In the past day or two, I posted a picture of a young Staff Sergeant who has been selected as the U. S. Army’s top Drill Sergeant. Veterans all share a vivid memory of their 8 weeks in basic training when you make the transformation from a fun loving, carefree young person to a warrior wannabe. I am confident the rules have changed a bit over the years from the night that I arrived at Ft. Polk, La. soon to surrender my soul to one Senior Drill Instructor, Domonick Petrarca. I had been around the Army for my entire life however; being around it and in it are two vastly different things. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane.
Sgt. Erik Rostamo, the current reigning top Drill Instructor, is a master of all things necessary to being a warrior, capable of delivering small arms death from the comfort of a pair of US issue combat boots. He has to be very good to earn his current accolades. When you get off the bus, he represents an element of hell, who is generally displeased with your very existence. When he is through with you at the end of a cycle, he is remembered fondly. If you are one of the unfortunate ones that is destined to become a part of the current gunfight d’jour somewhere in the world, his lessons become critical to your survival. Sgt. Rostamo’ s image triggered memories of another remarkable Drill Instructor that I was introduced to in 1969, Senior Drill Sergeant Dominick Petrarca. It was hot in Louisiana in July but it was about to get one hell of a lot hotter on the sands of Ft. Polk.
I had not slept for 24 hours. The airplane ride from Dallas to Ft. Polk was rough, with unsettled weather pitching the Trans Texas airplane violently. The load of recruits, freshly sworn in, were busy filling the little paper bags with the last meal they had enjoyed as civilians. We landed and were bussed to a reception station where we were allowed a few hours sleep on sweat stained mattresses and pillows sans sheets and pillow cases. The sweat of thousands before us was our only connection with a rapidly fading past. Two days later, the training cadre showed up and the excitement began. We were bussed to the barracks, the old style wooden barracks with communal toilets and showers, decorated in the latest colors, that awful yellow paint and stained red floors. After being loosely formed up, in ranks, Sgt. Petrarca chose the biggest recruit in our company and ordered him to step in front of the formation. He then challenged the affable fellow to a fist fight while hurling invectives that would make Lucifer grin with glee. Thankfully the recruit, terrified, declined the invitation and the cycle began.
The food was prepared in a Company mess hall, not the big consolidated dining rooms in vogue today. We all took a turn as kitchen help under the guidance of the head chef (Mess Sergeant) and became adept at removing a layer of metal from the steel cookware that seemed to be everywhere you stood. You marched everywhere you went and the days were long and genuinely arduous. The military has long ago learned that repetition is the best way to train, and you got plenty of it. A Drill Sergeant seemed to be constantly in what used to be your space but had somehow morphed into his space that your borrowed from him. The training you receive is best chronicled in a book, not a blog, but for one aspect. I was assigned the task of fighting the biggest, meanest trainee that our company produced, one Anthony Roosakis, in the Pugil Stick drill. This training is supposed to teach you to fight with a rifle in hand to hand combat. You use log sticks, with padded ends to beat the hell out of one another. Roosakis sported a tattoo on his arm denoting that he “was born to raise hell” and I believe he was. He was braining me with the sticks, but made the mistake of slipping in the sand providing an opening for me to finish the match with him on his back. Were it not for intervention by a Drill Sergeant, I would have killed him. For many years as a trooper, I remained alert for the name Roosakis, but never again saw it.
At the end of the cycle, 99% of us realized that Senior Drill Sergeant Petrarca actually cared. Vietnam was a running gunfight and most of the trainees at Ft. Polk were destined to enter a hot war. He invested blood, sweat and tears in sending us into combat as well prepared for ground fighting as we could be. We were just as adept at putting a bullet into the enemies head as we were at providing first aid to one of our troops who had taken a shot to the head. Drill Sergeants introduce every one of their trainees to an orderly life, with structure, teamwork and a sense of loyalty to the country. These are rewards that follow you through life.
I will not forget Senior Drill Sergeant Petrarca, a man I knew for eight weeks, fifty years ago. He made a difference in my life that many are not privileged to enjoy. He was also the toughest SOB that I have ever known, and I have known quite a few tough guys.
Have a great weekend!