix in the Eighties, was almost exactly what you would expect if you've seen a handful of movies or television shows or talked to someone who had been through it. It relies on the gullibility and fearfulness of late-teenagers and early adults who can be frightened into doing exactly what they are told. A handful are too stubborn, or too broken, to do even this, and they are, usually, quickly disposed of - although one day I'll tell you the story of Ft. Benning and the Mad Shitter.

But the rest is a tale as old as the Army and not really worth repeating. Yes, they made us do pushups. Yes, we had to go a lot of places in formations, and sit through classes, and go bivouac on the rifle range (and Ft. Dix in January is fucking cold and don't let anyone kid you) and were dosed with CS "tear" gas, and all the comic book and movie stuff. Suffice to say we got through it and moved on, and I'd be very surprised if any of us who went through "Coldsteel Alpha" that chilly winter of 1981 have spent much time or mental coin thinking back on it.So let me just tell you some stories from that time and place.

First, a little note about what we wore.

Trust me, this is not becoming a fashion blog. It's just that of all the aspects of my BCT the one thing that sets us apart in my mind is that we were the last of a long history of GIs to wear the O.D. green that had symbolized the Arsenal of Democracy since 1941.Specifically, we wore the OG-107 fatigue uniform, better known as the just "fatigues" or as the "pickle suit". We wore the rubber-sole black "boot, combat" that had been standard since the Fifties, and the whole ensemble was topped off with one of the most ridiculous items of headwear ever invented by the U.S. Army, the OG-106 "baseball cap".The cardboard stiffener in front was designed to get bent into all sorts of moronic looking shapes, and the fake-leather band was sweat-droolingly hot in summer and icy cold in winter.

The thing is, the pickle suit had been a very stylin' outfit. The drill sergeants nearly all had the old all-cotton versions from the Sixties. These typically faded to a pale green and took starch like a Congressmen to a lobbyist's cashbag; they could be creased to razor sharpness and looked terrific. Our later, cotton-polyester, like nearly all polyester products from the Seventies, looked, well, like shit, especially if you threw in the moronic cap.

But that was just for the guys. Really, let's not even talk about what may have been the most horrible atrocity committed by the U.S. Army outside of My Lai; the female summer Class A uniform, otherwise known as the "Slimey Limey", a jaw-droppingly ugly "mint green polyester knit skirt and jacket uniform" that would have worked spectacularly as birth control device for Messalina or any of the other great horizontals of history. On a normal American woman it looked like leprous death, was universally despised, and was perhaps the only reason the gals looked forward to going into the AG-44 Army Greens.

But back to the issue of O.D.; in our fatigues we looked like GIs had since North Africa, we were living a great tradition and an honorable lineage so, being GIs, we all hated the pickle suit and longed after the cool camouflage uniforms that the Marines had.

Had we known that the BDU was going to be that uniform, well...I'll leave that for another day.

The one other big difference in my BCT was a less permanent one. We had a "mixed" company, men and women together.

This was all part of the post-Vietnam VOLAR experiment and one that wrapped up soon thereafter. I have no idea which genius thought that the ladies from 1st "Fox" Platoon would live as chaste and stainless as the Sisters of Charity right upstairs from 2nd "Flame" and 3rd "Herd" where the lusty lads were bunked, but the fireguards on the landings were meeting cute every night, and I was told later that the unoccupied cadre rooms down at the end of the 1st Platoon floor were like a Fellini movie from midnight to first call.

But I never got in on all this hearty wooing; I was first a squad leader, then the platoon guide (trainee platoon sergeant) and was excused duty keeping the watches of the night and all that healthy young American soldier girl lovin'. All I remember it got me in return was the headaches of nannying forty other ignorant young people and Private Skrodinsky, the platoon's living Polack joke.

There was this time when Skrogie, cleaning his rifle, was showing the Kim brothers how the buffer spring could be compressed all the way down the buffer and (through an excess of CLP, or so he claimed later) shot the thing out the second-floor window into the truckbed of Drill Sergeant Reynold's truck...

...But that was later.Anyway, we managed to fumble through what I now recognize was a pathetically inadequate entry training, learning just enough to have gotten us killed within a day or so of genuine combat. But keep in mind we were the ash and trash of the Army; cooks, clerks, medics, truck drivers. The Army saw no reason - having forgotten the lessons of Vietnam and unseeing the ruinous guerilla wars to come - in teaching us REMFs how to really fight. After all, that was what Eleven-Bullets were for.Funny, when I think back on the time now I have a vague memory of cold, and being constantly a little tired, and of poor instruction inadequately delivered. And of a handful of memorable events, some because of the place, some for the people, some for the pure weirdness of them.

The Night of Sergeant Layne was one of the latter.

SSG Ricardo Layne was the junior drill sergeant for 2nd Platoon - this being a time when the Army was working under short commons each platoon had two instead of the authorized three - and was a native of some sort of Caribbean country. He was very tall, very black, and spoke, when at all, with a distinctive island accent.

SSG Layne was the "good cop" to SFC Nelson's "bad cop" - he was the cool, calm one next to the platoon sergeant's gruffness.

So it came as something of a surprise to hear him roaring at us in the middle of a dark February night.

We formed up in the hallways outside our barrack rooms in our skivvies, shivering and clueless, as he ramped and roared up and down the shiny linoleum, inching our toes away from the jump boots that glittered like black diamonds, even on pre-dawn CQ. It took some time for us to understand what he was furious about, and even longer to really "get" the impact of his fury, but finally we got it - we had used all the week's ration of toilet paper.

Remember, this was before the fat times; we were still "Carter's Army", still poor, still skimping to get by. We only got so much bog roll, and here it was almost Thursday and it had all disappeared up our capacious backsides.

"Joo pipple..."
Layne ranted,
"...joo 'ave been ussing en-tirely too mooch toilet pepper. Now Aye am not shoore if t'is is doo to joo pipple 'ave been inadequately instroocted in de joose of de Joo Ess Army toilet pepper, or because joo is joost full of chit. Dat doan matter, because dis is de last toilet pepper joo will get until NEXT week, and joo will 'ave to learn to use eet correctly or joo will just 'ave to use joor entrenching tool, which of course joo will clean properly afterwords..."
I'm not sure what happened after that; I think we went back to try and get another hour or two's rack. And we didn't run out of buttwipe again.

But he sure was mad.

Of course, it wasn't just us fucking up.

One afternoon late in the three-month training cycle (so it must have been some time late in March) the three of us platoon guides were told to have our units "in the classroom" after noon chow for some reason. So at 1300, good as gold, all three little soldiers called their units to atention, put them "at ease" and turned around to await their masters.

Only no one came.1310 came and went, and then fifteen minutes, and the three of us called out our first squad leaders and ran to meet in front of my platoon. What had happened? What was wrong? We concluded that we had been supposed to form up at "the classroom" - in our experience the battalion theatre down at the end of the street - and had missed some vital instruction. Confident now in our understanding of the situation, we returned to our platoons.

"Platoon, atten-shun. Right face. Forward...march!" and off the street we went, three little blocks of wanna-be GIs. Column right onto the battalion street (get out there, road guards!), column right and column left into the theatre parking lot. Countercolumn. Halt. File from the right, column left...march and into the dim seats.

And then...nothing.

I think it must have been another fifteen minutes when the side door slammed open and one of the holdovers who was acting as a sort of dogsbody and general nuisance around the company stuck his head in and yelped.

"Don't move!"

We looked at each other. Hunh? Don't move...where?

Well, we found out about a nanosecond later; the cadre poured in like OD Goths swarming through the Porta Appia. We were driven outside, marched back to the company area and herded into the company classroom (in the basement of our barrack) which was the intended location of whatever silly thing we had been intended to do. The three of us platoon guides were questioned mercilessly until our drill sergeants were satisfied that we had just made an honest mistake and had not been attempting to escape.

