A Girl Who Wore Combat Boots

Rita McDermott

© Copyright 2021 by Rita McDermott

Photo of female soldiers.

Sitting on my couch, in my small, sparsely furnished, three-room basement apartment, after a long day of work in a local furniture factory, I began to ponder where I wanted to go from here, in my journey of life. I was already living on my own, after graduating high school, due to circumstances at home. I didn’t have the money to put myself through college. I couldn’t see myself working in a furniture factory for the rest of my life, either. I began to think about what the armed forces had to offer. So... I went to visit an army recruiter. I approached the Sergeant (Sgt.) and said, “I am interested in joining the army, and want to get into the medical field.” “I’m sure we can help you with that”, he said. The Sgt. went on to explain, “You will have to meet physical standards, pass a medical exam, and take the ASVAB (armed services vocational aptitude battery) test.” I did complete the requirements for entry. Things seemed to move at a whirlwind pace, and before I knew it, I was off to basic training.

My Dad drove me to the train station with my sole belongings, in one suitcase. Dad said, “I’m proud of your decision to join the army.” We hugged good-bye and I boarded the train for my journey to Ft. Leonard Wood. This was my first time on a train, traveling on my own, and leaving my home state. I joined the army for fun, travel, and adventure. It was a two- day train ride for me to get to Missouri, spent in a cramped cabin on the train with seats and bed for sleep at night. The clickety-clack of the train on the track, side to side bounce, and my anxiety didn’t make for a restful trip.

I made it to Ft. Leonard Wood in the fall, with the day filled with sunshine and warm air, and nervous anticipation about what was to come.

When I first arrived, we were placed in a “reception station.” The Sgt. told us, “you will report to the barracks and be assigned a bunk, and report to formation in the morning to be issued your military clothing and equipment. Report to formation at 0500.” I lugged my suitcase into the old wooden barracks, got my grey metal bunk and matching grey, metal locker, and started chatting with the other want to be soldiers. “Where you from?”, I asked the girl in the bunk next to me. “My name is Lee Ann, I’m from West Virginia”, she replied. "What made you decide to join the Army?" We shared a bit of conversation about what brought us to Ft. Leonard Wood. Lee Ann wanted to be in the military police corps.

It was late in the day already, so most of us were tired after our travel to reach our destination. We went to the “mess hall”, as named in the army, for some chow. We stood in line, as soldiers dished out food on our plates, then moved on to have our first military dining experience . After dinner we returned to the old WWII buildings, got in our metal bunkbeds, with our starched white sheets and green wool blankets, to get a few hours of sleep.

0400 came quick. “Wake up soldiers, move it, be in formation at 0500”, the Sgt. yelled. We hastily got dressed, and made it in time. We were marched to the mess hall for a breakfast of your choice of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and fried potatoes. After gulping down our food, we got back in formation and headed to the yellow, brick, supply building where we would be issued our military clothing and equipment. We had to hurry to get there, but stood in line for hours, as everyone was assigned their gear, waiting our turn.

First issue, was a green duffle bag, in which we had to fit everything we would be given. Our military wardrobe issued consisted of: green fatigue shirts and pants, fatigue jacket, dress green jacket, skirt, and pants, green t-shirts, green wool socks, green military caps, black dress beret, dress blouse, black combat boots and dress shoes, black gloves with wool green inserts, black raincoat, and black web belt with black metal buckle. It was quite enough to stuff into that duffle bag. After receiving our military clothing, we marched back to our barracks with our loaded duffle bags in tow. We were still allowed to wear our civilian clothes at the reception station, so we stored our military clothing in our grey metal lockers and headed outside. I said to myself, “boy, this is a piece of cake.” New recruits and cadre engaged in playing a game of volleyball in front of the barracks. The evening was finished with marching to and from the chow hall, and back to the barracks.

After three days at the reception station, we were ready to be moved to our basic training site. “Let’s go soldiers, get your gear and get on the bus”, the Sgt. hollered. We loaded up with everything we owned on our backs and in our hands. We boarded what were called “cattle buses” as I was told, and headed off to our new living quarters. The army green buses were fitted with a long bench on each side. If you didn’t get in quick enough, you had the pleasure of standing for the journey.

When the cattle buses arrived at our destination, the doors opened to find three Drill Sgts. standing there. They were blowing whistles and yelling, “you got five minutes to get off that bus, get your gear in the barracks, and get back down here in formation. Move it.” It was then that I said to myself, “what did I get myself into?” The reception station gave a false sense of easy going cadre and low key schedule.

All of us on that bus were a bit intimidated by the Drill Sgts., to say the least, frightened even.

One of the Drill Sgts. was a burly guy who reminded me of the “smokey bear” icon. Another Sgt. was a short female with military issued black glasses, with a mean look, and the third was a short male Sgt. who looked like he might have some pleasant characteristics.

The recruits, including myself, were literally falling out of the bus with about 50 pounds of gear and clothing. Shouting continued by the Drill Sgts. “You’re not moving fast enough soldier, let’s go, move it, you got 4 minutes to get in formation. Move it.”. Us wanna-be soldiers struggled to keep hold of our gear. We were falling up the stairs, tripping over our duffle bags and suitcases, in our haste to try to meet that deadline and appease the Drill Sgts. They continued to scream in our faces during the whole fiasco. I will never forget that day. I really wondered if I made a good decision. A common sentiment among us.

So, it began....

We were the first group of women to complete basic training with men at the time, at Ft. Leonard Wood. We had a separate platoon of women, and 3 platoons of men in our company. We had separate living quarters, but essentially did all our basic training together.

