After basic training, soldiers go on to attend advanced individual training. There, they learn the skills necessary for their chosen jobs. Mechanics go learn to be mechanics, infantry learn infantry stuff…that sort of thing.
Lo’ and behold, I was attending my AIT, trying to become the least embarrassing writer I could in the span of three months. One of our little rituals was walking to and from class in formation—that is, all orderly, neat and with called cadence and marching. Since clutching an armful of books, pens and binders didn’t exactly contribute to the ‘orderly’ part, most of us went to the local base exchange (store) and purchased an all-black backpack. All black being the only real approved color of bag to carry while in uniform.
The base exchange of course carried the no-logo, no-show stitching, completely boring backpacks. I think they all ran about $10.
I still have mine, and it is a complete badass.
I’ve carried this thing all over the world. Not only did it assist me during AIT in becoming the prose-flinging orangoutang you see before you, but it has been through more life and hard living in the last 10 years than some people experience in their entire lives.
It went on vacations to see the folks on the West Coast, friends up in the Midwest, New England, the south; spending time in the cold confines of airline luggage bays. It was lashed to military pallets, carried by Chinooks and Blackhawks to war-torn corners of the world. I would stretch out the straps and toss it on top of my ruck while deployed—as a little secondary pack. It was tied to the outside of humvees, sat with me in the gun turrets of trucks on mission. It has endured smoke, dust, paint, CS gas—even got some blood on it from unarmed combatives training and a not-so-fun time while deployed.
The thing was shot at, shoved, crammed, yanked, attacked by animals (feral dogs in Iraq are no joke). It was dropped off boats, left in the blistering sun on tarmacs and bored to death under my cots during unending field problems.
And after returning to civilian life, it was with me as I traveled to Europe, enjoying the sun on leisurely drives up and down mountains. It stuck with me on my quest for Incan ruins as I huffed it in the Andes during not-so-leisurely climbs up and down washed out paths and harrowing drop-offs.
Scuba diving? Yup. Its black fabric was encrusted with salt from the spray and splashing of both the Atlantic and Pacific. The thing tagged along when I learned to surf in Nicaragua and almost made a trip to Japan for snowboarding, but its owner had to be a jerk and cancel. Whoops.
And it still works like a boss—zippers zip and all that. I joke about how attached I am to the thing, and in writing this all down, it is sort of crazy.
But, be that as it may, that was the best damned $10 I ever spent on a bag. Keep on keepin’ on, little buddy.
War is delightful to those with no experience of it. — Erasmus
I was at a get together the other day for a church I go to. It was at someone’s house and was a chance to meet up with other social circles—connect with new people. I had some great conversations and a lot of fun.
While the lot of us were in the backyard, waiting for the grilling to finish up, I ran across a group of guys, all with close-cropped hair and faces clean shaven. Being somewhat of a military town, I assumed they were in the service and started chatting.
Turns out they were. They were Air Force (…damn Zoomies!). I asked if they were in the medical field. One was, but the few around me were IT guys. I joked about how I had made their lives harder by being one of the dudes who advocated for DoD social media use during my time around the Pentagon. They rolled their eyes and we had a laugh at the shenanigans troops still get into while using DoD computers in inappropriate ways.
These kids were young…geez…like “two or three years out of high school” young. I know that’s only going to get worse as I get older, but I hadn’t pegged them to be that fresh.
Anyway, they started asking me about my time in service, how I was a journalist, joined up after 9/11, all that stuff.
One of them asked, “So did you…like…deploy?”
The others stopped their chatting and looked to me to answer. I felt like Old Man Salmons about to tell his grandkids a war story. It caught me off guard.
“Um…yeah,” I said.
“Wow. That’s crazy, man. You went to war. Crazy.”
Wait, what? It took me a few minutes to process.
Normally I get that from civilians. The idea that someone might have to go to a part of the world where men are actively trying to kill you every day through various effective and laughably ineffective ways is alien to most sane people—as it should be.
But I wasn’t ready for this from these active-duty guys. In my day, everybody deployed. Constantly. All the time. Marriages fell apart. Suicide rates were through the roof. Men and women broke down. This year marks TWELVE YEARS of perpetual war. World War II was four, by comparison.
