For several years, I was a soldier-medic in the U.S. Army. I saw countless military and family members. Now I am a veteran looking back.
Is Basic Training Easy?
Is Basic Training easy? Short answer: no. It was the toughest experience of my life. But as soon as it was over, I realized it wasn't nearly as painful as I thought it would be. Why is that?
While there are a lot of things that make Basic Training (officially known as Basic Combat Training) tough, there's a whole lot we don't realize that make it easy. When we're waking up at 0400 hrs to clean the barracks spotless before PT or doing our best not to cry--or laugh--when drill sergeants are screaming at us, "easy" is the last thing on our mind. Of course, as soon as it's all over it hits us: Basic Training wasn't so bad.
If you're thinking about joining the Army and worried about Basic Training, knowing all this will remind you that you'll make it. Remember that as long as you want to stay in the Army, the Army will do everything it can to keep you.
Now before we continue I'd like to get a few things out of the way. First, this article focuses on the Army. It's the only branch I've served in. However, nearly all of these will apply to the other branches. Next, this is about Basic Training only, officially known as Basic Combat Training.
Finally, I will refer to the soldier as a "he" or "him." This is to simplify this article. Remember that since the days of the Continental Army, women have served to make the Army strong.
OK, so what makes Basic Training easy? Keep reading and find out!
This is Basic Training...
Take a look at the video above. It's a good idea of what to expect from BCT today. It looks fun because it is. It's also easy. Here's why...
7. You'll never be late for anything
From your first day, someone who outranks you will tell you where to be and where to go after that. Your drill sergeant is always with your platoon, keeping everyone together and in step. By the time the day's over, you're already back at the barracks. Then it's time to turn in: lights out.
The next day it's the same, you know where to be at all times: from the beginning of the day to the end. Go here, do this, go there, do that. It's the same, every day until the end. And every day until the last you'll never be late for anything.
That's the way it is every moment in Basic Training. You will always be told where to be and everyone will make sure you're there, be it your drill sergeant or your fellow trainees. If your body is literally one inch from where it needs to be, you'll get an earful. It's brainless and--if you think about it--it's easy.
There is nothing like this in the civilian world for adults outside of prison. Every civilian must manage his time his way. He faces traffic jams, oversleeping, hangovers and all sorts of things that could make him late for something.
It gets even worse for those who over-extend themselves. Any working parent knows what I'm talking about. A critical part of every adult's life is time management... unless he's in Basic Training. And as soon as Basic is over, he's watching the clock again.
6. You will never get fired (sort of...)
In today’s economy, any civilian can get canned on a whim. The employer doesn't even need a reason! One day you’ll walk into your office expecting another day then leave a few hours later with your stuff in a box flanked by building security. Or a company can go bust overnight and the next morning there’s a lock on the office door. Workers are gathered around it in disbelief.
Sure military bases can close but while you’re in Basic Training you’ll always have a job. Not only will you know where to be, you’ll know that you have a job.
No matter how many times you screw up or how many times you fail a test, you cannot get fired. In fact, during the last week or so of Basic Training, things slow down. The trainees clean the barracks for the next batch. Also trainees prepare their service uniforms (formal uniforms) for the graduation ceremony.
More importantly, it is during this time that the drill sergeant takes those trainees who failed a certain test back to the testing area until every last trainee passes. This happens most often with those who don’t qualify with the rifle or those who fail the PT test (Physical Training test).
No matter how many times a trainee fails, he gets another chance: the same day or the next. There’s no yelling here, just encouragement and instruction again and again. In the end, the trainee makes it. Trust me.
A trainee who doesn't make it even if he's motivated is very, very rare. However, it does happen. The most common reason is that he gets injured and misses a few weeks. Or something unexpected and serious happens back home and he is granted leave to sort it out.
After all the testing and retesting, if a trainee still doesn't meet the requirements he does not complete Basic Training. But this doesn't mean he is fired. He is given another chance with the next group that comes in. This is called “recycle”. This second time around he is given special attention from the very beginning to make sure he graduates.
