Amid the heat, the drills, the lack of sleep, a heady bunch of kids were being torn down so Uncle Sam could build us back up – his way!
We had no weekend passes, no television, no anything. We could stand in a two-hour line to call home from a phone booth on Sundays but I never did. I could crank out letters to everyone in that time. Although tensions would bring some to fisticuffs from time to time, we became tight.
Several platoons joined for a road march to go sit in classes assembling and disassembling M16s or whipping on MOPP gear – gas mask and all, in seconds flat. It was hours before we were given a break. When we finally got it, there was one problem. More than a hundred guys needed to use the facilities and there were only three port-o-pots. As the grapevine leaked, there was an option-B. The port-o-pots formed a privacy barrier. This allowed about six of us at a time to slip behind and back, unnoticed, to do our business.
It was efficient and …
We scrambled back in line before the drill sergeants saw, first-hand, what was going on. But someone obviously snitched!
Called to formation, a big stink was made out of urinating behind the port-o-pots.
“There’s a diseeeeease among us!” said a drill sergeant.
They walked past the ranks, eye-balling us one by one, speaking loudly the whole time about the “disease” and how to keep it from spreading.
“We know who it is. You get one chance to step forward, disease, and the decontamination process can be abbreviated. Otherwise, you’ll be quarantined for the remainder of your training.”
I wasn’t about to step forward. Neither was anybody else. Hell, there were probably two dozen of us at fault, but they just wanted to make an example of one. The only question was who would be the sacrificial lamb. Perhaps the drill sergeants only had one name to work off of – no doubt from whoever snitched.
In my head, I kept rattling off, “Please don’t be me – please don’t be me – please don’t be me.”
One of the drill sergeants said, “You had your chance,” and walked directly at me.
I knew I was screwed.
I almost peed my pants and stepped forward but just when I was about to move, I realized that wasn’t my name. It was one of my closest friends.
The public humiliation he withstood was relentless. I felt relieved and guilty just the same.
His bunk in the barracks was separated from the rest of us, taped off in the open bay. He marched separated from us. He ate alone. He showered after everyone else. He was forbidden to look at another human being let alone speak out loud. He was outcast but present.
Two weeks later it was just cruel.
He was going to crack. I could see it on his face, his walk, his everything. I felt so bad for him. It could have been any one of us. As time dragged on, we counted our blessings it wasn’t any of us though.
In the mess hall, I was in line with a couple of close friends. I suggested we sit with Serrano. There were no takers. Hell, they blasted that idea from the start. Stationed for basic training on Tank Hill in summer at Fort Jackson was already considered the equivalent of drawing the short straw in the Army. Nobody wanted to make a bad situation any worse. But I couldn’t let this ride. Not anymore.
We sat down and I made one last plea for a group effort to come to the aid of our friend. They wouldn’t even look me in the eyes. So, I got up, alone, and walked over to Serrano. He was so closed off to the world, mentally, he never saw me coming.
I plopped down across from him and said, “The Yankees suck.”
He looked up and for the first time in weeks, his face turned flush with life.
A huge smile spread across his mug and he deadpanned back, “F-you, Satullo!”
That’s when my head drill sergeant towered above me, “You’re going to catch the disease if you don’t move!”
I could tell in his eyes that he respected my effort. I could also tell he was not going to reward it. In fact, he was giving me one chance and one chance only to undo what I just did. Strong as I wanted to be, I didn’t know if I had the strength to go through what Serrano was going through.
I looked at my friend. He gave me a quick wink. This told me I gave him all he needed to get through from here. I got up, returned to my other friends and the small, cramped mess hall filled back up with the usual noise.
Serrano was cured and rejoined our ranks with a clean bill of health just a couple days later.
By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel