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By JOSHUA COFFMAN
FORT KNOX — Seven tanks idle in a fire line, a row of death pointed over a valley, cannons loaded.
They fire salvos, one after another, lighting up the purple dusk sky like flashes in a thunderstorm.
Standing behind the tanks, the crushing ignition of the artillery punches against one’s chest cavity, stealing breath and making heartbeats stutter, as targets 1,500 meters away are pulverized.
“It’s a fireworks show,” says Maj. Gregory Wall.
The M1 Abramses on the training field are being loaded by brand new soldiers, 13 weeks into their 15-week advanced individual training program. From here they will ship out, many going on to combat in Afghanistan or Iraq.
As they learn to stock missiles into their war machines, another group of soldiers in basic training crawl through an infiltration course, under razor wire and over obstacles as quarter sticks of dynamite explode in drums on the course and a trio of M-16s fire bursts of bullets over their heads.
Each group of soldiers, training at night, are in the culminating phases of the Army’s initial training program.
Capt. Graham Hughes says the fastest turnaround he knows of is a soldier leaving for combat a mere 22 days after advanced training.
“They come here as civilians, and in 15 weeks they leave here and they’re soldiers,” said Col. Larry Reeves, who oversees the training program at Fort Knox.
Many of those who recently enlisted say they had no direction in life and looked to the military to change them.
“Everybody says I’m a different person than I was when I came in,” said 20-year-old Pvt. Michael Sides of Shreveport, La.
The trainees end each sentence by saying “sir” as they stand at attention.
“I was going down the wrong path,” said Pvt. Gary Blume, 18, of Evansville, Ind. He wanted to get away from the crowd of peers with whom he ran. “It’s been the best time of my life so far, sir.”
Reeves and Hughes said an increasing number of people in their 30s choose to enlist and become model soldiers in the training program.
Pvt. Angelo Denehy, 36, of Springfield, Mass., has lost more than 50 pounds in the eight weeks he has been in basic combat training.
“I’m becoming a better person every day,” he said.
The infiltration range at Fort Knox is the only one in the Army’s five training posts not to suffer an accident at night.
As soldiers crawl through the wires in the sand, air raid sirens and the sound of bullets scream from loudspeakers.
Flares are shot up occasionally, lighting up the course. The trainees scream to one another as they pull themselves across the ground.
It takes them about 10 minutes to make it through. Afterward, they line up in their platoons and chant cadences back to their drill sergeants.
“You just gotta do what you gotta do,” says Spc. Derrick Luther, 23, of Charleston, Ind. He said the course has taught him values of hard work, friendship and teamwork.
“Whatever I’m told to do, I’ll do it proudly. That’s my focus; that’s my mission,” he said.
Joshua Coffman can be reached at (270) 505-1740.