I have never heard of a trainee not passing a second time. Still, in the infinitely remote possibility that the trainee does not make it the second time around, he is given a third time. By this time, the recruit has the attention of the higher brass. Nobody is in trouble but they’ll want to know what’s going on.
The third time is the last time. After this, it’s a discharge. This re-recycle, although he might make a perfectly fine civilian, should never have enlisted.
5. Basic Training is designed for you
On the performance side, Basic Training is designed specifically with the trainee in mind. It's shaped in your image. It's designed so you can complete it with all the knowledge you need to succeed in your military career. It's not designed to smash or crush you. In other words you're supposed to finish it.
As much money as the military spends, it does try to save now and then. This is usually in situations where defense contractors or politicians aren't reeling in the dollars. I’m not saying that there are spending cuts in Basic Training. What I’m saying is that Basic Training is where the military wants to see the highest return on investment.
So forget about the Air Force’s F-35 or even its F-22. Forget about the Navy’s V-22. One thing that wakes up the Department of Defense is when Army trainees can’t do their pushups and situps. I once heard that Basic Combat Training in the US Army costs about $10,000 per trainee. I've seen some estimates as high as $35,000 (but this figure includes Advanced Individual Training). Whatever the cost, once the Army has a recruit, it wants to turn him into a soldier. If not, the military loses money. That’s not good.
But how does this make Basic Training easy? What happens towards the end of every cycle is feedback. The trainees–who are now soldiers–are given short forms to fill out anonymously about their experience. What can be improved? What should be dropped? On an informal level the drill sergeant might ask them directly at the end of the cycle. This feedback is taken very seriously. If the Army sees a pattern then it is possible for new policies to be implemented as long as it doesn't affect the quality of soldiers in the end.
Over time, this shapes Basic Training. Don’t get me wrong; none of this makes it a walk in the park. After all, by the time it’s all over, the new soldier will understand and appreciate the Basic Training experience. On the other hand, when too many trainees are going back home because of injury or lack of motivation, the brass will want to know why. All this is to make sure that, by the time you get there, Basic Training is a better fit that will make you a better soldier.
4. It's hurry up and wait
During most of Basic Training you'll be doing the same thing you've been doing your whole life: absolutely nothing. Even during the toughest part, the "Red Phase," you're in line or in formation waiting for someone to show up or something to happen.
Sure, there's a lot of PT in the morning and "smoking" (discipline via PT) through the day but most of the time you're sitting on your butt waiting. To be fair, this is the way it is in the Army after Basic Training or any situation where there are a lot of people.
Time to shower? Waiting. Getting new linen (bed sheets)? Waiting. Getting chow? Waiting. More paperwork? Waiting. Getting a haircut? Waiting. There's even more waiting once you get your rifle. This happens during "White Phase." Getting your rifle? Waiting. Getting your ammunition? Waiting. Practice firing down range? Waiting. Returning your rifle? Waiting.
While waiting for whatever during Basic Training, you are expected to stand up straight, not leaning on anything and less than a foot from the person in front of you. Or--if outdoors--you are expected to sit down, legs crossed. Either way, you must stay absolutely quiet.
I can do that! Sure, anyone can. Doing nothing is sometimes a good thing, especially during Basic Training. It's time to take a breath for a minute or review some of the things you've learned earlier.
I won't go any further, you're probably waiting for the next part but I will say that there is no civilian job I've ever heard of that requires this amount of waiting this often. I'm not talking about ordinary life outside the workplace. I know that it has its own headaches.
3. You'll never be broke (that comes after Basic)
This one seems odd considering my article about poverty in the military. It seems to be everywhere... except in Basic Training. This is because the reasons I explore in said article will not yet apply to you. It is after Basic Training that our troops face these issues.
In the meantime, everything is paid for by the Department of Defense. Everything. Housing, food, medical, dental--everything. Even those flashy haircuts we all get. Also, during Basic Training, there is no leave so you don't have a chance to blow money at a bar or the mall. Even if you were granted leave, it doesn't matter because you don't have a car so you wouldn't be able to go anywhere. You're stuck at the barracks.
