Stepping off a cross-country flight from LAX, I walked up the jetway, through the airport, and out into Orlando, the land of Disney, Epcot, and the U.S. Naval Training Center. The evening air was still warm from the blistering Florida sun. It was March 1993: I was 19 years old and about to enter navy boot camp.
I couldn’t help wondering why had the navy sent me clear across the country when there was a perfectly good boot camp in San Diego, a few hours from where I lived. But what the hell did I know? The ink was still wet on my enlistment contract, and I knew better than to ask the question. Besides, I was excited to finally get out of Ventura and on to bigger and better things.
There were a few other boot camp candidates on my plane. We were met by the local navy representative, who put us on a bus that started crawling north on Route 436. It took about 40 minutes to reach our destination. Most of those minutes passed in a silence freighted with thrill, foreboding, and dread.
As we pulled into the training center and parked, we saw a few dozen guys lining the roadway, yelling obscenities at us and telling us how fond of us they were. Our welcome committee. It felt like we were in a bad prison movie.
It was 10 p.m., just in time to unload, find out where we were supposed to bunk, and hit the sack. A few of my busmates audibly cried themselves to sleep that first night. I didn’t mind. What I really didn’t appreciate was the 4 a.m. wake-up call the next morning with some assholes banging on aluminum trash cans and yelling, “Wake up! Get the hell out of your rack!” Senior recruits, in charge of moving the herd along.
After a trip to the barber to get rid of our hair, we assembled in a room where they staged what they called the Moment of Truth: “Okay, who here lied to your recruiter?” Now was our last chance to tell the navy some dark secret about our sexual preference (these were the don’t-ask-don’t-tell days) or admit to our drug addiction. When it came to sex, drinking, and carousing in general, I was certainly no angel, but I happened to have the dual advantage of being heterosexual and drug-free. And if I hadn’t been, I would’ve had the sense to keep my mouth shut. Some admitted that, yes, they’d used on occasion. They were given a piss test. Some of them passed; the others were gone.
Next I learned that I was being assigned to Company I-081 (a company being roughly a hundred people), which was integrated. At the time, the navy had three boot camp facilities: the one in San Diego, another in Great Lakes, Illinois, and the one I was standing in. Of the three, only Orlando had integrated companies.
By “integrated,” they didn’t mean blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians all together in harmony. They meant men and women recruits training together in the same outfit. This was my first exposure to that aspect of military planning we fondly call FUBAR: fucked up beyond all repair. In its sociologically progressive wisdom, the navy had recently decided it would force-integrate men and women in boot camp while at the same time forbidding them to develop any sexual interest in one another. It does not take a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology to figure out what’s going to happen when you put 19-year-old men and women together in close confinement. We had a steady parade of grab-assing going on throughout boot camp from start to finish. I was guilty as charged, though never caught or convicted.
Talk about a waste of resources. A men- or women-only company would have one barracks room for sleeping and inspection. In our integrated company, we needed three: one for group inspection, and then two more so the men and women could sleep in separate quarters. It was crazy. We assembled in one common area, with beds and lockers for inspection, where we stood at attention by our lockers while instructors screamed in our faces, just like you’ve seen in the movies. Then we all filed off to separate berthing places to sleep, guys to one and girls to another. Which meant I had two beds to make every day, and we had three separate locations for one purpose. Your tax dollars at work.
Still, I could hardly complain. I have always been a big fan of the fairer sex.
Now, I am the first to admit that with a shaved head, I am not a handsome man. People tell me I look mean. As my hair started growing in, though, my bonus points started going up with some of the women. “Wow,” said one. “You know, you’re kind of cute with hair.” I had a crush on her and got a few great back massages the first week in.
Hey, maybe this boot camp stuff wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
No — it was that bad. Back rubs and ass-grabbing notwithstanding, boot camp was long days of hard training. I’ve been a physically active person all my life, and I thought of myself as being in pretty good shape. Ha. Boot camp kicked my ass. Doing the physical training (PTs) was one thing: push-ups and more push-ups. But that wasn’t what really got to us. Rather, it was the endless hours of marching drills.