And I think they were a little frightened by our initiative as well as chagrined at losing 120 GIs for half an hour.

I don't remember much else, other than little oddiments. Somehow we managed to get through the POI and move on without killing ourselves or each other, and I suspect that most of us made fairly decent soldiers in one way or another.The old BT post is all but closed now, and my old barracks has been made into some sort of low-security prison. The soldiers are pretty much all gone, and the units, as well. The quiet streets of the old post are mostly empty, and the cold winter winds no longer carry the sound of marching cadences sung far away.


BigFred said...

Old School OD Green is Old School. I did not realize that the shift to BDU's was that late. Now everyone has their own "boutique" camo pattern, with the Navy alone having I believe 6 different patterns in addition to the ridiculous Blueberry daily wear pattern.

Don Francisco said...


Your post made some great reading, I can see these memories becoming a favourite among your regulars! Keep them coming.

FDChief said...

BF: I'll revisit the uniform thing in post after next, but basically when I got to Ft. Bragg the 82nd was wearing either the pickle suit or a version of the USMC "cammie" suit - basically a woodland-pattern ripstop poplin uniform similar to what eventually became the "hot weather" BDU. We got the first issue of the BDUs in about 1983-84 and found out why the guys at the Tropical Test Center are supposed to have left the damn things in the jungle and marched out in boots and skivvies; the original fabric (which was supposed to have some sort of protective material in it which is why you weren't supposed to starch them) was incredibly close and didn't breathe at all; they were a punishment in anything warmer than a pleasant spring day.

DF: Glad you like these; I enjoy reminiscing about those days; they seem like a much more innocent time.

Leon said...

Based on previous posts, I guess we'll get the story of the Ft. Benning Mad Shitter in exactly one year?

Looking forward to more reminisces. I'm now wondering if you were John or Russell Ziskey?

Also, regarding the women's uniform. Good lord, that should be banned by the Geneva convention as cruel and inhumane (to the enemy if seen). For once, the US should have copied the russki's:
Probably would have tripled volunteers (and pregnancies).

rangeragainstwar said...

i remember the transition period to the new splotchy shit.
the old field jacket ,plain jane was authorized until a drop dead date,and i wore my old stuff until i was forced by reg to switch over.
in rvn we WERE NOT allowed to wear camo at grp hq, so when we went home as a unit guess what they issued????
BRAND FUCKING NEW CAMO. needless to say i gave my old faded shit away before i reported in for movement.
so we all went home looking like we just processed in.we weren't allowed to wear this stuff in country, but we went home in it. WTF??
i've never understood the concept of camo uniforms, but we've been thru this before.
my fav BT story is /was when i was casual duty at BCT- Benning and we went into a heat alert, and the 1sg(not the field 1st) sent a runner down to the range to alert the troops. the runner collapsed and was medevaced w/o being able to pass the word. you just have to love the Army.who could make this crap up?
we got the idea.!

rangeragainstwar said...

1 more memory-after switch over to the cargo pants a 0-6 AF type stopped me b/c i had stuff in my cargo pockets. you know -maps and needless shit like that, and he told me to take corrective action, and i refused. i asked him-what reg am i violating and why did they put the pockets there anyway?
he reported me to my AF 0-6 supervisor. i reckon the AF doesn't know what pockets are for.
events like this stick in my memory.

FDChief said...

Leon: I'm hoping to post a couple of these a month or so. The ones after this will be about my time at COSCOM going through pre-phase and then Mackall for PhI, and then my initial experiences in the 82nd.

But the story of the MS is a real oddity, so it might be worth a stand-alone sort of post in February.

jim: What was odd about my uniform memories is that I went from the pickle suit to BDUs in the early Eighties and was then levied to Panama in 1984 where we were issued...OG-507 jungle fatigues! The BDU had proved a spectacular failure in climates hotter than Ft. Lewis, WA, and the Army was frantically trying to come up with a tropical version, but in the meantime we were using up the old stocks of RVN-era jungles.

