I stare at my computer screen. “We’re sorry to inform you that you have not been selected to attend the 2019 summer session at the US Naval Academy. Don’t be discouraged……” the email went on but I didn’t really care what the rest of it said. I was disappointed. Getting rejected from college sucks but getting rejected to my top college’s summer program also sucked. I sulked around for about a week before finding another summer camp to apply to. This time, I got in.
I’m sitting outside on my aunt’s porch looking up at the blue sky trying to enjoy the last day before I go to camp. The camp I’m going to is supposed to be some sort of military camp, apparently they’re going to yell at us and make us run up mountains. I’m excited to leave home. It’s been a long week. Actually it’s been a long year. But that doesn’t stop me from being nervous. I’ve gone to summer camps before but It’s too late to go home now though, we’re already in Vermont.
The next morning I arrived at the camp, early around 12 o’clock. I was told to say goodbye to my parents by the people at check in and then escorted to a seperate building by some guy with a very British accent. It was here that I met probably the most important 5 people in order to survive the next 2 weeks of camp; Deaton, Higgins, Ross, Villegas, and Vanmeter. Including myself we make up the 6 ‘Gotel’ females. Villegas, Vanmeter, and myself are in ‘Hotel squad’ along with four other boys. While Deaton, Higgins, and Ross are in ‘Golf Squad ” with four others as well, two of their squad would leave before the end of the first week. It wouldn’t be until about 4:30 that we meet the ‘cadre’ or staff members that would instruct, guide, and yell at us for the next 2 weeks.
“Wake up! Get up!” My eyes shoot open and my heart is racing. “I want to see this door open! Get up!” I sit up looking around frantically as our door is being pounded on and I hear people shouting and stomping on the floor outside our room while heavy metal music is blasting through various bluetooth speakers. I scramble out of bed, my heart doesn’t stop beating loudly. “Get up!” My roommates are also running around our room frantically to get our shoes on and put our hair up. “Open this door! Get on my wall!” We open the door and rush to go downstairs. “Get on my wall! Move with a sense of purpose!” We line up next to each other, backs straight with our hearts pounding from being woken up so suddenly.
Welcome to day one of Norwich University’s Future Leader Camp.
Later on that day we learn some of the fundamental skills we will need to use at camp. How to march in formation and how to address our superiors most importantly. Other things that we are told to do include how they want us to eat in the dining hall, how we need to have our rooms cleaned, and to always carry our “hydration source” with us. It’s a weird first day spent getting used to what is expected of us and interacting with our squadmates. We’re all stressed and uncomfortable in this new environment, being ordered around by staff, spending all day moving and being on our feet, and learning how to work in our squads. I go to bed that night anxious and exhausted.
On day two we run the obstacle course and repel down a tower. It’s only like 1 in the afternoon, but we’re sweaty, sore, and all have matching bruises. We woke up at 5 again this morning to just about the same conditions as yesterday. Day three we run up and down stairs about 20 times, play paintball, and try to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. From there the days start going faster: water balloon fights, leadership classes, hiking up mountains, trying to cook food on a campfire (the key word here is trying), sleeping under the stars. This is only a small list of the activities we partake in. The days are exhausting, but fun.
I’m laying down on my bed, or rack as it’s referred to. It’s late, probably around 12:30. I’ve just finished laying out our clothes, stretching, and laying out whatever else I might need for the next morning. (Next morning is subjective. I will wake up in about 4 hours, put my contacts in, go out to the bathroom and make sure all our waters are filled before going back to sleep for about another hour. We never get much sleep.) Vanmeter is asleep on her bed across the room. Villegas is tucked in her sheets in her bunk. “Goodnight V” I say.
“Que sueñes con los angelitos,” she responds.
“Huh, what does that mean?” I ask; we had discussed my affinity for Spanish despite my inability to learn or speak the language.
“Sleep with the angels. It’s what my parents will tell me every night before I go to bed,” she tells me.
“Oh, neat. Sleep with the angels V.” I respond, knowing I definitely cannot pronounce that back in Spanish. It’s moments like these that I look back on later and smile fondly.
Days later we’re outside in the woods on what’s called a FTX, or Field Training Exercise (this actually ended up being my least favorite part of camp). We had hiked a mile up a hill to get here. It’s sweltering hot in the Vermont summer heat. One member of our group gets heat stroke from falling asleep next to the fire. A few of us are currently making a fire pit and places to sit so that we can cook dinner. Dinner is supposed to be a stew of some sort but our group’s ends up coming out as a sort of burned mush. Needless to say, we’re all still hungry after.
