An Interview with The Ultimate Basic Training Guidebook Author Michael Volkin
Three and a half years ago, called to duty by the murderous events on the morning of 9/11, Michael Volkin entered military basic training with no idea what to expect. To ensure that no other soldier would enter boot camp utterly unprepared again, he started taking notes, interviewing soldiers, and developing a fitness program. The result of his efforts is The Ultimate Basic Training Guidebook, an indispensable resource for everyone joining the military in general, and the Army in particular. It is also perfect for parents who want to know what their kids are experiencing in "boot camp." Volkin recently discussed his new book with Sarah Stephan of Savas Beatie LLC.
: Do you think there are any preconceived notions about basic training?
MV: I think that most people do not have a clear understanding of what basic training is before they join. For one thing, some recruits think that if they go to the gym and run a few times a week, they will be fit enough for basic training. However, military fitness differs from civilian fitness. In basic training, you don't go to a gym to lift weights, you use your own body weight to create resistance; it is an entirely different way to work out.
: Why did you decide to join the military?
MV: One Tuesday morning I woke up to the phone ringing. It was my father, calling to tell me to look at the TV. I asked which station and he said, "It doesn't matter, any one." Puzzled, I walked over to the TV and saw what seemed liked a commercial for an upcoming movie. I watched a building on fire with a plane crashing into it. After about 30 seconds I realized this was too long to be a commercial. Of course, the date of this story is September 11, 2001. This event was the reason I joined. Two days later I was in my recruiter's office and less than a month later I was eye-to-eye with a drill sergeant.
: How did you prepare before you left for basic training?
MV: I desperately looked for information on the web and in the library, but I came up virtually empty handed. I found a few personal stories about basic training, but no general information on how to get through it, what to expect, how to succeed, and so forth. I knew that I was not the only one seeking this material. Thus, my inspiration for writing this book was to help others find the information I sought before I departed for basic training.
: Why do you think you had trouble finding information on basic training?
MV: There are several possibilities. One, the average age for recruits entering the military is 18 to 23. Most people this age are not experienced with writing manuscripts or familiar with the publishing world. Another reason could be the strategy involved in writing a book like this. Some aspects of basic training are hands-on experiences, which could make for a boring read. For example, writing about how to shoot a weapon could be a 50-page bedtime story!
: What did you do to avoid this?
MV: I extracted the hands-on experiences and left that for the drill sergeants to teach recruits. My book contains all the information you could possibly learn before arriving at basic training. It is presented so that someone with little or no military experience can understand it easily. I designed a non-intimidating book on a very intimidating topic.
: What was it like once you arrived at boot camp?
MV: I was in a completely different world, a world where I had to ask to go to the bathroom, where I addressed people by their rank rather than by their name, and a world where there was very little personal time or phone calls. Being unfamiliar with this new environment actually helped me write the book. My ignorance of military ranks, acronyms, and terms enhanced the end quality of my book because I am able to communicate with recruits who know absolutely nothing about the military, just like I did several years ago.
: Did you do anything before you left to prepare for basic training physically?
MV: Having been a fitness guru since I was a teenager, I thought I was in good enough shape. However, I had to learn the hard way that military fitness differs from civilian fitness.
: So that future recruits could avoid your experience, you created a fitness program that is detailed in your book...
MV: Yes, I found that fitness is the number one reason recruits become stressed during basic training. Many recruits think that just because they work out in the gym or run, they will do fine in basic training. Unfortunately, they learn otherwise very quickly after they arrive. The military has its own exercises that civilians don't practice to stay fit. As a result, certain muscles aren't developed. The fitness program in my book is specifically designed to tone your muscles toward military fitness. It also includes charts and graphs so readers can track their individual progress. I believe the routine I outline is the most efficient way to get "military fit."
: Before coming to Savas Beatie, you published a print-on-demand edition. It has done very well. What kind of feedback do you get from soldiers who read your book and completed basic training?
MV: Since I published this book, I started writing a column for www.military.com, www.army.com, and www.gruntmilitary.com. I receive lots of email from soldiers who read my book and tell me what a gigantic help it has been for them. Some of them just returned from basic training and said my book was like having a personal coach by their side. I love getting emails like that because it is why I spent so much time developing the book-to help people avoid all the mistakes I (and so many others) experienced.
: When did you start gathering information to include in your book?
MV: I started handwriting notes on the plane ride to basic training. Then, I wrote down as many experiences as I could every chance I got and began organizing them. When I was deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was surrounded by hundreds of other soldiers, and I kept adding to my notes. I talked to everyone from privates to generals, soldiers who attended basic training decades ago, and some who finished just a few months earlier. I was able to incorporate their stories and advice into my book.
: Can you tell us about some of the other things people will find inside your book?
MV: Sure. Beside the fitness routine, the book is full of helpful tips such as how to get dressed faster than superman, how to eat a full meal in less than three minutes, what to bring and not to bring to basic training, and so on. To civilians these issues may seem, well, not that important. However, let me tell you, when you are in basic training, they are the most important details of your life.
: Why do you think it is important for recruits to read your book?
MV: If recruits read my book before leaving for basic training, they don't have to stress out about memorizing general orders or rank structures, learning how to deal with drill sergeants on the spot, or performing well physically. They will already know what to expect and be ready for it.
: So preparation is the key...
MV: Preparation is indeed the key! Good things can happen to a well-prepared recruit, such as a promotion in rank and pay, or even an award. If every recruit entering the military read my book beforehand, every one would be better able to handle the rigors of basic training, which in turn would lead to a more powerful military. I view this book as a means to help recruits, so they don't have to go into basic training as blindfolded as I did.
: Before I let you go, Sergeant, the new print edition by Savas Beatie is revised and updated. What's new in this version?
MV: Yes. It has been completely reformatted, edited, and includes a couple extra chapters, one on the dreaded "Gas Chamber!" It has also been specially designed to be inclusive for female recruits, and has a new cover.
: And you will sign copies for anyone who wants them? Parents included!?
MV: (laughing) Absolutely. I get asked for signed copies all the time and it is always an honor.
: Thank you, Michael, both for your book and the information you offer new soldiers. It is definitely something that no one should enter boot camp without having read.
MV: I would agree with that even if I was not the author. Thanks for speaking with me.
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