Hell, a big reason I got out of uniform because I didn’t want to be in Iraq or Afghanistan every other year for the next 14, then retire a burnt out husk.
But then I got to thinking. You know…things had changed. We had withdrawn from Iraq and abandoned them to their fate. We were about to yank ourselves out of Afghanistan in the same way. The military isn’t deploying as much! Which means fresh guys like the ones I was talking to might very well NOT deploy in the foreseeable future. Not that the entire posture of the DoD can be discerned by one guy’s conversation with four dudes, but still…
Blows my mind.
And I got to thinking how different things might start being for the rest of the services. Maybe easing off on the training schedules, not having to be in the field constantly practicing war stuff, not having to go to Fort Irwin is hot-as-hell-desert California for training every year, not having every moment peppered with the idea that deployment is coming deployment is coming deployment is coming. Secure your sh*t, troop, deployment is coming!
When this drawdown mindset finally does reach all corners of the services, it will be a big shift, but not unprecedented.
Dad talks about the cycles of build ups and drawdowns that the military goes through. He saw several purges and build ups during his 27 years. This one will be no different.
People will be asked to leave because the military won’t need the numbers. Like always, more good people will be expelled than bad, gutting the NCO and officer corps. It happens every time. Budgets will be slashed to the great consternation of those wanting more shiny toys.
It makes sense that it will happen or perhaps is happening, according to some of the activity around Washington. I just wasn’t ready to see the dawn of it, honestly. Part of me thought we’d go 1984 on things and just keep the war machine marching forward forever, swapping out names and places as we involved ourself in occupation after occupation.
Now we still and will continue to spend mind-boggling amounts on defense, but that’s another blog.
For now, yes, young airmen, Old Man Salmons went to war during his seven years in uniform. Many of us old timers did. So heed our joyless words and see the weight of our hearts.
The other evening I attended a lecture at a local university.
It featured Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, famous journalists for those who don’t bother with that sort of thing. It was going to be crowded. I planned to arrive early to team up with some friends and get decent seats.
The campus police were out in force, shunting traffic through various side streets. I had to park a couple of minutes walk away—nothing too arduous (glad I was there an hour early, though!). As I got out of my car, a dozen others nearby were doing the same. We all began to meander toward the auditorium.
Closer to the venue, pedestrian traffic concentrated, as did the vehicle traffic of people just starting their quest for parking. The campus police officers were there to keep things flowing.
As I approached the final crosswalk to the auditorium, one of the many cars in line pulled forward, blocking the crosswalk and stopped.
“Ma’am, please don’t block the crosswalk,” the nearby campus police officer said.
The black Cadillac remained stopped. The long line of cars behind it stopped as well.
“Ma’am, please don’t block the crosswalk. I’m going to need you to move, ma’am.”
At this point, the pedestrians were now clumped up to the side of this car, unable to cross. The car’s windows were tinted, but I could see a passenger. She suddenly opened her door after a few more seconds. She was being dropped off.
The campus guy was now leaning on the open car door as the passenger started climbing out. He said, “Ma’am, I can’t have you blocking the crosswalk like this to drop off. You’ll need to go to the other—“
The driver interrupted, “No, you can just wait a minute. I can go where I want!”
“Ma’am, there are others waiting, please keep moving.”
The passenger finally managed to emerge from the car, now to a waiting crowd of pedestrians and lengthening line of car traffic behind.
“Who do you think you are? You can’t talk to me like that!” the driver started in again.
And so it went back and forth for another minute: the campus security guard trying to do his job, and the entitled driver aghast that her course of action had been impugned. The driver got in a few choice words about how insignificant the security officer was and how she was a graduate of the university and could do as she pleased.
Hardly the worst I’ve seen people treat each other, but it reminded me of one of the few aspects of the military I miss: the general intolerance for that sort of bullshit. People in uniform don’t normally treat each other with that level of disdain. When someone’s behavior needs correction, it happens, and all go about their lives.
One of the lessons from the military that I am the most thankful for is the general sense of humility about things. Ironic, I know, bragging about humility; but there it is.
As an enlisted man in the armed forces, I learned very quickly just how much power I didn’t have. It’s not just represented in the modest pay, but also in how others in the service treat you.
