Basic Training Tales
A collection of true accounts from my military basic training course and the lessons I learned from them
I joined the Canadian Armed Forces (it was known as the Canadian Forces back then) when I was seventeen years old. I left home immediately after high school graduation, almost nineteen years ago. Now I am a Major in the Royal Canadian Air Force. While my career so far has been fulfilling and exciting, it's fair to say that I did not have the greatest start.
The following are a few tales from my time at basic training in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. Basic training came with a steep learning curve, for the first time in my life, things didn't come easily to me. That was a lesson that I sorely needed.
I spent that first summer as an introduction to the military, wearing in my combat boots and learning that my only limits were ones I had set for myself.
My First Inspection
I have worked hard to manifest some semblance of order in the chaos that naturally surrounds me throughout my life. Organization skills do not come easily to me (my desk was once cited as a fire hazard because of the sheer volume of loose paper on it!) This was especially true during basic when we were purposefully kept moving and our time management skills were constantly tested.
Our first room inspection was a big deal. I wanted so badly to be perfect and get top marks. My group pulled together to get every surface clean and dust-free. Our beds were immaculate, we were going to pass this with no issues at all.
I rushed around, putting the final touches on everything. I just had a few things left to put away and we would be completely ready. I dusted every surface I could when suddenly I heard approaching footsteps. We were called to attention, our mod was first to be inspected.
I was so busy dusting that I still had loose things on my bed. I quickly tossed them in a drawer. I looked down.
I didn’t have my boots on.
The Warrant came to my door, gave me a look and said, “Should I even bother coming in?”
It goes without saying, but I failed that inspection. It was my first encounter with failure on basic training, but it wouldn't be my last.
Life Lesson: The details don’t matter if the main substance isn’t there. Get the big things done first then add the final touches!
A Short 3 Kilometres
I was a busy kid in high school. I had a job, I was in cadets, I was the president of my 4-H club, essentially your typical overachiever. Unfortunately, the one thing I didn’t have time for was sports. I’m taller than average (5’11” if you want to be exact) and I wanted to play for my high school basketball team but couldn't fit it into the schedule. The practices and games were a full-time commitment that interfered with my other full-time commitments. All that to say I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, athletically inclined.
The old Canadian Forces fitness standard included a mile and a half run (or 2.4 km for those following along in metric). I knew that I would have to run so I practiced the mile and a half before I left for basic.
I was pretty proud of myself. I could run the whole thing.
I think that you can see where this is going.
On my first day at basic training, our Captain announced that we would be going on a short, 3 km run first thing tomorrow morning. I was aghast, “Short and three kilometres?? Those words do not belong together in a sentence!” I looked around, expecting that everyone would be similarly distraught. This was going to be a full 25% further than I’d ever run before. Why wasn’t anyone else reacting?
Oh right, because most people can run 5 km in under thirty minutes.
As I’m sure you can imagine, the run did not go well. I was woefully unprepared. I huffed and puffed and quickly fell behind, trying unsuccessfully to catch up.
The frequent runs did little to advance my skills. The staff did their best to help and pass on coaching tips. A giant man would run beside me, telling me that I needed to push off more with my toes and expand my stride, then he would bound away like a glorious gazelle. I wasn’t able to absorb much of the technique lessons and just focused on moving, forcing one foot in front of the other.
I am sure that I improved somewhat during the summer, but never to a point where I looked forward to the morning runs.
Life Lesson: If you only do the bare minimum to prepare, you aren't setting yourself up for success.
My Unfortunate Historical Figure Impression
The summer humidity in Quebec was wreaking havoc on my sinuses, that, and the fact that I seemingly was allergic to everything outside, left me suffering from chronic nosebleeds.
That’s embarrassing in itself, but oh, it gets so much worse.
During our first aid training, my nose predictably started bleeding. Our course senior (a course senior is someone on the course who is designated as 'in charge' for the day) was fed up with me getting actual blood everywhere so he sent me to the MIR (our in-house doctor’s office).
The doctor decided to cauterize both of my nostrils. For those who haven’t suffered through this procedure, a swab with some sort of chemical is jammed up your nose and swirled around. The chemical reacts and burns the inside of your nostril with the goal of sealing your little veins and capillaries shut forever.
It hurt. A lot. It’s burning, right?
My allergies and the crying that followed did not help this process. My nose wouldn’t stop running. So the doctor did it again.
And once more for good measure.
Finally, he pronounced me good to go. I returned to first aid training to find everyone staring at me. The course senior took me aside and told me that I should probably go and wash my face.
I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of thing that causes absolute panic in an introverted soul. I rushed to the bathroom, looked in the mirror and was immediately horrified.
I had a Hitler mustache.
The chemicals from the cauterizing swabs must have leaked out somehow and pooled their ugly brownness at the top of my lip, giving me a distinctive Hitler-like mustache.
I used a wet paper towel to scrub it off. It wouldn’t come off.
The Hitler mustache was a stain on my face. I scrubbed and scrubbed in vain, but it was permanent.
You know that things are bad when your friends won’t look you in the eyes and say things like “You can hardly notice,” or “It’s not that bad,” or "It’s more like Charlie Chaplin, right?” Luckily they didn't make too much fun of my predicament.
That stain was there for four whole days before I was finally able to scrape it off my face. At least the nosebleeds stopped.
Life lesson: You learn who your true friends are during your low or embarrassing moments. Real friends will not change the way they treat you when things happen that are out of your control.
We learned how to use maps and compasses to navigate. Predictably, I was terrible at this. I shouldn't have been, I had done orienteering before, I understood the mechanics of everything, and I’m tall so my paces were almost exactly one metre, none of which helped whatsoever.
