Monday, April 30, 2012

The Army I Knew: AIT and Jump School

So we're up to the spring of 1981.

The Army booked me a flight from Newark, New Jersey to San Antonio, Texas so as to get me to my next stage of entry training; medical specialist Advanced Individual Training, or "AIT".
(Note #1: in the Eighties the enlisted medical field jobs were given an occupational code "91"; your basic combat medic was a "91-Bravo" - the medical MOS has been renamed several times since then. The one peculiarity of military medicine is that it is one of the few MOS that is slotted into combat, combat-support, and combat service-support units. Since we were (and are) technically a CS/CSS job we were open to men and women, but the guys knew that the sweet, sweet REMF slots were going to the ladies. You had a 91B MOS and something hanging? You were going to a line unit somewhere. That was just how it worked and, I assume, still does...)
And so late in the morning after our "graduation" from BCT a handful of us were herded into a GSA van and driven to the airport, handed our travel vouchers and tickets, and pointed in the general direction of the boarding area.
(Note #2: Army commercial travel in the Eighties was - so far as I can tell - very different from today in that the only acceptable outfit to fly in was either the Class A or Class B greens. The idea of flying a commercial airliner in fatigues...well, let's put it this way; when I was permanent party in the Eighties the married guys who lived off-post could stop on the way home or the way in to get fuel. But that was it. God help you if the post MPs caught you in the Piggly-Wiggly in your duty uniform/Class C/fatigues - no matter what seven kinds of hell your Old Lady would give you for not stopping to pick up coffee creamer and tampons. Your fatigues were considered your sloppy jeans and a T-shirt, and as a professional you were expected to appear in public in the equivalent of a business suit; your dress uniform. Recruiters never appeared in public in fatigues. PAO types, ROTC cadre, career counselors...dress greens. The current enthusiasm for running around in fatigues still baffles me, but it appears to be here to stay.)
One thing I remember is how ridiculous I felt. The AG-44 "army green" Class A uniform really was a sad sack (it had only one tiny positive; it was wool, unlike the AG-489 that replaced it, which was a nasty wool-poly blend that looked and felt like a leisure suit) when you had nothing to dress it up.

The hat was the horrible stiffened-peak garrison cap, the so-called "cunt cap" which was nearly impossible to wear without looking like a conehead. The greens thenselves could not be pressed, wrinkled when you looked at them, and even when clean looked dingy and unimpressive.

As trainees were were innocent of the magic of Corfam, the insta-spitshined low quarter shoes that every trooper bought as soon as he could afford them; our black shoes looked equally dingy.

The only ornaments we sported were our bolo badges and the ridiculous "Army Service Ribbon", the so-called "Fireguard" ribbon, since it symbolized nothing more than breathing while on the government's payroll.But that is what we had, and so we shuffled onto the half-empty airplane, enjoyed our Cokes and peanuts (believe it or not, airlines actually fed their passengers in the Eighties) and arrived in San Antonio near midnight; tired, rumpled, and mildly disoriented. Luckily for us the USAMEDDAC reception had detailed a van and driver that got us onto post and into our racks before about 0300.

First call was still at 0500...

I don't want to talk too much about AIT; the training was probably very like it is today; the basics of combat first aid interspersed with some tactical advice from the cadre, the senior of which were still, at that point (as they have become once more) combat veterans. But my personal AIT had some interesting grace notes.Perhaps the best - for me, anyway - was that my little group from Ft. Dix had arrived at the very tail end of the fill for the cycle, and so the barracks of our AIT company had filled up. We ended up bunking across the PT fields in a nearly empty bay in a nearly empty barrack.

This opened up wonderful vistas for us, poor stupid trainees that we were. We were completely ignored by our trainee leaders, and the medical training cadre may very well not have actually known where we were. We "made our bunks" by folding our linens and putting them in our lockers. Inspections? None. Fire guard? Why bother?After the rigors of BCT this seemed like lotos-eating luxury, and, sybarites that we were, we lolled in it shamelessly. But we weren't fools; we knew how precarious our slovenly life was and so made sure not to draw attention to our unsupervised existence. It worked, and we remained idle bodies for ten weeks.

I hate to admit it, but I didn't take nearly the advantage of the far more lax regimentation at Ft. Sam Houston. I have no idea if the the current training environment at MEDDAC is a sort of Fellini-movie orgy but in 1981 many of the young soldiers arrived from much more strict BCT posts than the Ottoman hareem that had been FDNJ and found themselves effectively unsupervised after duty hours amid what must have seemed like a cornucopia of healthy young adults of the opposite sex.

The fucking was Homeric.

Bound up as I was in nice-middle-class-boyness and a modicum of military sheepishness I was only peripherally involved in the swiving; a kiss here, a grope-and-cuddle there...I may have been one of the handful of medics who emerged from Class 6-81 unscrewed. Alas. Si jeunesse pouvait...sigh...

I did spend a little time in San Antonio. I sat on the Riverwalk under the tamarind trees, enjoying the view and marveling at the beribboned glory of the trainees from nearby Lackland AFB (little did I know that embryonic wing-wipers got ribbon for every-fucking-thing, including marksmanship - all I knew is that the weediest of them seemed to have more fruit salad on his chest than Audie Fucking Murphy...).

I also visited the Alamo, history buff that I am, and was struck by how small it seemed, tucked away inside urban San Antonio. It was hard to picture it was standing in the middle of butt-rump nowhere as it had in 1836.

The occupiers of 1981 appeared to be exclusively middle-aged white people somewhere between 25 and 60 pounds over their ideal body weight wearing clothes that had probably looked pretty sloppy when new.

It was hard to picture it as a battlefield, and even harder to imagine it as some sort of Ground Zero for heroism.The training was fairly simple, and hours less than demanding, and it was a pleasant couple of months before I was driven to the airport and decanted onto an airliner bound, this time, for Ft. Benning, Georgia and U.S. Army Airborne School.

-----

The jump school I attended, the school that had been running as such since the Sixties, and the school (so far as I know) that still operates today, is a three-week course run by the U.S. Army Infantry School. At the time the notional military unit that comprised it was called the "4th Student Training Battalion" and consisted of four companies, 42nd through 45th.

I understand that it has been renamed after one of the old WW2 parachute infantry regiments but no matter - it's still Jump School. The round of Ground Week - Tower Week - Jump Week hasn't changed.

Interestingly, the original course as designed in the Forties was called Paratrooper School and included all the tactics needed to work in an airborne infantry unit; assembly on the drop zone, moving out as a unit, and so on. This was cut down in the late Fifties or early Sixties, perhaps largely because the school became the sole parachute jump training for the entire U.S. military (along with numerous foreign nations) and the tactical part of the POI was considered excessive.

As with AIT, the actual details of my transit were unremarkable, and there's no need to revisit them; you can find all sorts of information about Jump School on the Internets.

I will mention two moments, though.

The first was some time in the middle of Tower Week, I think. We had had a long day (they were all long days) and were somewhere in the middle of the night when one of the company cadre, one SSG Gaddy, woke us up and "cabled us down" - the formation area outside 44th Company had four long steel cables stapled to the ground on which we formed up in roster number order
(I was Roster Number 118, which says something about the bizarre sorts of things that stick in your head even after thirty-one years)
- and proceeded to bomb us with a long and not particularly coherent rant about Death, Judgement Day, and Salvation or something to that effect.I vividly remember thinking somewhere in the midst of this bizarre oration
(to this day I'm not sure if he was drunk, bored, or simply nuts, or fucking with us just because he could - unlike the dreaded Blackhats, the actual Airborne School instructors, the company cadre were a collection of casuals, transients, and (I suspect) goofballs, fuck-offs, and fuck-ups who had been assigned to babysit trainees because they could do less harm there than anywhere else - and probably never will)
that one of us - Gaddy or me, standing out there in the warm Georgia spring night when we should have been sleeping, was fucking insane and at that exact moment I wasn't sure which one of us it was.

The other incident involved a very tall Marine sergeant and the company's daily march down to Lawson Army Airfield during Jump Week.

As a private, all I had to do to get through three weeks was keep my head down, my boots shined
(and I learned very quickly that I could not spit-shine them enough to avoid the dreaded "gig pit" and scurried down to the bootblack stand at the end of the battalion area and paid up. The bootblacks painted my boots with some sort of gawdawful shiny glop (that cracked off in several hours and had the long term effect of ruining the boots with a scrofulous residue of petrochemical scurf) that got me through morning inspection and the extra pushups)
and complete five successful parachute jumps.But the NCOs and officers were graded on "leadership", which meant what the U.S. Army considered "leadership", meaning drill and ceremonies and the small change of troop leading.

Including marching.

Marching, for the U.S. Army, meant "calling cadence". This is a relatively recent feature of Army life, dating, so I understand, from the WW2 era when African-American units used chanted call-and-response cadences to keep marching step. These "jody calls" ran around the Army by the late Forties and are now considered part and parcel of "leadership" - you march troops, you gotta jody-call cadence.

Apparently this was not so in the USMC, circa 1981. The NCO in question, a very tall staff sergeant intended for a Marine Recon unit, was perfectly competent at drill commands, keeping time, and could call the step in the peculiar "'Eft, 'eft, eftrawt'eft" USMC fashion (although once, for pure entertainment, he tried to teach us an "oblique" - a disaster never repeated).

But he swore up and down he couldn't call cadence.

The company cadre (of which I've already unburdened myself) dogged him through the entire course. He had to call cadence; his "leadership" evaluation portion of the school depended on it. He needed to learn one cadence, he needed to use it, as the final week approached he seems to have been pushed harder and harder to find a way to accomplish this "critical" task...

Finally Jump Week arrived, and SSG Lanky was put in charge of the company and given the dire warning that it was this march or doom. So we right-faced and marched off on the road down through the housing area towards the airfield and our parachutes. SSG Lanky eft-eft-efting through the battalion area and past the supply sheds, with one of the cadre glaring at him and shaking his head ominously.

Finally, with less than a mile to go and the final slope through the living area and past the post elementary school in view, Lanky cleared his throat and produced his cadence, the only one I guess that he had stashed in the back of his head.

-----

Well, the story is that the adorable, tow-headed offspring of one of the majors stationed at the USAIS hopped on his mommy's lap that evening, peered wide-eyed up at her, and in his childish treble asked guilelessly:

"Mommy, what's a 'ping-pong pussy'"?

Because here's the only cadence SSG Lanky could remember:

"I know your momma,
She's a good ol' whore!
She's got a ping-pong pussy,
And a rubber asshole!
She's got knots on her titties
As big as my balls!
And the stench from her gash
Could make a dead man crawl!"

I understand that no one ever asked SSG Lanky to call cadence again.Well, the rest is nothing special; I made my jumps, got my wings, and was shoved onto a bus headed up the road for Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where the U.S. Army intended to make me into a highly-paid, highly-trained, high-speed, air-ram, fuel-injected Special Forces soldier.

And that is a tale for the next time.

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