I could tell 1,000 stories. While in basic training, there was this one time I was with several soldiers from my platoon. We were performing “area beautification” in the grounds surrounding our company headquarters. This time, that meant crawling around on the ground for a few hours, handpicking out the clovers and dandelions from the grass.
For some strange reason there was a second lieutenant who walked up to our work party. Not normally used to seeing officers, I was a bit startled and, being in charge of the work party, quickly stood up, snapped to attention and saluted. The second lieutenant told me to carry on.
He was visiting from some college ROTC program and wanted to talk to some soldiers. We spoke for a minute. He asked where I was from, asked what we were doing, joked about how silly it was to handpick weeds and even started picking weeds with me. He said he was passing the time until his captain was done with a meeting.
“Chris, what the hell are you doing?” the captain said, appearing from around the corner of the building.
Again I snapped up and saluted. The second lieutenant did the same, “Just talking with the troops, sir.”
“Chris, come here,” the captain said, returning the salute.
The second lieutenant walked over just a couple of steps away.
“Chris, let me tell you something, son. These men—they’re enlisted. They’re not your friends. They’re your tools. Learn to use them as such.”
The two men walked off. I returned to my weed pulling.
And the captain was right. For a commander to send men and women into battle to die, he or she needs to not think of enlisted as individuals, but as means to an end—numbers toward victory. If a commander connected and humanized every soldier, that person would go nuts or be paralyzed with fear in the face of losses in combat.
That’s why enlisted are never first names, they are their rank. That’s why enlisted will be told to wait hand and foot on the whims of officers or senior enlisted, standing in the cold, the rain, holding some damned bag, always awaiting further instructions. Whether it’s mowing the lawn, disposing of human waste, digging loogies out of urinal cakes, standing in formation in the Texas heat for hours or staying up until 3 a.m. waiting to be inspected; the military is a system that humbles and lays low a person’s arrogance and ego.
What it does is it takes normal people…hopelessly self absorbed and oblivious, and teaches them that actions have consequences. The system by its nature also teaches an incredible amount of that humility I mentioned earlier—that my place and my comfort and my preference should always be subordinate to others. Not in a weak, subservient way (I was literally running, gunning and kicking ass more than I ever had), but in meekness, willfully showing restraint despite the power to react.
So when I run into people who blithely inconvenience others or selfishly impose their will, I remember how much I used to do the same, and all the times it made me fell like crap when others did it to me.
It remains my most cherished lesson from the military: the desire not to be an asshole.
Hey friends, my blog output has been less than optimal because I’m writing my novel. Many of you are cool to ask how its going. It’s going. Ha!
In July, I gave you a snapshot of the first part of Chapter 1 (HERE). Check that out first, if you haven’t read any of it yet.
Without further ado, here’s the preview of the rest of the first chapter.
All rights reserved and all that lot.
There were sounds, muffled. Eve started to perceive them. In the moment between asleep and awake, real and imagined sounds mingled.
She moved, her neck and joints creaking as she floated in the cryo fluid. Her eyes were still clamped shut.
She started to perceive the actual cold—the freezing fluid. Her body began to shiver, though the fluid was warming steadily. She stayed still for a few more minutes. There were tubes in her nose and mouth. She could feel her tongue against the breathing apparatus. Her jaw ached. Her head ached.
Eve went through the routines from training, mentally mapping out her arms and legs, almost reconnecting with her body. She perceived her toes and moved them, then her feet and legs, then fingers and arms. The fluid became bearably warm, though her body still shivered.
Counting to three, she forced open her eyes for a second then squeezed them shut, the fluid stung a bit, more from the cold than any irritant. A moment later she opened them again. Her cryo tube lights were on, as was the interior display screen.
There were no alarms, no klaxons, no signs of a shipboard emergency. Eve was being allowed to wake up at her own pace. She sighed, relieved, and floated for another few minutes.
The display screen’s large font made it easy to read through the fluid. The system was on standby, waiting for Eve to push the button to start the opening process for her tube.
During emergencies, the ship would take the liberty of doing that for the tech, unceremoniously dumping the groggy traveler onto the freezing deck in seconds. Eve was thankful for the normal wakeup.
