The First Lesson I Learned in the Army


by Gary Spina

Back in 1966, I was drafted into the Army. The first week was “Orientation,” or “Yelling and Screaming at the Young Recruits” week. Whatever they called it, most of it’s lost in a blur of memory now. All I know is, that whole first week I enjoyed the luxury of eely seven hours sleep. I remember because I counted each precious hour.

The first day was the worst because we had no idea what to expect. We met the bus at 5:30 A.M. and were driven down to Fort Dix where we were issued our uniforms, our gear, and our bedding. But our day was just beginning. We had pages of records to complete – all in triplicate – our personal information, payroll and insurance stuff, next of kin, and medical forms.

Then came the medical exams. With all of us dressed only in our Army issued boxer shorts, they hurried us through in long lines, checking our eyes, our teeth, our blood type, and recording our weight and height. On my paperwork, I discovered that my Army self was two inches taller than my civilian self. I figured it was a minor technicality, not worth stepping out of line to mention to anyone.

“Keep the line moving,” we were told. Hurry up and then wait. We were all stuck with needles — inoculated against maladies we had never heard of before – dozens of shots in each arm, sometimes both arms at the same time as we moved along a narrow corridor, making our way down the middle between rows of medical people on either side of us – just walking along getting stabbed as we went past them. “Keep the line moving. Some guys pass out when they get needles – so watch the guy in front of you. Hurry up.”

I remember one kid tensed up so bad getting his shots he passed out and fell to the floor. “You were supposed to catch him!” a sergeant screamed at the kid immediately behind him in the line.

“You said watch him… You didn’t say catch him…”

We got through the medical stuff, and then we waited again – standing, waiting, standing, waiting. We got our dog tags: LAST NAME, FIRST NAME, SERIAL NUMBER, BLOOD-TYPE (A-Positive), RELIGION (Roman Catholic). That was the first time I realized I never had a middle name. I just figured I was born too poor to have anything but a first and last name. But to this day I can still rattle off my serial number, any time, drunk or sober.

“Anyone here who can’t read or write…?”

Finally around one o’clock in the morning it seemed we were done for the first day. We were exhausted, but now we faced a couple of new sergeants – fresh faces who were not about to allow us to sleep. “Not till this here barracks is cleaned up,” we were told. It wasn’t even the barracks we were to sleep in. It was just a dirty old room. “No one sleeps lest the barracks gets clean – floors, windows, walls, latrine. Best get to work if “you mens” wanna sleep. We’s all gettin’ up at 4:30 – so’s yous best get workin’ on cleanin’.”

Someone grabbed a broom, and a couple of guys took ammonia and rags to the windows. I found a mop and followed after the guy with the broom. I hurried my job, but did it conscientiously. I figured I didn’t want no trouble with these two idiots. When I was finished mopping, I went up to the nearest idiot and informed him I was finished and I was ready to get some sleep.

“Barracks ain’t cleaned yet,” he told me.

“But I did my job. The other guys are working on the other stuff.”

“No one sleeps til the barracks is clean. You wanna sleep, you’s best go help the others.”

I grumbled, but I went and helped the guys scrubbing the walls. Later, we all helped the guys in the latrine. We all worked together. It was after 3 o’clock A.M. before the barracks were clean enough for the sergeants’ approval.

“Okay, mens, get to yer barracks and make up yer beds and get some sleep. We’s all be up in ’bout a hour.”

That night I learned about teamwork. I learned to think beyond myself. It was a lesson I never forgot. I learned that the unit – the squad, the company, the regiment — depended upon each man to do whatever it took to get the job done.

Why am I telling you this? Because whether it’s an Army unit, a family, or a nation – it all works the same way. In this life, on this earth, we are all part of a larger entity we call mankind. Yes, we must value and defend our individual selves. But at the same time, we must be a unified body of cooperative diverse individuals working for a common good.

But we are opposed in our unity, in our brotherhood, by our own politicians who get elected by dividing us. Politicians and race-baiters feather their own nests by promoting a vicious class-warfare that pits one group of Americans against another group. We are classified into voter blocks — designated rich or poor – men or women — seniors or young people – labor or management – civil servant or entrepreneur – artist or truck driver — urban or rural — Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, Constitutionalists, liberals, socialists, and environmentalists – each group with its own agenda.

America is a mix of races, colors, creeds, and nationalities – and we’ve allowed ourselves to be labeled with hyphens – one hyphenated American at odds with another – Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Asian-Americans. They call it “multiculturalism.” It is taught in our school, encouraged, and embraced. And it is destroying America, replacing what was once one all-encompassing culture of simple and honest old-fashioned American Judeo-Christian family values with no hyphens, no classes.

Multiculturalism has proven very effective in getting demagogues and career politicians elected and reelected. Hate-mongering, fear-mongering, race-baiting have generated huge sums of money for political war chests. Playing to society’s baser instincts has raised lesser men to heady heights of power.

Maybe it is time we learn the first lesson I learned as a young man in the Army. We are all part of a team – all part of the fabric of one very precious nation, one enclave of humanity blessed by God. And maybe it’s time we — all of us together — start cleaning the barracks. Best we start by sweeping out the faceless bureaucrats, mopping up the lawless judges, scrubbing the floors of a corrupt Congress, and disinfecting the latrine they call the White House.

Maybe then we can begin to think about getting some sleep and waking to a new dawn of a new day. You mens and womens gettin’ this?