HILDA CLENCHED HER TEETH and crawled under the last strand of barbed wire. On her third trip through the course last week, she finally figured out how far to spread her arms so her body could clear the coiled barriers without leaving flesh on them. Her back looked like she had been flayed by a cat-o-nine-tails. Because she always faced her drill sergeant when braced at attention, her injuries had escaped his attention.
She sprinted to the Warrior Tower, reaching it well before the other recruits. She climbed the obstacle and rappelled fifty feet down the other side. At the bottom, she sprinted to the finish line.
She brushed the sand and twigs from her uniform – mistake (hell, everything is a mistake in boot camp, she thought). Sergeant Morris screamed at her so hard that spittle spotted her blouse.
“You think this is a fashion show? Brace up, Paisley!”
“Yes, sir!” Hilda assumed the correct, stiff position of a terrified recruit. Morris couldn’t see if she was terrified or not, because she was a head taller than he, but she did her best to inject some fear into her response.
The arrival of the other recruits drew Morris’ attention to someone in whose faces he could scream more directly. After a suitable haranguing, he dismissed the platoon to shower then fall into formation to march to evening meal. The only place on Fort Jackson where the sexes had their own space was in the barracks. Once inside the barracks, the recruits joked and picked on one another, all while hurrying not to be late for evening meal formation.
Like teenagers anywhere, the recruits had tried to form cliques. Basic Combat Training (boot camp) made that impossible, but it took most of the first two weeks for the boys and girls (hardly men and women, yet) to accept that their fate lay with the conduct of their assigned squads, not the friends they would have chosen. Hilda spent her fair share of time braced at attention against a wall as punishment for something someone else in the squad had done or failed to do.
From the first day, Hilda felt the hostility. If the backs did not turn instantly, the conversation flagged, and people wandered off. Sometimes they glared back at her, sometimes not. She was more than happy to focus her social energy on her squad. The only person who seemed to warm to her was the girl in the bunk above hers: Delores Sanchez, a tiny Puerto Rican who struggled with shyness and English in equal measures. Delores had bandaged Hilda’s back after each barbed wire encounter.
At the end of the first week, Sanchez and Paisley were assigned to be battle buddies, which pleased them both. Battle buddies went everywhere together, because recruits were not allowed to go anywhere alone. Later, the habit of looking for their battle buddies would save someone’s life in combat.
Hilda’s soft British accent made people take her for a Jamaican. Her height, 198 cm (almost six foot five inches), set her apart. The brilliant lapis-lazuli eyes and fine straight hair seemed out of place with skin that shined like anthracite. The other recruits did not know (or care) that she was an exact copy of her Swedish-German mother except for skin and hair color. They just knew she was different.
The drill sergeants singled her out. It seemed to her that meeting each of their challenges only fed their determination to humiliate her.
Baba told me it would be like this, she reminded herself often. He had warned her that others would resent her, but that there was no point in trying to “be like them.” Her exceptional appearance and her heritage meant that she never would “be like them.”
Her father had respected her intention to enlist in the Army. After all, it’s what he did. It’s what his father had done. Nevertheless, they had many long talks about the choice and what she would endure in boot camp and after.
She knew he worried. He had fought the Cold War as an Army linguist and an intelligence operative. Even his most dangerous assignments had not involved open combat. She could expect combat tours in hostile territory. The “nicest” places were Afghanistan and Iraq. She could also end up in Somalia, West Africa, or any number of active war zones without the shelter of large American bases.
Throughout her high school years in Kaiserslautern, Chief Warrant Officer Tongai (Tom) Paisley did his best to equip his daughter with the physical and mental skills to thrive. He taught her survival skills in the forests of the Upper Palatinate. To the English, French, German, Swedish, and Shona that she had learned growing up, he added enough Arabic, Farsi, Pashto and Swahili to get through hostile territory. They went to the shooting range until Hilda was confident handling a wide variety of rifles and pistols. The Army would train on different weapons, but she would adapt to them quickly. He trained her in hand-to-hand combat and self defence. Not much, because that was in the curriculum, too, but to make her comfortable with the drills.
