Pvt. Rhys Bullington and Pfc. Katelyn Castro of the Missouri Army National Guard both arrived at Fort Leonard Wood for Basic Combat Training by bus Oct. 28. They’re both from southwest Missouri, and they both enjoy sports and plan on becoming officers.
“When I got here, we waited for about 5 and a half hours until we actually got into the program,” Bullington said. “I wasn’t really scared, I wasn’t really feeling very worried that I was going to get into something big immediately.”
Castro joked that her aching back reserved a large portion of her thoughts during the first hours.
“I was very excited. I would say as much as I was ready to get it over with, I was probably still a little bit nervous, because who isn’t nervous?” she said. “You don’t know what’s coming up.”
Despite their similarities, the trainees’ reasons for joining the military and how they got here are far from similar.
“(My parents) wanted me to join straight out of high school, and I didn’t … I thought I had to go to college,” Castro said. “I always thought that was my plan, but then I started going to college and seeing student loan debt.”
After two years at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Missouri, Castro decided to enlist to help pay for school.
But not everyone goes to college, let alone right out of high school.
Bullington, whose family lives in Sparta, Missouri, spent the last three years away from them while boarding at the Missouri Military Academy. He said he wants to improve his life — physically and psychologically — and eventually study nuclear engineering in college.
While he is currently training to become a combat engineer, he knew that he would join the military even in his early adolescence, he said.
“It was the end of my middle school career — that’s when I decided to fully commit,” he said.
In contrast, Castro, who is training to become a combat medic, said her plans took her elsewhere.
“I never even thought about joining the military in high school,” she said. “I was all about soccer. That was one of the reasons I decided to go to college.”
Military service is a common theme in both families.
Castro’s father worked as a helicopter mechanic in the Army for four years. Bullington’s grandfather served in the Army for more than 20 years, and he heard stories of him growing up, he said.
“My mom brought him up a lot,” he said. “She would always bring up how many medals he earned, how much he did, and she lived on base.”
But last summer, soon after Bullington graduated from the academy, the stories faded. His mother had a stroke.
“When she had it, she hardly could remember anything about her past,” he said. “She only remembered bits and pieces of even me when I was a kid.”
At that same time, Bullington’s girlfriend was training to become a diesel mechanic at Fort Leonard Wood and wasn’t around to offer support.
“It was a lot, but I could manage it,” he said, giving credit to his training at the academy.
He said leaving home for basic training was made easier by time away at school, and that his mother is recovering.
“Now that she’s building up her memory, she’s starting to recover almost everything,” he said.
Now that he has arrived, he said, his grandfather doesn’t come to mind as frequently because he has begun his own journey.
“It isn’t as often, mainly because I went to look for myself and build myself the way I want to be built,” Bullington said.
Castro echoed his sentiments of self-improvement, saying that she is excited to begin training.
“I’m sure it’s going to be very mentally exhausting and tiring physically, but I’m sure it’s going to be good for all of us,” she said. “We’re going to come out of here as better people and as Soldiers.”
While she sees promise of growth in the future, she recognizes that her current civilian mentality limits her understanding of her chosen combat medic role.
“I know what that job is, but you never think about the fact that you’re not leaving a Soldier behind,” she said. “See, that’s where I don’t have that military mindset just yet so it’s hard. I’ll get that in basic.”
Both Soldiers in training said they look forward to the challenge of basic training.
“I’ve already known what it’s like to carry people on your back, have to push through a lot of challenges,” Bullington said. “Being here, being ready for training, I’m more than happy and excited for it.”
Castro said she wanted to set the record straight for curious civilians.
“It’s not as scary as people think it is,” she said. “Of course, getting yelled at it is part of it, but at the end of the day, it’s for your own correction. It’s to make you a better person, to make you a Soldier. It’s to make you realize that it’s not just about you, it’s about everyone, it’s about your country.”
Castro is currently training with the 1st Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment. Bullington is with the 35th Engineer Battalion.
(Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a series that will follow Castro’s and Bullington’s journeys from civilian to Soldier. For part two, click here.)