Archive | April 2007

Life sans ego

When you’re in the custody of the military entrance processing station (MEPS), waiting to get on your flight the next day to begin your term of service, it’s a sort of strange feeling. You’re still a civilian, in your town, or near enough to your home town so that things are still familiar. I guess you could liken it to the anticipation of a roller coaster, when you’ve just been clicked in. There are a few moments of calm–stuff is going on around you, but you’re just sitting there, waiting for the rest of the situation to prime itself to hurl you down a strange and physically taxing set of circumstances.

They doled out the hotel rooms I guess alphabetically, though I don’t remember the name of the guy I shared a room with. He was a quiet guy, one of those play-it-cool, severe type of cats. All I got out of him was that he was going to Fort Knox to be a scout. We both crashed early, avoiding the train downstairs that the only girl in our group agreed to. We had an Air Force guy and a few Marines in our crew out of Lansing, Michigan. Maybe a sailor…don’t remember.

The next morning they bussed us to the airport, handed out our lunch coupons and cut us loose. I didn’t see the girl to see what sort of shape she was in, but the other guys were beaming, so I guess it went well for part of the party. Some guys had already started to bond, sharing phone numbers and stuff. As a military kid, I knew that was a little ridiculous. We’d all be meeting hundreds of people in the next few weeks and months, trying to “hold on” to every face we saw would be impossible. My roommate and I gave each other a head nod and we went to our separate gates.

Some dozen hours later, I was sitting in Fort Jackson in a shuttle from the airport. It was night, raining. I held on to my bag in the dark, watching some of my first unfriendly military types yelling at people filing off of a coach bus. Someone hadn’t done something fast enough, so all were doing push ups–you know the type of hard-ass atmosphere.

A minute or two passed and the unfriendlies got to my van. Our door slid open and we got the same tirade. “Out! Out! Out! You need to hurry up! Get those bags in a line! Get on your face! Too slow! You want to play games with me?! Let’s see how you like playing this game!”

And so it started. Life sans ego. Sometimes it was me staring at pavement, sometimes it was just being yelled at. An enlisted person in the military is about as close as any Westerner can get to a complete and utter lesson in humility. We lost our first soldier that night. About three hours into the process of getting us registered, at half past two in the morning, a sassy girl snapped. “You can’t talk to me like that! I’m tired of people yelling at me! I am NOT going to read my book! I am NOT going to just ‘wait here!’ I’m tired! I’m NOT going to take this sh*t!”

The cadre let her go off for a few minutes before escorting her away. Not like they capped her or did anything crazy–this is the sensitive Army nowadays, remember. She probably got some counseling or maybe they let her go home, who knows. Regardless, I remember a lot of us looked at each other and shrugged–silently, of course, we were already on lock down.

As a Christian man, so much of what it is to live in tune with God stems from humility–from assuming a mindset that focuses on others. Being in the Army has helped do that for me. Not that I’m this paragon of temperament and selflessness, the Army also indirectly teaches an incredible amount of slyness and self preservation; but I look back at how I used to regard myself and notice a large change in ego. In situations that friends of mine say, “Wow, I’d never let them do that to me,” I just shrug.

The journalist gig helps too. When working for a newspaper, it’s customary to be berated on the phone, especially when you write sports. I’ve been reprimanded and degraded to the point of tears several times, by sergeants major, lieutenant colonels, and everything in between. Name misspellings, battery instead of company, winner of the “large” DFAC category instead of just winner; there’s a thousand things to shred a person’s humanity over when writing for the public. And they don’t have any problem saying what a poor excuse for a soldier you are, or how you’ve systematically let down the unit, Army and country. While at first the remains of your ego might want to put up a fight; the calm, collected professional you’re taught to create takes over after a few sessions, allowing the irate individual to finish their assault.

This same calm, detached persona also kicks in every time you’re told to pick up cigarette butts, dig mucus out of urinal cakes, separate recyclables from the garbage, or any number of fun duties that arise while in service. When you’re told to “stand by,” “get it done,” “redo slide six” any of which makes you miss meals, miss dates, miss fun; you just do it.

