Archive | September 2006

Cycles

This morning went by as per usual. PT came and went, then on to showers at the gym. Breakfast was taken at the local dining facility.

Formation was at 0900, where we were given the orders for the day. A safe had to be moved somewhere–someone was working on finding a truck. Supplies needed to be carted to the new brigade building–someone was working on finding the key to the room. And the barracks needed to be swept and mopped–supplies to be procured from locked supply room once key was tracked down.

Meaning the lot of us took our usual spots along the grass and curbs, waiting in the calming, autumn weather for someone to do something. I went inside the unit building to find the computer tech sergeant to heckle through some password/access issue that had sprung up.

The sun was up, above the adjacent building and pouring into the glass doors of the building’s front. The computer sergeant was pulling staff duty, manning a desk at the entrance to the place, ready to head off any issues, fights, fires or other situation that might arise through the day.

It’s a military thing to have a building staffed, much like a office receptionist might situate him or herself at the gaping maw of “the public,” save for the fact that our military counterparts are usually on hand for damage-control purposes–finding people and/or security measures and the like.

I was standing there, in line with several majors who took it upon themselves to assume positions in front of me. Not a problem, I had nothing but time until keys and trucks were found, and I’m sure the majors were needed in some PowerPoint capacity somewhere else. I just stood and watched the morning grow.

In the field next to the adjacent building were familiar stacks of duffel bags. Sort of like the ones made–yup, there were buses too, and families. A little father west was a formation of desert-uniformed troops, weapons slung, receiving instructions as families looked on.

Time to go for some group of Joes. Poor bastards. I’m sure someone looked at our formation a year ago and thought the same things–some of them probably recently returned–hell, some of them maybe out there now. We have a way of coming and going in cycles. One shift on, the other off–like some factory positions–or like the emperor penguins, taking turns on the outside of the circle, enduring the cold, keeping others warm.

It’s hard to enjoy the warmth and safety when you know there are others getting ready to face the cold reality of hate and conflict. Then again, I suppose it’s more of a crime not to enjoy it. If we spend all of our time in the states feeling guilty that others aren’t here, then what’s the point of defending anything? What’s the point of ever leaving the war-zone?

I have friends all the time who say things like, “Well, I feel guilty that I was just back here hanging out and drinking beer.” Maybe not those exact words, but genuine concern that their “ordinary” lives were somehow not as important or even detracting from the overall struggle.

I try to always tell them that I’m glad they were here–that I hope they had the easiest year of their lives. Not to gain any sort of martyrdom points, but to try to express genuine thankfulness that somewhere, someone was enjoying something in a place made safer by the efforts of others.

It’s like taking a fresh-baked pie and letting it spoil because someone couldn’t come to dinner. Ack! There went the pie! Eat it, enjoy it.

So as those cats were piling on the buses and the families were all saying goodbye, I said a little prayer for them and went back to my day in the states, worrying about little else than safes and supplies.

It’s how I would want it, were I just leaving for Iraq, and I think it’s how they would feel to, given the chance to say so.

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Buxom babes

Now I’m not one to pass judgment on a whole group of people, especially when I know next to little about them. So it was with this mindset that I set out for an afternoon at our local Buffalo Wild Wings with two Hooters girls and some guys I met at the mall, of all places.

It was an eclectic mix: a couple of young Army officers, a just-got-out former troop, a clothing-store clerk, myself and a couple of curvaceous trophy girls from our local breast exposition.

On me right quick. A lot of cats think I’m damn hilarious, which is very flattering. Guys, especially ones I had chuckling through the deployment, always are saying things like, “Dude! You’ve GOT to come out with us now that we’re back!” thinking that my wit and charm (begrudgingly admitted, har har) is like a microwave dinner–frozen in wait until popped in an oven, frazzed out for two minutes and bam! instant comic relief. Thus the reason for my invite.

What these poor saps don’t realize is that subtle accents and observed comments are best served in a venue that doesn’t list deafening sports or music ambiance as features.

That’s why I usually avoid the club scene. Having to screech into my neighbors ear about how the napkins stick to my glass isn’t that fun, in my opinion, and having to repeat-screech anything longer than three words kind of dampens the normal material.

All that to say that I’m usually quiet at these spots. But the ladies were in their element, used to talking in that sort of vibe, sort of like how dentists know what the heck you’re saying as they put several metal probes throughout your mouth.

“So you like Hooters?” one of our boys asked during a break in the 12 football games beamed throughout the super-televisioned bar.