I loved the 507s; they were cool, comfortable, and, as you pointed out, had lots of nice pockets for stuff (although in garrison we were bitchslapped just like you were if we had so much as a slip of paper in them). They took starch nicely in garrison and washed out comfortably in the field.

As far as the camo goes, once I got over my ignorant-private infatuation with the coolness of it I've always been ambivalent about it. I think if you're in the defense it helps break up your outline. But I've never seen it work well when you're moving; you just look like a dark shape running around.

All in all I don't think it really matters that much; a well-trained infantry squad wearing pink tulle' tutus will wax the ass of a bunch of gomers shambling about in the coolest camo ever printed...

Lisa said...

I love the old OD fatigues! Rarely, I can find them at a thrift store and they are so soft after being nicely worn. The last pair I made into shorts, which I wore until they went to holes.

Jim disparagingly commented on an OD quilted jacket I'd bought which I thought quite fashionable, but he dismissed as "Korean Army". I tried to explain that fashion often takes its cues from military wear, but I think he feels it's privileged garb.

I like your comment re. "pink tulle' tutus" -- I would think the shock value alone would be priceless. Plus the disarming aspect of plucking on any homoerotic tendencies among your enemy ...

rangeragainstwar said...

in the 80's Bragg QM sold jungles for 4$ a garment and boots for the same price.
i shouldda bought a warehouse full.
the heat assoc. w. bdu's was from the infra red treatment. they didn't breath.
you are thinkin' of the fatigues just before those described by Chief. those were pure cotton and soft and fluffy if not starched. the fatigues Chief described were wash and wear composite material.

Big Daddy said...

I'm glad to see you posting this series again and look forward to the next adventures of your younger more innocent self.

FDChief said...

Lisa & jim: I think I mentioned in the post that even at the time we ignerent privvits recognized the value of the old cotton 107's; they did, indeed, wear as soft as butter, faded to this salty sage-green color and when starched would hold starch for days. The ones I was issued were the "cotton-poly" versions and as I say in the post were kinda nasty.

When I got to FBNC I went to Bragg Surplus down on Yadkin Rd (just like you remember, jim, they had boxes full of the old VN jungles and I wish I had picked up a dozen...) and bought a couple of the old cotton sets - the wearout date was something like 1983 - and got them all done up with my sew-ons (it was a custom in my then-battalion to require even the E-2s to sew their rank on, some sort of after-effect of a truly miserable IG inspection that gigged HHC for chipped black paint on pin-on rank as well as mislocated rank devices - the 1SG went on a rampage and required every swinging richard to sew their rank on...) Plus I got some big-old horseshoe taps on my jump boots and I felt like a hard old bastard until my section sergeant caught up with me and worked my ass off on extra duty until I recovered the humility due a cherry PFC...

Lisa: I wore my Panama fatigues until they fell apart; loved them to death. There is some sort of lookalike that is sold in surplus stores now but that is somehow a different mix of fabrics and doesn't wear the same.

I'll bet you were quite charming in your little OD shorts.

As far as the jacket goes, sorry, jim, but that sort of "GI-look" is popular and chic as hell, though a "quilted" OD jacket sounds not so much Korean as Korean-War-era Chinese - take a look at the pics of the PRA prisoners from 1951 and most of them are wearing some sort of greenish quilted jacket. Still, I have an old five-color desert night-camo jacket I love for wearing over on the Dry Side; it's warm as hell and soft as a caress...

rangeragainstwar said...

sorry about the caps. i'm too lazy to retype it.btw -we may have passed one another in the old warehouse that the qm used to sell off the vn era stuff.
i bet ranger joe bought shit piles of this stuff. i used to know ranger joe- he was a dutch gentleman of jewish faith.
in the 3rd ranger we wore fluff dried cotton fatigues. usually.

FDChief said...

jim: Yep. 82nd ASOP required that pin-on collar rank be moved to the breast pockets before JMPI, but my HHC commander used the excuse to force the privvits to sew their rank on to stop getting gigged in IGs for dingy little shit like the chipped paint on the rank.

