Can You Picture Me As A Drill Instructor? Part Ii

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Last week I mentioned that I became a DI by talking my way into GIS, General Instructor School, not because I wanted to go to that school, but because I had wriggled my way out of something else and had to enter a tech school ASAP or get dragged back in.

And I just made it! I had been in GIS for four days when I was ordered to go back down to my former squadron and report to the squadron commander. And when I reported in, I saw the reason I had been ordered to report to him.

Next to the commander sat a civilian, the Yale professor in charge of the Chinese language program I had wriggled out of. He frowned at me. “Garrett,” he demanded, “why have you not been where you belong for the past four days?”

I’ll tell you what, Johnny, I can look as innocent as a newborn baby when I have to. My answer? “Where I belong, sir?”

“In the Chinese language program!”

“But, sir, I’m not in that program anymore.”

“You’re not what? How could you possibly not be in it?”

“We took a test. A three striper came in and said that if we weren’t motivated we had better get out of the program. I wasn’t motivated so I went up to him and said I wasn’t and he gave me a piece of paper that said to take me out of the program.”

Anyway, they huffed and they puffed and they tried to blow my house down, but fortunately I had some huffing and puffing on my side — Air Force Manual 35-1, which said that once a man entered a tech school, only Headquarters USAF could take him out again. So they frowned a lot, but back to GIS I went, smiling all the way.

And yes, I had read AFM 35-1 before I made my escape plan.

It’s like they say in school, Johnny. It pays to read. :-)

Of course, there was a slight glitch in my plan. When I graduated from GIS they expected me to be a drill instructor. I hadn’t gotten that far in my planning.

But — miracle of miracles! — I took to it like a duck to water.

It turned out that a boyhood wasted tramping the woods on solitary hikes wasn’t a bad way to prepare for life as a DI. They both called for good legs, good boots, good lungs, and a desire to spend your days outside, summer or winter.

I felt right at home as a DI. All they asked me to do were things I liked. I loved hiking, and marching 60 basic trainees around and breathing the cool, clear air of upstate New York was great. And where else could I get paid to go hiking?

Then there was the firing range. There is nothing I love much more than the feel of a fine weapon in my hands, the challenge of putting half an ounce of copper, steel, and lead dead center in a bull’s-eye, the satisfying kick of a weapon.

And having a chance to teach that to someone else? Showing 60 young men how to put that bullet where it belongs? Spending hours in dry-fire talking about sight picture, breath control, and trigger squeeze, and then watching all 60 men go out there and qualify? Knowing that they might just need that skill some day?

Best job I ever had. And one of the most meaningful.

I did learn one odd thing as a DI though: Bad drivers are bad drivers no matter where they are or what they’re doing.

One of the reasons for learning close order drill is that it is the fastest and most efficient way of moving a large number of men from one place to another. And that is exactly what we did at Sampson AFB. We had 24,000 men on base, three-quarters of them basic trainees. That meant that each morning 300 groups of 60 men had to make their way from one place to another one on the base roads — in addition to any vehicular traffic.

In essence, what a DI did was break his men into a column of twos so they took up less road space, and off he went, driving a worm-like column of men roughly six feet wide and a hundred feet long. Try driving a pickup that long — by voice commands alone.

So there we were every morning, noon, and evening: Roads filled with men moving at a fast 120 paces a minute, air ringing with the voices of drill instructors, heels beating a tattoo.

And there also were the same loony-bin types you can see out there on the roads any day. Cutting people off, failing to stop at stop signs, turning from the wrong lane. And yep! Road rage.

I actually had one dippie of a DI who tried to turn into a side road from the center lane — across the face of my column!

He thought his three stripes to my two might protect him.

They didn’t.

But the best part was field training: The fresh air. Teaching the troops to live under the sky — raw, basic stuff. My first 60 men arrived on base in October, and by the time we went for field training it was late December and very cold. It was great showing the men how to stay warm. They each carried a shelter half, a poncho, and two wool blankets. Two men put their shelter halfs together to make a pup tent. Then each of them took his two wool blankets and his poncho, which is a large square piece of plastic tarp-like material, turned them into an effective sleeping bag, and slept warm and dry all night.

Can you see how satisfying it would be to teach that?

And that wasn’t all DIs did. Most important of all, I think, was teaching men what it meant to don a uniform. What did it mean? It meant the mission came first, that once you raised your hand and swore to defend this nation of ours everything changed.

It meant that if it came down to it, you died doing your duty.

Had the Air Force kept the Army-style basic training we had back in those days I would have been perfectly happy to spend my entire career doing what I was doing. It felt that important.

It was an honor, a privilege, and a humbling but at the same time uplifting experience to serve this nation. The knowledge that I was a part of something so much more important than I was is a feeling I will never forget.

And having the chance to teach that to young men during their first few days in uniform felt better than I can possibly explain.

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