by Larry J. Wormington
Your assimilation begins at the Military Enlistment Processing Station, or MEPS. If military service were a lobotomy, MEPS would be the surgical prep area. Upon arrival, you’re stripped to your skivvies and interrogated by the most highly trained and experienced medical professionals indentured servitude can buy. Don’t answer truthfully any questions like “Have you ever experimented with illegal substances?” or “Do you sometimes have suicidal thoughts?” Facts other than height, weight, and blood type are frowned upon due to their personal nature. Should you forget this and begin to disclose details of your abusive father’s permanent departure from your family unit with a member of his prayer group, or what said abuse and subsequent absence did to your eight-year-old psyche, interrogations cease and a firm corrective application of force to the back of the head is applied. This is followed by the requisite “idiot” glare and a directive to resume integration.
Although you’re told otherwise, your physical assessment can actually be summed up in two words, duck walk. Regardless of any other physical ailments you possess, it is imperative that you can squat, taking the bear-in-the-woods pose, and waddle in a circle as military officials look on. The fact that you will likely never actually strike this pose in the entire course of your enlistment is irrelevant. Think of it as the quadratic equation portion of your military matriculation.
Now, the visual body scan: remember, the circular indentations on your back and forearms are birthmarks, not cigar burns, and those cuts on your wrists, the result of an unfortunate run-in with a glass door. Until replaced by the real thing, these life blemishes are now your battle scars, each slash and abuse having its own glorious backstory of sacrifice for valor.
Short of a noticeable amputation, no bodily shortcoming precludes you from active military service. Years from now, when you hobble back to the civilian world in a somewhat coherent state, fellow humans will approach you with comments like “I was going to join the Marines, but I had ‘fallen arches,’ or ‘breathing problems’ or ‘vision issues’ or ‘was the last living male in my family.’” Telling said individuals you were a half-blind asthmatic with flat feet and no siblings will not ingratiate you to them. A knowing grimace and affirmative nod of the head is expected. Don’t go off script.
The final step in the entry process is your oath of enlistment, or swearing in. Feel free to substitute a former bully or handsy uncle’s name during this verbal portion of the program. Do not be surprised, however, when later your drill instructor punches you in the throat for attempting to use said fact in an attempt to escape the purgatory you’ve stepped into. The “I didn’t even say my own name” defense does not fly with this jury of your new peers.
Once the swearing in process is complete, you’ll return to your hotel for the long night. Look around. Stare at yourself in the mirror. Touch yourself, or another if they’ll permit it. Admire your clothes and those of others. Try to remember the color of the sky, or the smell of long, wet hair. Make lots of phone calls, even to people you don’t like. Eat everything. Try to laugh, or cry. Write a letter to a lost love, or better yet, to yourself. You’ll look back and remember this was a goodbye to normal, to the baby teeth of who you were. Tomorrow is your last known tomorrow.
Boot camp: here, your innocence is brutalized, then excised. What springs forth in its place is something you will neither recognize nor embrace. Your first real day of boot camp is the only one you’ll truly remember. It will return to you in dreams, a dog-eared page in the book of your life. What’s it like? Imagine every part of your personality: your likes, fears, hopes, beliefs, humors, dreams, and abhorrences are each a marble. Now picture these marbles sitting in a smooth glass bowl. The bowl is filled with clear liquid. You stand at attention in a dark room, holding out your bowl as drill instructors encircle you. Inches from your face, they spit and scream, veins popping, as they morph into famished raptors. Your marbles shimmer, hopes and dreams flash blue green, fears pulse red, drawing the attention of the surrounding predators. The reds begin to grow, absorbing the other marbles as gnashing teeth envelop you. The bowl crashes to the floor and everything you are turns crimson. Boot camp’s something like that.
You will miss your former life. This goes for everything from french fries to fellatio. At any moment, either of these is just as likely as the other to cause an erection. Food and sex will blur and meld in your memory, just like in real life. Your girlfriend, let’s call her Jill, will be the epicenter for all this past-life nostalgia, which is unfortunate as she started cheating on you with a redneck named Lance the day you left. When Jill tells you this in a letter some weeks later, you’ll see her in your dreams, destroying your trust in every sexual position imaginable. But what Jill and Lance do while you’re performing asphalt-knuckle pushups in a pool of your own blood or falling from fifty-foot scaffolding into a vat of diseased mosquito larvae for the sixth time that week isn’t your concern anymore. In fact, it’s best if you just write old Jill off altogether, until, of course, she decides, after a drunken fit of regret, to send you those naked pictures you asked for weeks prior. Then, Jill will not only be your girl, or Lance’s; she’ll belong to the whole platoon. Drill instructors, apparently, are not subject to U.S. Postal Service privacy laws, and they love to share with the class.
In boot camp you will become the great one: one sound, one voice, one mission, one faith. Notice that faith is mentioned last, as it is more a suggestion than a requirement. Belief, in general, is problematic, as it leads to remembering. To join the static fray, you must forget. Forget benevolence. Forget analysis. Forget sanctity. Robots are neither pure nor profane; they just are. Their machinery runs well on War-for-Peace-1.0. You’d do well to remember this.
