On Saturday, September 21st, I took the oath of office and accepted my appointment as a Warrant Officer One in the United States Army and the Minnesota Army National Guard. It was a moment more than a year in the making: I was federally recognized (“fed rec’ed,” as they say) as a warrant officer candidate in June of 2012, and started the application process long before that. Seven months of drill weekends and fifteen days at sweaty Camp Atterbury, Indiana came to a head that sunny morning when I and 157 of my classmates spoke the oath, leaving our enlisted careers behind.

In talking to warrant officers before I began the ritual dance known as WOCS, few provided any insight or even any amusing anecdotes about the experience. They painted broad strokes of misery, and offered helpful tidbits like “your class better develop teamwork quickly,” but weren’t otherwise forthcoming about their experiences. I thought that maybe part of the warrant officer mystique was some informal oath of silence, to better preserve the system shock of screaming black-hats and endless sock-stenciling that awaited beyond the gates of WOCS.

Now that I’m done, though, I see why those warrants had so little to say. All the trivialities that consumed my life for all those long days and nights (does the fold of the towel face in or out?), the minutiae that were elevated to life-or-death importance (do the collars of the shirts face up or to the left in the drawer?) – all those things vanish from the mind like waking from a horrible dream once those silver bars are pinned on your shoulders. Looking back now, even less than a week later, I wonder what the big deal was. After all, it was just writing some memos, and stenciling my name, and folding some socks… It is as if the reward at the end of that long path was so eminently worth it that it obliterated all that came before. It’s not as if the benefits have already begun to accrue – I haven’t even yet received my first paycheck as a warrant officer! – but rather that the verdant spring valley of the future stretches out before me in endless beauty and possibility, made all the more sweet after the sulfur-choked hell-cave through which I had just passed.

Embarking on this journey, I asked myself – at first rhetorically, but with increasing seriousness as WOCS dragged on – how much of this process is actually training, and how much is instead ritual? Certainly, no one in the schoolhouse chain of command would ever admit that any of the stupid shit that happens in WOCS is for any other reason than the training of the candidates. But try as one might to see a grand design behind things like making up warrant officer-themed lyrics to Justin Bieber songs, sometimes the conclusion is inescapable: a large part of WOCS is a giant shit test. It’s a giant ring of daunting mountains that surrounds the aforementioned spring valley of awesomeness, and you have to go through a little bit of hell to get inside. But once you cross those mountains, life is good.

Unlike Officer Candidate School (OCS), which is designed to mold inexperienced candidates into junior officers (or, less charitably, to lobotomize them), WOCS is merely a scouring process, or a midcourse correction. It doesn’t have to make something from nothing – warrant officer candidates are already experienced soldiers, so the raw material is already there – it just has to strip off the rough edges and smooth out some of the more unsightly blemishes. It’s not long enough to completely remold a soldier, either; instead, it instills a powerful sense – maybe a sacred charge – that says, if I’m in charge, things will never be this stupid again.

(Another post will follow with various amusing anecdotes and observations about the long fifteen days of Phase III.)