HARMONY CHURCH sounds like a sweet description for a choir singing in tune together on any given Sunday morning. Well, I’m Shane Tucker and I’m here to tell you, Camp Rogers in the Harmony Church area of Fort Benning, Georgia is anything but sweet. No neatly lined pews, no stained glass windows, no preacher trying to save my soul, and no choir singing hymns. In fact, Harmony Church was the first step toward my descent into hell.
At nineteen, I’d gotten this bright idea that joining the army was a great alternative to mucking cow shit and mending fences. I was ready too, or so I thought. I memorized the seven Army Core Values, good thing because I slept, ate, and um… ate some more about those damn core values, all within the first two weeks. I also prepared my body, best I could. I’ve always been a big guy, six foot two inches by the time I was seventeen, and growing up on a farm ensured my muscles were well defined. A few months before I shipped out, I’d started running every day, doing push-ups, sit-ups, the whole routine. I thought I was looking pretty damn good. In the best shape of my life.
Don’t let anyone bullshit you about being prepared for Army basic training—it can’t be done. No one can truly be ready for the kind of fucked-up training the army puts a person through. The strenuous physical activities, drills, running, push-ups, sit-ups, and even chin-ups are a breeze compared to the psychological shit they throw at you. You find out the hard way you’re either mentally strong enough to make it through or you aren’t.
The army breaks down basic training into three phrases. Phase I is called the Red Phase, Phase II is White, and Phase III—you guessed it—Blue. Very patriotic of them, huh? Before I was allowed to start Phase I, I had to spend a little time in Purgatory, officially known as the Reception Battalion. Growing up, I heard my daddy complain about how slow the government was. He was always bitching about one thing or another when it came to their idea of productivity. I’ve actually seen how slow the government is up close and in—well, I can’t say action—because for the first two weeks, I didn’t see a lot of action at all. I’m convinced to this day that the Reception Battalion is apparently where government officials are sent to learn about taking their damn sweet time getting anything done. I waited and waited… and, yeah, waited. When I got bored with waiting, I practiced waiting some more. What I learned while sitting around during those two weeks is that if the bureaucrats ever got their heads out of their asses and efficiently organized the intake process, it would take hours instead of weeks. I never shared my theory with them. I may have been young but not stupid. Those folks just didn’t seem like the kind who would be receptive to my innovative ideas. I learned later in training I was dead right about that.
By the time I was finally loaded onto a bus to begin the real training, I was looking forward to boot camp. After two weeks of shots, waiting, paperwork, waiting, issued uniforms, waiting, haircut, waiting, I remember eagerly loading onto the bus thinking anything had to be better than the constant fucking waiting. Christ, how naive I was. All my delusions of things getting better went out the window as soon as the drill sergeants came on the scene. I mean, we’d had drill sergeants during Purgatory, but they didn’t really yell that much then. My theory was either that only the pansy-ass drill sergeants were assigned to Purgatory, or it’s where the sons of bitches who lost their voices were dumped once they couldn’t terrorize the new recruits with their hollering. The moment we stepped off the bus, the drill sergeants no longer talked, they yelled, and apparently a side effect from yelling so much was they lost most of their hearing, because they could only hear you if you yelled back at the top of your lungs.
I LEARNED three very important lessons within the first couple of hours after stepping off the bus for Phase I. First, do not, for any reason, call a drill sergeant “sir.” For some reason that pissed them off, and they would go off on a tirade about how they worked for a living, blah, blah, blah. Second, do not, and I repeat, do not look your drill sergeant in the eye. If I thought they were psycho about being called “sir”—holy shit—looking him in the eye caused the veins in his neck to pop out and his face to turn bright red while he stared back at me with his eyeball about an eighth of an inch away from mine. You do not want a drill sergeant going psycho and exploding while that close to you. The third thing I learned, and this lesson came as a direct result from my saying “sir” and “eyeballing” a drill sergeant, was that their favorite phrase was “Drop and give me twenty.” I was “dropped” many a time during the Red Phase. Individually, paired up with some other poor sap who had the same deer-in-a-headlight stare I had, and as an entire platoon.
Actually, now that I come to think of it, there’s a fourth thing I learned. Before signing on to join Uncle Sam’s Army, I’d always thought of myself as a problem solver, someone who could figure out easier ways to do things, and I always felt as if I could keep situations under control. I was confident of being pretty much in control of my destiny and myself. The trainee having any control over anything was a myth in boot camp. The recruiter who sang to me the praises of army life failed to tell me that, while the Army might like initiative and innovation, drill sergeants hated it. That would have been a handy bit of information to have before I started boot camp. My advice to any new recruit—leave your need to keep situations under control at home because, whether it’s the hard way or the easy way, by the end of the first week, you will have to be able to do what you’re told, when you’re told, and exactly how you’re told to do it.