Eve began to shiver again. She opened her eyes, found the ENABLE button on the display and pressed it. Some loud metallic clunks and hisses sounded through her tube. A seal cracked and the cryo fluid began to drain away. Eve sank a few inches to the cushions of her tube. The still colder air of the ship’s interior hit her nose and slowly washed over her face and body. She reached up to rub her eyes. The wires and electrodes tugged at her arms.
A final crack and hiss and the tube lid lifted up and away. The room was dark, save for the spotlight from the ceiling on Eve’s tube.
Eve sat up and gagged out the breathing mask. She clung to the edge of the tube and endured her first coughing spell, one of what would be dozens over the next few days. Her skin squeaked and pulled against the leather cushion pads. The sensation of gravity still felt new.
She caught her breath and relaxed, still shivering but more awake. Her breath shot out in ragged plumes into the dark of the room. She noticed some status lights shone through. On the far wall was her medical diagnostic screen, still reporting data from the probes and sensors attached on her body.
She looked down at the probes, then at her arms. They were heavily muscled. In fact, her whole body had been toned and developed in cryo. She ran her fingers along the lines of her abdominals and biceps. She wasn’t sure how to take her new muscle-bound self. She also didn’t much like that it probably meant a deployment on a high-gravity planet or moon. Such missions were unpleasant even with the additional muscle mass.
Sighing, she started peeling off the probes and wires and coughed some more. She looked through the dark at her medical screen. She was now dead, according to her readout. There was another set of readings. Eve looked to the left and right past the empty adjacent tubes. There, about three tubes down, was another tech, still in cryo sleep.
Another tech? It was unusual, but not unheard of. The crew compartment could support up to 10, but in Eve’s years of service, she never heard of more than two on a deployment.
Eve signed again. Another tech meant a more involved mission—not the wake-up/boom/go home missions she enjoyed. That, or it meant a training operation for the second tech. Either way, it would keep Eve awake longer than usual.
Eve groaned as she swung her legs over the edge of the tube. She rubbed her eyes again and yawned. Her shivering had subsided a bit, but it was still very cold inside the ship. The heating elements must not have been on very long.
She eyed the deck, knowing space would have kept the metal at an uninviting temperature during the trip. She looked over to the far wall. Under her flatlined medical display she could make out the faint outlines of the bins with towels. Showers and personal effects would be down the hall of the crew compartment.
She held her breath and hopped down. The searing cold of the floor caused her to hop like a lunatic over to the wall.
Eve yanked open the drawer and dumped several towels on the floor as makeshift sandals. She cursed, and pulled out another and started rubbing her legs and arms to get warm. The cryo fluid was full of nutrients and would be quickly absorbed into the skin. Still, her first order of business would be to get to the showers and fully wash the sleep from her.
She was closer to the readout screen now and looked it over. Chief Warrant Officer Evelyn Roel, Chief Technician (Level 5), it said. Next to that was the emblem of her component, the FUS Auxiliary, showing her as one of those drafted into military service.
Eve looked over at her companion’s readout. Her eyes were finally focusing as they should, though they, like most of Eve’s body, hurt from transit. Lieutenant Cassandra Matthews, Technician (Level 3), it read. An officer, Eve noticed. Again, not unheard of. And at least she was a level three, which meant she wasn’t a rookie. What did give Eve pause was her component: FUS Regular Forces—a volunteer. That was unusual. Eve tried to remember the last time she served with a regular.
Eve stood draped in towels and noticed the other tube was still locked down. She was the only one waking up. That was odd, but Eve wouldn’t be able to access any ship systems or status reports until she’d dug out her visor from her equipment. For the moment, she was content the ship didn’t seem about to explode.
Eve shuffled along the floor toward the cryo bay door in her makeshift sandals. She felt the walls. The heating elements were on, but the cold of space would take some time to shrug off. The ship was minimally heated and even the crew compartment stayed cold during the voyage. It would take a couple of days for the bulkheads and walls to absorb enough heat to take the biting cold edge out of the air.
Eve made it to the open door and hit the light panel. The ship seemed to notice part of its crew was awake and turned on some lights. Floor and ceiling banks flickered on, their cool blue light added to the idea that Eve was in a meat locker. Even with the lights on, the crew compartment was dimly lit.