There seems to be too ditches on the road to learning healthy humility. There’s being too selfish and there’s being emasculated and numb. Sometimes I wonder if I’m in one rut or the other.

So, I’m signing up for three more years of service as of Monday, reenlisting. You can’t beat this sort of personality readjustment.

The instructor gig went through, so I’ll be Meade bound within the next few months. Hopefully it will allow me to explore the life-growing aspects of the military, without as many beat downs and kicks to the nuts. I think being at Fort Hood for these last two years has just worn me out. The war didn’t help either. I toast to change.

We’ll see how I turn out in a couple of years!

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Shady

Two steps forward, one back. You know that old line.

The instructor gig has stalled. The Department of Defense says “yes.” The Army says “yes.” But Fort Hood and two out of five personnel clerks somewhere say “you can’t be reassigned, you’re locked in to your unit until 2009.”

I’m sure it’s just a matter of the huge beast of military bureaucracy remembering to pump blood to one of its 14,000 appendages to sign a particular form…but it’s exasperating nonetheless. As of yesterday I seemed on track, but today I’m locked down again, unable to leave the post.

There are a lot of people in our corner of post desperately trying to flee Fort Hood. Our command staff has been gutted and the last vestiges of old guard will be leaving within a month or two. The officers are all beaming as they leave for their new commands, from San Antonio to Japan. And I’m not saying they don’t deserve better assignments; it’s just that many of the enlisted are stuck, unable to climb out of the black hole of Texas.

The very junior enlisted don’t even try. They know they don’t have the clout to swing a new assignment. The middle guys like myself are hit and miss–some are resigned to staying while others fight to leave. Most of the fighters are running into the same problem I am–that someone locked a huge swatch of us in to Hood. They call it “stabilization” but many suspect it’s a way of ensuring enough numbers are left to deploy. My code has me staying put until August of 2009, which would put me at four and a half years here if I lived out the whole term. Ugh!

I have hope, though. My ace in the hole is reenlistment. Yes, I must dive deeper into the Army in order to escape it. Strange, isn’t it? I suppose it’s like surgery, where you have to wound in order to heal. Where others are all getting to a certain stage in their bid for a new assignment and hitting a wall, my intent to reenlist will boost me over that wall. Hopefully there won’t be another obstacle beyond that. If so, I’ll start writing Congressmen. I wonder if they get tired of hearing from us.

In other news, they’re finally launching an investigation into college transcript fraud in and around our unit.  You see, it’s difficult for certain jobs to get promoted in the Army, usually since there are four billion of that particular job. So, one of the ways you can boost your promotion points is by earning college credit. The idea is that those who go that extra mile will better themselves and show that extra bit of ambition, pushing them in front of their peers. With these sorts of scams, someone starts up a garage university and starts cooking up degrees and transcripts.

But the higher ups have started catching folks with bogus stuff. I’ve noticed a few people getting their recent promotions rescinded. One sergeant complained that it was “embarrassing” since people saw her get promoted, and now notice she’s wearing her former rank.

Sorry dear, I spent four years of my life earning my degree. I’m paying back student loans. I stayed up late, wrote reports, stressed about tests, and generally endured the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of university life. I didn’t hand someone $200 for a doctored transcript. If you’re looking for sympathy, you’ll have to move on down the line.

I had “heard” a lot of rumors about the transcript stuff all throughout the Iraq rotation, but hearsay hardly proves anything. Still, it was always interesting to ask someone who had just completed a “program” which courses they took, or which ones were the hardest for them; and then watch as they had no idea how to answer. That’s how some of these poor jerks are being caught–they have no idea what classes are listed on their transcripts. Ack! Read the blasted thing before you turn it in!

Some shady times here. Mostly legal, but shady. Here’s hoping the instructor gig goes through. I’m half torn between feeling sorry for the poor bastards left here, and coldly looking out for myself, which is what old soldiers always say to do.