Hilda’s best friend in high school, a Canadian bicycle racer named Maryse, trained with her. By the time they graduated, Hilda could ride or run faster and longer than most.
Most helpful, probably, was a week during the summer before her senior year. They flew to London, picked up her grandfather, and spent five nights camping rough in the Scottish Highlands. Every night around the campfire, her sekuru would tell her the history of his people, and why soldiering came so naturally to them. She learned that her great-grandfather had been a Zulu warrior during the Boer War and had moved north with his clan after the British finally won. He took a job on a ranch owned by a Scottish family, where Garai was born and raised. Garai himself emigrated to England and enlisted in the British Army during World War Two.
“So, you see, you are not just an Army brat. You are murwi, a warrior, like the countless generations before you.”
Her squad consisted of six men and four women. After the first week of thinking that Hilda was a show-off, they accepted the extra points that she won for them, coming in first on so many events.
The second week, they were introduced to unarmed combat. Only Hilda had learned any hand-to-hand moves, and she picked up the offensive combat moves quickly. The four women in her squad did some extra drilling in the barracks, which levelled the field when it came time for inter-unit competition.
It was no surprise that the drill sergeants chose Hilda as the platoon’s representative in the unarmed combat competition at the end of the second week. She handily pinned or disabled the women from the other platoons.
“What do you want, big as she is?” one of the sergeants was heard to say.
“Sure,” said Sergeant Morris, “but have you ever seen someone that tall move that fast?”
“Think she could take on Shifflett?” asked the only female drill sergeant. The men stared at her. She smiled coyly. Shifflett was just coming off the mat, having made it to the top of the men’s competition on points.
“You’d put her up to that? He was varsity wrestling in high school.”
“It’s not reg, Morland,” said Morris.
“If she’s willing, we could make it unofficial.” Morland raised her eyebrows. Like salivating puppies, she thought. She could smell the money itching in their wallets.
Morris turned to his squad. “Paisley!”
“Yes, sir!” Hilda braced in front of her drill sergeant and fixed her gaze on the wall beyond the gaggle of drill sergeants.
“How did that feel, Paisley? Were the ladies much of a challenge?”
“They’re good, sir.”
“Not what I asked you, private!” He spit a little on her blouse again. “Would you like to take on Private Shifflett?”
“If you say so, sir.” Hilda kept her face as impassive as she could. What the hell is going on here? “Did I fail the competition for the platoon, sir?”
Morris rolled his eyes and stalked back to his colleagues. After some mumbling, the female drill sergeant approached Hilda (There was a shortage of female sergeants, and she was assigned to another platoon).
“Private Paisley, you seem to be very skilled at unarmed combat.”
“Thank you, sir – I mean, ma’am.”
“My colleagues and I would like to see you against Private Shifflett. Think you could take him down?”
“I couldn’t say without trying, sir.” He outweighs me by fifteen kilos! Shifflett was also almost her height.
“All unofficial, and you don’t have to do it.”
“Has anyone asked Private Shifflett, ma’am? If it’s OK with him, I’m game. I don’t want to embarrass him.”
“Good point.” Sergeant Morland went back to the group, muttering Jesus, what an attitude! to what she thought was herself.
After Shifflett agreed, the drill sergeants conferred, while one of them marched the other recruits to their barracks for showers and evening formation. The sergeants spent some time wondering when and where.
“Permission to speak, sir?” asked Hilda. Shifflett stood next to her, braced and impassive.
“What, Paisley?” said Morris. The others stopped talking to listen.
“We’re both warmed up and it won’t take long. Could we just get it over with here?”
The male sergeants hooted at that. Morland smiled with a knowing arch to her eyebrow.
Shifflett gave her a big grin as they squared off on the mat. He’s not taking this seriously, Hilda thought.
Five minutes later, Hilda walked into the women’s side of the barracks just as a shower came free. She had taken a moment to pop Shifflett’s shoulder back in its socket before requesting permission to join her squad in the barracks. The sergeants watched quietly as she and Shifflett double-timed out of the gym. Morris and Morland, their two sergeants, walked behind them. The drill sergeants went everywhere with their recruits in the first two phases.