Later on, the girls go back to our shelters to sleep, we’re told we need to do a fire watch. We take it in shifts. I’m second to last in the rotation. Deaton wakes me up around 4 for my turn. I spent the next hour trying to maintain the small fire while Deaton and Vanmeter, about 10 feet away, are sleeping. I then wake Villegas up for her turn and start looking for more sticks. Luckily, we’re in the middle of a forest and there’s a lot of those. It’s cold and I’m tired but the air is clean and it’s quiet except for the rustling of the leaves and the occasional howl of a coyote. I look up and the stars are out, it’s beautiful, unpolluted like a city sky. (Deaton would later tell me this was one of her favorite parts of our entire experience.) Villegas asks me if I mind watching the fire for a bit longer and returns to sleep. I watch it for another 20 minutes before I’m too tired to continue. I get Higgens, whose shelter is the furthest away, to tend the fire again and go back to sleep, exhausted.
I wake up at about 7:25, thinking that we will get in trouble for not being up yet. I turn to Villegas, “V, we need to get up.” I nudge her and she starts getting up. I then see Vanmeter and Deaton getting ready, “Are we late?” I ask.
“No we’re on time, it’s fine calm down hun.” Vanmeter responds. (When I first met Vanmeter I thought that she said that to be condescending, but I later came to understand that it was just part of her Southern/Alabama speech.) I now see one of the corporals in the distance waving for us to get up and I see Ross and Higgins coming over from their sleep shelters.
“Thayer, do you have the cookies or did you give them back?” Higgins asks me.
“I gave them back yesterday, I’ll get them back later.” I say. Our parents were allowed to send us packages and letters while we were away. Some people got a lot of things while some didn’t. I remember Higgens getting at least half a dozen letters from her friends and family who also sent pictures of what they were doing at home without her there. In my package I received cookies and sharpies from my parents. (I had spoken with them a few days before asking for sharpies because we needed them to label things. The cookies however, were a nice surprise that helped us not starve in the woods. Thanks again Mom.) We pretty much lived on cookies that day and although cookies are unhealthy, I would like to argue that they are probably more healthy than the MRE’s we were given. That’s probably not true but they taste so much better.
We spent that day rotating through activities. We gathered wood for a bonfire later that night, improved our shelters, learned firestarting and survival techniques as well as archery and shooting bb-gun rifles, and more. It was about midday and our golf/hotel squad was eating lunch and relaxing, we had some free time and we were trying to enjoy every second of it. “I’m going to go put some stuff back on our side.” Deaton said.
“I’ll go with you.” I said and we started walking over to where our shelters were. (The girls and guys shelters were on opposite sides of the camp and separated by the staff tents.)
“Ugh, I really don’t know why they had to build their shelter as far away from the main camp as possible, it takes like ten minutes just to walk back to the center.” Deaton said as we walked.
“Yeah, I know right? It’s so annoying. At least we haven’t seen any snakes. I do not do snakes,” I respond. Deaton shrugs, “I get that. There’s a lot of snakes and stuff where I’m from so it doesn’t bother me that much. I see a lot of alligators usually.” (Deaton is from Florida.)
“Neat. Do you think we’ll have to do fire watch again tonight?” I ask.
“I don’t know, maybe. I kinda liked it, you could see the stars and everything. It was really pretty.”
“Yeah, I forget that it’s not like this everywhere. I’m kinda used to it in New York. I’m excited to go home. Don’t get me wrong, I think we’re all having a lot of fun, but I want to take a shower longer than 2 minutes.” We laugh. It’s things like this that I miss.
“Open!” I yell in response.
“Snapped!” I shout back, snapping my head in the direction of the Sergeant First Class who’s about to give the entire camp instructions. It’s Thursday. We got back from the FTX yesterday and we leave in two days.
“Take everything out of your backpacks except water! Leave your watches in your rooms!”
“Yes Staff Sergeant!” we respond. From the dining hall we march back to the rooms. Despite this I actually forgot to take my watch off and didn’t even bring my backpack. I’m not the only one.
“UGH! If you forgot a backpack put your water in someone else’s bag!” This is how some people end up carrying five people’s waters in their bag.
