Monday, July 31, 2006

Beast Squad

New cadets receive most of their training during Cadet Basic Training from upperclass cadets. There are two details assigned to run Beast. The first detail runs from R-Day through about the first three weeks, and the second lasts through Lake Frederick and the march back to West Point before the Acceptance Parade in late August. Splitting Beast into two details gives twice the number of upperclassmen (mostly Firsties, but some cows [juniors] as well) the opportunity to have cadet leadership positions in Beast. [Cadet Field Training, which is the summer training for new yearlings out at Camp Buckner, also has two details. Thus, almost every single Firstie gets the chance to lead and train either new cadets or new yearlings.]

The Corps of Cadets comprises 4,000 plus cadets and makes up one Brigade, composed of four regiments. Thus, one class would contain enough cadets to make up a regiment. So, it should come as no surprise that the 1,000 or so new cadets who report to West Point for Cadet Basic Training are organized into a regiment.

The Regimental Commander for CBT is the “King (or Queen) of Beasts.” This is a highly prestigious position, the most sought after position amongst the movers and shakers of any given class. Come Fall, the Administration usually chooses one of the Beast commanders to be the First Captain, or Brigade Commander of the entire Corps of Cadets.

Beast Company Commander is a prestigious position as well. There are nine (I think) Cadet Basic Training companies and thus, 18 total Beast Company Commanders. I barely remember my Beast Company Commanders. In fact, I can only remember one of them. We didn’t see them very often; mostly at formations, out of the corners of our eyes. They were like mythical gods. I don’t remember the King of Beast, either of them, at all. I am not sure if I ever saw them in the flesh or not, but I probably did, at a distance. A distant distance. Plus, they probably addressed us as a class at a lecture or briefing or two.

What I do remember vividly are my two squad leaders. Most of the training in Beast is done at the squad level. To me then, twenty-five years after the fact, the position to have during Beast would be squad leader. If what you are interested in is the actual hands-on training of new cadets, transforming them from civilians to soldiers and cadets in a few short weeks, then Beast squad leaders are the most important trainers there are.

My one regret about my time at West Point – well, one of my regrets -- is that I never got to witness Beast from the other side of the fence. As a Firstie, I was a cadre member out at Camp Buckner. A position I enjoyed, but it wasn’t Beast. The Beast cadre are in charge of just about everything in Beast, and Beast is a fast-moving, tightly run ship. Any position in Beast is challenging, fast-paced, and exhausting. I would also imagine it to be very rewarding.

I had two outstanding squad leaders during Beast. I can’t imagine how I would have fared if I’d had an asshole for a Beast squad leader. Some people must have had asshole squad leaders, though, as West Point seems to have its fair share. If you are lucky enough to have a positive, upbeat, yet demanding squad leader, one who inspires you, then I think that can make all the difference in the world.

My first detail squad leader was a Firstie. He was somewhat laid back, if anyone in Beast could ever be laid back. He was calm, even-keeled and had a good sense of humor. He taught us the “Doo Ah Diddy” cadence from the movie Stripes, and his motto for our squad was “Moderation is the key.”

My second detail squad leader was a cow, but he was also prior service, which meant he’d been an enlisted soldier in the Army before coming to West Point. He was quiet and soft-spoken but led by example. I didn’t realize how much I admired him as a leader until his graduation two years later. My former Beast roommate and I happened to spot him in the post-graduation milieu up at Michie Stadium. We saluted him as a brand new Second Lieutenant and then gave him giant hugs. We were so happy for him and so thankful for all he had done for us. He was just an all around good guy.

The first phase of Beast involved a lot of inprocessing; equipment issue; uniform fittings; academic testing for placement in the Fall; briefings; lectures; small group instruction on topics like duty and honor; manual of arms instruction; and close order drill. The second phase of Beast was more tactical or soldierly in nature and involved road marches; weapons qualification; and the weeklong bivouac out at Lake Frederick.