The third week, it was Hilda’s turn as squad leader. She made it through the beginning of the week with no mutinies or excessive bitching. Things changed dramatically on Wednesday.
The squads were competing on the obstacle course, being scored by squads, not individually. Each member had to finish, and the score was determined by the accumulated arrival times.
Just as Hilda’s squad emerged from the barbed wire for the final sprint across a wide meadow, Delores cried out in pain. Hilda stopped and saw her falling into the tall grass. Waving to the others to keep running, Hilda dropped beside Sanchez. She had fallen into a gopher hole. Hilda helped pull her leg out. She had twisted her ankle. Putting her arms under Sanchez’s armpits, Hilda hoisted the shorter woman into a wounded warrior carry over her shoulder and began running across the meadow. She was in the middle of the pack when she arrived.
At the finish line, an ambulance was waiting. While the medics carried Sanchez away on a stretcher, Hilda fell in with her squad, and waited for the inevitable chewing out for whatever infraction she had committed.
Instead, the drill sergeants ignored them, and ordered everyone to the showers. At supper, the recruits were surprised when they learned that Hilda’s squad came in first. Several squads in the race had members who did not finish, for which sin the remaining members would brace against the wall for forty minutes, and their whole squad got zero points. With no other elaboration, the sergeants left the stage, and dinner continued under their watchful eyes.
When her squad was about to cheer the results, Hilda hushed them and beckoned them around the table.
“Does anyone know who didn’t finish and why?”
No one did.
“I think we should find out. If any of them are hurt, let’s visit them. We would be braced up tonight if Sanchez had not made it over the finish line.”
“But you carried her,” said Jim Wentworth, a freckle-faced farm boy from Minnesota.
“Of course. We were lucky it was Sanchez. If I had gone down, it would have taken two of us to carry me.”
“Would you have carried any of us?”
“That depends on who was closest, who was strongest, and how heavy the injured person was. I happen to be the biggest one in the squad, and she’s our smallest, so it made sense not to lose time figuring all that out.”
“Why would you do that? Did you know about the scoring of the results?”
“No. Just something my father said: never leave a soldier behind.”
They thought about that in silence for the rest of the meal, but from then on, they looked at her differently. They also developed a habit of having each other’s back. Without her saying anything, each of the five pairs of battle buddies practiced the wounded warrior carry on each other until they could do it smoothly and quickly.
The next week, the recruits entered the White Phase of basic training. By the end of the first week, Sanchez healed quickly enough to rejoin them for the physical training.
The White Phase felt more like what Tongai had described. The ammunition in the M-16 rifles was real, and the grenade throwing was explosive. With the same mix of physical challenges and hands-on instruction – and the squad. Delores and Hilda turned out to be crack shots with any weapon they were handed, and Wentworth was almost as good. The stronger ones made a habit of helping the weaker ones with the body-building exercises.
The squad was attracting the notice of the drill sergeants, especially because so far, none of them had failed the many pass/fail tests in the Red and White Phases. Wentworth and Jefferson were the squad leaders for the first two weeks of the White Phase, but they checked with Hilda privately. Hilda fell in with the others, but the drill sergeants were not fooled. They had marked the tall, Black recruit as a natural leader, and among themselves, they admired her devotion to the squad’s success. It was no surprise to them that the squad moved like greased lighting through the challenges of the third week, with Hilda in charge again.
The Blue Phase consisted of two major events. First up was the APFT, the Army Physical Fitness Test. Everyone had to pass or stay behind until they did – or were discharged. Those who passed went on to bivouac. This was two weeks of field training, including a series of field exercises with the squad and platoon leaders taking charge instead of the drill sergeants.
Sergeant Morris transferred out just before the Blue Phase. Sergeant Jankowicz stood six-foot-seven and obviously spent time on the body-shaping equipment at the gym. He was the first man Hilda had met at boot camp who could look her in the eye. Fortunately, he did not tend to spit as much as Morris. But he did like to chew her out, with his head at a comfortable angle. Hilda did not like the way he looked at her, but she was not sure why. It was not the same look he gave the other recruits.
