Basic Training: Basic Cruelty, Basic Misogyny

Tyler Gilbert talked with Peacework co-editor Sam Diener on December 15, 2004 about his experiences in Basic Training and the military.

I joined the Army because I was looking for a way to support my family. I have an Associate's degree in Law Enforcement, and worked at a jail as a guard.

I was 29. I tried the Air Force first. I called the Air Force recruiter but their cutoff age is 27. The Air Force recruiter told me that the Army cutoff is 34. The Army recruiter seemed very nice at first. I mentioned bad stories I had heard, and he told me I could get money for college and I could support my family. He talked with my wife too, getting us both excited. He was like a stereotypical used car salesperson. Then he started to call constantly, and if I didn't call right back, he'd leave obnoxious messages. He called five to six times a day. He started to call a friend of mine to try to find me, too. He even phoned my ex-wife. I thought, "maybe I don't want to do this." Then I figured, "well, I could just try it." They never told me how difficult it was to get out.

When I was a child, I was abused mentally and physically by one of my mom's boyfriends. I had a huge temper as a kid. They asked me if I had seen a psychologist. I started to write down yes. The recruiter ripped up the paper in front of me and my wife and told me not to say that on the form.

They tried to get me to sign up for infantry. I said, "no." The recruiter made it seem like he had to call the Pentagon and that he pulled a lot of strings to get me assigned to tank driving. Once I got to Basic, I found out that they can still assign you to anything they want. They weren't going to train me to drive tanks. The recruiters will promise anything, pretend they're your best friend, until you're at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and are shipping out.

They didn't even give me a physical, they just lied and wrote down that I'd passed. I did the sit-ups and push-ups no problem. I'm 5 foot 5 and about 210 lbs. because I'm a powerlifter, but I didn't do any running. At the MEPS in Chicopee, MA, the doctor saw I had an incipient problem with my knees. They wanted me to drop onto my knees onto the hard floor, which I didn't want to do because of knee pain, and wanted me to walk like a duck, which I could only do with difficulty.

I went to Fort Knox in July of 2004. At first, I just waited around for 2.5 weeks until there was a full platoon. They recruit a lot of people who just want to go to college. A lot of poor white people from the South were there, and Hispanic and Black guys too. Most of the people there were very poor and very young.

"You're A Girl. You're a Wimp."

In Basic, the drill instructors' basic method was to abuse us to break us down. They'd "shark attack" us. Shark attacks are when four drill sergeants surround one of us, swearing and yelling and spitting, each with their faces inches away. They'd yell, "You're a girl. You're a wimp. You're a pussy." If you tried to protest, they'd say, "Wimp, you better not ever talk to me again or I'll stomp you into the ground." They'd say, "If you don't shape up, we'll recycle you. We'll never let you go. You'll have to start Basic all over again."

There was a lot of yelling, a lot of intimidation, a lot of humiliation, and a total disregard for human feelings. They gave us five minutes to eat. If we talked, we had to do extra push-ups. There was one guy who was a little overweight. They made him do push-ups until he passed out and was taken to the hospital. The drill sergeants laughed about it. They'd scream, "Keep going. I didn't tell you to stop. Move it." There was a lot of swearing, even though there's a new rule that they're not supposed to. They'd say, "Keep fucking going. Get your ass moving. I didn't tell you to fucking stop, you fucking wimp." The drill instructors would laugh and act like they enjoyed it when they could get us to cry, or when one of us would get hurt, and that's when I started to question what I was doing there.

It was summer in Kentucky and it was hot. They made you fill up your canteen and then chugalug the whole thing fast. You had to prove you had finished the whole thing by turning the canteen over your head. People were puking left and right because we had to drink it so fast. At one time, out of our unit of about 100 guys, I saw 15-20 guys puking.

There was one very slow kid in our unit. I don't know how he got into the Army. The first week he got there he knew the Army wasn't for him. Every day, they'd push him out in front of the whole company. They'd yell at him, "You're lazy. You're holding people back." One day, he screwed up, and they told him not to do push-ups, but made all of us do extra push-ups while he watched, to piss us off. After we were there for three weeks, one drill sergeant thought it would be funny to pass him around to different platoons. They acted like it was a big joke. He tried to commit suicide twice. He tried to cut himself and hang himself. I didn't see it myself, but they put me on watch one night to make sure he didn't try it again. But they didn't help him. They'd tell us all, "You have to do this extra run because of him."

The drill instructors told us, "You have to straighten everybody else up. You know who they are. You know what you need to do, because if you don't, we'll take care of all of you." It works, because if one person screws up, everybody would get on them. Some guys in our unit, in the evening, in the barracks, assaulted the slow guy, hitting him, and pushing him around. I still have nightmares about this. Eventually, he tried to overdose on cough syrup and Tylenol. They took him to the psychiatric ward, and I don't know what happened to him.