“Yeah, it’s SOOOO much fun!” said one of the more “buxom” blonds, M. “We totally like live there. We’re there all the time,” she motioned to her friend. “Like last week, I worked 100 hours.”

“No, that’s 100 hours for two weeks,” explained M2 (also an M, but for the sake of the story, we’ll go with M2). “Someone had to explain it to me too.”

“Oh. All I know is that it said 100 hours on my pay tab.”

“Yeah, but it’s 100 hours every two weeks.”

“Oh. So that’s like, what? 50 hours a week?” *Laughs* “I worked 50 hours last week.”

Things went like that for a while, the guys drifting back and forth from game to game, the girls going on about their 60-something regular who tips each of them $100 per visit, five days a week.

“He says we’re totally like his granddaughters. He just has SOOOO much money,” M2 told me, amazed. “He’ll always buy us stuff. He’ll be like, “I know M will like that!” and he’ll just get it.”

“And you don’t think that’s a little wierd?” piped in the just-out former troop.

That set off a whole defensive thing with the girls. Our concensus was that 60-year-old men buying young waitresses thousands of dollars of stuff in addition to tipping thousands of dollars a month was a little strange. They didn’t like that at all.

“We just enjoy his company,” M said, a little tiffed, and went into a pout and pushed her head-sized breasts out in a sort of one-two “this will end the discussion because I’m cute” move. Yibbida yibbida.

Lets see. What else? We had a frank discussion on what Jessica Simpson song was the best to dance to while at work. We talked about how one of the young officer guys had great teeth. And we got to hear about how the M’s were going to stop eating this week to lose five pounds by Saturday, when they were going to be ring girls at an ESPN-broadcast boxing event.

Side comments included the fact that guys are always saying they should be in Playboy–and there’s nothing wrong with that, they say, it’s just a way to get your face “out there.” It’s the same reason they do the ring-girl gig–a chance to get out there.

Is that fame? I suppose so, for a lot of people. It’s always a wonder how girls line up to do the Internet porn thing. Not even the big stars in the “professional” circuit, but the thousands of girls that come and go in those emails that everybody seems to eventually get. Is it that “somebody” saw you “somewhere” that’s the goal?

The M’s are just living their lives, they say. “If you’re young and have a good body, you might as well flaunt it. You just need to get out there and have fun.”

Well there it is, my afternoon with the ladies.

It won’t be a habit, I’m sure. Rolling with that caliber of woman is a little on the expensive side, so I’ll let the drooling officer-types that were there fight it out. Also, you tend to get “You don’t look so tough, I’ma gonna kick your ass” looks from every guy in the place. I’d rather not revert into primate mode and have to defend my alpha-male status to keep my prizes. I’ll just stick to my normal routes.

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The Quest for Stripes: Prologue

Getting promoted in the Army is very difficult–not because things are necessarily competitive, but because anything remotely beneficial to a soldier’s career or well being must be tenaciously fought for through gatekeepers and mountains of paperwork.

“Gatekeepers” are especially problematic. They are the persons in administrative positions who determine if your requests, forms and/or approvals are processed. An unfortunate sizable portion of these people are infamous for their self-serving, lazy attitudes. Griping at them doesn’t help, since they are the ones who you must ultimately work through. They know it, you know it. You take the sh*t they give you and smile politely. Picture having to work through the DMV for anything from requesting an earned day off to fixing a finance error and you get a better picture of what it’s like.

In September of 2004 I became a sergeant, after weeks and weeks of appointments, trips to this office or that, interfacing with civilian-run organizations and military sections. I had to update the listings of my records: my awards, certificates, PT scores, rifle qualifications, and college education. This required several trips to processing centers, multiple appointments spread over several floors of employees, offices and sections.

Of course certain items were mis-entered, which I found out after allowing the allotted time to pass while the requests for record updates were sent to Indianapolis and the 5,000 other fully-staffed government agencies that “process” these sorts of things. Correcting the errors meant more trips and more forms and more appointments.

All of this to prepare a “promotion packet” that is put together by the military administrative personnel of the unit. The packet also undergoes it’s own series of scrutinies and “corrections,” sending it to and from several offices before finally being blessed as pure and righteous enough to be presented to a promotion board.

A promotion board is a panel of several sergeants major or first sergeants who screen potential promotion applicants with a high-pressure interview involving strict military protocol and pressed, sparkling uniforms. Weeks of study are required to answer questions completely unrelated to a soldier’s everyday job.