With the first week taking up the individual efforts of the APFT, Hilda found herself able to move around a little. She kept an eye on Wentworth and Sanchez, the two weakest members of the squad. One day, Sergeant Jankowicz appeared behind her.
“What are you doing, Paisley?”
Hilda braced up, facing the drill sergeant. It was unnerving not to be looking over his head. “Watching my squad, sir.”
“I want them to pass.”
“It’s our squad, sir. We haven’t lost anyone yet, and we want to finish together.”
“No one, sir.”
“Why those two?”
“They needed the most help. I’m hoping for the best, but if I can see something, we can help them with it, sir. Maybe, sir.”
He spun about and walked toward the end of the barracks where the drill sergeants had their offices. When he went in, Hilda figured that she was dismissed, and relaxed. Delores was just coming out of the push-ups. Jim Wentworth was half-way through a set of hurdles on the track. Hilda took a water bottle to her battle buddy.
Hilda gave her a high-five. “Great. Extra points. How many so far?”
“A hundred fifty points.”
“You still have the timed run and the swim, don’t you?”
“You should be able to muster thirty points between the two of them. You got this, girl!”
“Thank, Hilda. Couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Nonsense. I’m not your only cheerleader, you know.”
They walked to the end of the track and met Jim coming off his lane. Hilda handed him a water bottle.
“Passed.” He caught his breath and took a swig.
“That gives you what?” asked Hilda.
“One hundred seventy-five.”
Hilda gave him a high-five. “You two will pass tomorrow.”
They started walking toward the barracks, until a drill sergeant barked at them to march sharply. They didn’t know who he was, but they double-timed together with a limerick, and vanished before he could react.
All ten members of Hilda’s squad passed the APFT, an exceptional accomplishment, which made Sergeant Jankowicz look very good. As the women in the squad were packing their gear to go on bivouac, Sergeant Morland walked in. They braced to attention, each by her bunk.
“At ease, soldiers.” She walked to the bunk where Hilda and Delores were standing. “Paisley, is it true that your entire squad passed the APFT?”
“Yes, ma’am, but Private Sanchez is our squad leader this week.”
“Congratulations, Private Sanchez. Who are the others in the squad?” The two women from the next bunk stood forward.
Sergeant Morland introduced herself to each of them. “You have set a record, ladies. I want to remember each of you, because I think I will hear about you again.”
“Permission to speak, ma’am?” asked Hilda.
“Has anyone told Sergeant Morris? I know Sergeant Jankowicz is pleased, but Sergeant Morris was the drill sergeant who got us ready.”
“Good of you to think of that, Paisley. I called him myself, and the Captain has sent an official message to his new CO.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Who are the men in your squad?” Delores gave her the names. “Thanks.”
With that, she walked to the door. She stopped and turned around and spoke to the whole room.
“It’s a hard fact that I’m the only female drill sergeant here. The Army is recruiting more for future platoons. Your drill sergeants are doing their best to keep you safe and treat you fairly, but they are men, after all.” A titter of suppressed giggles and smiles. “Come find me if there are issues you need to discuss, that they can’t understand because of their sexual handicap.”
Delores said, “Thank you ma’am.”
Sergeant Morland left, and they returned to their packing.
Hilda was the squad leader for the last two weeks. By now, her squad was so focused on working together, that they quickly accomplished the field missions set up by the drill sergeants. After they injured two drill sergeants acting as “aggressors” in the swamp, the drill sergeants stopped facing that squad directly.
One night, the squad set up a noisy fire about a quarter-mile from the drill sergeants’ camp (which was supposed to be hidden from the recruits). The diminutive Delores crept in and stole the Sergeant Jankowicz’s camouflage battle dress blouse and trousers, which were hanging on a line to dry. For the rest of the week, they continued to defend against challenges from the “aggressors” and devise ways of discovering where the “enemy” was and attacking them. There was no protocol for “killing” the drill sergeants, so they left different clues to embarrass their targets.