She shuffled out into the passageway, the lights faded in the cryo bay and activated in the hall. The ship was tracking her movements, at least.
“Morning, ship,” Eve said, and coughed.
She continued shuffling down the hall. The smooth lines and panels of the crew compartment gave a cold, yet softer impression than the more utilitarian build of the remaining ship spaces she’d see later. Eve tried to imagine comfortably shuffling along the floor grating and exposed pipes and wiring of the maintenance spaces. Here, she could nurse her aches and hobble into the showers like an old woman if she wanted.
She walked into the shower room. Again, a space built to accommodate up to 10 people. There was a bank of sinks and mirrors on the right. The shower modules were in the middle and went farther back into the space. Behind the shower modules would be benches, lockers and equipment bins—where her clothes and personal effects would be, so long as the loading drones had loaded the right containers at the expedition station.
Eve shambled over to the sinks and tested the water. Warm, then hot. Good, Eve thought. She looked up at herself in the mirror. There were bags under her irritated eyes. She looked haggard, but most did after waking from cyro sleep. She noticed her face had slimed a bit, no doubt from the physical conditioning. Specifically though she wanted to check out her implants. She wore her hair longer on the top and left, leaving the right close cropped around the interfacing nodes. It was a hair style normally not allowed in the service, but was tolerated for techs, especially level fives and their unique hardware. She ran her fingers along the visor seating points on her temples. There didn’t seem to be any inflammation. She brushed aside her auburn bangs to better see the interfacing nodes. The grey metal plates blended with her skin well enough, even if it meant living with the bald patches. The port was clear, again no infections.
She took a second and made some faces in the mirror. Her jaw and neck still hurt. She noticed the tense areas and stretched and yawned, then shivered. It was still freezing. Her mind turned back to the showers.
She shuffled over to the module, second from the left, her usual, and activated the controls. Turning it on maximum heat, she waited for the steam to begin bellowing out into the dim cold space. The ceramic shower modules would become comfortably warm in no time.
She hung up her covering towel, leaving the two piles on the floor, and stripped off her sleeping suit. Dialing down the heat a bit, she walked in to the comfortable warm embrace of the shower stream. She laughed, leaning against the module wall and letting the water leech the creaking cold from her body.
This morning I ran across this article in Business Insider (link). In it, supposed members of the military are holding up signs to hide their faces. Written on the signs are statements saying they are against military action in Syria—obviously a timely topic.
I’ve been seeing some people responding across social media and getting amped up over it. A friend asked my opinion. Figured it’s as good a blog post as any.
Given how few members of the public serve in the military (link), my mindset and response might be alien to most. On the other hand, given how off my damned rocker nuts I am, my mindset might be alien to my vet friends too. We’ll just have it out, then, shall we?
To cut to the chase…I do have a problem with what these (alleged) service members did. However, I probably understand why they did it. However however, I still take umbrage.
As a disclaimer, we have no idea if these people referenced in the Business Insider article are actually in the military, though their uniforms look pretty well put together, so signs point to ‘yes.’ Civilian posers typically do a terrible job at pretending to be in the military.
Anyway, assuming they are legit vets, let’s look at why they probably did it and then why it’s a problem. We’ll have to take a little romp through recent history.
The longest ‘war’ in US history. Remember when we first rolled in there? Yeah that was 12 years ago. Our involvement in WWII was four years, as a point of reference.
Did you know some people deploy there constantly—often for a year at a time, with a short break and then another year there? Did you know there are still 60,000 US troops there? Still? Yeah, that gets tiring. And it spikes suicides (link), divorces (link) and other fun stuff (link).
Did you know that we, the country who “does not negotiate with terrorists” are negotiating with terrorists (link)? Peace talks with the Taliban and (indirectly because of their ties) with Al-Qaeda itself. We’re hoping to make nice with the people we rolled in to eliminate.
That might ruffle the feathers of the vets who’ve sacrificed limbs, friends and marriages to serve there—might make it seem all for naught. Right?
Remember when we first rolled in there? Yeah that was from 2003-2011. People also often deployed there constantly—often for a year at a time, with short breaks and additional years there. Also contributed to the mental/emotional/physical and spiritual trauma of the American military.
