Can You Picture Me As A Drill Instructor?


If anyone had told me while I was young that I was going to be a drill instructor I’d have told him he was out of his mind.

Me? One of those guys in the movies? The ones running around in Smokey Bear hats? The hut-two-three-four guys? The ones who turn civilians into soldiers?

“Me?” I’d have asked. “Are you kidding? Never!”

But you know something? Never say never. Why? Because sure as the devil something bad will come charging at you, you’ll swerve to dodge it, and — bingo! Out of the frying pan into ...

Like the genius I am at times, I became a DI by volunteering for a tech school to get out of something else I volunteered for.

What had I volunteered for? The Chinese Language Program.

It may be hard to imagine me drilling troops, but if you want something REALLY hard to imagine, think of me spending my entire Air Force career speaking Mandarin Chinese.

I’ll tell you what, Johnny. It was a close thing!

I’ve told that tale before, so I won’t go into detail. Let it suffice to say that the only way to get out of the Chinese Language Program, which had the highest priority in the Air Force at the time, was to get accepted for the one and only school on the basic training base where I was located.

Which meant talking my fool head off. Which I did. Boy did I ever!

And it worked! I got accepted to General Instructor School.

Which was? Come on, you know what it was. A school for DIs.

And so, two months later there I was, graduated from GIS, a genuine, bona fide drill instructor. Minus the Smokey Bear hat, thank goodness. That part was movie stuff.

Then came the most unlikely coincidence of my entire life. There were, I believe, 11 basic training squadrons on base. I was randomly assigned to one of them. I reported in, first to the squadron commander, and then to the training officer. Each of them in turn looked me over without comment. Then I was sent off to a training section, one of six in the squadron.

Off I strolled across the squadron area, headed for one of the barracks. I hadn’t been given the name of my section NCO, I’d just been told to report to his office in one of the barracks. I found the barracks, found the right door, knocked, heard, “Come in,” and walked into the office of the very same NCO I had worked for during my entire first hitch.

To realize how unlikely that is you have to keep in mind that there were 865,000 men in the Air Force worldwide, stationed on some 165 bases, large and small, with perhaps 25 squadrons on each base and an average of six to 10 sections per squadron.

What are the odds against that? Beats me! Must be big!

Anyway, there I was. Tom Garrett, drill instructor.

Without any basics as yet, thank goodness.

But three weeks later I was assigned my own barracks and alerted to expect 60 new troops to start coming in. Which they did, five or six at a time, mostly in the middle of the night.

I will say I was not highly impressed with the troops as they came in.

Because they were still in civilian clothes, instead of being neatly packaged in uniforms like the rest of us, we called them “rainbow” troops. As they showed up at the “green giant,” the monster-sized reception building, I was almost as unimpressed with them as I was with myself as a DI.

And a phrase kept running through my head.

Know what it was, Johnny?

“The blind leading the blind.”

What did I know about the military? Hey, just to give you some idea of what those poor rainbow troops were up against, catch this very interesting confession.

I spent 21 years in the Air Force wearing two basic colors. Olive drab and Air Force blue.

The blue I was OK with. But I swear to God, for all 21 years I spent in the service, plus the two years between my first two hitches, and for 27 years after I retired — not to the mention the 20 years before I went in — a sum total of 68 years, I thought olive drab fatigues were brown.

No kidding. Only found out olive-drab was green while I was doing a crossword puzzle one day in 2001.

That give you any idea what those poor kids were up against?

Well, life goes on, and eventually — it took about a week — all of my troops were in. And so we started training.

I remember the first day I fell the troops outside on the ramp and tootled off with them for their first session of close-order drill. How well I did I don’t know, being like everyone else, a lousy judge of my own efforts. And since there was no one out there supervising me, I received no feedback from anyone. So you may be surprised when I tell you that I had a very large smile on my face at the end of that day. And I’ll bet you can’t guess why.

Why? Simple. I had learned an inarguable truth. Which is?

In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!

The troops, you see, knew nothing. And after all, how much do you have to know to know more than nothing?

That’s the secret to teaching, by the way. Start slow, take your time, and stick to things you’re sure of. You’ll have plenty of time to get better and better. Sometimes, on the first time around you may be only one day ahead of your students, but one day is enough — in the beginning.

So work hard, keep on learning, and have fun!

Which, as a DI, I did. In fact, I had a ball.

Tell you all about it next week.


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