On the last day of the FTX (Field Training Exercise), the drill sergeants gathered in the late morning to wait for the three platoons to come out of the forest. The squad and platoon leaders had been in charge of operations for the FTX, with the drill sergeants checking on them and looking out for mistakes that might injure someone. For that last week, Sergeant Jankowicz had been unable to find his squad, though he never admitted it to his colleagues. The rendezvous was “NLT 12:00” (no later than noon), so the survivors of the FTX had been straggling in all morning.
By 11:30, the drill sergeants from Hilda’s platoon looked worried. None of their recruits had come out of the woods.
At noon exactly, Hilda’s squad marched out of the swamp, with the usual mud stains on their uniforms. But the six men had fresh haircuts and shaves; the four women had their hair washed and tucked up tightly in regulation fashion. Hilda and the other squad leaders in the platoon had arranged to march out of the swampy forest from different directions, at the same time. Hilda marched alongside her squad, singing a lusty limerick as they all sang, “whon, two, thuree, fower” in time on the refrain. They came to a sharp halt and turned to face Sergeant Jankowicz at a stiff attention.
But their drill sergeant was not looking at them. He was joined by his colleagues, staring at the makeshift guidon that Sanchez bore at the head of the column. Flapping in the breeze was their drill sergeant’s battle dress uniform.
The other squads marched up and fell in as a platoon. Each sported a piece of clothing belonging to one of their sergeants. They were prepared to take credit for it, although Hilda’s squad and Delores’ invisibility had made it possible.
“I’m glad that’s not my platoon,” muttered Morland. “I’d hate to see a bra up there.”
After the intense activity of the field exercises, the last week felt like a holiday: repairing broken weapons and equipment, cleaning the barracks, and fitting for their dress uniforms. Word got out that Hilda’s squad had done the night-time burglaries, but the sergeants had not figured out what to do about it, so they ignored it publicly.
Wednesday evening during the quiet time before lights out, Sergeant Jankowicz called on the barracks phone. The fire watch took the call.
“Paisley! Sergeant Jankowicz wants you outside.”
“What the hell?” Hilda got up from her bed and donned her uniform. Her drill sergeant had duty tonight.
Outside, she saw Jankowicz standing under a streetlamp. Instead of the usual utility uniform with his campaign hat, he was bare-headed, wearing an olive-drab tee shirt which showed off his muscular physique.
“Paisley, follow me.” He strode toward the building where the duty sergeants usually bunked when they were required to spend the night on base. Hilda came behind him, not knowing what to expect.
Hilda had never been in this building, so she paused at the door. A long corridor ran the length of the building, with small bunkrooms on either side, and men’s and women’s latrines facing each other halfway down the hall. A small room was marked for female sergeants (Morland alone, she knew). At the end was a kitchenette facing a small dining area.
The building appeared to be empty.
Her sergeant waved her over. She paused at the door. Jankowicz reached into a small refrigerator and pulled out a beer.
“Beer, wine, something stronger?”
“No, thank you, sir.”
“Come in, Paisley, and close the door.”
She did as told and stood at attention against the door. Her nerves were on full alert, but this was her drill sergeant.
“At ease – and relax. I have something for you.”
“You’re an exceptional leader, Paisley. I’ve been impressed by you since the day I first saw you. We should get to know one another better.”
One of the basketball players in high school had suggested getting to know one another better one night. That had led to their both learning that they could not make out in the back of a Volkswagen.
Hilda stood there in silence. He can’t mean that! she thought.
“I said to relax, Paisley. Hilda, if you want.”
“I am relaxed, sir, and Paisley will do fine.”
“What you need is some R&R, you know that? After all you’ve achieved, I would like to reward you.” Rest and Relaxation.
“I’m scheduled for R&R next week on my way to San Antonio, sir.”
He walked up to her and stood face-to-face to her. She could smell beer and Old Spice. He must have shaved this evening.