Picture a mob of one hundred green recruits, from all over the country, from all walks of life and all levels of preparedness — and unpreparedness. They had to teach us how to step in step, pivot and turn, march right, march left, pivot and turn… and every time anyone screwed up, which was practically every second of every minute of every hour, they would yell at us to drop to the pavement, hot and sweating, and push out another 10, or another 20 — then back on our feet to get it right this time. Which, of course, we would not.
The hours and weeks it took to whip this motley bunch into some kind of cohesive quasi-military force were grueling. Any chance we could grab to lie down flat on the concrete and rest, even for just half a minute, felt like heaven. When night came, I was dog-tired and hit that cot like a dying desert wanderer stumbling upon an oasis. Still, I was no stranger to hard work, and I was one of the better-equipped people there. There were others who suffered a whole lot more than I did.
Petty Officer First Class Howard was my first experience with leadership in the navy, and he exemplified both the best and worst of what I would encounter in the years to come. He was smart, sharp, and very professional in both manner and appearance. There was never a ribbon out of place, not a stain or wrinkle in his working whites and crisp navy Dixie cup. He ran a damn good company.
And he was profoundly unfair.
Petty Officer First Class Howard was a black man who had grown up on the mean streets of a tough inner-city neighborhood, and apparently, he was out to single-handedly set the race record straight during his tenure as a recruit company commander. Right away he handed out all the leadership positions in the company to all the black recruits. Of the hundred or so people in Company I-081, maybe 10 were black, and they got all the cherry appointments. The two laundry spots, which came at the bottom of the totem pole, he assigned to a white guy and a white girl.
Petty Officer First Class Howard was, in fact, a first-class racist. This was not hard to see. It also wasn’t hard to see that he was going to press his agenda at every opportunity. This was my first exposure to discrimination from the underdog’s perspective, and my goal was simple: stay out of the man’s way and off his radar. In this goal, I had an ally: my night-time-barracks bunkmate Rouche Coleman.
Coleman was a street-smart African-American kid from the meaner neighborhoods of Chicago who had joined the navy to escape the gang violence that permeated his home turf. He had been shot once and had the scar to prove it. He was soft-spoken, articulate, and blazingly intelligent.
Coleman and I hit it off right away, and he made it his mission to watch out for me. True to Petty Officer First Class Howard’s program, Coleman was assigned to be the starboard watch section leader. As section leader, he was responsible for managing a nightly watch bill and met nightly with Howard and the pin staff (recruit leadership). He would come back to our bunk and tell me about the meetings.
“He doesn’t like white people much,” said Coleman.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d kind of noticed.”
“In fact,” he went on, “he is one racist sonofabitch.”
I couldn’t disagree.
“In fact, you’re lucky you got me looking out for your white ass.”
He was dead right. I was lucky to have him looking out for my white ass. Later on, we were broken into groups to work on various assignments on base. Sure enough, all us white folks were sent to the galley for kitchen duty. Coleman interjected on my behalf and requested that I be sent to help him in his duties back at our barracks. His request was granted, and we whiled away a lot of hours diligently playing cards and shooting the shit.
Coleman was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. We became genuinely close friends and stayed close throughout boot camp. We kept in touch for a few years afterward until our assignments sent us off in different directions and life drew us further apart. Eventually, we lost touch. I often wonder about him and how he’s doing.
At boot camp, I discovered that the military experience does a great job breaking down racial barriers and forcing you to learn about people from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. This proved to be one of the top fringe benefits from my time in the navy, and over the years to come, I would make quite a few of the best friends one could hope for in a lifetime.
Soon after we arrived in Orlando, they gathered us all in a big circle and went around asking each of us in turn, “What do you want to do in the navy?”
Some of my campmates hesitated at the question, stumbled in their answers, or appeared not sure what to say. Not me. When my turn came, I didn’t have to think about it. “I want to be a SEAL.”