Becoming requires precision. You will become very precise at things you already know how to do, like walking and talking. You will learn how to perform them in unison. You will scream “Yes sir!” at the same moment as hundreds of others, your vocal chords straining for the exact pitch. Your left heel will strike the deck at the very instant your fellow recruit’s does. The walls around you will echo. Your heart will pound, swelled by the pride of an action heretofore mundane. This unity of form is beautiful, a synchronized corpus to be admired. Never be caught admiring it.
You will become proficient in the use of weaponry. For without arms, you are of no use to anyone. They teach this early on. You will be trained on a variety of explosive and awe-inspiring devices, not the least of which is the M16 service rifle. You will spend weeks perfecting the use of this weapon, but only a few hours actually firing it. It seems killers-in-training cannot be trusted around their aggressive, somewhat verbose mentors.
The M16 is lightweight, and fires 5.56mm rounds that have a tendency to tumble once encountering flesh. Should one of your fellow recruits happen to put the M16’s aluminum alloy barrel into his mouth and pull the trigger, you may find yourself admiring the weapon’s muzzle velocity, which is 3,110 feet per second, and its maximum effective range, which is 500–800 meters. That means that by the time you see the body drop, the round is already five football fields away. The physics of this will secretly excite you.
Should your drill instructor gather the platoon around said headless individual and scream out the question, “Well, boys, do you think he had a lot of brains?” do not answer, “Not anymore.” Although he should, your D.I. will not appreciate the humor. Rhetorical counseling theory is, after all, no laughing matter.
Eventually, you will graduate. You’ll be a part of the brotherhood, an O.E.M. component in the war machine. On the thousand-mile bus ride home from boot camp, everything will be new. You’ll feel a secret power within you. You’ll stare at strangers, waiting for them to acknowledge and respect it, but all they’ll see is your cold, black stare. They’ll look away uncomfortably, and you will accept this as acknowledgement. Self-delusion is now your most powerful weapon.
Next stop, active duty. What you will learn first and practice most often during your enlistment is patience. Although each mission throughout your tour will be represented as a time-sensitive endeavor, few are. The term hurry up and wait was, undoubtedly, conjured in a foxhole. It is said that battle is months of boring shit interspersed with minutes of holy shit. In short, pack a good book and personal wipes.
You will become a master of all you survey. You will build mud fences, hack through flea-infested thickets, and dig holes in sucking sand pits. Then, for the better part of your tour of duty, you will watch and wait. During these thousands of hours, sitting on humanity’s periphery, you should dream and contemplate your place on the blue dot, asking yourself what value you now provide as a death-dealer in a card game where everyone busts eventually. Instead, you’ll likely just sleep and masturbate, indulging what few urges you still control.
And for years it will go: cleaning what’s already clean, destroying everything you touch, drinking until you cannot think, telling lies already told, encountering worlds you’ll never understand, eating things you cannot spell, developing bonds you’ll never break, and becoming, and unbecoming. Your friends will die. The enemy will persist, in whatever form ignites the home fires and fills the dark coffers. And on you’ll march.
Then one day someone will ask you why. Why are you here? And for the first time, you’ll have no answer, like a number you can’t recite, even though you’ve called it thousands of times. When this happens, when your suspension of disbelief escapes you and your ideals vaporize, you’ll be dead, only you won’t know it. If, however, self-awareness actually dawns, seek discharge immediately.
A quick tip: if you are sent to southern Afghanistan on your first deployment to train the local police force to take over their city’s security someday and none of your trainees show up for work, return to Camp Leatherneck immediately. Sitting in an unfortified mud hut listening to AC/DC while congratulating yourself and your fellow jarheads on the day off tends to make one a target. When a satchel bomb blows the door open, embedding pieces of your squad leader into your face and hands in the middle of Angus Young’s solo on Thunderstruck, what will surprise you most will be seeing your trainees’ faces coming through the blast hole. As you open up on them with your 9mm, you’ll marvel at their coordinated room-clearing technique. They were paying attention after all.
When you finally come home, after a dozen surgeries, you’ll be the topic of much conversation. Children will ask their mothers, within clear earshot, why you only have one leg. Teens on the train will ask if the scars on your face or the missing fingers on your left hand are due to a birth defect. And every civilian you encounter, from your bartender to your court-mandated psychologist will ask one question: “Did you ever kill anybody?” The answer to this question is not, “Sure did, and you should see what a hollow point round does to a human head at close range.” Just make the requisite “tell ya but I’d have to kill ya” comment and let them thank you for your service. Folks need their sleep.
Larry Wormington is a Dallas-based fiction writer who grew up in the piney woods of East Texas. He received his MFA from the University of New Orleans and his BA from the University of North Texas. His stories have appeared in Elm Leaves Journal, Harpur Palate, and the fiction anthology Monday Nights, among others. He is a Marine veteran, a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance, and the editor of the Peauxdunque Review. Professionally, he works as a technical writer and runs a small business in the greater Dallas area—the rest he saves for his amazing wife and their four incredible children.