I always pictured "Ranger Joe" as this ex-B-girl from Danang, but a guess a Dutch Hebrew works just as well...

Lisa said...

Yes, that's it -- the all-cotton 107's, and they did have a lovely sage fade. I also love the khaki tropical worsteds -- I thought they looked terribly smart.

And I believe you're correct on the Korean-War-era quilted Chinese jackets. (But that doesn't mean they look awful, Jim, when re-purposed on an American Woman :))

FDChief said...

Indeed. I'll bet you made a cuddly armful in your quilted Mao jacket, Lisa, one that would have more than convinced the most dedicated comrade to stay in from the struggle against imperialism discussing the dialectics of the tender dictatorship of the proletariat until the wee small hours of the morning...

Lisa said...

You do make me smile :)

(Thank you for being my champion, even though I might wear a Mao jacket.)

Pablo Jasso said...

I was stationed at Ft Dix January 1981 - August 1981. Sometime in May 1981, I witnessed a suicide. Young female blonde soldier jumped to her death from the top floor of B-3-5. I would appreciate any information from anyone else who knew about this incident. I need the soldiers name and exact date of incident. Please forward to Thanks, Pablo Jasso

Beth B said...

Its been a few years since this was posted and the only reason I found this site was because I was trying to prove to someone that there was a uniform we had called slimey limeys. I remember Ft Dix well, E-1-5. July-August 1981. Male-female Company/Platoon. We were told we were beta testers. Fire Guard..... Escaping to church.... Hat tucked into the back of our belts and falling in the damn toilet when we copped a squat to pee. And the time I thought I was big shit because I came in as an E-2. We were all out smoking in the parking lot of that same theater and there was a soldier with his back to me not wearing any headgear. I said in my most haughty and authoritative manner "soldier, where is your headgear?!?" in front of probably 5 other companies. The soldier slowly turned around to reveal that not only was he an E-6 but a DS as well from a different. I did push ups for days. Ended up sleeping with that same DS a few weeks later. Memories!

Alex B said...

Chris Sabo A-4-3 Jan-Mar 1981. All that has been said on this site and post, I feel I was there. Senior Drill SFC Harris and SSG Layne. It was cold and snowy we froze our butts off. Harris and Layne were awesome drills, I went from boy to man in 3 months time. Still looking for others who were there with me Cold Steel Alpha.

Anonymous said...

CO B, 2 BN, 3 BDE, June-August 1981. Dix was hot and humid. Since I was the tallest, I was permanent Road Guard.

nomadicaddict said...

I was in B23 Beginning Jan 5, 1981. My forever name for that place was Ft. Cold Ass Dix. Bivouac was insane. I left about 5 layers of skin on the trigger during our night fire. Jumping out of the tent for accountability in our long-john's was no fun either. About our 3rd night they cancelled our Bivy because of the frigid windchill. I was so,so happy to get to AIT in San Antonio! From there I went to Ft. Clayton, Panama and got to guard the Tropical Test Center that you spoke of. We were issued our BDU's late in 1982 but were allowed to wear the jungle fatigues for the remainder of the time that I was there. I think we had one inspection with BDU's. Another good thing about my company was that we had permission to walk around in our tee's most of the time. Early 92 we stopped wearing fatigues and boots for PT. Thanks for the memories!

nomadicaddict said...

PS Got in a gang fight with Charlie Company @ the Flamingo our first day pass. And don't forget the luxurious cattle trucks that we were transported in.

FDChief said...

Beth: I think the most effed-up part of the old slimey limeys was that when y'all were stuck wearing that uglass shit us Y-chromosome types got to strut around in the khaki hot-weather Class A, the Army Tan Uniform, possibly the best looking garrison outfit the Army ever wore. Ouch.

Sabo; You were in my BCT outfit; I swear I remember your name. Glad you remember the drills, too. They were good men, and good sergeants.