The topics include questions about weapons capabilities, map reading, Army programs such as sexual assault policy or the weight-control program, first aid and uniforms. Not that this knowledge isn’t good to know, but I’ve never understood how knowing that the Army Family Action Plan’s symbol is the equilateral triangle will help me be a better journalist, especially when there are never any job-specific questions at these things.

If I’m trying to be promoted as a journalist, how about some questions about photography, or grammar, or pagination? You would think that would be a better indication of whether I’m ready to be promoted. But there I go, rear-seat driving.

Upon a successful board appearance, where the panel members can vote “yes” or “no” on whether they recommend the promotion, the final series of signatures and approvals are processed, the soldier waits two months for the 5,000 government agencies to work their magic, and, finally, the troop is promoted.

Well, after two years, it’s time for me to begin my quest again. I’ll be documenting what I’m sure will be a fun and memorable time.

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rear-seat drivers

Being in charge of a formation or group of personnel is quite a thing.

When a person is in command of a formation, they stand just a few paces in front of the mass, commands committed to memory, ready to steer the living beast to or from an event. While in charge, he has every opportunity to show his knowledge of drill (or lack thereof) and get the chance to be berated and criticized by every swingin’ Richard in the ranks.

“Why don’t we do this inside?” “They’re just gonna have to do this again after the cards are passed out.” “I’m signing this sheet too?” “God, why are we running so fast?” “My feet hurt, why don’t they slow down?”

And in a lot of cases, the troops are right–things are often done in silly ways. Pointed-out opinions are a lot of times correct.

But the ones doing the griping often have never been in charge, and have no idea how your mind turns to mush when things pop up or you’re expected to make snap decisions on little to no information.

Coming back from Iraq I was the NCO in charge of the baggage detail–a fun little romp involving the repeated lifting of many hundreds of overstuffed duffel bags. It was hot, it was heavy, but it had to be done.

Getting off the bus, they’d yell for the baggage detail to form up while every one else went to chill in the air conditioning. We’d gather outside before being ushered to our labor zone by one of the attending civilian quarter-millionaires.

You know that game “memory” where you are asked to look at a series of objects for two or three seconds, they’re covered and mixed around, and then the sheet is whisked away and you have to reassemble everything?

That’s how being in charge feels like when faced with a new task. You remember how things should or could go and–whoosh! There goes the curtain, now…how best to assemble my troops in a system of efficiency and effectiveness to both maximize output and assuage any gripes and complaints before they manifest?

Older cats have more experience, of course, but even that only gets you so far. Our first sergeant does things at times that make me frumple my brow. Joes like me take to it as best we can, but it will always lead to some of the “suggestions” being thrown out by the troops.

Now, old-school Army would have the ol’ sarge scream, shout and kick the sh*t out of the complainers; but we can’t do that in the sensitive, feeling Army. So, I’m left with second-guessers and rear-seat drivers.

And not to say that I’m the calm, cool and collected SOB either. There’s a lot of times I have no idea what’s going on.

“We’re NOT moving these off the palettes? Green bags on the–where?! Ok guys, stop. Move these back on to there, take these others and lash them to the back.”

“Aw, com’on!” “I’m thirsty!” “Sergeant, you got all these people here that aren’t doing anything.” “We need more people on the top.”

And the all-knowing, almighty specialists begin their mantra. Would-be NCOs–some too young for stripes, but many too lazy to care. It’s far easier to sit back and bitch rather than follow instructions and bear with things.

Command at any level is tricky, but E5s are a special bunch. We’re the ones who typically interact with the soldiers directly. Commands trickle down the chain finally to the E5s who whip the troops into a reluctant blob and accomplish the work.

I ain’t the best at it, but I try. “There’s nothing like command,” I hear the colonels and majors say, smiling. Yeah, from the lofty perches, I’m sure it is a glorious thing. Down with the Joes, it’s day by day, one complex puzzle after the next, and there’s no shortage of gripes and complaints.

Still, it’s where you can make the most difference. I’ll leave all the movie and book deals to the officers and glory hounds. I’m a sergeant. I keep it real.

###

Reconnecting

A questionaire. Four pages. On top of a stack of seven packs of some-odd papers, also. And they were? Papers for paper’s sake. The same information requested in six of them, but with different form numbers and colored headings.

Flipping through our pile in a gym’s bleachers…

Do you have any of the listed symptoms…

Initial on lines seven, 15a, date of birth, social, name on each page. In the upper left? Did he say if you had taken “malaria pills” or “anthrax” to mark “yes” in item 13?

