July 11-14, 2008: My son's Army Leader's Training Course graduation
This is what my kid did on his summer vacation.
Friday morning, Dad picks me up at Memphis airport and we drive toward Ft. Knox. Dad and I stop for catfish at a restaurant with homemade chess and chocolate chess pies and red velvet cake.
We stop in Jackson to visit a sick family friend, then Dad drives around Paris, Tennessee looking for: The 641 club, the bar where the owner pointed a gun at him while the owner's brother punched dad around, and the jail where dad sobered up overnight on a public drunk charge 42 years ago. This is how Dad passed the time at Murray State University, where we visit next. I take a picture of Dad in front of his dorm.
We get to the hotel and eat at a steakhouse, where Dad gives my leftover pork ribs to the desk clerk.
Up before the sun. Local Louisville news runs: An African-American bullhorn-toting preacher's funeral eulogized by comedian and national treasure Dick Gregory. Orchids on a bullhorn. The Klan hiding tracts in home-delivery newspapers. Wounded warriors from Fort Knox attending an event on the Ohio river.
On the way up, south of Fort Knox, every commercial building and virtually every house is brand new. Very nice suburb in the middle of nowhere.
Today is Family Day at Fort Knox, so the Army has a rock wall for the kids, a demo of all the rifles your kid got to fire. I meet LTC Dykes, Bill's Company Commander. We file into the auditorium, where the public affairs officer greets us and forces a lot of applause breaks. A 7'5" Texas cadet got the weight-loss record, losing 60 lbs in 24 days. The 4'11 female HR director shows a picture of her next to the gigantic Texas recruit. She brings down two kids around 9 years old to demo salutes and left/right face and pushups. She makes the easy Ft. Knox/2nd Lieutanant gold bar analogy and hands out chocolate gold bars and coins a girl who scaled up the rock wall. She explains how the cadets will get home and travel vouchers and HR administrivia. Injuries and workmen's comp.
Eastern US commander of ROTC talks about the dvd of video clips of all the cadets. He shows us a slide show of the phases of training with processing and uniforms and equipment, drill instructors, again the new weight loss record, most improved company physical rating in their history. Moving in formation, bonding as a squad with a lieutenant who just graduated ROTC. They get a Form 157R of their strengths and weaknesses throughout their cadet career. Obstacle course with critical thinking challenges, like mini-golf with your body.
The instructors introduce themselves and their specialties and their colleges, including a LTC military science professor from Georgetown.
ROTC commander talks about the stress of the warrior leader phase and rifle training. They us paintballs at 500 feet/second in weapons that look just like real rifles. How they condition them to enjoying the commissary and water park and other amenities on post. Lack of crime on post, post as "the world's largest gated community." How neighborhood brings in meals the first week a new baby arrives on post. Combat water survival training. Unexpected water entry training, aka "diving into a pool off the high dive wearing a hood." Simultaneously helps the cadet overcome heights, water and the dark. Machine gun training on a turret over a Humvee with a laser that vibrates you harness. Like .50 caliber laser tag. Grenade course at different angles in truck and behind cover. Land navigation in the dark looking for unlit targets in the night. Urban paintball room-clearing SWAT training. His callback line is "We're not foolin' around, this is important training."
At the "bold leader" phase they do individual confidence Outward Bound/Indiana Jones confidence course stuff. Climbing walls and elaborate climbing towers with undulating terrain. Then they tie all the training together into an integrated paintball squad challenges where you're solving physical challenges while being targeted by paintball guns, then attach people in a bunker with paintball guns. They're teaching individual and team critical thinking kinesthetically. They made a flotation device out of your gear and rerighting landing craft.
In future leader phase they take a 10-mile march over agony and misery trails and return to torches and a grove with a tree for every wounded soldier from this infantry division and motivational music. They return to rehearse without instructor help for Family Day. Then he teaches us how to say hoo-ah. Tells us about the huge pile of awards tomorrow.
Tells us about deployment and pride of profession and the extended family of the Army, constant professional development. Also the pension, which even civilian feds like me don't get anymore.
Explains the order of merit, the rank-ordering of all army cadets in the army and how they weigh academics and leadership and performance and physical training compared to civilian peers in the same college. The order of merit is also the anti-partying device.
Explained what's next. .5% wears the uniform, and they thanked us for loaning our kids to the Army.
Army's got this down to a science.
Then we get to watch the DVD. Co. D 1/46 inf. Cadets rappelling and diving into a pool with a mask to Van Halen's "Panama." Well wishes from the training cadre. Reassembling rifles. Crawling under nets to the theme from Backdraft. One team one fight.
Bill's not on the DVD. He told me he tried to avoid attention as much as possible. Good job. That's how you become President.
We get Bill. He's not born again hard. We go to Pizza hut. Bill talks about how the physical training at MMI is harder than the Ft. Knox training, which is a recurring theme for MMI stories.
Shopping at U.S. Cavalry, then the Patton museum. Lots of tanks, but unfortunately no audio-animatronic Patton slapping a wounded soldier for crying.
It's a dually!
Bill said the instructors told cadets to leave their Camelbak pouches on. His mom says he can remove it but I tell him that if he leaves it on he won't have to worry about it. All over off base I see cadets wearing their Camelbak pouches.
It's raining, so we have the ceremony in the gym. Soldiers are wearing their covers, so I assume they're all MPs. Chaplain gives invocation. I like to think that people don't know how their presumption of faith bothers atheists.
We continue the salute after the Pledge of Allegiance through the recitation of the Army values and the Soldier's creed. Cadets receiving awards are in front in their own row and get awards left and right. Awards come from organizations like Military Officers Association of America and Reserve Officers Association. The award presenter from the retired Drill instructors looks like "Oscar," the Academy Awards trophy.
Deputy of Army Recruiting Command BG Joseph Anderson gives the speech. Talks about how the US Army leads from the front, even when the front isn't the highest rank, if you're the one who knows where the target is, your superiors order you to lead them there. Establishing the source of your authority. How integrity makes you followable. Decentralized authority balanced with keeping the chain of command informed. Leading from the front. No way to know which day will be the big day. Giving people confidence encourages them to take the risk to win. Ends with a hooah from the crowd.
Then we rise to sing "A bar of gold on Army Green." Kind of a swing-march hybrid. No one sings it. A few people sing the Army song.
On the way out I stop at the convenience store for a mid-south treat: Tom's Coconut Slice. Nom nom nom.
We go south to Memphis along the Western border where dad was a railroad conductor. Corn growing here closer together than I've ever seen to make ethanol. The economy is so bad the junkyard has a sign that reads NO CARS PURCHASED.
Dad swerves the car when his phone rings. His stepdaughter set the ringtone to "Ridin'." Dad detours through Dyersburg and shows me the Charms lollipop factory where he stole Charms Blow Pops.
We get to Dad's house in time to see my stepmom's grandniece represent Bolivia in the Miss Universe Pageant. My 4-year old stepniece follows me around and talks nonstop. We're watching the pageant and a skinny South African takes the stage. I say "you can't spread butter with a toothpick," which provokes a 4-year-old rant about toothpicks. I let her play with my Blackberry and that settles her down.
I love the Memphis airport. No waiting at the TSA checkpoint. Kill time buying Elvis memorabilia (they answer the phone, "Elvis.") and eating Neely barbecue.
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