Haines Borough planning and zoning technician Tracy Cui is back on the job this week after more than five months in U.S. Army Reserves boot camp.

Cui, 30, returned to Haines Saturday after completing basic combat training and advanced individual training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. As a construction engineer, Cui learned to operate heavy machinery like graders, loaders and backhoes.

Cui said her time away was tough, and included demanding physical exercises, terrible food and malicious drill sergeants she wasn’t allowed to look in the eye. One drill sergeant repeatedly yelled at Cui to “put away your teeth” because she smiled too much.

“Every time I felt like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to make it,’ it’s just a mental game. Physically, you can handle it, but you just have to convince yourself to make it through,” she said.

Drill sergeants intent on building teamwork among recruits would punish her entire platoon for the failure of a single soldier. In one memorable situation, a woman was unable to complete a run in less than three minutes. The platoon was ordered to do push-ups while chanting “Thank you, (woman’s name),” as she continued running around the barracks, trying to make the three-minute goal.

Cui’s peers, most in their late teens or early 20s, playfully called her “grandma.” Cui turned 30 while in training, and her company celebrated by doing 100 push-ups in her honor.

All of the rigorous physical activity paid off, though: Cui can now do 86 sit-ups in two minutes and 42 push-ups in two minutes. Her sit-up performance put her in the No. 1 spot in the entire company.

The food at Fort Leonard Wood was horrendous, Cui said, and recruits had only five minutes to eat.

“I am a slow eater, but for the first couple weeks I was starving because I couldn’t finish my meal,” Cui said. “The drill sergeants say, ‘You don’t have to taste the food. You can taste it later. Just shove everything in your mouth and get out.’”

Cui said the worst meal she had was a sausage patty she was forced to eat cold during field training.

“You could see the oil, the fat was still on the patty and you eat it cold,” she said. “I almost puked, but I knew I had to eat it because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to make it out there.”

Other trying experiences included surviving for three days in the woods, and learning to sleep with a gun.

Cui graduated as a specialist E4 in the Army Reserves. She must report to her unit in Anchorage for two days per month for the next six years. She can be called on to serve any time during the next eight years.

One of the reasons Cui, a Chinese national, chose to enter the Army Reserves was to obtain her citizenship. That came in early March. She registered to vote as soon as she got back to town.

Despite the grueling boot camp experience, Cui said she wants to apply to Officer Candidate School, where she would become a second lieutenant upon graduation.

Cui has worked as the borough’s planning and zoning technician since October 2012. She holds a master’s degree in planning from the University of Florida.