I joined the US Navy Reserves in 1985, one year after high school graduation because I had to wait until my 18th birthday to enlist. I joined because my recruiter promised me a college education courtesy of Uncle Sam for a six-year commitment as a Reservist. My mom was pleased as punch, which made the decision a lot easier.
Boot camp was in Orlando, Florida at NTC Orlando (now defunct) and I showed up with two suitcases. A modern-day “Private Benjamin.” Except, any potential shenanigans were thwarted when I was told to take what I needed out of said suitcases before they were unceremoniously shipped right back home to my mother.
We had two Company Commanders. CC Parnell, who had the nickname “The Black Widow” because she was a sista who didn’t take any mess. And, CC Knox, a white guy from Kentucky who shouldn’t have been assigned to a female unit but drew the shortest straw (I presume).
On the first day of boot camp, CC Parnell asked, "Who wants to get them on the line today?" I wanted to do it, but Jenkins spoke up first. She wasn’t very good at navigating or calling commands, so two days later, Parnell asked again. Now that I had a better understanding of the question, I didn't hesitate. And, from that day forward, made sure she never had to repeat the question.
As you can tell, it was super easy to get the job. In fact, it was almost deceivingly undersold for what it really was…an audition for the role of Recruit Chief Petty Officer (RCPO). There wasn’t anything written and very little explained about being the leader of CO83. You could either do it, seemingly instinctively or not.
My role as RCPO was to get the company out of the barracks in the morning and to our various daily activities ON TIME. That meant I had to know the schedule inside and out and have a good understanding of the base in order to direct us where we needed to be. I spent each evening studying both.
I had to line up the company as we came out of each location, so we would be headed in the right direction because U-turns weren't allowed...but a strategically placed "About face...to the rear march" worked, when necessary).
I had to have a great understanding of the navigation commands to successfully guide the company on the street. “Forward march.” “To the rear march.” “Left turn march.” “Right turn march.” “Company halt.” “About face.” “Parade rest.” “Dress, right, dress.” The list goes on. And most of these calls were made on the move, which meant I had to trust the efforts of our Guidon Barrer, my eyes in formation.
The Guidon Barrer carried the flagpole bearing our company number. When we were within several feet of a turn, she would jerk the flag, and my job was to make the call, on the appropriate step, and turn 30+ women around a corner. When I said, "Right turn march," or "Left turn march," it was with precision.
Looking back, I have to say that was the easiest part of the job. Because in addition, I had to:
Run at the front of the company during PT, and on many occasions, while we were being cycled (which meant someone in the unit violated a rule and we ALL paid for it)
Receive the highest score on every academic exam
Take the Third-Class swim test FIRST (which is done the first week of boot camp to see who can swim and who can’t). This is a pretty easy test, especially for me because I can swim. It’s a 3-foot pool. So, I didn’t panic when CC Parnell said to stay in the water while the rest of my company tested. Easy peasy.
Take Second-Class swim test FIRST (which is to determine who can stay in the water without a floatation device indefinitely). This test is done in a 25-yard pool (75 feet), 15-feet deep (no shallow end), and consists of a deep-water jump (an "abandon ship" simulation), 100-yard swim: 25 yards each of the crawl stroke, breaststroke, sidestroke, and elementary backstroke. Then, without leaving the pool, float (face down) for 5 minutes and flip to a back float before getting out. Once I completed the test, I had to stay in the pool, dog-paddling, until my entire company was finished – just in case I had to rescue anyone. In all, I was in the pool for about 3 hours. (Shout to my mom for getting me those swimming lessons in elementary school).
I moved in lockstep with the Company Commander during company inspections, which basically meant I was on inspection the entire time. There was no room for error as we moved from recruit to recruit inspecting their stance, demeanor (no facial expressions whatsoever), bunk and locker, and uniform gig line (seam of the shirt, belt buckle, and fly in perfect alignment).
And, through it all, I was proud to be RCPO, proud to be part of the military, and proud to lead by example in the face of every challenge I encountered. As a result, I was the first Black RCPO to maintain the position for the full eight-weeks of boot camp (minus those first two days), I graduated with honors, and went on to become Platoon Leader in A-school, where I basically repeated all of the above (with the exception of the swim tests).
I share all of this because I often forget the effort I put into my boot camp, A-school, and reserve duty experience. And, over the years, I've shrugged it off when people said, "Thank you for your service," because I didn't feel deserving. Today, I do, so allow me to say, "My pleasure. It was an honor to serve."
As strenuous as it felt to me at the time (and now as I reflect back), my efforts pale in comparison to what active-duty military members endure, especially those who survive war duty, and those in leadership positions who are responsible for the lives of their units in a very REAL way. Their commitment to the uniform, our country, and the protection of our democracy is severely undervalued, in my opinion, which is why I want to say a resounding...
“Thank you for your service! We owe you an unending debt of gratitude, not just on THIS day, but every day of our lives.”