They told me, "If you don't toughen up, you'll never see your wife again." My wife was pregnant, and she didn't have a place to live. And they didn't care. The recruiter, of course, did nothing to help. All during Basic, I had two or three 4-minute phone calls and I snuck a few other calls in. Some people who got caught making extra phone calls got smoked. Getting smoked means having to do exercises for an extra hour, an extra two hours, however long the drill sergeant wants, sometimes without water. I saw people crawling in pain afterwards.

I got injured. At first, the doctors tried to say I was fine. Finally, the doctor told me that I had six stress fractures. I had to use crutches. Even though I was on the crutches, they said I had to carry my tray to the cafeteria. I said I couldn't do it. The Sergeant yelled, "You pussy. Don't ever talk back to me again. That's an Article 15 [Editors note: a legal term for Non-Judicial Punishment in the military] for talking back to me." Another guy came and took my tray for me.

"They Called Iraqis 'Ragheads'"

The guy who carried my tray was the nicest guy I met there. He was Islamic. His name was Thomas. He decided that he couldn't kill people. He stopped eating because he had a dream one night that told him he was wrong for the military. They tried to force-feed him. They pulled him out of class, accusing him and another Muslim of being terrorists, just because they were Muslim. Eventually, the drill sergeant told me he went AWOL. I had never met anyone who was Muslim before, but he was the nicest guy I met there. In the platoon, they called Iraqis "ragheads," and all sorts of racist shit. I was prejudiced too until I met these Muslim guys. My views of Muslims have totally changed.

One drill instructor said, "We're in Iraq for a good reason. The news isn't reporting the good stuff we're doing there. The news is bullshit, they're lying because they're only saying the bad stuff about the Army." They said we should all support George Bush. They were trying to brainwash us. One of the drill sergeants came back from Iraq training Iraqis. He was less gung-ho. He told us, "We're stupid. We're training them and then they turn around and fight us instead."

I'm Hispanic. One white drill sergeant said, "Hey, you, bodybuilder. You must have been a gangbanger, eh?" It pissed me off to be racially profiled. Another drill sergeant must have said something to him, because he apologized to me later.

"You're a Piece of Meat"

My injuries became even more painful. They made me do a two-mile march twice with a pack on my back, and a Kevlar helmet, which is heavy, on crutches. This, despite the fact I had a doctor's note saying I was on medical profile and shouldn't be made to do this. Whenever we came back from the doctor, the drill instructors would take the paperwork which said we were on profile from us, so we couldn't prove it.

If you're injured, they make you eat last, do everything last. They called those of us who were injured "broke dicks." I've never seen anybody get treated this bad in my life, even though I've been a jail guard for eight years. Once I got hurt, they treated me like trash because I was no good to them anymore.

The civilian doctor who was on contract there said, "If it was up to me, I'd send you home." The doctor said they used to be able to send people home, but the military won't let them anymore, because they were letting too many people out. The Army doctor, instead of discharging me, sent me home for 30 days. Despite my injuries, they wanted me to try to heal and start Basic Training again.

When I joined the military I thought people who went AWOL were wimps and total screw-ups. I ended up being one of those people that in the beginning I hated. Until you go through it, you just can't imagine it. I went AWOL. I called Senator Leahy and Bernie Sanders' offices, and found out about the GI Rights Hotline (800/394-9544, The GI Rights Network counselor helped me figure out my options.

Eventually, I turned myself in to the Personnel Control Facility at Fort Knox after my unit dropped me from the rolls. Even after I turned myself in, part of me wanted to contest the Other than Honorable discharge they wanted to give me, arguing that I should have been given a medical discharge or an Entry Level Separation from Basic Training. But the reality is that if I had contested it, it might have taken additional months to get out. As it was, it took five more weeks for my papers to be processed before the Personnel Control Facility finally processed my discharge and let me go.

If people aren't working out in the military, they should just let us go.

I don't have any respect for the people who call the shots and who are in charge. I lost respect for the government. I know they don't care about us. Now, when I hear about those guys in Iraq who wouldn't go on those missions, I totally feel for those guys. I used to think they were just wimps. Once you're in the Army, they don't care about you. You're a piece of meat. They don't care about your family, if there are medical problems, or anything.

The military claims that they teach integrity and honor, but really they were just beating up on weak people. I couldn't imagine anyone doing something like this to my own son. I will refuse to let any of my kids ever join the military.

This article was published in Peacework Magazine, February, 2005, pages 6-7.
photo caption & credit: Soldiers in camoflage paint
Air Force Basic Training. Photo:

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