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An English Lesson

I came across an old-school mimeographed handout I got while in 11th grade advanced placement English. Eleventh grade was the year where I switched from uber math geek to literary wannabe. Up until the first week of school, I was slated for the typical “honors” English; but when I found out that my friends were in AP, I petitioned the teacher, Mr. Moore, to let me join the class. I hadn’t read the summer reading, Mr. Moore said, and, as the test over the three books was scheduled for that Friday, I would have to catch up quick.

I scored copies of the three books and stayed up through the nights leading up to Friday, honest-to-God reading every page. Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” was one of the books. I can’t bring up the other two–sad, I know. That week was the first time I can remember willing myself to accomplish something. I remember that some of the AP kids hadn’t read the books either, and were also cramming. It was simultaneously my first real lesson in the nature of people–that some will always squander opportunity. I was tired, Friday, but I passed the test.

It was a good year. It awoke my inner writer. Mr. Moore was a tough teacher, but he was honest. I thought, at the time, that I was this big sh*t writer. I was a real dick back then, haughty and drunk on GPA and my elitist friends. I remember being chided and corrected on my writing and feeling indignant. Hurt pride. Teenage angst, emotions, too much for the small sprouts of prose. My sentences were mangled and fustian. Instead of cultivating my new crop, I was already ready for the harvest.

The year ended. There was 12th grade AP English, but I was to follow my family to Kentucky for my final year of high school. I went back for a wedding two years later, but haven’t returned since.

Anyway, here is the handout. It’s a collection of common figures of speech. Enjoy:

Alliteration — Repetition of initial consonant sounds, “beat and empty barrel with the handle of a broom” — Vachel Lindsey, “The fair breeze blew the white foam flew.”

Allusion — A brief passing reference to history, literature, famous people or events, “a figure like Apollo,” “Freud was called the Columbus of the mind.”

Analogy — Unlike items are compared at some length. “Sail on O Ship of State.” “All the world’s a stage and each of us merely players.”

Assonance — Repetition of the same or similar vowel sounds in consecutive words. “Fruit of the Loom,” “How now Brown Cow,” “The owl shall seek out the mouse.”

Hyperbole — An exaggeration not intended to deceive but to emphasize. “This suitcase weighs a ton.” “Mountainous waves breaking on the shore.”

Irony — The writer says one thing but intentionally means something else. “Work fascinates me.” “I can sit and watch it for hours.”

Meiosis — An exaggeration to understate. “Oh! I’m in a bit of a pickle.”

Metaphor
— Comparison between two unlike objects or ideas, making a direct statement. “Fame is a flighty bee,” “The heart is a machine.”

Metonymy — The substitution of a term for one with which it is closely associated. “All hands on deck,” “You can’t fight city hall.” Referring to the king as “the crown.”

Onomatopoeia — The word sounds like its meaning, “buzz, crash, clang, puff, zing, thud, clap, tap.”

Paradox — A statement which is basically true, but seems to say two different things. “To damn with faint praise,” “deafening silence,” “alone in the crowd,” “the victory is bitter sweet.”

Personification — Giving human qualities to non-human objects, “the old moon laughed,” “the trees kneeling in praise.”

Simile — Comparison of two unlike objects using “like” or “as.” “His hair was like moldy hay,” “islands struck like pearls in the sea.”

Synecdoche — Substituting part for a whole. “Teacher counted heads.”

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No tassles, but still…

Graduation day is upon us. For three weeks, men and women from all walks of life and regions of the country came together at Fort Meade to endeavor toward learning the business of a public affairs NCO. I wasn’t sure what to expect from BNCOC phase two (I did phase one back at Hood, remember?). The Hood aspect of the course was…how should we say…underwhelming.

This iteration of education ended up being a little harder than I had anticipated. We had to do quite a bit of studying to complete all assignments—a far, far cry from what most people laud as “Beer-NOC,” that meaning a course that is pretty much a formality and a waste of time.

Competition was stiff for the number one through three spots. These would be our “honor graduates,” which gets you a couple of pats on the back and a few more trinkets. It looks good on the records, and is generally good grease for the wheels when dealing with commanders and first sergeants.

