This is one of the most painful lessons I’ve ever learned: I am outrageously, disappointingly, disgustingly, privileged.
Growing up with the rich kids, I always felt like I was the underdog. My friends always had more money than I did, their families traveled more, they had better clothes, their parents weren’t divorced.
But in Bootcamp, I had “Privileged” smeared all over my face. Coming from an East-European family, I must have seemed to others like this snobbish pink-skinned glasses-wearing girl, always keeping to herself because she’s so condescending.
They weren’t completely wrong.
On one of these days, when we had to clean up our tent, another girl angrily grabbed the mop out of my hands and washed the floor herself, because I was too slow. “I bet you always had a maid at home”, she muttered. She was right, we always did.
Every time I said something, there was somebody to cynically cry over my words “Oh lookie! The Polish girl opened her mouth!”.
I asked somebody what her posting was, and she said she goes to the Military Prosecution. “Wow, cool!” I reacted, and she frowned. “What, you don’t think a girl like me can make it to the Military Prosecution? You think you’re better than me, is that it?”.
In other words, Bootcamp sucks. Sleeping in a tent with 6 other girls who hate your guts sucks. Summer sucks. And somebody has to tell whoever needs to hear it, that 6 PM is not a reasonable hour for dinner.
We were all meant to be posted in office jobs, meaning our training is easy, with not much physical effort, and it lasts for three weeks. It’s a girl Bootcamp, so everybody cry, all the time. Everything is timed: 3 minutes to organize the beds in the morning, 15 minutes for cleaning duties, 30 minutes to eat, 10 minutes of a cigarette break. One hour for showering and getting ready to bed, 6 hours of sleep.
As the days go by, I learn to manage my time. I don’t smoke, so on the cigarette breaks, I go back to the tent and put everything I need for shower on my bed. Then, on shower time, I just go inside and grab my things, run to the showers, wash quickly and finish when everybody else arrives. I catch moments here and there to read a page or two from my book.
We get M16 guns. They are long, black and phallic.
When we get them, we need to stand for a long time in the sun as they write down the serial number of each M16. One girl passes out, just drops to the ground dramatically and makes a plastic sound as she falls on her back with the gun above her. Each M16 has a strap attached to it, like a guitar, and we have to wear it with the gun in front of us, one hand always on it. Soon enough, our legs fill with black and blue bruises. I touch my gun, trying to grasp the feeling of holding a weapon.
We should always know where it is, almost always have some physical touch with it, shower with our eyes set on it as it leans against the wall, sleep with it under our pillow. There’s an urban legend about a girl who lost her gun and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Nobody wants to check if it’s true. I wake up startled at nights, thinking it’s not underneath my pillow.
We have classes. It’s hard to keep our eyes open. Whenever somebody falls asleep, they make her stand up through the rest of the class. We can’t sit too comfortably, can’t cross our legs. These are means to keep us awake, but I find myself almost hallucinating with my eyes open. I see the room changing, rocking like a boat. Who knew you can fall asleep standing up, with your eyes open?
They teach us about our weapon and how to use it safely, about history, about the army, about the military values. There is something naive about it, like in the first days of our country, when they had a mission and nothing was corrupted. They teach values like be nice, volunteer, help others, don’t litter.
They also teach us some basic first aid. We sit with our male commander as he describes horror scenarios, like finding a person with a limb cut off, and tells us how to make a tourniquet. All the girls have a crush on him, just because he’s the only male around. He asks one of the biggest, meanest girl to lay down so he could demonstrate on her, and this never-smiling piece of person giggles so much he can’t do it. “Stop it, you’re supposed to be injured,” he tells her, and she laughs even more and turns red.
I got two girls that I sort of manage to talk to, but it doesn’t help me feel less lonely. It’s so intense, that I feel like Bootcamp is the only thing that ever was and ever will be. Even though it’s only three weeks long, I can’t imagine it will ever be over.
Every morning I wake up and see the tent ceiling above me, and sigh.
I miss home, my bed, my clothes, my coffee. I miss long showers.
I miss being alone.
There’s a long metallic sink and we all stand in a row while we brush our teeth. I raise my eyes and surprised to see a girl right ahead of me – sunburned, pimpled, greasy hair and a stupid hat on.
That’s actually a mirror.
On one of these days, we have kitchen duty. The first thing we do that day is to put the M16s in a pile somewhere aside. Then they split us into smaller group and I’m being taken into a hall, where somebody gives me a mop and tells me to clean the floor. As I do so, a certain calm falls onto me. It’s quiet around, and nobody is timing me. The movement of the soapy water on the floor puts me into an almost meditative state, and I let my thoughts wander.
I think about people I know, my friends at home. I think about somebody I dated just recently. I think about school, about the final exams I took just three weeks ago. I think about the teachers, the halls, high school-crushes. The field trip we’ve had on twelfth grade, where my heart was broken as I saw my crush kissing another girl.