“The only rule is nobody goes in front of me!” the platoon sergeant tells the camp and starts running. We follow, not really knowing what we’re about to endure. We sprint to keep up with him across the street and start our ascent up Paine Mountain, our biggest final challenge. I’m close to the front of the group. “Once you reach me run back to the post and come back up!” One of the sergeants yells, and I and roughly a dozen others do as he says. By the time we reach them again we have our faces in the dirt doing pushups. “Get all the way down!” Some of the group is being yelled at, a constant during our climb. We finish that and are told to start crawling up the path. “Get your knees up! Move to the side if you’re going too slow!” I don’t know exactly how long we were bear crawling up the mountain but I remember the feeling of the grass that had been trampled by those ahead of me and the pebbles and rocks digging into my hands. “Get up my mountain! You die here and get reborn today!” I hear one of the staff sergeants yell. I see some people just crawling, my hands hurt, my shoulders hurt, my arms hurt, my abdomen hurts, and I’m sweating. I put my knees down for a bit and just crawl, “Thayer get your knees up!” I do.
Eventually we get to a flat area with a rack of pull-up bars. “Ok first platoon over here!” The squads making up Alpha, Bravo, Delta and Charlie squads get up to go do pull ups. The rest of us are allowed to sit and get water. There are clouds coming in. I’m sitting and catching my breath when the guy next to me spits on the ground.
“What was that! Don’t spit on my mountain!” One of the staff sergeants gets in his face. “That’s it, everyone on your face!” We spread out a little so we each have room and we start doing cadence push ups. “One two three four! One two three four!” We do that roughly ten times before they have us roll on our backs and start doing flutter kicks. We’re all tired and sweaty. I have no idea how long we’ve been doing this. Little did I know we weren’t even halfway there.
A few minutes later, first platoon comes back and we get up to go do our pullups. “Each squad at a different bar! You need to do one hundred pull ups combined! If someone can’t do it you need to help them!” we’re told. I look around,
“Where’s Vanmeter?” I ask.
“There’s something wrong with her knee, she had to go back.” I’m told.
“Crap, I hope she’s okay.” I think to myself. There’s seven of us but we break it up by tens. I can’t ‘do’ my pull ups, only about half of us can actually do them alone, so three of our squad helps lift me. We finish the pull ups and we’re walking back to the path when the lieutenant yells, “Does anyone want more! Was that not enough for you?” One kid from Echo squad raises his hand and they run up to him. “Okay then! Let’s go!” They get in his face as he jogs over to a bar with his very much full looking backpack, and starts doing pull ups as the lieutenant does them next to him. He finishes, we go back to the path and first platoon has already started to bear crawl up the mountain again.
“Get up my mountain!” The cadre are yelling at us to motivate us, some are yelling out encouragement also, myself included. Like before, those at the front are being told to sprint to the end and do it again. We’re waiting for those in the back who are going slow to catch up. We end up bear crawling past them on the second go around. They’re being especially ‘motivated’ by the cadre, sometimes it pays to not stand out. I think I heard thunder. We eventually reach another flat spot, and this time they have us doing cadence sit ups by locking our arms together with those sitting next to us to help or promote togetherness, I don’t know. Our group ends up doing about a dozen more because some of us keep shouting out the wrong cadence. Once we’ve done about thirty they have us army crawling up a very grassy area. It’s very crowded and by the time I’m able to start the grass is trampled. Sometimes I feel rocks digging into my arms.
“Get down! Get your heads down! Keep crawling! Get up my mountain!” As I’m crawling I see a trail of blood from someone. We keep going. We get to the next spot and the kid, who’s having a nosebleed, is given a tissue and told to keep going. We spread out a bit and are told to do squats. We do until everyone is done army crawling; this is a rest exercise or something. Once everyone is up we’re told to drink water. I can’t find the person carrying my water, so I ask someone to share with me. I can feel a few droplets of rain. The staff look at each other but have us continue our trek up the mountain.
I truthfully don’t remember how, but we all end up running up the path to the top again. I don’t know where the cadre are anymore but in the distance I can hear them and other participants yelling encouragement again. It’s raining. At one point going up a turn I see Higgins, Ross, and Deaton up ahead. “We’re almost to the top!” they yell back at me.
“Okay thanks! Keep going! You can do this!” I responded. After what feels like forever I make it to the top. I feel amazing but also awful because I’m all sweaty, muddy, and tired. There’s a white anchor there with some words spray painted on it. I follow some others who’ve made it to the top walk around it. “GOOD TIMES” on one side, I don’t remember the other. At this point it’s raining harder.
I see a girl kneeling down holding her hands above her head, having trouble breathing. “I have asthma,” she says. I think for a second, I have my inhaler in my pocket but I’m worried that she might have a worse reaction if I give it to her. I look at her friend for a second.
