Long before I found Jerry Kendall flat as a flounder on my deck, I was a kid growing up in a tiny town in Western New York with a dream that my high school sports successes might win me a scholarship to some name brand college. A fluke gang tackle halfway through my senior year football season took out my left knee and it was a mystery why all of a sudden those big time schools didn’t remember my name.
Two surgeries and three months on crutches later I enrolled in junior college instead. My major was criminal justice, but I discovered that I liked a lot of other subjects as well – history, literature, even art and journalism. The school newspaper gave me a chance to try my hand at news reporting.
I cruised through my major at the top of my class. Then another mystery: why there were no police jobs available anywhere nearby and why did the state troopers told me politely “thanks but no thanks.”
My options were limited so I checked out the Army, figuring I could pick up some useful skills and take advantage of the G.I. Bill to get my BA degree one day. It was no mystery that the Army wasn’t crazy about signing up a recruit with a bum knee. I tried to convince the induction doctors that it was just a flesh wound. They weren’t buying but I must have sounded so committed to serving my country that they sent me to a military hospital for almost two weeks of intensive testing.
Here, the mystery was why a guy being checked out for his knee injury should have been given so many non-physical tests. I took intelligence tests, aptitude tests, attitude tests, vision tests, hearing tests, problem solving tests, psychological profile tests and some tests I didn’t understand at all. Plus, I was interviewed by half a dozen officers I’m pretty sure were psychologists or psychiatrists.
At the end, I was told that the Army didn’t think I’d ever make it through basic training, and that even if I did, I’d never be certified for combat. That was supposed to worry me, combat being the road to higher ranks. Actually, I was delighted. I had only planned on putting in my time and getting out in the first place. Doing it without being put in harm’s way seemed like a terrific idea.
However, there was another option. The Army had quietly instituted some experimental new training procedures geared toward recruits they felt might have “special skills.” If I signed up, I’d go through ten weeks of modified basic training. If I made it through, I’d get three months of more specialized training. If I survived that, I’d be sworn in as regular Army and given my MOS and my first assignment.
That sounded like a pretty good deal so I agreed. I was posted to a base in North Carolina where I started training with twenty other guys, all of whom had been through similar testing. When I heard what real basic training involved, I understood that we were getting very special treatment. In our “barracks” we slept two to a room. We had our own little mess hall with great food. And we had no pre-dawn runs or marches in full gear. Aside from an hour of physical training every day, all of our activities were in the classroom or on the firing range. We even had homework. It was like college with free meals and guns.
Around week eight, the major who was our mentor – he certainly wasn’t a drill sergeant - gathered us all in a conference room. A sergeant wheeled in a cart with a stack of what looked like briefcases on it. These were really sturdy looking and secured with heavy-duty combination locks. We each were given a briefcase with a sticky note on it with the lock’s combination. The major told us we would have five minutes to memorize the combinations for our cases. He went on to explain that inside each briefcase we’d find a complete life history of someone we’d never met, because that person didn’t actually exist…yet. When we opened our cases we’d learn who we were to become. Over the next two weeks, we’d be expected to learn everything about our new identities: where we were born, who our parents were, whether we had any brothers or sisters, where we went to school, where we went to church, what kind of car we drove, what sports we played, what music we liked. Everything.
From that moment forward, we were to respond only to our new names, even if questioned by a senior officer. We would be tested regularly so it would be to our advantage to learn everything possible about our new identities. To become them. If at the end of our ten weeks we had not mastered this assignment, we would be dismissed. Oh, and also from that moment forward, all of our training would be classified.
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