Remember all those WMDs we found there? Or all those direct ties between Saddam and 9/11? No?
Think that also might ruffle the feathers of the vets who’ve sacrificed limbs, friends and marriages to serve there—might make it all seem for naught?
Skipping ahead past Somali pirates, Libya, drone strikes, Pakistani entanglements…well, that brings us to Syria.
The Syrian civil war began in 2011 and has, by many UN estimates, killed more than 100K people (link).
It’s another entry into a long line of politically, socially and religiously entangled regimes that is the Middle East, as summarized in a brilliant letter to the editor of the UK’s Financial Times (link):
Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad! Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi. But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood! Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood! Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US! Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states! Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.
So…I completely understand the exasperation of my uniformed brothers and sisters. It seems like another hopeless, ongoing perpetual conflict. I completely sympathize and empathize as to why many might feel compelled to speak out against their leadership and urge for not intervening in Syria.
My umbrage seethes over this idea that men or women would use the uniform of the United States to undermine the leadership of this country.
Referring to the alleged vets in the Business Insider article, they may think they are being slick by staying anonymous—that they aren’t hurting anyone—that they are simply using free speech or whatever…But they’re not. They represent something far larger than their individual political ideologies and agendas.
By doing this, especially doing it as a nameless/faceless member of the military, they are in essence showing themselves off as any soldier—any sailor—any Marine—any airman. The groups who would do us harm can now fan the flames saying, “the resolve of the US is weak…even their own troops rebel against their leaders.”
In fact, Syrian hackers took over a US Marine’s website today and did just that (link).
It’s not a matter of arguing for or against Syria—for or against future war. That’s not the issue here. They are catapulting themselves into the negotiations and national-level discussions in opposition to the US leadership. They are hijacking the system.
Look, I hate war. I served, though. I went to Iraq, even if I didn’t think it was on the up and up. I served with distinction. I was decorated. I gave parts of myself to the maw of war that I won’t get back.
I served because I swore an oath of enlistment (link). In it, I didn’t say “only the wars I like” as if I was some damned mercenary, selling my gun to a cause of my choosing.
Nope. I said I would sally up and serve wherever the elected leaders of this country said I should, regardless of any personal objection. It’s how it works. It’s why people stand up and clap for vets on Memorial Day. It’s because they realize it was a choice to serve, no matter how much it might have sucked.
And it’s how veterans deal with war. They don’t engineer them. They simply serve. And, while they’re serving, they should shut up in public about any objections.
So, while I would be glad for the US to stay out of Syria, were I still serving as the fourth-generation of my family to wear the uniform, I would go if asked. I’d serve with honor…and I wouldn’t take the wind out of my leaders’ sails by posting some damned pictures giving aid and comfort to possible enemies.
There have been a lot of things to get used to after hanging up the uniform.
- People don’t use pockets for anything in particular. They just shove their hands in there. For whole minutes.
- People lean against walls.
- First names predominate.
- You can potentially not work out for days!
- Work doesn’t usually call on the weekends. Pt. 2, coworkers don’t call, needing to be bailed out after a DUI.
- Saying “yeah” won’t incur extra duty.
- Walking either on the right or left of someone is completely acceptable.
- You can walk around, completely *^%$^&@ oblivious.
The last point has been getting to me. I mentioned it to a coworker. I’m actually not too keen on it. People are generally clueless to their surroundings. They bump into things, block doorways, block aisles, cut off vehicles in traffic, talk too loudly, trip other people, knock over stuff, on and on.
In the service, there’s this state of mind called “situational awareness.” It’s almost this Zen-like state, where a service member is imbued with the near-godlike ability to know where he or she is in relationship to the universe.
No, seriously. It’s pretty frikkin’ epic. You may not realize it, but most service members who haven’t gotten away with standing at parade pretty (entire other series of posts) know where they are. It’s awesome!
What does that mean? It means a service member will wait for others to go through doors. He or she will say “sir” or “ma’am” when encountering another human being in the general vicinity. And generally, although American road rage trumps all, they will know when the hell to stop, yield and accelerate when it comes to vehicular traffic.
It all starts at basic training. I remember it well. My particular unit stood outside in the January South Carolina evening air, which, contrary to what you might think, is pretty blasted freezing.