I was knocked out of the race early with a paltry 92 on our first exam. Remember, most of us journalist types are pretty sharp tacks, as Army folk go. Full 100s and high 90s were the norm.

Sure as sh*t, Uber Peep Finch was our number one graduate. He’s come a long way from where he thought he was back at Fort Knox. I’m proud of the guy and wanted to give him some blog love. He got a plaque for God’s sake, etched and all!

The rest of us still graduated, so there were elated faces all around, but Finch’s strut was that much more pimped out. Congrats, brutha.

So now I’ll head back to Fort Hood. Can’t say I’m that enthused. Still, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I can see an end to my tenure there and that makes me walk a little lighter.

Three weeks ago when I was packing up to get here, I was dreading it a bit. I didn’t want to leave my routine, but was looking forward to the break. I had no idea that God had a way out of my Texas prison, primed and ready to go. A couple of handshakes and conversations later, I’m on my way to being an instructor, tucked away in a pretty sweet spot near Washington D.C. and Baltimore.

Holla’ at your boy.

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Moving? I’m your guy

Sunday. Rainy Sunday. Nor’easter blew in a good punch to the face in the form of rain and wind, coupled with temperatures just below the shrug-it-off factor.

Of course I only had a borrowed sweatshirt. And of course someone needed my help moving that day. Yes, moving. Lifting all manner of heavy sh*t after one day of recoup following “Project Warrior” week.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, calling my boy in the hour before we would have started.

“Uh, moving,” he said. Drat. I guess I was committed. “But we’ll have to move it back a bit, I have to get the truck.”

0900 turned into 0930, which slipped to 1000 and then 1100. An additional kind-hearted bloke and I headed over to the brother in need. The rain continued. When I walked into his house, my heart broke.

He hadn’t packed yet. Well, sort of. There were some boxes in the corner. Some things had been removed from the shelves, but most of the crap of “regular apartment setup” remained in place.

So, instead of a quick move, I settled in to a long, arduous journey through the belongings of a man I’d just met two weeks before. After a couple of hours, the other gent who had come out to help had to run, leaving me, the brother in need, and his girlfriend. Between the three of us, we finished the packing in a couple of hours.

Lunch had come and gone. The truck had to be returned by 1700, meaning we had to beat feet. After half the truck was full, my outer garment was completely soaked. The water lay up against my skin, leeching out my remaining reservoir of enthusiasm. Still, we moved. Bike. Bed. Desk. TV—oh wait, not enough room. We’d have to drop this load off and come back.

Where were the keys to the truck? Oh sh*t. Where had he put them? Were they in the jacket? The kitchen? Oh crap. How many boxes would we have to unpack to find the keys?

At this point, I neared the precipice of insanity. I was wet. I was tired. I had work for class to do. Every ounce of surface response said kick the man in the shins and head home, due east, on the highway. I’d be wet, but I’d be that much closer to a warm shower and not picking sh*t up.

But, the calm, Zen Josh took a few minutes to breathe amidst the frantic key search. God showed up through the rain and damp boxes and lead my man’s hands to the right box, three into the sequence of undoing our morning’s work. There they were, the keys that would ignite our beast of burden and send us three blocks away for more undue physical effort.

You see, my brother in need lived in—lets say, a seedy part of town. The meth heads upstairs weren’t so bad, the Latinos next door had music going at all hours—again, not so bad. It was the random gunshots and being mugged outside his door that finally turned his stomach against the place.

So he found a high-rise place a few blocks down the street and a “world away” as he said.

Whoops, out of time. God bless!

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TGIF, no…seriously

“The field” is something every soldier stationed in deployable units has to deal with. Every so often, the unit commander will decree that a span of time must be spent in the wilds. Soldiers pack up the gear they will need, say goodbye to their families, and tromp off to the intended location.

