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Commentary: Learning not-so-basic lessons in basic training

Fort Ord Public Lands
Jim Carnett, a former Daily Pilot columnist, went through basic training at Fort Ord 55 years ago. President Obama designated Fort Ord, a decommissioned military base in Northern California, as a national monument in 2012.
(Vern Fisher / Associated Press)

Fifty-five years have come and gone.

In the spring of 1964, I was a 19-year-old basic trainee at the U.S. Army Training Center at Fort Ord. I’d embarked upon a personal mission and was convinced that my life was about to change.

It was.

Today I’m 74 years old, retired and wondering what the heck happened to five decades? I have a grandson older than I was as an Army private.


While at Fort Ord, I had no premonitions as to the future. I was savvy enough to realize, however, that I was at a crossroads.

Bound for what? I didn’t know.

In February of ’64, my life was unsettled. I was a freshly minted college dropout. I hadn’t been a successful student; what made me think I could be a satisfactory soldier?

From the top of my apocryphal and lifelong “ski-run,” I could see only boot camp ahead, and it overwhelmed me. It seemed to say: “Deal with me first, tough guy, then we’ll see.”


I became consumed with surviving basic training. Some guys didn’t; there were rumored washouts and public fiascos. Finishing well became my obsession.

Today, 55 years later, I look back at my “ski-run” and see things differently. Life’s details were arranged precisely for me by a good and loving God — yet I couldn’t see them at the time.

Left to my own devices, I knew I’d fail boot camp and everything after it.

Here’s what did happen: I turned in a decent performance and survived basic training; I had regular promotions and a successful three-year Army stint; I was recruited for officer candidate school but returned from Korea to reenroll in college; I earned three academic degrees; I married and had four children and eight grandchildren; I enjoyed a 37-year career with the same employer; I retired; and I now thank God regularly for his beneficence.

I had no clue — about anything! — in 1964. Boot camp was my wake-up.

I recently stumbled across a 30-minute film, “Army Boot Camp: This is How it is in the 1963 U.S. Army.” The film was produced at Fort Ord mere weeks before my arrival. Virtually all facilities and locations in the film — barracks, firing ranges, bivouac areas, physical training grounds, classrooms and parade grounds — were places where I’d trained.

It was odd viewing the place 55 years after the fact. Only on rare occasions over the years had I even thought about basic training. The film, however, unleashed a torrent of memories.

One thought came to mind for the first time. Out of a company of 300 troopers I realized I didn’t have a single friend. Not one. It’s no accident that no one in the black-and-white film was seen smiling. Basic training is serious. You’re Uncle Sam’s property.


Basic was my do-over. I’d failed college. I saw boot camp as redemptive. But it could also become my platform for failure.

Lots of guys had close buddies in my company. Some had known each other in civilian life. Others became friends during eight weeks of training. Not me. I kept my distance.

Boot camp was the only period in my life when I was a resolute loner. My stratagem was simple: limit distractions; don’t stand out; grind it. Nightly, before lights out, I read my Gideon Bible and prayed. I was never alone.

Prior to induction, I’d been a wiseacre. Not now.

I was committed to surviving. I wanted to get through boot camp without screwing up. “Screwups” became easy prey for surly drill sergeants who could employ colorful phrases on a minute-to-minute, case-by-case basis. Once branded a screwup, a G.I. faced unrelenting harassment.

I completed every task. I never fell out of formation. I pushed hard. I avoided sick call, though, like every other GI at Ord, I had an eight-week case of strep throat. I did everything possible to avoid being “recycled” back to an earlier week of training.

With the ordeal completed, I was finally my myself again ... but I was also different. Basic training opened my eyes. “Aha” moments occurred regularly.

I didn’t realize it then, but it set the table for the rest of my life.


Former Daily Pilot columnist Jim Carnett lives in Costa Mesa.

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