None of these things matter anymore. Even this girl I saw on the first day, the one who bullied me in middle school, is somewhere out there in the same camp as me, but I really don’t care.
We spend the whole day in the huge kitchen, scrubbing endless dishes and cleaning around. We don’t have our commanders there, the kitchen staff are in charge of us and they are simple soldiers like we are going to be. I don’t care about cleaning those gigantic pots, nor about touching slimy things. My uniforms are soaked and I smell like cheap food, but I finally find my zen.
Peace comes in surprising moments.
We also have guard duties, two hours each, which we do in couples.
Wide horizons, damp wind brings a slight sea breeze from a distant shore, not a sound can be heard. My favorite time for this duty is early in the morning, at the sunrise when my duty partner is too drowsy to talk.
I am almost disappointed when it was time to go back.
We get to go back home for the first and last weekend, but nothing really feels like home. I try not to get too comfortable, so it won’t hurt that much to go back.
The weekend we spend at the base is very odd. While the weekdays are so hectic with such a tight itinerary, we don’t do much on the weekend besides guard duties.
Our parents can visit us on Saturday and it feels like a big party. Everybody brings home-cooked meals with them, their own traditional dishes, while my mom brings me what I craved for – take-away sushi. This doesn’t make me seem more likable to the others, but it’s too late for me to care anyway.
I’m spending the rest of the day taking a long shower and reading on my bed. I call my best friend, but she is busy with another friend of ours. I was the first one to be drafted, so I feel isolated. How can I even begin to tell them what it’s like? Not that they care much. They are busy finding temporary jobs, going out, saving money, traveling.
They take us to the notorious rangers, where we need to practice shooting our M16s. They look so clumsy and old, that it’s hard to believe this thing can actually shoot.
I get a gloomy feeling in the morning. I’m not particularly scared or worried about the shooting itself. I’m just thinking, that’s it, I’m a soldier now for real. It’s a heavy tag for a kid like me.
We have a long walk to the rangers, carrying heavy equipment with us, and when we get there we build a tent.
Then we wait.
We wear a work uniform that has deep pockets, so I always carry with me a tiny sketchbook and a pen. As we wait, I go to a hidden corner and look around, and sketch whatever I see. It cheers me up, reminds me of who I am for a moment.
The day stretches, the sun goes high in the skies and down again, and we wait and wait.
We enter the range in small groups, and it’s finally my turn. We need to shoot standing up, crouching, and lying down. We do it all very carefully, with the guns always pointed at the targets, and we have to wait for the officer’s signals to operate them. When she yells “Fire!”, I’m not sure I’ve heard it right because we wear earplugs, so I wait to hear the other girls shooting. It feels like a game, only the strong smell of gun-powder reminds me this is for real.
At one point, we are standing with the M16s loaded, waiting for the “Fire” signal. An evil thought creeps into my mind – I can just turn, right here and now, and shoot the girl standing to my right, without a reason. It would be so easy. Suddenly, I have a feeling I might actually do that. This idea, that such a tiny movement can change people’s lives, fascinates and scares me.
The seconds pass slowly until we hear the signal and shoot at the targets, and I’m relieved when my cartridge is empty.
We go back and wait some more. In order to pass the time more efficiently, the commanders give each girl a trash bag and tell us to pick the trash around. It’s a hot day and everybody complains, but I get this calm feeling I had during the kitchen duty. I stray away from the others, casting a long shade in the afternoon sun, grasshoppers jump as I grab small pieces of plastic and nylon lying around. I climb a small hill and see no one around, utter silence, just crickets and the beating of my heart.
Bootcamp is almost over. On one of the last days, they wake us up in the middle of the night, for a surprise finishing ceremony. There’s a speech, and then they make us say the military oath – an officer say it, and we repeat as a group after her. When we get to the part where we swear to sacrifice our lives if needed, I just mouth the words without saying them. It feels like bad juju to say it, especially if I’m only going to be sitting in an office for the next two years.
The last two days are about organizing, cleaning, bringing back some equipment we got together with the work uniform and this silly hat we had to wear that protects against the sun. I am so excited to be back home, I don’t even think about what’s coming next.
I wear my navy uniform, suddenly noticeable with my beige clothes between the sea of green soldiers. We all stand in a sunny courtyard and saying our goodbyes, as soldiers from our future units arrive and give us referrals. It’s easy to spot the one from the navy with her bright uniform, and she seems friendly as she gives me my note. She says the unit has a two-day field trip so I will go there only on Tuesday, meaning I get a long weekend.
On the bus back home, my heart leaps as I see my city’s skyscrapers from a distance. I’ve made it!
My dad picks me up from the station, handing me a gift he brought me – the seventh Harry Potter book, that was published while I was being drafted.
Home, at last. I take a nice, long shower, finally not having to share the room with others, and sit with my mom and sister for a big cup of delicious iced coffee.
In my room, my backpack from school is still next to my desk.
It is midday and I crash into my bed, falling into a deep dreamless sleep.