It bothers me that Jones is a sexist asshole, but he is the asshole in charge and I have just signed a watertight contract saying I will follow all lawful orders from those appointed over me in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Misogyny isn’t a crime so far as I am aware, and anyway, as the Assistant Recruit Chief Petty Officer (AROC), it is my job to set an example by making the Recruit Chief Petty Officer (RPOC) look good by shining his boots, ironing his uniform, making his rack, and ensuring issues within the division are taken care of so he doesn’t have to fret about it. It is just like being a wife and mother. I hate it.
At chow time, RPOC is first in line with the division following behind him and me bringing up the rear. Food is one of the few comforts afforded in boot camp. Jones seems to delight in ending our galley time just as I sit down. It pisses me off, but I keep reminding myself that it is part of the game. Before I joined the Navy my father had told me that as division commander, Jones is supposed to wear us down physically so that we’ll be less likely to resist when he starts telling us what pieces of shit we are. Once you believe you are nothing, he can tell you what he wants you to be. I thought knowing that information could prevent it from happening.
“Forward, march!” Left, (right), left, (right). RPOC ordered. It’s my job to call cadence, but Jones hates the sound of female voices so I don’t. I’m glad about it.
We’ve been walking back and forth on a narrow patch of asphalt for the past six hours learning drill techniques. All of our feet hurt. None of us are used to walking in combat boots, which is surprisingly difficult, let alone walking that far or for that long and with precision. We all have blisters and shin splints and are tired and hungry. The sound of our boots hitting the ground in unison, first left then right, then left again, sound like a collective heartbeat. Left, right, left, right. Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. Someone up front loses step, a heart murmur.
“What’s the matter Recruit Smith?” Jones wants to know. We keep marching.
She is pale and thin and her arms are skin covered bone. In the galley she will eat only white bread with butter and sugar sprinkled on top of it. I don’t know how she can keep going, how she has the strength in her thigh to lift the combat boot. Smith lets her discomfort show. Her face turns red and big tears roll out of her open eyes and down her cheeks but she tries to preserve some modicum of military bearing by not running away. Breakdowns are common these days and we all brace for this one. Lub-dub, lub-dub.
“Oh, it hurts too much?” Jones mocks.
Lub-dub, lub-dub. Her head moves up and down and I could see a change in her posture that I recognize as defeat.
I see a glimmer of sadistic joy in Jones’s eye.
“Division, halt!” He orders.
The entire division stands at attention in formation as Jones walks heroically toward Smith and rescues her from ranks. He makes her sit down before rushing to present her with her canteen. “Here, hydrate. Drink it all.” He waits for her to finish drinking and asks if she feels better. She does. He turns around to face the rest of us. “Anyone else’s feet hurt?” He seems genuinely concerned. “Recruit Dorado, you look like you’re about to fall out. Get over there,” he motions toward Smith who looks like a twelve-year-old girl and is beginning to get color back in her face. “Anyone else?” Some recruits raise their hand, emboldened by his sudden show of humanity and he gestures for them to come sit down, too. Once seated some of the recruits take the opportunity to drink from their canteens.
“Recruit Dorado, did I tell you to hydrate?”
“No.” He puts down his canteen ashamed he has been so naïve.
“No, Petty Officer!” Jones explodes. Dorado forgot to address Jones by his rank. “You are the worst bunch of recruits I have ever encountered. You just don’t learn do you? Get on your feet!”
They scramble to their feet and attempt to rejoin those of us who have remained silent.
“Did I fucking tell you to get back in ranks? Did I tell you to move? The worst bunch of recruits I’ve ever seen. Do your feet still hurt?” he asks Smith with sudden.
“Yes, Petty Officer.” Her voice trembles; she is really in pain. The rest of us let out a sigh of frustration. We know what is coming now.
“Division, attention.” We snap to a more attentive attention. Jones makes his way toward me. “Recruit Smith and some others have expressed some discomfort with their feet. How do your feet feel, Recruit?”
“My feet feel fine, Petty Officer!” I lie. This is how you play the game, I want to announce to the division. Even if your feet hurt, just say they don’t because it’s easier that way.
“So you don’t feel the need to take a rest? You think we should keep marching?”
“Yes, Petty Officer!”
He pauses for a moment and we are all caught by surprise when his next words aren’t marching orders.
“What a shitty leader,” he says with genuine disappointment and disgust.
