Remembering Great Lakes Recruit Training Center

A classmate in high school said via Facebook that her son would be reporting shortly to Navy boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois. That got me thinking about my days at Great Lakes and wondering the sort of experience her son would have there in today’s 21 century Navy. After all, I served during the last century. That makes me feel like an ol’ salt!

I reported to AFEES, that’s for Armed Forces Entrance and Examination Station, Houston, in July 1974. The Defense Department renamed such centers Military Entrance Processing Stations, MEPS, in the early ’80s. The Navy had some kind of program that let you enter early. I forget why. I think the only difference made was in figuring your time in service so I enlisted a couple of weeks early. Back then, enlistments were for a total of six years with different active and reserve configurations.

Most people, such as myself joined for four years active and two years inactive reserve, the inactive being the IRR, or Inactive Ready Reserve. Back in the days in which I joined — this being as the major hostilities were winding down in Vietnam — little thought was given to time served in the IRR. In fact, the thought of being called up from IRR was something which would only happen with the likes of a world war. That all changed with Iraq.

I read the other day about some a–hole wanting to bring charges against an Iraq War vet in the IRR who wore his uniform to an Occupy Wall Street protest. Yeah, I know you aren’t supposed to wear your uniform when you are separated. Even wearing parts of the uniform is not allowed. But if someone was to have taken my Seabee foul weather jacket away from me during my inactive reserve years after the service that I wore it, they would have to tear it from my dead and very cold hands!

Some time along the line, the enlistment period also changed. A total of eight years service is now required.

There used to be, sort of, a choice of where to go to boot camp. San Diego, Orlando and Great Lakes were all available for male enlistees when I joined. The only choice at the time for female boots back in the mid-70s was Orlando, if my memory serves me. I chose Great Lakes because of the weather. Two of my brothers enlisted before me. One went to Great Lakes, the other San Diego. I think all three of us joined around the same months, though in different years. I figured San Diego and Orlando would both be pretty warm during the summer months. It could get hot at Great Lakes, just north of Chicago, but it could get really freaking cold in the winter. That reminds me of a photo caption that was in my boot camp “cruise book.” That’s kind of like a school yearbook. There were pictures of our boot “company” and the rest were stock photos taken at various times in boot camp. This one picture was taken during the winter. Shown was a sign saying “Keep Off the Grass.” A snow drift was about halfway up the sign post. The caption read: “Aye, aye sir!”

My friend’s son will be going to Great Lakes during the winter, so that will be one obstacle to overcome. I may be wrong, but from what I have heard of and read, boot camp today will not be as difficult in some respects as it was when I joined.

It wasn’t such a long time before I enlisted that a chief might just take you out behind the barracks and give you a little physical “extra¬† military instruction,” if you know what I mean. That type of thing had been outlawed by the time I joined. Still, there were instances in which a sailor who was far off the right path could face near or actual brutality. Some levels of punishment when I was in boot camp were pretty mindless. I have mentioned “Happy Hour” here before. I only went once, when I failed an inspection for not folding my skivvies the correct way. The happy hour was an hour of intense physical exertion. Running laps upon laps around the drill hall with my rifle at port arms. Exercises with my rifle, a 9.5-pound, M-1 Garand, — the U.S. battle rifle from pre-World War II-to just prior to Vietnam — included holding the “piece” out in front of you until being told to stop. It felt like your arms were going to just collapse. Real screw-ups might find themselves in the brig, facing some “fun” with the Marines. Fortunately, Happy Hour was the pinnacle of my punishment.

On the other hand, there are some rules in today’s Navy boot camp that would have made many of our lives’ difficult in recruit training. For one thing, you can’t smoke in boot camp. You can’t smoke in a car. If your parents come to see you, even they can’t smoke. You also can’t drink alcohol while on liberty. The Navy has really gone to the extreme on drinking. Not in boot camp but at my duty station could we buy beer from a barracks vending machine. I suppose this Prohibition-like fervor is good for getting sailors in shape for wars in the Muslim world where alcohol is prohibited.

Navy boot camp wasn’t terribly difficult for me, looking back. It made me reach inside and pull out some things. It helps you adjust in making a transition from the civilian world to the military one, that can be difficult for some. My friend’s son, I would think, is in his early 30s. That transition might be a bit more difficult for him — having been out in the adult world for awhile now — or it might not.

As I told my friend, Patti, I think my decision to join the Navy is one of the best I made in my life, and, man, have I made some decisions. I hope her son will be able to look back 30 years from now and say the same.