Monday, November 10, 2008

Part II: Training

On one edge of Columbia, South Carolina is an Army base called Fort Jackson, the largest training facility in the entire US Army. On the edge of Fort Jackson is a South Carolina Army National Guard facility called Camp McCrady. Since the Navy has gotten into the business of sending people all over the place to support the Global War of Terror, Camp McCrady has been the site of Navy Individual Augmentee Combat Training (aka NAArmy Training, sir!). This was my next home away from home.

We got two and a half weeks of training at Camp McCrady. On the first day they showed us some statistics. In the current class were almost 300 Navy sailors on their way to various odd jobs all over the globe. This was the 18th class to go through the training so far this year. Since the beginning of the Global War on Terror, there had been thousands of sailors loaned to the Army to fill missions that would traditionally fall to people who wear some shade of green for a living. Out of all of them, a sum total of 289 have been naval reservists on their way to Afghanistan. A number that small makes me a rare, lucky guy.

The 300 or so students were broken down into two companies of four platoons each. Each platoon was assigned a drill sergeant. These guys were interesting. I doubt I understood half of what they were saying for the first week. There were a lot of words coming out of their mouths and I recognized many of them. The problem is that they were all jumbled up and nonsensical. It was like taking direction from a stroke victim.

The class itself was comprised of officers and enlisted personnel, male and female, from every sort of background you could imagine. The one that stood out the most though was Master-at-Arms First Class Benzi:


MA1 Benzi is the only MWD (Military Working Dog) in our class. From what I understand it is pretty rare for the MWDs to go through this course. The key thing for him to get from the training was a greater level of comfort around gunfire and explosions. It's interesting to note that while MA1 Benzi is a first-class petty officer in the US Navy, his handler is only a second-class petty officer. If his handler, MA2 Oliva, gets promoted to MA1 then Benzi automatically gets promoted to Chief Master-at-Arms. So no matter what she does, she will always be outranked by her dog.*

We learned a lot of things at Camp McCrady. We practiced shooting and learned the basic principles of rifle marksmanship, we drilled room-clearing procedures and learned how to move a team into a building, and we spent some time in the classroom studying subject ranging from combat first aid to land navigation. We even did a convoy exercise where some of us got to learn how to use a HMMWV (aka "Humvee") to block traffic and screw up people's daily commutes.

While I was there I managed to get a few interesting photos.

This is me with all of my gear on:On a normal day, fresh from the shower and wearing only a towel, I weigh around 160 pounds. With all of this crap on, I weigh in just under 300 pounds. Needless to say, I take every available opportunity to rest:
Here's a shot of me during heavy weapons training. Pictured here is the M2 .50cal machine gun. The instructors were trying to tell us that the M2 was originally developed for use by the Navy in the early years of the 20th century. I know it's been around for a long time, but I've got my doubts about the Navy part. I think they were just trying to make us feel included. Either way, I've added one to my Christmas list:


Here's a shot of one of the Army drill sergeants (right) and one of my Navy classmates (left) during chemical protective suit training:


That particular drill sergeant also runs his own physical fitness consultation business. If you'd like an Army drill sergeant to help you build your own fitness regimen, you can read all about it at

Here I am driving a Humvee not long before we splashed through a deceptively deep puddle, covering the windows and the topside gunner with bright orange mud:


Random shot on the way back to the barracks from the woods:


Here's a winning shot of me during our 9mm pistol stress shooting. It was basically a lot of running around and diving behind things, then popping up and firing rounds into the targets:


The shooting was a lot of fun, but the targets were kinda comical. At least I'm confident I'll do really well if I ever find myself in a firefight with chubby green midgets:


Here's a pic I took of another one of my Navy classmates during a lunch break at Fort Jackson:


Speaking of lunch, since we were usually far away from the base dining facilities (known as "DFACs" in Army retard vernacular), lunch was usually an MRE (short for Meal, Ready to Eat). Here's a picture of one particular meal:


And here are the contents removed from the package:


This particular meal included Mexican-style corn, chicken pesto pasta, peanut butter, crackers, an oatmeal cookie, some Chicklets, and a packet of Beverage Powder Base (orange) to mix with half a canteen of water. It was all surprisingly good food and, if they work as advertised, the same packets will last for decades.