I knew what reaction to expect, too, and was not surprised when it came. “Good luck with that,” one guy sneered, and a line of snickers and wisecracks rippled around the circle.
It has always amazed me when you tell people about something big you aspire to accomplish, how many try to shoot it down, throw out obstacles, tell you it’ll never happen. I think they don’t even realize they’re doing it. Often there’s no malicious intent there. It’s just the reaction people have when you state big goals. Maybe they’re threatened by you and your dreams; maybe by undercutting your goals, they get to justify their own insecurity and self-doubt. Maybe they’re just plain cynical, for no reason other than an ingrained habit of being negative. To tell the truth, I don’t know what their reasons are, and I don’t really want to know.
This had been happening for three years now, ever since I’d set my sights on becoming a Navy SEAL. Every now and then someone would say, “Wow, that’s great, you’d be awesome at that.” But not very often. Usually, when I told anyone my goal, whether teachers, acquaintances, or even friends, what I got back was disbelief and ridicule. Now that I was in the navy, it only got worse. Everyone here knew about the SEALs, or at least knew that it was one of the hardest training programs in the world.
For me, this was just fuel for the fire, and the more I heard it the more it kept stoking that fire. I knew the only way I’d be able to prove I was serious about it was to ignore them and do it. That wasn’t a hard line to stick to, sitting here in a circle in Orlando. It would get a lot harder in the years to come, and brutally hard once I finally made it to the BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) legendary training course, but that wouldn’t happen for another four years.
A few weeks into boot camp, the Navy SEAL “motivator” (that is, recruiter) came around. “Finally!” I thought. “It’s about time this guy showed up — what the hell was he waiting for?” He showed us a brief video that described the life of a Navy SEAL. We saw guys being tested underwater, shivering in the cold, going through the various trials of BUD/S. It showed us the origin of the SEALs in the 1960s, along with some great footage of guys patrolling the Vietnam jungles in Levi’s and black face paint, brandishing some very sizable guns.
I didn’t even need to see the video, but I waited patiently till it was over, then went right up to the guy and asked him where I should sign. He shot me a withering look that said, “It’s not gonna be that easy.” Understatement of the decade.
There were four other guys who were also interested. The recruiter explained to the five of us that we needed to muster at 4:45 the next morning to begin our physical and mental conditioning. Normally we all got up about 5:45 for a six o’clock reveille. Now we would be getting up an hour earlier. That was one more hour of lost sleep I wasn’t looking forward to — but hey, if that was the price of admission, I’d gladly pay it.
The next morning, it was just me and two of the four guys. I guess the other two were excited by the video, but not so much about the reality. Those two were the first of hundreds I would see fall by the wayside on my journey to claim the Navy SEAL Trident.
Throughout the rest of basic training, the three of us would get up an hour earlier than everyone else and head off to a special physical training program to get us in shape for BUD/S. I was fired up about it. This was what I was here for. But man, those PTs kicked my butt.
It was a hundred push-ups just to warm up. Then a thousand flutterkicks: You lie on your back, hands under your butt, and scissor-kick your legs in the air. Murder on the abdominals. Try it. Lie on the floor, on your back, your arms straight down and tucked under your butt, and kick your legs a foot or so in the air in a scissor motion. Then think: a thousand.
After that, pull-ups — dozens, then dozens more, and then dozens more. This continued for an hour while all our boot camp buddies were still taking another precious hour of shut-eye. It was brutal, but it got me into shape.
Before long, the three of us shrank to two. Rack up one more body falling by the wayside on the road to the SEALs.
As the weeks went by and we drew closer to graduation, I kept inquiring about my orders to BUD/S. I finally got one of the SEALs’ attention, and he looked into the situation for me. I can’t say I was happy with the report. A decision I had made almost a year earlier had come back to bite me in the ass.
This is Part I of a three-part excerpt series titled “Boot Camp” from Brandon’s book “The Red Circle.” You can purchase the book here.