We were told to exit the bus, quick like, arrange our backpacks in an orderly fashion, and extricate ourselves into a line all in a span of about 15 seconds. Of course, you might imagine what happened, all manner of hell broke loose. There was no coordination. There was no consideration. It was every person for him or herself. We bumped, tripped and shoved our way into the drill sergeant’s escalating rage once the requisite 15 seconds passed.
Tests like that were designed for us to fail. Passing the test wasn’t the point. The point was to show how absolutely clumsy and self-centered the average person is. We’re like heifers, chewing the cud, oblivious to the semi trucks attempting to pass us on the road. We’re completely self-centered, expecting the world to pay us mind, pay us heed and worship us at our feet. We have more cars, clothes and money than 90 percent of the GD world, after all, there’s definitely a sense of entitlement that comes with that sort of nobility.
So, it is the job of the drill sergeant (or drill instructor for our maritime friends) to undo the worthless, clumsiness of the average U.S. civilian. Thus begins our quest toward situational awareness.
When a sergeant walks to work, you may see a confident stride and a sharp-looking man or woman; but inside, there are all manner of processes and checklists going off in that person’s head. Every single person that walks into a service member’s viewable area (six paces radius from all living things, for your information) must be checked for rank, uniform, disposition, proximity to others. A service member will see if there’s something in the person’s right hand (which there shouldn’t be, since he or she needs that hand to salute at a moment’s notice), and that hands are out of pockets. Service members will salute, if appropriate (depending on the rank, uniform, time of day). They will check to make sure others are behaving, that they are being respectful. They will stand ready to correct junior troops, alter their course if needed to stay on sidewalks, stop completely if a cell phone rings. They won’t chew gum or eat while walking. They will walk tall, taking 30-inch steps, their hands held in loose fists, as per regulation. They will scan passing vehicles to render honors if officer rank placards are displayed. They will watch for the right time of day to render honors to the flag in the mornings and evenings.
All of it, just from walking to frikkin’ work, is to hone a person’s acumen for situational awareness.
And it doesn’t stop in the states. There are a whole mess of other checklists service members go through in deployed environments.
Over there, weapons must be carried properly, cleaned, uniforms maintained. Service members must keep a sharp ear out for incoming mortars, alarms, approaching vehicles. On patrols, they must watch out for piles of debris in the road, quiet streets before an ambush, influx of onlookers before an ambush, pot holes, wires, discoloration on curbs, orderly piles of trash compared with disorderly piles of trash. Vehicles must be listened to. Is the engine sounding healthy? Do the brakes feel right? Are there fluid leaks? How about the radio? Do the headsets work? Got enough ammo? Got trash bags? Got the stretcher? How’s the .50-cal? Barrel clicked in (learned about that one the hard way)? Sights clean? Pedestal pin in (yet another story)?
When walking around, service members need to know where their barrels are pointing AT ALL TIMES. As they pass each other, as they walk to the chow hall, as they go to bed; is the chamber empty? Has the weapon been cleared? Where are all the other accountable items? Body armor? Ballistic goggles?
Leaders must know when and where incidents occur, in the states, the field or downrange. What time did the rounds hit? What grid location? Whose battlespace are they in? What frequency should they use to call the medics? What’s the alternate in case there’s no response? Where are they? Where’s an alternate route to get around the roadblock?
None of this aimless walking around. A troop’s mind needs to be on, sharp, at all times. Is it, always? Ideally, sure, but all troops are human. There are lapses, sometimes a lot. But they should be paying attention. “Get your head out of your @$$!” is a common verbal exchange as one troop points out the spacial perception lapses of another.
I’m newly a civilian, and while it’s sort of cute it’s also a little unsettling to see how frequently people walk down halls, ear buds in, running into others, or seeing people back into people while looking for birthday cards, or how accidents occur with cell phone users in cars, nearly hitting me as I go to H.E.B. to get toilet paper.
I guess it’s because most people haven’t had the pleasure of having situational awareness drilled into them almost literally. So it remains a quintessential skill possessed by few—that ability to analyze and categorize a dozen characteristics and traits of people, places and things entering and leaving a service members proximity every step and every second of the day.