I got left behind during our night march. To be honest, I didn’t even notice.
We were split into small groups for our night navigation activity. My team knew that compasses hated me, so I helped plot the route on the map and then took a spot near the rear. When marching, we had to do a counting game to (presumably) ensure that the group was still together. In single file, one after another, counting from the front to the last person in line.
It was the middle of the night and we were bone tired. Basic training is effective at demonstrating that you can do a lot with little sleep. We broke through the bush and reached a clearing. I sat down on a log and pulled out my canteen to take a drink.
The next thing I knew, one of my coursemates was yelling my name, telling me to get up and go. I felt like I’d only sat down for a second, I had absolutely no idea why my name was being thrown around like a swear word.
Well friends, turns out the system works.
I fell asleep. I sat down, opened my canteen, and fell asleep sitting up.
They left without me, got a few minutes further away in the bush and counted off - and I wasn’t there. Everyone had to turn back to come and get me. We were twenty minutes later than every other team returning to camp. I might not have been the most popular person that night, but I was thankful that I didn't end up alone in the woods!
Life lesson: Sometimes you might not understand the why behind everything, but following procedure might just keep someone from being left behind.
Final Evaluation - The Small Party Tasking
Our summer training culminated in one big review - the small party tasking. Everyone had to lead a small group of their peers in carrying out a randomly selected activity. We had practiced and worked towards this for the whole summer.
The person being evaluated was given map coordinates for their tasking and sent off ahead of the group to do a recce and make their plan. As it turned out, I did not get any better at using a map and compass, I got terribly lost and ended up back at our campsite instead of my tasking. The staff were very helpful, “Are you supposed to be here? No? Didn’t think so. Maybe you should go to where you’re supposed to be?”
After a rough start, I finally arrived. I was already tight on time and I discovered that my equipment kit was still locked up. Panic ensued.
I was supposed to create some sort of vehicle maintenance area. My plan was all over the place, I had some people digging, others acting as sentries and nothing seemed to be going my way. It was a disaster.
I wasn’t surprised when I was told that I’d failed during my debrief. What did surprise me was why I’d failed. I failed the leadership portion. Sure, my plan wasn't the greatest, but if I’d stuck to it and focused on leading my team, I would have done all right.
That feedback gave me a lot to think about.
The good news in this story is that I knocked my re-test out of the park (and successfully passed basic training!) I took the long way to my tasking by sticking to the roads to be doubly certain I wouldn’t get lost. I developed my plan with confidence, this time I led a team in setting up a helicopter landing zone. When I focused on people everything came together.
Life Lesson: If you decide that you’re going to fail, you probably will. Setbacks will happen, stay focused on what's important.
Bonus - That Time I Was on the Parade Square
This occurred after basic training during my first few months at the Royal Military College. It's an embarrassing story, so I felt it worthwhile to include it in this collection.
The parade square is the large, paved area in front of the main building the military staff worked out of. It looked like a parking lot and, despite the occasional times we were allowed to park on it, it was certainly not to be confused with a parking lot.
The only time you were allowed on the parade square is if it is a parade, you are practicing for a parade or you are learning the drill that will be on a parade at a later time. Military parades are used to mark important and ceremonial activities, they involve a lot of marching and there are no floats (or fun).
Now I've got that established, on to the other thing you need to know for this story. The military ensured that we would have everything we need. Our uniforms are provided right down to the underwear. For women, that meant that we were able to go to supply to get new bras. To be clear, you didn’t have to wear the issued underwear, but it was there as an option.
We were pretty excited to go and get the new bras. A few of my friends had picked theirs up and were happy with the quality. Off I went to supply, just past the parade square and down the hill.
Maybe those of us who were more full-figured were issued decent sports bras, somehow I ended up with two white triangles and velcro straps pretending to be a bra. There was no way I was going to wear this, but I had signed for it and it was mine.
I was walking back feeling disappointed. As I was passing in front of the parade square, a gust of wind whipped the box out of my hand and my ridiculous white bra flew out like a poorly designed kite. I stooped to quickly retrieve it, but the wind wasn’t done with me yet. The bra and box were blown towards the parade square. I took off after them, running, trying to stomp on them to get them to stop. I couldn’t catch them.
Finally, in the middle of the parade square, I pounced on my tiny parachute bra, capturing it. Realizing where I was, I knew that trouble was headed my way. I kept running, grabbed the box and headed back to my room as fast as I could.
The next few days I spent living in dread, waiting to be called out for being where I shouldn't have been. Luckily, it never came up. Now I suspect that if someone had seen me, they would have been too busy laughing to be upset!
Years later the bra policy changed. We now have an annual allowance to purchase our own bras. While I have absolutely no proof of this, I like to think that somebody once saw a young officer cadet chasing a bra across the parade square and later had the influence to change the way we bought underwear.
Life Lesson: Plan ahead - bring a backpack when picking up your delicates!
We Can Do Hard Things
Basic training was hard, it was also the first time in my life that I failed anything. And I failed spectacularly! Failure is a good teacher, I learned from my mistakes and ended up with a rewarding career that I love. I am an Aerospace Engineering Officer, I have deployed, completed a Masters, raced in triathlons (I did eventually get better at running), met my husband and amazing friends, all of which started with me standing in my socks, unprepared for inspection.
Sometimes the hardest things are the ones most worth doing. Basic training pushed me to what I thought was my limit, showed me that I could keep going and that there was more inside me. I can look back on these stories and laugh (and also cringe) because the lessons were worth it.
Photo Credit - Unless otherwise noted, all photos are compliments of Combat Camera © All rights reserved. Combat Camera photos reproduced with the permission of DND/CAF 2021
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