"Standing at Attention"
by Tom Walsh
"The first day of Basic Training in the Army is usually one that's remembered by the people who have gone through it. That's the day when the drill sergeants try to set the tone for the coming weeks by breaking down immediately any sort of defiance - they need everyone to know that they'll do as they're told, or else face pretty drastic consequences.
In order to do that, there's a whole lot of pushing going on, both physical and mental. The physical tasks are ordered, and everyone has to do exactly what they're told - or else. And that's where the mental part comes in. If you're not able to do the physical part because you've been worn down physically over the last couple of hours, then you face pretty severe consequences - and those are mostly physical. Can't do the twenty push-ups the drill sergeant just ordered you to do? Then you get pulled out in front of everyone else and punished by having to low-crawl across a lawn.
The goal isn't just to avoid punishment, but to avoid perceived humiliation, too.
It was a pretty brutal day, all in all, but not so bad - all 300 of the people in our company made it through. It's not designed to break anyone, but to train - to get people used to acting under duress and being able to perform even when they're worn out and frustrated and angry and whatever else.
One of the most effective things that they did was have the entire company stand at attention for almost an hour. It was a hot day, and after all the running around and carrying heavy duffel bags and loading trucks and all the other crap, everyone was tired and frustrated, and nervous about what else was to come on that day. It was early afternoon, the sun was extremely strong and the humidity was high. When they first gave the command to stand at attention, we had no idea that this was part of the drill, that this was going to be one of the ordeals we were expected to go through.
Five minutes later, it was pretty clear that we wouldn't be going anywhere or doing anything else for quite a while. We were standing on pavement on a 90-degree day, and it was only getting hotter, while the drill sergeants walked around and among us, making threats about what would happen if we moved, and warning us not to lock our knees as we stood there so that we wouldn't fall.
The first guy passed out after about fifteen minutes. I was kind of surprised that it took that long. It was hot. The drill sergeants dragged him into the shade in the grass and poured water over him to cool him off.
The rest of us were still standing. It's an interesting situation - we were right in front of our barracks, and because we were in the position of attention, our eyes had to be forward - we couldn't look around ourselves, or even to the sides, though I'm sure we all did from time to time, moving just our eyes and not our heads. In front of me was a red brick building with metal-framed windows, and between me and the building were some bushes and a couple of trees, along with a narrow stretch of grass. It wasn't much to look at, but under the circumstances we had no choice.
And that's when the important moment happened, one that comes back to me fairly often in times of stress. It was so simple - on that hot, stressful day, a sparrow flew into one of the bushes right in front of me.
It was just a sparrow, but to me it was a sign of normalcy. To me, it was a message that no matter what I was going through at that moment, life was going on. The bird was still doing what birds do, and it didn't care in the slightest about drill sergeants or anything else - it was flying around as it always did.
And I realized just then that things were okay. Life was going on. My stress was such a small part of the world that even though it was very real to me, it honestly didn't matter in the bigger picture of life. What was happening to me had happened to millions of others - for many of them, in much worse ways - and the vast majority of them had made it through just fine.
As if to reinforce the message, at that very moment a slight breeze picked up, something that I hadn't felt all day until that moment. If I hadn't been standing completely still, I probably wouldn't have felt it, but there it was. It wasn't anywhere close to complete relief from the heat, but paired with the bird's reminder, it helped me to relax, even in the midst of that completely stressful situation. All of a sudden I knew that that, too, would pass, and that soon the ordeal would be over - the day's ordeal would end that evening, and the ordeal of Basic Training would end in weeks.
A couple more guys passed out, and they decided that that was enough for standing at attention, and soon we were doing something else - I don't remember at all what we followed that up with.
That's all it takes sometimes - a little bird flying into view and a slight breeze. They're both part of the eternal nature of this world of ours, a world in which life simply goes on. We may get caught up in our own stress and problems, but even as we're being challenged, sometimes to the limits of our capacities, the rest of the world keeps on keeping on, and that's something that's good for me to keep in mind when times get difficult. More than once I've summoned the sight of that bird and the feeling of that breeze to help me to keep perspective in hard times, and they've never failed me yet.”