By Glenn Slaughter
I’ve always colored outside the lines. After graduating high school, I made it through one semester of college before dropping out. I wasn’t ready for it. I was immature and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.
After some time off, including two years in AmeriCorps, I headed back to school at the ripe old age of 23. Five years later, I had a film degree and I put it to use working in various jobs all over South Florida. During that time, I had a creeping feeling that I needed to do more. I enlisted in the Navy because I wanted to give back to the country I was so blessed to be born in.
I stepped onto Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois, home of the Navy’s largest training center, on July 28, 2009, after the most comfortable bus ride I’d ever been on. It had soothingly soft seats and monitors that played a boot camp video. No one bothered us and we rode in calm silence, watching the movie while the sun set around us.
Once we arrived at Great Lakes from Chicago, we got off the bus, went inside and lined up facing each other while a Recruit Division Commander—the Navy’s version of a drill instructor—paced between us while delivering instructions. After waiting for a few minutes and listening to other recruits get yelled at for looking at an RDC or not standing on the line, we started in-processing, where recruits are issued uniforms and given haircuts. It’s also a chance for recruits to hand over the last of their personal items.
The first night was a sleepless one for everyone. The only nap I got came when the RDCs told us to put our heads on the desks where we sat. Some recruits later said that they thought it was a test, but I never did. I honestly believed they were giving us a few minutes sleep, maybe for legal reasons. Either way, I was right and enjoyed 15 minutes of sweet sleep in the middle of all that fun, until an RDC shouted, “Get up recruits!”
Looking back, the entire first week was a blur. We spent a lot of time in lines being fitted for uniforms, getting shots and having dental work. The combination of crowds of people, lack of sleep and yelling was exhausting.
While the absence of sleep made for a difficult adjustment, the physical training was less strenuous than I had anticipated. I trained hard before boot camp because my advanced age of 32 made me a little nervous. At Great Lakes, failing the final fitness assessment was the most common reason for holding a recruit back a week. I didn’t want to have an extended stay at boot camp for coming up short on the 1.5-mile run, so I prepared before I arrived.
Besides running, we did lots of pushups, planks and situps. I excelled at most of the physical tests, but I couldn’t come close to keeping up in the run. Those teenagers run fast. Luckily, I didn’t have to keep up with them. The Navy gives you more time to finish the run if you’re an older recruit.
A few days before I shipped to Great Lakes, my recruiter told me that the key to surviving boot camp was flying under the radar. He said the less the RDCs paid attention to me, the better. That sounded like solid advice, but it didn’t work. I quickly discovered that a 32-year-old with the last name of Slaughter had very little chance of staying in the shadows. My last name immediately drew attention from the delighted RDCs and my age made me a prime candidate for a leadership position.
After a few weeks of trying to avoid any major responsibilities, I was finally picked to supervise the division’s laundry operation. This was perfect for me. I didn’t have the energy to shout marching orders or keep the roughly 80-man division in line, but I could be counted on to manage my small team of recruits, often without any other supervision.
The younger guys were also looking to me for leadership. During a group trip to medical, one of the recruits followed me into the seclusion of a two-person bathroom. He was a quiet guy, and I had never spoken to him. His first words were, “I don’t think I’m going to make it. This is all just too much for me.” He started to cry. I was mentally exhausted, but I gave him a little hug and talked him through it. After that, I made it a point to talk to him as much as possible. Weeks later at graduation, his mother approached me and thanked me for helping her son. She reached into her pocket and handed me my first Navy coin. It featured St. George, the Roman soldier who is regarded as one of the most prominent military saints.
By the third week, I had lost track of how many arguments I had mediated. That many stressed-out kids in a room together will cause problems. I was tired and on edge all the time, but it was much harder on the youngest guys. I’ll always remember one recruit—a tall, skinny kid who had very few social skills. He was smart and liked to show off, which made him unpopular. He was picked to be the education petty officer and was required to lead study sessions. The other recruits did not make it easy for him, laughing and talking over his instructions.
Most of the young guys didn’t know anything about teamwork. That was a problem because working as a cohesive unit is a major part of the training at boot camp. To have a successful group, some need to follow and at times, it was like herding cats.
The Navy uses several methods to teach teamwork to its future sailors, and marching is the tactic most often employed. By marching everywhere we went, we learned to operate in unison. Studying and cleaning are done as teams as well. Our bathroom-cleaning team bickered a lot in the beginning and barely finished in the time given. At night, we were required to take ironing shifts. Someone would wake me up at 1 a.m., and I’d get up and iron my uniforms, then wake up the next person when I was done. Once in a while, a recruit would decide to not get out of bed to take his shift, and we’d all get in trouble when the RDCs found out.
To complete Battle Stations, the last test standing between recruits and graduation, working together would prove invaluable. My division boarded a replica of a Navy warship and we were put through the ringer. If you can imagine all the things that can go wrong aboard a ship, they threw them at us. We were hit with fires, flooding, gas and missile attacks, wounded shipmates and more. When you’re standing in a room filling with water, you damn well better pull together as a team. Everyone in my division passed because we cultivated good relationships with each other throughout boot camp.
I arrived at Great Lakes as a mature person with lots of world experience, so it wasn’t really a game-changer for my work ethic. However, I learned a lot about being a leader. I was determined to be more aware of what was happening with the people around me, instead of focusing on my own little issues. I also realized that I had the ability to help others.
And that mindset continues today. I am a mass communication specialist, and my job is to help tell the Navy’s story. And just like in boot camp, it’s not “I,” but “we.” Navy media operates as one unit and everyone fills an important role. Whether it’s as an interviewer, camera operator or the person simply carrying the gear, the job doesn’t get done if we try to fly solo. We are one team, one fight.
*– Petty Officer 2nd Class Glenn Slaughter, a mass communication specialist, works at the Pentagon Channel and writes regularly for his blog, “I Am Your Eyes,” at usnavymc.blogspot.com.
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