Field training, although a lot more strenuous, was also a lot more laid back than training and life back at the Barracks. The cadre tended to be a bit more relaxed out in the field, and they didn’t haze us as much. Plus, we were usually allowed to eat when we were out in the field.

I will never forget the first time we were issued C-rations in the field. C-rations, the predecessors of modern MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), came in OD green cans, and we were issued P-38s (tiny can openers that we could hang on our dog tags) with which to open them. C-rations were not the tastiest of meals, to put it mildly, but if you were hungry enough or had been deprived of food for a while, they tasted pretty damned awesome. The first time we were issued C-rations as new cadets we ate everything there was to eat in our box of rations.

C-rations were novel; plus, we were starving and the cadre let us eat. My C-ration entree happened to be spaghetti. There were lots of different entrees available, none of them glamorous or appetizing, but each ration also came with crackers, processed cheese spread or peanut butter; canned fruit; chocolate (my favorite was the John Wayne bar – kind of like a Nestlé’s crunch, but not nearly as good. The chocolate in C-rations was atrocious as it had to contain something so the chocolate wouldn’t melt in high heat.) Each C-ration also came with an accessory packet which included coffee, sugar, creamer, cocoa mix, salt and pepper, toilet paper, matches, and Chiclets gum. Prior service new cadets quickly taught us that you could mix the cocoa, sugar, and creamer packets with water from your canteen to make this totally awesome product called “Ranger Pudding.”

What we didn’t know about C-rations was that they were fortified and laden with mega calories so an infantry soldier in combat would have enough energy to make it through a strenuous day of fighting. Eating one C-ration in its entirety meant you had just consumed 3-4,000 calories easily. Nobody told us that, and we couldn’t figure out why, after our C-ration lunch, we all felt so incredibly full.

That same day, we happened to have dinner out in the field, too, but instead of C-rations we had hot A’s trucked out from the Mess Hall. The main course happened to be steak. Since we were out in the field and the cadre generally left us alone to eat then, we could have gone to town on those steaks. But we were all still so full from the C-rations at lunch most of us couldn’t even look at a steak, let alone eat one. What a travesty! It made us wonder then, if this hadn’t all been part of the cadre’s plan to mess with us some more about food.

There were twelve new cadets in my Beast Squad, ten males and two females. All of us made it through Beast, and all but one of us graduated from West Point four years later. (There was one member of our squad who ended up resigning at the end of yearling year.) We did not stay together all through West Point. After Beast, we were assigned to academic companies for our Plebe year. Two of my squad members and I ended up being in the same Plebe year company. At the end of Plebe year, we were shuffled again and assigned to still different companies for our upperclass years. One of my Beast squad members and I ended up in the same upperclass company together. There were some Beast squadmates I never really saw again after Beast, except in passing. I ran into one such squadmate this past Fall at our twentieth West Point reunion, and we instinctively gave each other a big hug. I really don’t know him, and he doesn’t know me. We haven’t seen each other since graduation, or maybe even well before that. But we had gone through so much together during Beast it would have been strange not to embrace each other at our West Point reunion. And I am not the sort to wantonly give people giant hugs. Beast Barracks was an extremely stressful, extremely challenging six weeks that changed the lives of everyone who went through it. Going through this experience together, as a small band of brothers and sisters made us bond in a very special, unusual way. One that can never be undone.

One of the highlights of Beast was the helicopter ride every squad got to take as part of tactical orientation. We took turns filing into a Huey helicopter and being flown around West Point, the doors wide open, the wind whipping through, the whir of the blades constant. I have a black and white 8 X 10 photo of our Beast squad posing in front of the helicopter after that ride. We were wearing green fatigues with the sleeves rolled up, combat boots, and steel pots. We were smiling. We were all so young, but, damnit, we looked like real, live soldiers.


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2:43 AM  
Blogger samytay said...

Thank you for serving.

2:01 PM  
Blogger samytay said...

Thank you for your service.

2:02 PM  

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