In typical “field problems” as they’re called, a unit is acting out a scenario. All the various sections and shops have to perform their wartime mission reacting to the specific circumstances dictated by the chain of events in said scenario. There are field problems that center around training to attempt to simulate an austere environment, similar to war.

Our BNCOC class was scheduled to go to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland for a weeklong field problem called “Project Warrior,” run by a unit separate from the NCO Academy. The intent of the outing was to provide us (journalists and broadcasters) with some quality warrior time (i.e. training on weapons, urban combat, etc.). As many of us are very green at being troops, the idea was sound; but it was last minute. Apparently the first sergeant at the NCO Academy turned the normal few day, there-and-back training into a full-blown week away from the schoolhouse. It would mean the rest of our class work and assignments would be compressed into the fragment of our final week, a reality that we’re dealing with now.

Also, as was said in other posts, many of us spend a lot of time living in “austere environments” in our units as it is. We felt that we didn’t need any more practice at it.

But, in the end, we all left for APG, which was just an hour or so away. Our home for the week was an old, long warehouse off one of the small post’s main roads. Inside were several rooms, partitioned by free-standing walls, built to divide the huge interior. There was a classroom, a weapons room, four combatives areas (matted floor, padded walls, etc.), and a small electronic weapon range that used lasers mounted on M16s to register shots and give feedback on accuracy.

All in all, not a bad setup. Our port-a-potties were just outside and we had one of those plastic hand-washing stations that are everywhere in Iraq to keep our mits somewhat grime free.

Then we started learning about the training schedule, which outlined our day-to-day happenings. Classes and training would start every day at 0500 and go until midnight. We would sleep on one of the combatives mats. Wakeup would be at 0400 to give us time to pack our stuff away and sweep the mats, then shave and such to be ready to go at 0500. Weapons guards would stand 45-minute shifts through the night, meaning the four-hour maximum sleep time would be pruned further.

Temperatures inside mirrored the outside—low 40s to 50s, mainly. Cold, especially for many of us who didn’t bring any sort of outdoor gear from our home stations. We had been assured before traveling to BNCOC that there was no field problem planned. Thus, when our cadre all of the sudden made the proclamation that we’d be camping out, many of us were a little miffed.

Luckily, I was able to borrow a duffle bag to pack all of my stuff, and got a thermal undershirt to keep me from shivering so violently. Hours and hours in 50-degree weather can really exhaust a man, especially when paired with extensive training and very little planned sleep.

And so we began. In all honesty, a lot of the training was good. We were able to spend a lot of time with our weapons, firing at pop-up targets, using blanks and lasers to simulate actual firing. We learned a lot of techniques for reflexive firing and tactical reloading. We were able to focus on our marksmanship (to brag, I had the best shot group in the class with a 0.9cm spread between my shots). And we learned how to storm buildings, clear rooms and all that Army stuff. We also spent a lot of time with crew-served weapons (.50-cal, M19 grenade machine gun, M249 squad automatic weapon). The cadre there tested us on how fast we could take apart and put together the large weapons. It was good to get familiar with them.

My hands barely survived. They began cracking and bleeding after the second day. We use that alcohol hand sanitizer, which saps moisture. That, coupled with the kerosene heaters we employed to stop the shivering, kept my poor fingers bleeding. Then, clumsy me, I had chunks of flesh torn off in bits here and there with all the machine gun ratcheting and assembling. Good times, especially when the weapon cleaning solvents leeched in there. Ouch.

The unarmed combatives sessions were hit and miss. Normally, to gain level 1 certification (our goal), you had to endure 40 hours of instruction. That block typically is spread out over several weeks, incorporated into a normal training schedule. Not for us, though, we went at it for hours a day. In the end we were well shy of the actual 40 hours, but we were bruised, beaten, and several of us had sustained significant injuries. On of my mates bruised two ribs and can barely walk, our 100-pound female had her calf muscle ripped and got a good knot on her spine, and your’s truly was bent in half the wrong way enough to hear my back pop. I’ve been nursing it ever since.