Last test taken? Dates of shots? PPD positive in the past? Look for these symptoms. You can contract the disease up to a year after returning.

“This my 7 o’clock group? It is now 9:30. Try to not talk and keep moving. Now you may begin.”

We would proceed to where? Station four before two, three stamps then to legal and finance, only if you needed an SGLI adjustment.

Did you have your shot record? Vision tests only with glasses. “This the line for hearing? No? Down next to HIV screening? Gotit?”

…You feel like hurting yourself or others: (A lot) (often) (some) (never)…

“They didn’t sign what? Have to get in line again? Then I’m done? No? Okay.”

“How are things? Weekend’s not long enough, huh? Yeah, got a new car. Apartment’s nice.”

…Do you feel like you’re disconnected from others? Do you not find enjoyment in activities?…

“Are you having trouble sleeping?” “Yes.” “Frequent indigestion?” “Yes.” “Were you exposed to pesticides, industrial polution, sand, dirt, vehicle exhaust, and oil fires?” “Yes.” “You’re done here, go on to station seven.”

“We’re done after this?” “Yes, colonel wants you to have half days for the first week back, so we’re trying to get that to you.”

The folder doesn’t have a yellow insert , proceed to “personnel.” Line forms here. “You here for personnel? Okay, good.”

“ID card, RSRP form and the PDHA packet, you keep all that.” “Am I done?” “Yes, sir.” “Am I ready to come back to the world?” “Medically you are.”

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Gimme some…PT…good for you…good for me

It’s good to be back on a similar time table (i.e. zone) as the majority of the readers (sorry to any New Zealanders out there…of course you’re about to hit summertime, so I’m all screwy with the “sync-ing” business).

These past few days have been very easy. The Army asks a lot from its troops, but they know how to let kids unwind a bit before the next go ’round. All that’s scheduled through the day are some quick classes. Then we’re to be released in the afternoons to get stuff updated, renewed and all that crap.

We have had PT in the mornings–have to get used to regular morning workouts again, I was always an evening cat back in Iraq.

Around 0630-ish, we stand in formation in a field, between two sets of barracks buildings. The grass is nothing more than worn patches of dry stubble–rubbed away from countless formations and exercises by thousands of troops.

I say 0630-ish because you can never be quite sure the damn morning reveille will sound. It’s barely audible, piped through speakers half the post away. Within the envelope of time we think it may go off–30, 31 or 35 after, we’ll stop any shenanigans and go to “parade rest,” which is a more formal form of “at ease”–both involving standing with your feet a shoulder’s width apart, hands clasped behind your back. Parade rest just means eyes front with no heads moving around.

After a few silent minutes with just you and the morning weather (hopefully dry, hopefully not damned cold!), the sound of bugle will insipidly give us a whisper, and we’ll hold our salute in the general direction of the post colors until the tune abates.

Then, as is our tradition, we will sing the 4th Infantry Division march–a jocular tune which is inexorably mangled and shredded by the 200-some-odd of us who fire off keys and pitches like a shotgun blast. After that, top will give us his “sounds like crap” side comment, and we’ll launch into the Army Song, where we’ll repeat the same harmonies, but with much more volume–meaning more motivation, which excuses the actual sounding like crap part. The Army’s good for that–take a crap on a piece of paper for a situation report, but sound damn motivated during PT and you’re a Gump among men.

For dessert, some poor sap is picked from a random platoon called out by top (our first sergeant…sorry, forgot to explain that one) to lead us in reciting the Soldier’s Creed–a fine little “attaboy” poem when rattled off in its entirety, but one that is drawn out like Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” in a “you say two words, then we say those two words; repeat until bleeding ears ensues” sort of way.

Then, friends…THEN we can start to PT. The act itself can be covered in Army regulations, so I won’t go through all the little rituals and steps, but great pains are made to ensure the maximum number of patrons is involved so as to nullify the actual “working out” portion of the workout. Can’t overdo things for the fat-bodies, can’t let the high-PTers do their own thing–that would split up the unit. I’m told that if I want more of a workout, I have to do it on my own.

So I push myself and max my PT standards…and instead of using the morning “PT time” to maintain that level, I get to almost break a sweat, waste two hours, and plan on investing a chunk of my evenings in the gym?

Yeah, that’s pretty much how things work in the military. That’s why they tell you to always blend in to the background and never do anything innovative or extraordinary.

