Boot-camp basics

Michael Volkin

Photo By Larry Dalton

One day after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Michael Volkin decided to join the U.S. Army and defend his country. An environmental consultant by trade, Volkin, a Sacramento resident who’s now an Army sergeant, had no idea what to expect from boot camp, no military family history and no reason to believe that he eventually would be sent to the Middle East as a chemical-weapons specialist—three days ahead of the war in Iraq. The first days of his basic training were so grueling, he said, that he started taking notes for a book on how to help other recruits. Little more than a year after he arrived in Iraq, The Ultimate Basic Training Guidebook has just been released by Information is available at

I understand your experience [of basic training] was quite different from what you’d planned for.

Well, actually, before I saw the recruiter, I had no idea it was nine weeks long. I thought it was some three- or four-week program. … I certainly didn’t expect people younger than me—'cause I was 26 when I went in—getting in my face yelling at me, telling me I’m worthless. Unconstructive criticism—I didn’t expect that at all. … I was hoping there was something that could have prepared me a little bit better. The recruiters didn’t talk to me about what to expect. I didn’t see any books or anything out there on that subject.

What was your first day like?

Oh, my first day was memorable. They packed us into a cattle truck that could have fit about 40 people, but they squeezed 70 of us in there, and we went down into this field. We were carrying all our bags, and they had us wearing our field jackets, and it was somewhat hot outside. It was about 80 degrees. We were in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. And we got out in this field, and they told us to line up alphabetically in three minutes. And three minutes, drill-sergeant time, is really about 45 seconds. And there’s no way you can line up 70 people that don’t even know each other, alphabetically, in three minutes. So, it never happened. So, we were doing push-ups with duffel bags on our backs, and running with duffel backs on our backs, and the exercise lasted all night.

What’s the book about?

From my first day of basic training, I knew that I was going to have to take notes, lots of notes, because I didn’t want anybody to go in unprepared like I did, so the book was basically written for a new recruit entering the Army—'cause much of the basic-training regimen can be learned before you actually arrive at basic training. … Some people arrive at basic training not able to do a push-up. That can be done with an easy fitness program, so I put a fitness program in my book.

What were some of the first things that you learned that made basic training bearable?

Made it bearable? Let’s see. Actually, the camaraderie between the other members of my platoon, the friendship that I got. There were some people there I’ll never forget. That helped a lot, because the drill sergeant’s always trying to take you away from the friendship aspect and trying to make you an individual but also work in a team. They want you structured, disciplined, so the friendship is really what saved me. You really can’t do basic training alone. And I talk, in my book, a little bit about how to form friendships with other people and how to get them talking. Because people that are shy go into basic training, and they’re not used to making friends, and they’re just lost. They’re the ones who hurt the most.

What’s the one thing you can do to make every drill sergeant happy?

Oh, to not talk when you’re not supposed to talk. That was our biggest problem in basic training. Everybody wants to get their little thing in, or they think they’re going to whisper to somebody off to the side. Drill sergeants hear everything. People don’t realize, especially new recruits, but when you’re in formation, and you’re all lined up nice and neat, drill sergeants can see every little movement, because everything should be exactly the same. You should be standing at attention, perfectly still, marching the same way.

What’s one thing that anybody can do on the first day of basic training to make it easier for them?

What they could do is prepare early. … When they arrive, they should be able to run at least two to four miles a day, and they should be able to do at least 10 or 20 push-ups in a row as well as sit-ups. Another thing is a lot of people have smoking problems there. They’re having withdrawal symptoms ‘cause there’s no tobacco use, no alcohol use. … So, I would say quit the habits and be physically fit enough to run two to four miles.