By Sam CampbellDecember 19, 2019
Pvt. Rhys Bullington and Pfc. Katelyn Castro are currently in the second of three phases -- Anvil -- of U.S. Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Leonard Wood.
Just six weeks after first arriving on the military installation, the combat engineer and combat medic, respectively, earned top rifle marksmanship grades, both qualifying as "expert."
"As a Soldier, you need to be able to shoot -- and he can shoot," said Staff Sgt. Wesley Wright, one of Bullington's drill sergeants.
No wonder the range is his favorite spot on the fort.
"I'm one of those people (who) loves going out and shooting," Bullington said. "It feels kind of relaxing."
But when the adrenaline starts pumping, that's when Castro said she has the most fun.
Her preference? Battle drills and combat-skills training, like evading indirect fire and spending days out in the field, sleeping in holes.
"How you would move if you were under fire, how you move across the road as a troop," she said, "I love it -- that's why I joined the Army."
There are ups and downs, the trainees said, and with them comes the forming of a stronger bond among their brothers and sisters in arms.
"There's stuff that I've gone through with the other females that I'll never go through with anybody else, so it's definitely changed how I feel about the people who are standing next to me," Castro said.
Bullington agreed, and elaborated on one particularly intimidating training event.
"Everyone went through the gas chamber, everybody experienced the exact same thing," he said. "That experience was nothing I've ever felt before. It was like a burning sensation through my lungs all the way up to my tongue."
But it brought him a renewed confidence, both in himself and his unit.
"That definitely builds us more so as a team than any other football team or sports team out there," he said.
A female trainee was injured during training and had to be separated from Castro's platoon. The shared investment she had with her team in "the mission" led her to realize just how close they had become.
"All 11 of us females from our platoon, we've been through stuff together, so losing one of us … even though I know she's just down the street, it's still difficult to know that if we were in the field, that was us losing one of our comrades," she said. "There are things we've gone through together that even our family hasn't gone through with us."
Bullington said the 24/7, high-octane environment can become mentally trying and requires a level of resilience.
"It is very nonstop," he said. "You have to definitely have that kind of ability to adapt to it, because if you can't adapt to the consistent back-to-back schedule, then it gets very daunting. People get very nervous or confused."
He said managing a ceaseless schedule was certainly a change from being a civilian, but ultimately easier for him, as he enjoys the structure.
For Castro, however, self-discipline was something she needed to improve -- and basic training has delivered that lesson.
"I feel stronger minded than I did before," she said. "I'm not going to lie, before I came here, I was a pretty unmotivated person. I didn't want to work out. I wanted to lay around and watch TV, and I was just kind of a lazy person. But being here, I've realized 'All right, you've gotta get this done before you can do this.' So it's definitely motivated me."
Bullington said despite his prior training at the Missouri Military Academy, he has noticed a considerable change within himself.
"At the beginning, when you have that nervousness and that fear of unknown, you kind of hesitate a little bit," he said. "I don't have that fear of unknown anymore."
According to Bullington, trainees live "chow-by-chow" in the nonstop atmosphere. Castro said she and many others are counting down the meals until they are reunited with family.
Both trainees will head home for the holidays Friday, bringing a two-week reprieve from the rigors of military exercises.
Castro lives on campus at Missouri Southern State University but only sees her family during the holiday season and summer. She will spend Holiday Block Leave with her grandfather in Arkansas.
"Being away from my family on holidays is very challenging for me, because that's one of the couple times a year I get to be with my family," Castro said. "It's not about the holiday anymore, it's just being with my family."
Bullington will travel to Sparta, Missouri.
"Since I live an hour and 40 minutes away, I'm more fortunate than a lot of other people," he said. "I'm probably going to be a bit more different. I probably won't see it until one of my family members bring it up."
When the two return from leave, they will enter the final stage of basic combat training -- Forge.
(Editor's note: This is the second installment in a series that will follow Castro's and Bullington's journeys from civilian to Soldier.)