These Boots Weren't Made for Marching

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EDITOR'S NOTE: TIME Daily writer Pellegrini, at a ripe 27 years, has taken a leave of absence to join the Army Reserve. He is undergoing basic training — boot camp — and then will spend several months in an Army journalism school. Given the difficulty the forces are experiencing in recruiting young people these days, we think his experiences and impressions are worth sharing. Here is the fifth missive; others will be posted as they arrive.

It's been a torture, a purgatory out of Kafka, not Orwell, where the absence of directions becomes the scourge, and the authority becomes something you start craving, asking for. Was that the plan all along? Was all the rigid neglect of this Army Reception Battalion, all the days and weeks lost in chow lines and idle formation just a way of whetting our appetite for action?

Nah. Apparently this was the result of the last recruiting surge of the fiscal year, the last chance the recruiters get to notch their annual bedposts. Happens every fall: The place gets crowded, and the soldiers, the new ones, have to occupy their minds and bodies with fights, intrigues, whatever they can get.

Meanwhile, I have put my rebellion — my version of going postal — on hold, as the Army has acceeded to most of my demands. Suddenly, the quartermaster's office came unclogged and we had toilet paper and paper towels in the latrine (no small thing). And on Monday, the platoon was at last outfitted in our camos — camouflage — and big black boots. Make no mistake, this finally is very cool stuff, especially the jackets and gloves. Hallelujah! Now all I need is my camouflage shirts; they're adding an inch onto the sleeves for me.

On Tuesday, we took our PT test, to meet the minimum standards for boot camp (for men, 13 push-ups, 17 sit-ups and a one-mile run in under eight minutes). Everyone passed except the asthmatic (who gets to run again) and the guy with the heart condition (he's gone, after — he says — his heart almost exploded at one third of a mile). Yours truly came in with a surprising 6:20 (and this was a road race, no track).

And with that, we were initiated. Three platoons were leaving for boot camp that night; we moved into the spotlight. The punishment began immediately; some guys had run off to the PX without permission. But that was hardly the point. We had the drill sergeants' attention now, and we were going to get what we had come for, a whipping, with whatever excuse was handy. That one did just fine.

Drill sergeants must have huddled for generations over precisely what exercises, in precisely what order, cause young men to scream the loudest. The sergeant, a very funny guy when he wanted to be, had the routine by heart: push-ups, sit-ups, bicycle kicks, squats of all varieties, shoulder touches, arm twirls — more than I can remember, until the lifting of hand over head was quite nearly impossible.

Action. This is what I had been begging for, for days. But now that it was here, it hurt my body and wounded my soul. I'm most worried about my feet. They hurt. When I go to bed — and when I wake up, for that matter — my big toe is all or partially numb. When I stand, they scream up at me, sapping my strength, rotting all my motivation. The boots, a week old, have to break in a little; My feet, according to the local wisdom, are unused to boots and thus have to break in a lot. I ship out on Thursday.

We were headed to Basic, where this sort of thing was like breathing, and I wasn't up to it.

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