And I’ve learned my lesson. See, if I complain about not getting a workout, they’ll put me in charge of leading the morning formation, which leaves you just slightly more toned, as you’re the one yelling commands during the 25 daily pushups, instead of whispering “this sucks” to the guy next to you.

But it is damn good to be back, regardless!

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You feel me?

Under the crossed sabers during a convoy.

Under the crossed sabers during a convoy.

There is a danger in not qualifying circumstances—in letting people’s minds fill in the blanks. I’m not sure how to counteract it. But it can take advantage of people’s good graces.

I’m a soldier, recently returned from Iraq. After hearing that, immediately, every image of a battered, weary warrior comes to mind. Every romantic notion of self sacrifice, love, justice, perseverance is placed upon me. Every idea that I left family, friends, a dog, a wife, children; went through tearful nights and lonely weeks; enduring the crap of conflict every second of every day is credited to me.

And it’s easy to let people think all those things. In a few seconds of conversation, I can go from normal dude, regarded with a polite nod…to a hero, embraced with a handshake and an outpouring of sincere gratitude. “Yeah, just got back from Iraq…” Hell, I could get free meals and a few hookups if I were so inclined.

The works of past people in my position have given me this inheritance of honor. How do you take or defer this appreciation without overindulging?

I’m not looking for personal justification or pats on the back, I’m just pointing out that there are degrees of self-sacrifice and conduct.

Thousands of troops have endured horrors beyond tasteful description while in Iraq; but I’m a combat vet too? It just doesn’t fit.

I can feel the difference walking around Fort Hood now. I have a combat patch on. Others don’t. I can see some of the younger guys looking at that space on my sleeve. Do they wonder what it’s like? Do they think I’m some Blackhawk-repelling, knife-wielding, ninja?

Every time someone asks if I just got back from Iraq, I want to fill them in on the whole sordid tale—that I was always fed and relatively dry, and that I didn’t have to go outside the wire constantly like some folks.

Although I was close to getting a Combat Action Badge a few times, I never did (thank God); but I assume guys with that award go through some of this too. Some guys get a CAB for constant, consistent mortal danger—some guys get it because a tracer was fired over their humvee. But everyone that sees a soldier with a CAB immediately thinks “Wow, that guy is intense. He’s actually fought the enemy!” The same sort of imagination-filling-in-the-blanks goes on.

I can’t help but thinking this current philosophy of “everybody’s a warrior; everybody’s a hero” only cheapens things.

There was a master sergeant that deployed with my unit. He had been in 17 or 18 some odd years and never had deployed, but finally got tagged to go to Iraq. He worked in our command center—the most heavily guarded and protected building in our area. He went in, played with PowerPoint, and went back to his room. He had no roommate and easy access to phones to call family.

He lasted about two months before freaking out and saying he couldn’t take it. He got to go home. I saw him the other day at our base personnel center. He’s still a master sergeant, and he even has a combat patch. He still gets all the pats on the back and “thank you for serving” just like me.

During one of my first convoys to LSA Anaconda back in Iraq, we had to get some of our electronic equipment calibrated. The yard was run by employees of the equipment’s vendor and we had the opportunity to talk with the head honcho for a bit, as we were there all day.

The official job of one of the sergeants with me was electronics calibration, so he and the yard supervisor had a lot to jabber on about. Eventually the talk turned to money and the sergeant started to get wild eyed at the notion of all that cash, if he could land a similar job there as a civilian in a couple years’ time.

The thing that stuck with me was one of the parting comments the yard supervisor made: “Yeah. My wife hates it, but I keep telling her, ‘Honey! I’m serving my country.’” He gets to cash in on the “I served in the war” benefit package too?

And do personal intentions come in to play when considering degrees in quality of service?

I’ve met a few “I serve for my loved ones” for sure, but the majority of troops are in uniform because of job security, college money, or free medical care. Most of us are enticed to enlist for purely self-serving reasons and placed into positions of self-sacrifice, where the honor-credit thing comes in.

Every one of us will list God, country, and apple pie as the right things to say when asked why we serve—but take away combat pay, catered dining facilities and some of the other benefit packages and we’d see how much of an army patriotism alone fetches.

We’re all mercenaries on one level or another. I guess I just get a little uncomfortable with all the saintly talk of the epitomized warrior as a creature of grace and strength when I’m so used to the squabbling, petty band that actually exists. And that’s not a hit on America—soldiers have always been a rowdy and saucy bunch.

People see “soldier” and their minds fill in the rest. What’s with this noble stereotype?

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