Ultimately, I take it from my pocket and hand it to her. “Here take this.” I say.
“Are you sure?” she says between breaths. I nod and she takes it. After a minute she feels a bit better. “Thanks,” she says and hands it back to me. “Be quick and start heading down!” I hear a cadre yell. They want to get us out of the rain I guess.
I start jogging down the mountain with her and some others. Its a steep climb down and its gotten extremely muddy because of the now torrential downpour. I look at the girl’s friend; she’s struggling with the weight of her backpack. “Hold on a sec let me adjust my backpack.” We stop for a second.
“Let me take it!” I say to her.
“Are you sure?” she asks.
“Yeah!” I yell back over the sound of the rain and she hands it to me. I put it on, “Yeah! It balances out me running forward!” I smile at her only half joking. We keep running down. I think to myself at this moment how cool this is and how it’s almost fitting that it’s absolutely pouring. I laugh to myself: “straight out of a movie, good god.” I mumble to myself.
We’re at a particularly muddy spot and there’s a few people helping to support an injured participant down the mountain. They have us pass them. We keep jogging. Eventually I hear someone shout, “Coming through! Get out of the way!” It’s a sergeant first class on an ATV with a trailer attached going to get the injured participant down the mountain. We keep going.
“Are we going the right way? I definitely feel like this is the long way down!” I joke. The other girls I’m with agree with me. We keep going, trying to keep from slipping and tripping down the path. Eventually we get to a spot I recognise. They definitely had us take a different way down, I surmise. I hear people shouting, “Keep going you’re almost done! You got this! Finish strong!” We round a corner and I see the group of campers who’ve already made it down and are celebrating and cheering for others to do the same.
I made it to the bottom. I felt invincible standing with everyone there was a strong sense of camaraderie and pride. I found Ross, Higgins, Deaton, and Villegas and hugged them as well as many others. We were all so happy and motivated having all accomplished this together. I can still remember the feeling. It’s hard to really explain, something within us was just different. You need to have been there with us.
Once everyone made it back down to that spot we sprinted back down to the barracks. We were all soaked. But as I entered the hall there was cheering and lines of campers as we high fived each other and stood in a line waiting for everyone to get in. Once everyone was back we crowded into a small room to have a sort of ‘debriefing’ about the anchor at the top of the mountain. “Congratulations, you just completed the Olympic course. You should all be very proud of you; I know that we’re all impressed. Does anyone remember what the anchor at the top says?” Someone answers him. “Yes. That is a tribute to a fallen Navy Seal who was killed in a helicopter crash and was a Norwich graduate. He worked hard and sweat on that mountain just like you. That anchor is a tribute to him.”
“I just want to say,” another sergeant spoke. “I’ve been here for two years and that was the most motivating thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here. I don’t know, I’ve seen people go up and down that mountain but it wasn’t the same as that. A bunch of high school students going up and down together. You might not have come here by choice, but you all completed that and I was just incredibly motivating.” We were all extremely proud of what we had accomplished. I definitely felt different. I felt a connection to everyone who had completed it with me. They finished up debriefing us and we all separated to change out of our cold, muddy, and wet clothes to go shower. Needless to say it was one of the best showers I’ve ever had.
Two days later I stood in formation with the rest of the camp about to march down for the graduation ceremony and to see our families for the first time in two weeks. We’re different people now than when we first got here. We leave camp having not only made new friends but also having learned new things about ourselves. To add to that, we have Norwich’s guiding values forever ingrained in our memories. “Norwich Forever”
I loved FLC. I made lasting friendships there that I maintain to this day. I would jump at the chance to go back and would strongly encourage anyone interested in going to attend. It wasn’t an easy journey to go through, but one that I will never forget. I would argue that it was one of the most significant events of my life up to that point. It galvanised my desire to go into the military and helped assure me that I would be able to handle living in a military setting. There’s a lot that I left out of this story in order to ‘limit’ myself from writing endlessly. When I met up with Deaton this past winter we spent hours reminiscing about the times we had at camp and I’m sure we could’ve gone on much longer. If you asked anyone who attended camp I’m sure they could write you a whole book about it, but it’s something you really need to experience in order to fully appreciate. Obviously not all of the dialogue was written exactly as it happened but I tried to keep it as accurate as possible. I wanted to really capture the essence of camp and emphasize the small moments between the campers and really show the bonds that we made with each other. I really hope you were able to see that.