All of it was due to the fact that we were racing through the techniques without adequate time. Arm bars, submission moves, and general ass kicking with bare hands are dangerous. I really wish they wouldn’t have rushed through it so much. We all were limping and creaking through the training after the first night. But, since the schedule was so full, we never could recover.

The final even for our unarmed combatives course was the “clinch drill,” where the Project Warrior cadre could bring in a group of punchers to don boxing gloves and lay into us. The idea is that we have to learn to close the distance in a fight in order to employ all of our grappling techniques, so you charge in to a guy, take a few hits to the head, and achieve your clinch. We had padded helmets, but it was still funny to see how people reacted to being punched in the face, especially those who haven’t been in too many fights. Uber peep Finch came up to me with watering eyes and a swollen face, a little concerned. I had to tell him that fighting ain’t like getting a massage. The body generally doesn’t like forceful blows to the head, and things like watery eyes and headaches are the norm. That little dude got back in and did his thing, though. God bless, him.

In the end I did get a bit out of it. However, we’re now staying up late getting our class assignments done. The NCO Academy instructors recognize that we had a whole week of class time unexpectedly taken away, and are giving us an extra day to compensate. Still, that means we have six less days to complete the normal workload. And, given the fact that I still have a stiff neck and aches everywhere, I can’t say that I was a fan of the whole enterprise. Maybe if they extended BNCOC to be a week longer so we don’t have to curtail classes and assignments, then it’d be alright.

But, anyway, that’s how my week went—hour by agonizing hour. It was one of the longest weeks of my life, actually. I’m glad to be back in climate-controlled rooms again, though. I’ll just need a few days to get my body clock back to normal.

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Ebbs and flows

Life can come at you in surges. A bit and then a lot.

Since landing at Fort Hood, there haven’t been too many people to hang with. I don’t know what the short circuit was, but there weren’t many people that shared my vibe. So, for the most part, the past two years have been pretty lonely.

It’s different here, though. I’m in a class with 20-some other people from my career field, all the same rank. It’s really nice to have people to chat with, go out and share a drink or two with. I’d forgotten how much I like to be around people.

Sure there’s Internet and work, but that’s pretty much it back in Texas. Here, there are people to be with and things to see and do. I’m enjoying my stay somewhere, for the first time in a while.

Which is why it would be good to land that instructor gig. I’d be working, again, with people of similar rank, age and career. And there’d be a lot to do, a lot of things to see. I’d be all about it.

So there was the drought for a while, followed by the onset of nourishing rain.

Not to be outdone, the searing heat of the Army is still around. There’s a LOT of classwork to be done during the course. And I’ll be out of contact next week, as we’re carted out to the field for a few days of “roughing it.” We were initially told that portion had been omitted from the curriculum, but they re-added it in the other day.

We bitched a bit, and the instructors laughed it off as whining. Not that we mind the no power, no water thing, but as a classmate of mine said, “We don’t need any more practice at being uncomfortable.” Most of us have just returned from Iraq or are gearing up to deploy again. Each of us are at units that have extended time in the field already planned. We were all looking forward to NOT being in the field, especially when this latest gig is just for it’s own sake. There’s no other reason to tromp out there.

So enjoyment comes and goes in ebbs and flows. There’s the sweet and bitter. One defines the other. I suppose it’s all in how you let it get to you. You can get mired in the drudgery of it all–dragged down bit by bit until you’re just a shell. Or, you can just shrug it off, sit in the rain and write a song or two in your head.

Who knows, this instructor thing might just happen. There’s a lot of paperwork I have to fight through. Remember the “Quest for Stripes” saga? Well, this one will easily be just as arduous and unnecessarily exasperating. I’ll spare you all the blow-by-blows of that struggle. The hard part of being accepted by the school itself is already through, now it’s just a matter of getting the Army to convince itself that I am needed in a place outside of Fort Hood. They like to lock us in for several years and several deployments.

Life shifts left, and then right. I suppose it’s like being on a ship, with all the constant rocking. I just need to get my sea legs.

I’m off to bed. I’ll talk to you all again before we ship out to the field next week. Have a good one!

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