If you have a family back home, your paycheck will be automatically deposited in your bank account so they'll be OK. After Basic and Advanced Individual Training, you'll be back together, living on the base or outside it. For those of us who don't have a family, we can expect a nice bump in our account balance once we graduate.
It's the complete opposite in the civilian world. Times are always tough for somebody and everybody seems to worry about money. You don't need me to tell you that. This simply does not apply in Basic Training. While in a different environment facing new challenges, money is the last thing on a trainee's mind.
Then again, this one seems to be a bit flimsy when you realize that...
2. It is only 9 weeks!
If you think about it nine weeks isn't so long. It flies by quickly when there are so many new experiences to face. Between waiting for something to happen and actually doing something, each day ends quickly. This is despite the fact that it begins at 0430 and ends at 2100.
I can't emphasize this enough. Basic Training can easily fit into a student's summer vacation and we all remember how quickly those went by. In fact, with the Army's “Split Training Option” an Army Reservist or National Guard trainee can go to Basic Training one summer and Advanced Individual Training the next. That sounds pretty sweet to me.
By the end of Basic Training, every trainee is astounded by how quickly it all went by and how they somehow survived in one piece. Then they realize that it wasn't so hard. It wasn't nearly as hard as they heard about. I've actually seen some trainees disappointed. They ask, “That's it?” or “Is it really over?”
1. The Folklore and Mythology
You've probably figured it out by now but there's a certain mythology surrounding Basic Training. Some of the greatest movies about the military blow it out of proportion to shock us about the horrors of war. Friends and family don't make it any easier. They may exaggerate things to keep us listening or to brag.
Also, there is a nationalism. American soldiers are the best! US Army Basic Training is the toughest! Hell yeah! This is possible even between branches. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen often bring this up. Who is the strongest? Let's look at Basic Training.
Over the years, once it's our turn, our knees shake a little. We question our ability before we ship off. Can I do it? Will I fail? What will I do then? The confidence sinks, motivation follows and this just makes things scarier.
Basic Combat Training is tough but its image has been blown out of proportion. Don't let any of that scare you. If you want it, it's yours. Take it one day at a time and you'll do fine.
What do you think?
What did you say? - Sound off!
Robert on November 05, 2020:
Great and factual article, only thing wrong is they make you pay for your own crummy hair cuts in basic in the Army. I went through in 05.
MEC on May 01, 2020:
1966 I was 18 did my BCT . Piece of Cake, Ft. Knox Ky. I was lean, tough and disciplined.
Was promoted in basic, there were others who flat failed ( recycled ) . Your choice, do it, deal with it, just don’t cry about it, it’s our country, it’s worth it.
Juliette Jones from Vancouver Island, BC, Canada on November 06, 2018:
Wow, this sure brings back memories. I did BMOT, basic military officers training, in St. Jean Sir Richelieu, Quebec. I was 47 then. It was a 12 week program, but I ended up being at the training school for 7 months as I had an knee injury happen during a ruc march. Once I quasi healed, I ended up on the Warrior Fitness Platoon to ensure I would be in shape to pass my fitness test. Unfortunately, my knee would not cooperate and I had to leave the mil. It was a sad time as my career could have been awesome. You may wonder why I joined at age 47 after already having a career. I wanted adventure and excitement. It can be all that. The war part sucks, but the travel and relocation can be an amazing experience.
Rachael Lefler from Illinois on May 03, 2018:
Great article! Really captured the experience.
I’m thinking about joining the Air National Guard because I would like training as a plane mechanic. But I was nervous about the idea of going to the Air Force’s basic training. It doesn’t sound that bad. I could probably do it cause I’m the tough tomboy type anyway. I don’t think it’s a place for “girly girl” types but I’ve never been that. I worry about bullying and hazing though?
Ian McGonigal from California on October 08, 2016:
I miss basic training, I wish I could go back for a week.
tmsmith19 on September 30, 2013:
Dawn from Maryland, USA on September 21, 2013:
First of all, thank you for your service. Love this lens. As an army mom, some of the things you wrote made me laugh out loud. Really. Thanks for sharing.