“In a murderous time the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark, and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail. Where is my testing-tree? Give me back my stones!”
Sargent Cunningham stands motionless on the edge of the parade ground and berates us relentlessly with practiced nonchalance, though with a particular brand of venom that comes from a place well beyond his training. Any fool can see at a glance that he aims to make us suffer. Not professionally – no, he is tasked with the noble duty of crafting these kids into soldiers – but personally. Less than a year from now he will be posted to another unit after drunkenly riding his Harley through the staff mess, but right now, in this moment, he is our God. He owns us. And He knows it and revels in it.
We can do little more than respond like the minions we signed our lives away to be…
Over coming weeks and months he will become the father we never had. The father we never wanted. He will yell at us – at me – shove, push, provoke and punch, until the data is entered. The point is made. He will push us – me – to the point I overcome a fear of heights. To the point I come to know that a fist to the jaw doesn’t hurt as much as a look of disappointment. Years from now, I will thank him for his service to me, for his aloofness, his ability to wound without force.
I’ve come to learn that superhero’s wear different costumes. His was green, head to toe...though less Green Lantern and more so Corporal Punishment. He made us into men, short and simple. He made boys into soldiers, though the path he chose was odd at first glance. We began by learning to march and iron clothing. We learnt to be fastidious in our attention to detail. As fastidious in the way we polished and adorned the brass on our uniforms as we were in stripping, cleaning and reassembling our rifles. And before long, we’re applying this very same mindset to more dire pursuits.
The moment we learnt how little effort it takes to reduce a man to a floundering mess with a well-aimed strike to the thorax, groin or sternum, was unsettling, whilst also being somewhat empowering.
You wonder, what if?
How could I use this?
When, will I use this?
Then, mere moments later we learn how easy it is to break a neck. This, this sad, horrible and very real reality, is deeply unsettling to say the least…
There’s a part of our species that worships strength. That willingly – disappointingly, all too willingly – kowtows before power and blindly accepts its rule over us. But there’s also a part of us that says no.
No, I won’t succumb; no I won’t become a lesser version of myself. As soldiers we learn to bear burdens that would break normal backs. To lay motionless in silence for hours when normal men would cry out in pain. We learn to subdue a part of us that questions the way we act, to subvert the part that questions what we once knew. But in the middle of all this you still remain you. And it takes a special kind of strength to hold true to this.
To say no when no needs to be said. That, my friend, is the strength of character that Sgt C taught us as he yelled at us from the edge of the parade ground. Wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, I hope he knows he did a great thing.
He made boys into men.
To Sgt C, and to Warrant Officer Ross Mills, I owe the life I have now. So this is me, saying to you both, at a point in my life where I have finally found my voice: thank you!