Everyone who enters the United States’ Armed Services is medically screened at a processing center, long before he or she is shipped off to boot camp. It may be assumed that the government is so picky about choosing healthy young people, because they want people who can withstand the rigors of the battlefield.
It turns out the reason they are so meticulous, is because a sickly person will never survive the allergens, pathogens, viruses, and general crud which is passed around at boot camp. Pink Eye sweeps through the barracks like an avenging ghoul, and a vicious virus known to recruits as “The Double Dragon” strikes without warning, sometimes knocking out up to half a division in one swoop.
I escaped the claws of the Double Dragon for the first month of boot camp, but one evening, after a particularly rigorous afternoon of standing still and not talking, I succumbed. The recruit who slept in the rack next to mine ended up in the emergency room with me, and it was there I discovered that being sick in boot camp is a far cry from being sick at home.
When a person is sick at home, they might expect sympathy, rest, and cure-all chicken soup. In the waiting room at the E.R., an old veteran approached us to comment, “In MY day, we had to really SHINE our boots. I see they’re not doing that anymore.” If you see a sailor in the emergency room, I’m sure the natural response is to rush over and critique his shoe-shine. I’ll keep that in mind, for future reference. So much for sympathy.
As for chicken soup, the closest thing a recruit may expect is a pack of Saltine crackers from the galley. Going to the galley was pure torture. The sick recruit is rudely awakened, given five minutes to get into the uniform of the day, and marched to the galley with the rest of the peons to stand in line, get crackers from the salad bar, eat them in the ten minutes allotted to chow, and marched back to the compartment to crawl back into bed. Even if the recruit is too sick to eat, going to chow is not optional. Taking crackers, or anything else, away from the galley is strictly forbidden.
At the least, I expected to get some rest. The doctor had given me a S.I.Q. (sick in quarters) chit, which is a piece of paper stating that the recruit is to stay in bed for the allotted time. I was given seventy-two hours. It seemed like a dream, at first. Seventy-two hours to sleep, undisturbed? Heavenly!
Not exactly. The watchman wakes the sick recruit once every hour to check on her, make sure she has taken her medication, and order her to hydrate.
Hydration is the magic potion of boot camp, so any injuries or illnesses which strike are blamed on dehydration. Caught the Double Dragon? Hydrate! Pink eye? Hydrate! Fallen off your rack and broke your leg in seven places? I guess you should have drank more water, you moron.
Chief Brawn, our burly recruit division commander (RDC) was the kingpin of hydration. It’s hard to believe the man wasn’t receiving subsidies from the water department. We, the fallen, were made a grim example of the evils of dehydration to others.
“Recruits!” Chief Brawn roared, gesturing to my lifeless form, “THIS is why you must drink more water. Everyone hydrate right now!” Ninety-five canteens raised in unison, to pour the life-giving potion down ninety-five throats, along with the grisly example set before them of my untimely demise. The water seemed to do its job, as I observed signs of brain-washing in their watery eyes before lapsing back into unconsciousness.
I was awakened by the repeated opening and slamming of a metal locker, two feet from my bunk. There stood Chief Brawn, clattering into my oblivion by banging the door of the locker, roaring, “This cutlass locker is FILTHY!” I stared at him, uncertain whether he addressed me or not.
“Not YOU!” He roared at me, “WHY are you awake? You are supposed to be asleep for seventy-two hours. GO TO SLEEP!” Bang. Crash. Slam. “Get WELL!”
The medication proved more powerful than the noise, and I relapsed, only to be startled again by Petty Officer Flinch–Chief Brawn’s second-in-command. “Recruit!” Shouted P.O. Flinch, “You look dead! Are you still with us? Hydrate!” Touched by her concern for my well-being, I sat up and chugged half a canteen of water, which instantly sent me tumbling out of my rack for a mad dash to the bathroom. “Hydrate when you come back!” She gently screeched. Never underestimate the tender nature of the feminine gender.
I fell into a dream of being poisoned in a gas chamber. It woke me up. Reality proved as bad as the dream. A team of recruits, wearing goggles and elbow-high rubber gloves, were scrubbing my rack with bleach. Tears burned my un-goggled eyes. “She’s awake!” cried a shipmate, “Hydrate.”
At least, I thought, night would bring true repose. In my delirium, I had forgotten about the nocturnal pow-wows which took place every single evening, in the female compartment, after taps. The call over the loudspeaker to “Taps. Taps. Lights Out. All hands return to their racks and maintain silence throughout the ship.” was immediately followed by all hands tumbling back out of their racks to air the grievances of the day. The grievances were as numerous as recruits, and were aired one at a time, by someone standing in the middle of the compartment and complaining loudly, until she was overtaken by the next speaker.
I put my pillow over my head and prayed for an earthquake to jostle them all senseless. At last, I fell asleep.
“Psst. Hey, shipmate,” a timid voice intruded my dreams, “Hey, wake up.” My eyes opened to the sight of the night watch, gently tugging on my pillow. “Sit up, come on,” she said, “Hydrate.” I wondered briefly what the punishment might be for pouring my canteen over her head. Probably not worth a moment of joy. I turned up my canteen.
“Hey, what is this?” Did my eyes deceive me, or was my water unusually blue?
“Power-ade,” said the watch. “Your chit says you’re allowed to have it.”
I had suspected from the first day of boot camp that I was drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid; alas, it had become reality. I focused on the night watchman’s face and observed a suspicious red color, creeping over her right eye.
“You have Pink Eye,” I whispered.
“No, I don’t,” she said, turning quickly away, “I do not.”
“Your right eye is bright red.”
“I better go hydrate. Get some rest,” said the watch, “I’ll be back in an hour.”
Morning arrived like a banshee. Miserable, sick, and sleep-deprived, I rolled off my rack, got into uniform, accepted the plastic bag issued for illnesses of my type, and went to chow. No sooner had I sat down to nibble on my Saltine crackers than Petty Officer Flinch appeared, looming over me with a sunny smile. She dangled a piece of paper in my face. “Look who forgot to carry her S.I.Q. chit with her to the galley!” She kindly gloated, “Guess who I’m going to kill, as soon as I get clearance from medical to do so! Enjoy the rest of your time sleeping, recruit.”
After seventy-two exhausting hours of respite, I was marched to medical for official renunciation of my illness.
Medical was just as harsh as the illness, with germ-infested, bald teenagers sitting at attention in neat rows on the concrete floor, awaiting their turn to be suspected by the corpsmen.
“Do you feel well,” asked the corpsman, “Or do you need to remain S.I.Q.?”
“I’m perfectly well,” I insisted, “I’m ready to get back to training.”
He looked at me, and said, with all the gentleness of a medical professional, “I’m making you S.I.Q. for one more day. If you had requested it, I would suspect you were faking, but since you really want to get back to training, I’m sure you need more rest.”
NO! What was this alternate reality into which I had tumbled?
Eventually, I recovered from my battle with the Double Dragon and re-joined the haggard youths for daily training. That’s when I discovered that Petty Officer Flinch’s memory was not terrific. That’s why she wrote my name up on the white board, to remind her to destroy me at some undisclosed date. She waited until the day before graduation. Some may observe that this was to keep me on edge, awaiting my punishment. But I recognized it as the gentle remonstrances of her nurturing nature. A female could not be so cruel to one of her own kind.
If you are ever at MEPS, being screened for every affliction imaginable, remember that you, too, are far from invincible. You may be hearty enough to tackle the rigors of war. But first, you must survive the biological warfare of boot camp.