The Art of Taking Breaks: Part 2, Bootcamp’s Most Valuable Lesson


The last summer of childhood was superb. I surfed (bodyboarded) nearly every day, and the time that wasn’t spent in the water was spent with friends. It was the best summer of my life, by far. What’s more, my father was very supportive of my decision to join the military and wanted me to enjoy my summer before beginning my enlistment. He provided me with a few bucks per day, not to mention the 1996 Dodge Dakota he purchased for my graduation from high school. Not to mention, he turned the other way many nights i was out late.

I shipped to Cape May, New Jersey September 18th, 2000 and bootcamp began that night. A truly interesting experience to say the least. I did not adjust well, and after 3 weeks I was ready to quit. I didn’t do well in high school, but I knew that I could get to a university by way of community college. My goal of going to college was suddenly consuming me and led to outbursts during basic training. One transgression in particular led to an exchange with a company commander that I will never forget, and that I always referred back to when struggling with completing my enlistment.

One night, our company (November-158, in case you were wondering) was being put through the ringer with rack making drills. The entire company – 80 recruits, 17-28 years of age – each have to tear down and make their beds in less than 2 minutes. It is an impossible task. Anyone who has done it will tell you, it’s an impossible task. After 5 or 6 attempts, people are frustrated and beginning to lose their minds. One of our esteemed company commanders,

Quarter Master First Class, Petty Officer Leon, shouts, “I’m only trying to help you people!”

I had had it. I foolishly retorted, “Well, you’re not.” I thought I had said this quiet enough so he wouldn’t have heard. Not so.

“Who said that?” he said in disbelief. I knew I had totally fucked up. Not wanting the rest of the company to have be ruthlessly punished for my outburst, I immediately stepped forward claiming the words I so badly wished I could shove back into my mouth.

“Sir, it was me, sir.” Sir sandwiches were still the required response for speaking to company commanders.

Petty Officer Leon commanded the rest of the company to pack their sea bags, the olive green waterproof bags that stretch from 6 inches above your head to just below your hind quarters, with all of the contents of their lockers – and they have two minutes to do it. I, on the other hand, was not instructed to pack my bag. I stood at attention in the middle of the squad bay until all of my shipmates’ two minute packing drill had expired. They then headed outside and marched around the quad for what seemed like eternity. Petty Officer Leon sat me on the curb so I could watch.

He was surprisingly kind to me. I was expecting a Full-Metal-Jacket-style beatdown. I first saw that film when I was really young, like 11 or 12, and thought I was really in for it.

“What’s wrong with you, Norris?” he asked.

“Sir, I’m homesick, sir. I just want to go home and go to college with the rest of my friends.”

“How old are you?”

“17, sir”

“Norris, do you think if I let every 17 year old who was homesick go home, I’d be very good at my job?”

“Sir, no, sir” I said sobbing, as the realization that this wasn’t like summer camp crept in.

“Right. That’s why I’m not going to let you go home. Now, go pack your sea bag and join your shipmates.”

“Sir, aye aye, sir.”

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