His expression confused her. She expected the usual angry screaming at this range, but his eyes were intensely focused on her face, and his mouth was open but not talking. She thought he was breathing rather faster than needed just to stand there. He took her wrist in his hand.
“Please don’t touch, sir.”
Jankowicz stepped back a half-step.
“What do you see when you look at me?”
“My drill sergeant, sir.”
“Don’t you see a man? When was the last time you had a real man?” His hand did not loosen on her wrist.
“That sounds like fraternization, sir.” Challenging him felt very uncomfortable, but she knew there were limits.
“Paisley, you’re pretty smart, but you don’t have any idea who has the real power here, do you?” He ran his free hand up her arm to her shoulder. She could feel the heat from his palms through the heavy blouse fabric.
“Please, don’t touch, sir. I’m serious.”
“Are you giving me orders?”
“No, sir. Just reminding you, sir.”
He put his hand behind her head and pulled her in to kiss her mouth.
Hilda snapped her knee up to his crotch and her head down to meet his nose coming forward. He bellowed in pain and punched her in the ribs. She started to double over and felt herself grabbed by the shoulders and pushed sideways to the floor. As he whirled over to jump on her, the blood from his nose fell in her eyes. She twisted and caught him on her shoulder.
“Help!” she called as loud as she could. He pinned her left arm to the floor. With her right, she drove a chop at his temple, but she could not see, and he blocked it with his free arm. She kept blinking to clear her eyes.
“We’re going to finish this, bitch.” He slapped her with his left hand. Pushing her down on the floor, he put his knees between her legs, and trapped both her arms to the floor.
She screamed again.
“Forget it. No one is coming until after the meeting.” He leaned down to kiss her, as she continued to try to scream into this mouth. The blood from his nose made their faces slide apart.
They were at a stalemate. He needed both hands to keep her arms pinned; she could not use her legs effectively with him kneeling there.
His bleeding nose broke the standoff. When he put his right hand to it, Hilda struck across her chest, folded his left arm with a blow inside the elbow then swung her left leg up over his back, rolling them to the side. As his hand loosened on her right arm, she chopped him on the right temple with her free hand. Then she pulled him under as she rose over his back, pinning him to the floor.
Jankowicz turned quickly, and, being stronger, broke her hold. She needed to get attention to the room. As he rolled away from her, she saw a brick behind the door, which they used as a door stop. Just before he lunged toward her, she grabbed the brick and threw it through the window. First, she heard the crash of breaking glass, then felt his combat boot in her ribs. She tried to grab his leg, but he brought a boot down on her arm. The pain ran up to her shoulder.
She screamed again. And again. And again. Pain stabbed her ribs with each breath.
They heard the doors opening to the barracks. He yanked her up and marched her out the opposite end of the hall. Jankowicz walked to her barracks with her with a hand tightly around her upper arm. No one stopped them or said anything. He left her at the door to her barracks.
It was exactly ten p.m., time for lights out. In the dark, Hilda made her way to the washroom to clean up and turned in.
As Hilda lay there staring at the springs under the mattress above her, Delores turned in her bed and whispered down.
“I been there, Hilda. You can talk to me if you want.”
“Thanks, I will. Tomorrow.”
Hilda did not go to sleep for about two hours, but it was time well spent.
That weekend, Private Hilda Paisley and her squad graduated in an emotional ceremony and donned their black berets as soldiers in the US Army. In the evening, she boarded the Silver Star train to Jacksonville, first stop on her way to Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. She planned to visit New Orleans for a few days, too. In San Antonio, she would find a martial arts studio. Never again, she swore to herself.
Sergeant Morland found the envelope in her inbox on Monday morning. Sergeant Jankowicz received unexpected orders to a desk job in Fort Sill two weeks later. Although he was not accused of anything, his transfer evaluation was unsatisfactory. He could count on no promotions before his enlistment would end in four years.
© 2021, JT Hine
Next week, the Freewheeling Freelancer spends a few days in Budapest at the BP-17 Conference. Enjoy another sea story. Then come back for more adventures with Hilda.