During the final week of Phase I, everything was slowly shifted away from the individual to the team. I was assigned a Battle Buddy. You would think this would’ve made things easier. Well, it didn’t. See, I already made enough mistakes of my own, and the drill sergeant had a hard-on for me from the moment I got off the bus. The only thing I gained from having a Battle Buddy was that now, every time he fucked up, I got credit for it. Then again, he got credit for everything I did wrong too. I’ll admit I fucked up more than usual, just to piss my buddy off. Here’s the thing. I’m not normally a mean person, and you have to push me pretty hard before I’ll retaliate. I’m great at ignoring people who annoy me, and I’ll avoid confrontation if at all possible. However, my assigned buddy, Owen Bradford—who had a good two inches and forty pounds on me—was, and to this day is, the cockiest bastard I have ever met. Owen, with his dark-brown hair, light-brown eyes that looked almost gold, dimpled cheeks, strong jawline, and hard, smooth body, was also the sexiest man I’d ever laid eyes on.
I suppose this is where I should tell you that I’ve known since I was very young that I liked boys more than I liked girls. Growing up in a small hick town in Texas, I didn’t know any other guys who were like me or, if I did, they sure as hell didn’t let me in on the secret, and I never told anyone mine. I’m not sure what I was hoping for when I enlisted into the army—it’s not as if it was going to change my orientation—but looking back, I think the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy the military had in place was the deciding factor. At the time, it gave me justification for the lie I was living. It would no longer be my fault I was lying; it would be the government that was forcing me to do it. Yeah, I know I was a coward, and to some degree, I still am.
During Phase II, also called the White Phase, better known as the Gunfighter Phase—don’t ask me why everything has to have multiple names, what can I say, it’s the government—they liked to keep people guessing. This was where we finally got to shoot our rifles, toss grenades, master grenade launchers, practice using bayonets—yes, we really did yell “stab, stab, kill, kill”—and were introduced to antitank weapons and a shitload of other heavy weapons. Through it all—the weapons, combat orientations, obstacle courses—my buddy was at my side, and each day he annoyed me just a little bit more. It wasn’t any one thing he did that bugged the shit out of me, it was just Owen.
Together, we moved to Phase III, or the Warrior Phase. Think of this phase as going camping in the middle of a war zone, except with fake bullets and mortars, thank God. I’ve heard some people refer to this as the most fun during basic training. Trust me when I tell you, this was some more bullshit they used to get you signed up. My idea of fun camping is more like hanging out with good friends or family, fishing, bonfires, and relaxing. The army’s idea of camping included night patrols, incoming drills, obstacle courses, and long ruck marches. Ever been woken up in the middle of the night by bomb explosions? Well, I can tell you, more than one man in our platoon shit himself during all that fun. The Warrior Phase was, for me, not the least bit fun. It was the most excruciatingly painful part of boot camp. My battle buddy made it all the worse.
MY BUDDY, Owen, the gorgeous six-foot-four-inch shit brickhouse with an ass so tight and so sweet it was mesmerizing, had no concept of personal space. The absolute worst night of my life was the night we had to spend in a trench. Technically, it was an easy gig. The two of us in a dirt trench keeping watch; we could take turns getting some sleep. The first couple of hours were great, since Owen was on watch and I got some much needed shuteye. It was during my watch that the problem started. Remember, Owen had no concept of personal space; he also liked to snuggle. Now, under normal conditions this might not have been a big deal. After all, it was chilly that night, and the warmth of his big body against mine kept me warm. There I was, a nineteen-year-old virgin with what I deemed a walking, talking wet dream not only snuggled up against me, but with his soft lips up against the side of my neck. That night I discovered that warm breath against my neck was directly wired to my groin. I spent two hours in sheer agony. My dick was so hard it felt as if it would burst, and my head wasn’t helping the situation any. I kept getting flashes of Owen as I’d seen him in the shower, only my mind had added me into the naughty movie, naked and on my knees. The longer I sat there, the more intense the visions became, and I began to think I was in real danger of either my dick or my head exploding. When Owen finally woke up, he kissed my neck before he released me from my place of torment. I’m not sure if the kiss and subsequent incoherent murmurs against the sensitive skin below my ear were a remnant from my fantasies or reality. I didn’t stay around long enough to give it any thought. Within minutes, I was behind a tree relieving myself in more ways than one.
The night in the trench was the last time Owen Bradford was my assigned Battle Buddy. I was finally being released from what I deemed “O.B. Hell,” or at least I thought so at the time. Unfortunately, when I finished boot camp and moved on to my Military Occupational Specialty, or MOS, that sexy fucker followed me. Owen didn’t follow me in the literal sense—his assignment sent him to Fort Irwin in California and I headed to Washington, DC—but the images of his face and muscular body were permanently seared into my brain. Each time I closed my eyes, I’d see his lopsided grin and dimpled cheeks. I’d get a whiff of something spicy and masculine, and I would be reminded of him. Every time I heard a deep, husky voice, I would remember the way he’d growl when he called me “Tuck.” Owen haunted my dreams, my fantasies, and I grew to hate him and my own inability to move on from the memory of him.