I can't, Sir

Anyone who in the military knows that you don't say these words, especially in basic training.

This is a memory of Seaman Recruit Mitchell. Mitchell was a freckle-faced little guy with glasses in 1991. I won't say that Mitchell wasn't cut out for military service, because he may have been a fantastic sailor. I can confidently say that Basic Training certainly was not his thing. He seemed to spend quite a bit of time on light duty or as it was referred to among the "weak, lame, and lazy".


I can't recall the cause, but Company 248 was being cycled. Someone had done something wrong and we were all being punished with exercise. Apparently whatever we had done wrong was pretty significant because we had been at it for a while. We were all lined up next to our racks doing push-ups, eight count body builders, jumping jacks, and more push-ups. I think everyone was getting pretty worn out. I know I was, and Mitchell was in bad shape.


The company was doing push-ups when Mitchell just stopped. It wasn't uncommon to see guys rest briefly when the Company Commanders couldn't see them, but Mitchell just quit. He laid there on the floor in the down position and got caught. MM1 Hecht saw Mitchell, but the recruit didn't go to the up position. Hecht yelled at him, but Mitchell just struggled to no avail. BT2 Templeton watched the rest of us and continued the cycle while Hecht just kept yelling at Mitchell. This went on for several minutes. At least it felt like several minutes as I was doing push-ups and it had to feel like an eternity to Mitchell.


MM1 Hecht did something nobody expected, and it wouldn't be the only surprise that day. MM1 Hecht, while dressed in his working white uniform, laid down on the floor right in front of Mitchell. A Company Commander, who's neatly pressed uniform always glowed in spotless brilliant white, was lying on the floor face to face with Seaman Recruit Mitchell. I remember feeling sorry for Mitchell, but I also remember thinking, "This can't end well."


I can't tell you how long the two of them laid there. Hecht yelling at Mitchell to complete the push-up and Mitchell struggling to comply. I can't tell you how long it was because Templeton kept pacing the barracks keeping the rest of us doing push-ups. Then it happened. Mitchell said the one thing you just don't say during basic military training, "I can't, Sir." Hecht must have been feeling sorry for the recruit, because he didn't react, yet. Hecht kept ordering Mitchell to comply. It wasn't until Mitchell said, "I can't" a second time that the situation changed.


MM1 Hecht stood up and ordered Mitchell to his feet. I had a brief hope that the end was near. Man was I wrong. Hecht told Mitchell to go get himself a Coke. Templeton gave Mitchell fifty cents. Mitchell went to the next room and came back with a can of Coke from the vending machine. This is when the next surprise happened and the entire company turned really began to despise Seaman Recruit Mitchell. When Mitchell returned he could see that MM1 Hecht had placed a chair on top of a table in the middle of the barracks. A sort of make shift thrown for Mitchell.


Mitchell was told to sit in his new thrown and drink his Coke. He sat in the chair, but he wouldn't touch the can of soda. He just stared straight ahead, not looking at any of the men still doing push-ups, with the Coke sitting next to his right foot on the tabletop. Hecht told him to drink his soda, but he refused until Hecht told him that the entire company was going to do push-ups until he finished. Then Mitchell grabbed the soda and looked like he was about to chug the whole thing down. That would have been the smart thing to do, but basic training is never that easy. Hecht warned him not to drink it too fast or we would keep doing push-ups anyway.


There Mitchell sat upon the thrown of his own making, leisurely drinking his Coke. The eyes of the entire company watching him although he still refused to look at any of us. I could see anger welling up in the eyes of every recruit still being cycled. I have no idea how long we did push-ups watching an obviously uncomfortable Mitchell. It felt like hours.


Eventually Mitchell finished his soda and the torture of the company stopped. Throughout the rest of the day there was a lot of talk about a blanket party that night. I honestly don't know if that happened or not. I was asleep as soon as lights out came. For Mitchell's sake, I hope that was true of every man in Company 248 that night.


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©2019 by Peter Angelo Serefine