I stood at attention, third row back from the front, second one in mass formation. I was starboard watch. My uniform was Navy dungaree, pressed and creased in the proper places by having been stored underneath the thin mattress of my rack, then meticulously folded and stowed in my standing locker.
It was hot in Orlando Florida this time of year. Muggy too. It was cooler at 0500 when we fell into formation, almost chilly in the semi-tropical morning mist, but soon the sun came on full force and began to bake the moist ground causing the water vapor to rise and envelope us. The only thing more bothersome than the heat were the gnats. They would mass up on any exposed skin and begin to slowly gnaw their way through the peel into the bloody goodness beneath. We stood stone still, unwilling to move or do anything to detract from our military bearing. .While other RCPOs (recruit chief petty officer) sang out cadence of, “your left, your right…. your right, your right on your left”, our fearless leader, and large man of African descent, sang out, “Gnat city, the real nitty gritty.” Okay, we weren’t only good, we were cool!
At any time during the previous four weeks I would have told anyone who would have listened how much I wanted to go home. No one told me this was going to be easy, but for me it seemed misery once the experience was real rather than a story in a book. I had showed up for induction overweight and afraid. I wanted to be in the Navy and sail the seven seas, but one thing stood in between me and that dream; boot camp.
By week four I had shed nearly 40 pounds and was the thinnest I can ever remember being. I woke up on the morning of the first day of the fourth week. Instead of being sad and homesick I was elated, almost euphoric. I wasn’t sure why. I went through my morning routine in the false light of the barracks before stumbling out and into formation on the grinder in the semi darkness. I was leaner. I was meaner, and for the very first time in my life I knew what was expected of me and I knew I could accomplish that. We ran. I ran and didn’t gasp or wheeze. Orlando air works better than Colorado air. We arrived at the obstacle course and took off in a mighty yell. I fairly flew around the course, rejoicing in my ability to run and breath at the same time. I came in third. The first time I ran the course I cam in last out of 80. The training unit did pushups from the time the second to the last came in until I came in. Not a great confidence booster, but a great motivator.
Knowing what is expected of you and having faith in being able to accomplish it is an amazing feeling. It made the second half of my boot camp experience not just tolerable, it made it downright enjoyable. When training unit 231 graduated from RTC Orlando in August 1977 I looked good. I felt good. I was good.
It takes leadership to bring someone along from how I had arrived to where I was upon graduation. The US Military had been leading men and women like me for over 200 years. They had experience. Each and every leader in my command had been where I had been, done what I had done, and they made sure that I had every tool in order to succeed, both the external and the internal tools.
When leaders go first, those who follow can go with a sense of trust. Fast forward 40 years. I am working in the barber shop cutting hair. A group of five men, Korean immigrants, come into the barber shop. Only one of them speaks any English and my Korean is non-existent. I asked the one who spoke English how many haircuts. He said “Only one” and then spoke to another fellow who took the empty barber seat. The translator gave me some quick instructions and I quietly went about my work of bringing out the inner handsome in this fellow while the other four watched intently. About the time I was three fourths of the way through the haircut the English speaker comes up to me and says, “We build greenhouses. We are here but we live far away. It is too wet to work so we come to get a haircut. This is our boss,” he said, motioning to the man in the chair. “He went first so we could watch. You have skills, so we all decided we are getting haircuts too!”
That is the last time I ever saw that group. They all seemed to be very excited with their haircuts, tipped well, and went off into the Washington rain well groomed and walking tall. My take away was the leadership displayed by the boss. He went first so that his crew would know what to expect. I know this was just a haircut, but it has meaning. Leaders, great leaders, always go first. It is the leader that makes the way for those who follow. They are committed to blazing the trail and providing the tools, both internal and external, for success.
My leaders in boot camp made it clear what I needed to do. Success was rewarded and failure was instantly punished. They did it with heart because they had been there first. They were also committed to seeing me succeed. The only way out of boot camp at that time was a major infraction of military rules or by DOR, drop on request. As long as we were willing to keep on going they were willing to keep on leading. They led me to an adventure that was truly one of the most rewarding in my life. I wish there were more leaders like that. Perhaps there are. You go first!