He is standing right in front of me, millimeters from my face. I do my best to pretend he isn’t there and that some vague area behind his eyes is incredibly fascinating. I have already learned not to look him in the eye, or his forehead, or any other part of his face. I have already learned that looking at the area around and behind his eyes makes it seem as if he isn’t in my face spitting on me while he hollers about some bullshit that is fucking absurd. I have already learned that laughing at the fucking absurdity is the worst move possible. I hold the corners of my mouth straight and my spine straight and I let the spit land on my face and my lips like I have learned to do. I clench my teeth the way that I have learned isn’t visible to anyone else. I think I am getting away with something and it helps me endure these moments. He continues to stand there, looking at me. I have already learned that that isn’t an invitation for apologies or suggestions. I have already learned not to speak unless spoken to.
“Your recruits are in pain over there and you can’t find it in your heart to let them rest?” I feel terrible. I have already forgotten that none of it is my fault.
“Drop and give me 50.” I hit the deck and start counting out pushups reminding myself the whole while that I will never have to put up with shit like this ever again. I imagine seeing him someday in the future, out in the fleet, maybe on liberty, and beating him about the head and groin until he is bloody and begging for mercy.
“Look at your AROC,” he commands. Everyone turns around to look at me pushing up. “She’s being punished because she is a selfish leader.” They stand there silently, waiting for me to get to 50. I finish and try my best to control my breathing so that it seems like 50 pushups has zero effect on me. I have already learned not to move unless he tells me to.
“Get up,” I jump to attention.
He addresses the onlookers, disgusted, “you all just watched as your leader took your punishment for you. What ingrates you are.” He looks at everyone for a long time and things are starting to get uncomfortable when he says, “everyone except her, drop and give me 100.” Everyone hits the deck and begins counting off. Down, up, 1! Down, up, 2! Down, up, 3! I watch the group move up and down in unison. I look at RPOC pumping out reps like nothing. I watch Smith’s bony arms continue to push her up despite a lack of muscle. I want to stand there watching, but I have already learned what is expected of me. I drop and start counting off, too. Eventually we realize that whenever one of us is told to drop, and we all drop, Jones is sated. Once he realizes his point is made he hardly ever makes us drop again.
RPOC and I stand side-by-side rehearsing the pass-in-review ceremony. We are practicing a sabre salute for the pass-in-review ceremony which involves holding the sabre between thumb and fingertips while fully extending the arm in the carry position, raising up to the right eye while changing hand grip to salute, and then lowering it smartly to the side and then back to the carry position. It’s not easy to do. The sword is heavy and fingertips aren’t as strong as they apparently used to be. RPOC just can’t swing his prop sword up with enough grace and elegance befitting his position as the recruit whose job it is to present the divisions to the top brass for pass-in-review. Jones, red faced and slobbering with rage, snatches the sword out of RPOC’s tiny hands and flings it across the hangar bay which is already being decorated with red, white, and blue bunting, gold rope and state and military flags. A recruit races to bring it back to him and then scurries back to the sidelines. He thrusts the sword into my hand and announces that RPOC and I are switching places. RPOC tries to argue, and quickly realizes that any accolades or favor he has enjoyed as RPOC are instantly gone. I’m pretty certain that starts to cry which strikes me not so much as an intimation of malpractice as terror of derision. I am happy he got fired. All of us are, I think. It is the kind of justice only found in Saturday morning cartoons when the bad guy gets caught and is shaking his fist while yelling that he would’ve gotten away with it if weren’t for those meddling do-gooders.
My reign is short. The programs are already made, it is explained. His award is already back from the trophy maker, and besides that, it doesn’t look right to have me in charge.
During graduation I stand next to RPOC and shout out my command to the division leaders to report for pass-in-review.
“Divisions, report!” is the command, but in order to sound authoritative, I have to say, with as much bass in my voice as I can conjure, “Deee-vi-shuns! Reee-port!” As the divisions report: “Division 187 all present and accounted for, Ma’am!; Division 250 all present and accounted for, Ma’am!”
I find out afterward that Jones found my parents before graduation and moved them from the general seating area to the area reserved for the reviewing party: Admirals, Commodores and distinguished guests. He sat next to my father the entire time and whispered to him the intimacies of the ceremony. “You see how she just said that? By. The. Book. Absolutely perfect.”
When I march past, eyes right, saluting the party, all I can think about is how grating my voice must have sounded to them when I called for a report of the divisions.
“She’s the best recruit out of the bunch,” Petty Officer Jones told my father as he shook his hand and thanked him for raising such an exemplary offspring. “Really, the best.”