The Flag-draped casket - Adobe Stock License 3913526
As much as the Drill Sergeant tries to bring the new Soldiers along slowly to keep them from harm, that’s not always possible.
Basic Training at Fort Sill, OK, like most Basic Training posts, is a rigorous nine weeks of 16 to 18-hour days.
The Drill Sergeant’s responsibility is to train new recruits as they would fight in a war. Some new recruits are not healthy enough to train at that level. Many are couch potatoes who have never done anything more strenuous than play video games.
I will never forget one Soldier I worked with as much as I could without depriving the others. I tried to get him to comprehend what most new recruits grasp quite easily after a few tries. I think this recruit was a crack baby or maybe dropped on his head as a kid.
He had no problem with left-face or right-face most of the time, but about-face was nearly impossible for him to grasp. Finally, after devoting extra time and assigning one of the squad leaders with Reserve Officer Training Candidate (ROTC) experience with him, we got him to where he could do most of the marching drills.
Then, it came time to put a weapon in his hand, and suddenly those marching skills were once again too complicated. Luckily, I did all the paperwork and got a doctor to agree he was too challenged mentally to be a Soldier and got him out before we had to go to the rifle range where he would have live rounds.
Sickle-Cell Anemia & the Lying Recruiter
Another recruit that I will never forget was not quite as lucky. At the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), Billy Ray Johnson was identified by medical personnel as having Sickle-Cell Disease or Anemia (SCD). It is a condition predominantly passed down genetically in African Americans.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Sickle cells that block blood flow to organs deprive the affected organs of blood and oxygen. In SCD, blood is also chronically low in oxygen. This lack of oxygen-rich blood can damage nerves and organs, including the kidneys, liver, and spleen, and can be fatal.”
Billy Ray Johnson’s recruiter somehow convinced the medical personnel to hide the condition so that he could meet his “quota” for that month. Higher-ups harassed many US Army Recruiters if they didn’t make their quota, and there were (are?) incentives for those who exceed their quota or out-perform other recruiters.
So, Billy Ray came to Basic Training without any of us being aware this young man had SCD. The harder the training got, the less his body was able to handle the intense training. That’s why they call it aerobic exercise because it requires, has to do with, or involves oxygenated blood.
Billy Ray had difficulty keeping up with the others during exercise, but he had a tough time running. He would often fall behind, and we would have a strong runner stay with him, usually one of the Drill Sergeants but sometimes another recruit.
Billy Ray was always happy and motivated. You could tell he was giving it everything he had. He excelled in every other area of training, so we made allowances for him, hoping he would get better at running and exercise.
That never happened; on his final Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), which included a two-mile run that 18–21-year-old Soldiers had to complete in under 17 minutes to pass, he collapsed.
He fell and couldn’t get back up. Another Drill Sergeant and I ran to him from across the track. We conducted CPR and mouth-to-mouth, but he never recovered. They took him to the hospital only to pronounce him DOA.
The Soldiers in our platoon, who had previously been thrilled with the idea that they were about to graduate and move on to the next phase of training, were suddenly somber and decimated.
I talked to the other Drill Sergeant about taking Billy Ray’s body home to his mother, who was only about a three-hour drive to Enid, OK, from Fort Sill.
He said, “Yeah, we could probably get a bus and take the whole platoon for his memorial service.” We each had a bus driver’s license because we had to transport soldiers to off-post events for morale and welfare, such as the rodeo and local festivals occasionally.
We presented the idea to the First Sergeant, and he agreed to take our idea to the Battalion Commander. He approved of it and arranged for the Post Caisson Platoon to provide the burial detail.
He also requested a command investigation into possible recruiting violations and tampering at MEPS. He then contacted the base commander about releasing a check for the Soldier’s life insurance for us to take to his mother.
The Caisson Platoon typically consists of two horses, two riders, and six Memorial Guards who make up the “final escort for the fallen Soldier.”
At the gravesite, “…after Taps is played, the detail removes the flag from the flag-draped casket, the flag is carefully folded into the symbolic tri-cornered shape. A properly proportioned flag will fold 13 times on the triangles, representing the 13 original colonies.”
The Caisson Platoon leader receives the flag, brings it to me, I salute, take the flag, he salutes, does an about-face, and returns to the detail.
A mother with the folded American flag from the Casket - Adobe Stock License 22769933
I march over to PVT Johnson’s mother, bend at the waist, present her the flag, and state, “On behalf of a grateful Nation.” Delivering that line without your voice cracking or tears flooding your eyes is nearly impossible.
Rest in Peace, PVT Billy Ray Johnson.