The Drill Sgts. had the job of converting civilians into soldiers in about 8 weeks’ time.

Days began about 0400, when were rudely awakened by Drill Sgts. yelling, “0400 wake- up call, “let’s go soldier, you got 30 minutes to get dressed and in formation, move it.” We quickly threw on our fatigues and boots, and raced down those stairs, so we didn’t have to find out what the repercussions were if we didn’t make it on time. Of course, we learned from others.

Pvt. Smith, you’re late, get down, and give me 25 push-ups", the Drill Sgt. bellowed. Our days began with physical training. Push-ups, sit-ups, and a two- mile run. We ran, as our Drill Sgts. sang out a cadence we repeated in unison. “A yellow bird, with a yellow bill, he landed on, my windowsill. I coaxed him in, with a piece of bread, and then I kissed, his little head.” There was some variation to that cadence, but it was “cleaned up” since there were females in the company.

Days were full of marching, instruction on how to properly wear uniforms, salute officers, and address other enlisted soldiers. We learned how to set up our lockers with rolled socks and t-shirts, and uniforms hung in a particular direction consistent with military protocol. If you didn’t have things arranged as per army guidelines you could expect to find your stuff tossed on the floor when it failed inspection. “Pvt., your shirts aren’t rolled properly, and your uniforms aren’t hung properly, get in there and do it again.” Beds were inspected for hospital corners and tight tucking. If bed covers didn’t meet standards, you could expect to find your mattress on the floor, as well. “Pvt., make that bed.”

I never cleaned so much in my life. Everything in our quarters was spic and span. No” dust bunnies” anywhere.

We attended many classes about military etiquette, protocols, and learned about chain of command. Of course, there was plenty of hands-on training, as well.

I threw a live grenade from behind a concrete bunker, under careful observation, with the Drill Sgt. standing about a foot away."Pull the pin, release the handle, and immediately throw the grenade, and hit the ground after", were my instructions. I fired an antitank launcher. The Drill Sgt. emphatically told me "make sure no one is behind you when you fire." "It could be fatal for someone." I also fired a machine gun on the range. Down on the ground with the machine gun in rapid fire. It was scary handling dangerous weapons, but thrilling at the same time. Safety was drilled into our heads before handling any armament. Drill Sgts. were always right there, next to us, closely observing. We spent days on the firing range with our M-16 rifles, and nights learning to clean, assemble, and reassemble, till you could practically do it in your sleep. I actually did pretty well with my M-16, hitting 38 out of 40 targets on the range. I would be down in the dirt with my rifle in the crook of my shoulder, helmet, and black army glasses on. “Commence fire” was called out, and I went at it, hitting those pop-up targets at various meters. “You’re a regular Annie Oakley”, my Drill Sgt. said. I scored consistently enough to obtain a sharpshooter badge before our training was complete.

We were run through obstacle courses, climbing over walls, crawling under barbed wire, all while maintaining hold of our M-16. Drill Sgts. told us, “Don’t let that M-16 out of your sight.” We did have one incident while we were out, on an overnight exercise in the field. A female soldier lost her M-16. “We won’t be returning to the barracks till that M-16 is found “, the Drill Sgt. Said. We were stuck outdoors, in the woods, for an extra, entire day, in cold, rainy, conditions. The poor girl cried the entire time, there was anger amongst the Sgts., and the rest of us were tired, miserable, hungry, and cold. It was kind of hush-hush, but I believe the outcome was that this soldier had gone to the latrine during the night with her M-16 in tow, and had accidentally knocked it into the hole, and it had to be fished out of the contents. It wasn’t funny then for sure, but I look back now and can chuckle.

We continued training in map reading and navigation. We went on exercises in the Ft. Leonard Wood terrain where I wouldn’t want to get lost in the woods, because of the acres of forest, it might be a while before you would be found. We had simulated combat exercise, even night exercises in which military flares would light up the sky, as if it were daylight.” Keep your head down” the Drill Sgts. yelled, as we crawled from one, wooded area to another, through an open grass field, with our helmets on and M-16 in tow. Tracer bullets were fired above our position, which could be seen whizzing through the sky.

We were instructed how to don gas masks and protective gear in the event of an NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) attack. Part of our training included a simulated exposure, which was tear gas, and getting the mask on as quick as possible. We were taken, a handful of soldiers at a time, into this small, wooden building where the Drill Sgts. released a tear gas cannister, and we went into action to get those masks on. Soldiers were literally running out the door, gagging, throwing up even, because they didn’t do well in their timing of donning the mask. Most of us ended up with watering eyes and runny noses.

Training continued for a solid eight weeks. I can still hear marching cadence in my ears. "Tiny bubbles, in my beer, makes me happy, full of cheer. Your left, your left, your left, right, left." I often said to myself, “How am I ever going to make it through this?” A thought that echoed with many other recruits in my company. Long, non-stop days of a barrage of being yelled at, physical activity, inspections, classes, hands on training, and meeting army expectations wasn’t easy. Of course, there was little time for idle chit-chat and no time for a social life.

But somehow, those days turned into weeks and I made it through! I became a Pvt. In the United States Army.

I completed my basic training in 1978, and am now a retired Army soldier, after 21 years of service, active duty, and reserve status.  I  am also a retired registered nurse.  I have always had an interest in writing and now have the time to pursue it in my retirement years. I  have two children's books on Amazon, which were an initial attempt at self-publishing on Kindle. I continue to work on my writing skills and am working on my first novel. 

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