Here's a shot of me in the barracks:


This was home for the duration of my time at Camp McCrady. Each of the barracks has space for 60 people, but we only had 38 or so in ours. That meant most of the top bunks were empty and we had a place to pile up the FOUR seabags worth of gear that we were all issued.

I'm not sure why they gave us so much crap, but now I've got everything I'll ever need for anyplace they could suddenly decide to leave me in the world. Yes this is excessive. Even as they were handing it to us, they actually told us we wouldn't be needing most of it.

Case in point: my "entrenching tool." For those of you too smart to speak Army, "entrenching tool" means "shovel." I have been issued one because everyone is issued one. It folds up to the size of a cereal bowl and comes in a handy travelling case. Mine will spend the duration of the deployment at the bottom of a seabag at the bottom of a locker in whatever room I'm staying in. So even if I somehow end up in a position to be digging holes, it will be so far outside the realm of things I'm expected to be doing that I won't have it with me. Why issue it then? You'd have to ask the Army. Apparently it makes sense to them.

Enough about that though. Back to the training.

Most of those lessons were good, but the bulk of the course seemed designed to teach us how to be in the Army. This part of the course was in no way formalized. In fact, I don't think it could be learned from any sort of formalized training. Instead, you have to live it. This is how I became intimately familiar with what the Army refers to as "white space." White space is the blocks of time that are left in a schedule in between events that require any action. Another name for white space is "wasted time." The Army apparently has a lot of white space. They are also ill-equipped to do anything at all with it. They are also ill-equipped to look ahead and prepare for whatever will be happening at the end of each block of white space. This is where the "hurry-up-and-wait" concept comes up.

The training itself would've been fun if it weren't for the attitude of the instructors. It was an interesting dynamic in that over half of the students outranked the instructors. Some of them by quite a bit. This is where something called "positional authority" comes into play. This concept allows a private in the Military Police to issue speeding tickets to colonels. It also allows a petty officer who is a recognized subject matter expert to school a classroom full of commanders studying his subject.

It does not allow the junior person to ever treat the senior person with any degree of contempt or disrespect. This particular problem came up a lot. The worst example was when one of the instructors, a staff sergeant, called a navy captain (equivalent in rank to an army colonel) "sweetheart" while pointing out one of her errors in front of the class.

I later came to find out that the entire staff was comprised of reservists and national guardsmen who had been mobilized to run this training program. Once I knew that, I started noticing more and more glaring examples of this lack of professionalism.

The worst example was my own platoon's drill sergeant. We never really saw him for more than a few minutes and those times were few and far between. I didn't think much of it until I started hearing about all of the things that the other platoons had been learning from their drill sergeant in between the scheduled periods of instruction (the white space). This sort of opportunity training included everything from how to clean and maintain your firearms to how to keep your feet from rotting and falling apart while wearing combat boots all day. I'm not sure, but I'm willing to bet that some of that information might have been important.

One good(?) thing did come of it though. On the second day of training we were issued weapons.** Some folks were loaned weapons to be returned at the end of the course. Others were issued one based on what they'd be doing in-theater. I was the only officer I met who was issued two (both an M16 and a 9mm pistol) that I will carry with me until my return from the combat zone. I'm really not sure what this means, but after 18 days of laughable combat training in South Carolina, it was time to move on to the Middle East. At this point I still had no idea what my job would be when I finally got into Afghanistan. According to the Army I'm prepared for it though...

*There are no officers assigned as MWD handlers, so there is no chance of the Navy ever having a canine admiral. Poor pooches.

**Throughout the period where I have a firearm signed out in my name, I fall under General Order 1B which stipulates, among other things, that I am not allowed to consume alcohol. So I've got over 230 days of sobriety to look forward to. How awesome is that?


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