It was not long before my deficiencies became apparent to my new commander. Sgt. Windsor had already trained me to the point that I was able to pass my PT test, but I would barely pass my run every time. Capt. Dwyer said that she didn’t want any soldiers who were barely passing on any of the standards, so she told me that I needed to improve. I found it hard to disagree with her logic.
Capt. Dwyer also informed me that I was going to get certified. If a soldier’s commander is a motivated go-getter like mine was, they would sign you up for different certification courses. These courses ranged from military knowledge, such as basic medical skills and first aid, to physically challenging training such as Pathfinders and Rangers. Even though I did not have promotion on my mind, I once again agreed with Capt. Dwyer’s plan. Perhaps I could finally make up for some of the things I didn’t pick up on early in my training.
I was also told that I was to contribute at least two articles to the newspaper every week. Capt. Dwyer was cool enough to smooth everything over with the newspaper staff, at least enough to promote a bit of tolerance for my increased participation. I managed to write a few decent articles when I was given a real assignment.
I also managed to get a few phone calls to Chuck Holder speaking positively of me. One in particular came from the aviation brigade. I did not think I had done anything outside of the ordinary, but the commander was pleased with my article and how I conducted myself. It was nice to hear that these people were capable of communication other than barking and criticism. It was also nice to know that my reputation was on the mend. It would be one of the ways that my shaky morale would recover for a time.
SSG Cooper and Sgt. Windsor were real leaders. I felt accountable to them. For the first time since basic training I felt that my performance mattered. I had something to strive for. It was hard to imagine getting any faster at my run, but I was going to give it another try for these people. They had given me no reason to distrust them, so I felt that I owed them a good performance.
I also felt like I owed my leaders complete transparency. As such, I tried a few times to talk to Capt. Dwyer about sobriety. We sat down on two or three occasions after work, once for more than three hours. I was trying to get her to convince me that I was going to make it.
But I was not sure if I would ever be able to bounce back from such a shitty start. I also wasn’t sure how I would respond to any other changes. I was trying to get her to promise me that she would help me keep my head on straight, but at the same time I felt like this dynamic that we had couldn’t last. Soldiers are never this close to their commanders. Our unit, much like our training, was far different than the rest of the army. While I was grateful for these subtle differences, I also couldn’t help but wonder if this was once again all just temporary.
I did have a little bit of hope for the future. All I needed was more time to rectify some of the attributes I lacked. If we needed to go to the rifle range, fine. If I had to get out and do more soldier things and less journalism, fine. Just wipe my slate clean and show me how to function as an adult, err, I mean, soldier. Please. Just please help me find and fix the gaps in my soldiering knowledge, because it feels to me like there are a whole lot of holes in this pail.
Then one day, all the troops came back.
Everybody, HHC and PAD, all came back at the same time. Some of them did not immediately show up to the office, but they all did within a few days of their return. One day it was quiet, the next day our building was stuffed with bodies.
The returning troops knew the other people in the building, so they all carried on conversations loudly together. It was hard to see how we even managed to put together a newspaper during the first week that everyone came back. From what I could tell, all anybody was doing was catching up with everyone else.
As for me, I met the soldiers a few at a time. Sometimes I would have to corner somebody to get them to talk to me, but I was persistent. Bare minimum, I shook everyone’s hand and welcomed them back. I figured it was the decent thing to do. After all, I had no reason to believe that anybody would be deliberately avoiding me.
The one person who didn’t require cornering was Dub. He was the same friendly guy that he was when I first met him. I didn’t bother asking him about any of the other soldiers, though. I was still trying to observe everyone in a way that was as unbiased as possible.
Several of us ended up in the same section of the barracks, and one soldier dropped by to see if I wanted to hang out. I was on a vegetarian diet and had been sober for about a month, so I declined his offer of spaghetti and beer. However, later that same evening I went to his room because I figured he would think that vegetarianism and sobriety were a couple of shitty excuses not to hang out. He said that they were, but all was forgiven because I had dropped by to say hello.
Nobody else was particularly warm. We had not yet begun to separate into the groups of PAD and HHC, so I was not sure who was in my unit and who was with HHC. All I knew was that there were a lot of cooks in that kitchen, and none of them had very much to say to me.
Then one day, Barry ordered pizza for everyone. He made an announcement that there would be an unofficial welcoming party for the soldiers at noon, so I figured this would be a much better set of circumstances under which to try and meet the rest of the two units. However, as I was headed down the hall to the conference room, the soldier who invited me to dinner a few nights prior said, “You can stay in your office. I’m pretty sure there’s no broccoli.” I wasn’t sure if the guy was making a joke or if he was actually upset over me not eating with him, so I tried not to take his remark too seriously.
Aside from cold treatment from a couple of the soldiers, I also met a few sergeants who, if I didn’t know any better, were trying to push me around. In fact, one of them arbitrarily made a remark about my weight during Barry’s pizza party, and again I had to remind myself that I didn’t know these people and I just needed to let things slide for the moment. Still, there was a lot of tongue-biting that went on those first few weeks. It’s a miracle that I didn’t choke on my own blood.
There’s no easy way to do this, so I’m just going to have to introduce all of the significant people and get it over with. Here they are, the opening cast of characters for this next act.
Specialist (SPC) Henry “Mitch” Mitchell. This was the soldier who asked if I wanted to hang out over spaghetti and beer. Mitch was deeply tan, sarcastic, and portrayed himself as much more intelligent than he really was. The guy was literate, but he seemed to believe that nobody else was, because he had a terrible habit of speaking down to people.
Also, Mitch was rude to my girlfriend, Cadence. Cadence pointed out one day that he was the only person to openly use so much vulgarity in the office. Mitch took that as a sign that he needed to keep doing it. Call me biased, but openly irritating a lady is strike one. Irritating my extremely nice girlfriend is strikes one, two, and three.
The only other HHC soldiers there were after all the pieces moved around were Katie and SSG Cooper. The two male soldiers I met when I first arrived were supposed to be in my unit, but they both got out a few months after I arrived. There were also a few sergeants I never had much contact with, but they left almost immediately. Mitch would also be gone by the middle of the next year, but not before pissing me off one more time.
That brings us to my unit, the 40th PAD.
You’ve already been introduced to the new command structure, but there was one other leader that I need to mention. His name was SFC Martin Smalls, and he was the guy who started bashing me about my weight at the pizza party.
It’s hard to describe SFC Smalls in any way that doesn’t make him look like a piece of shit. Everything about him was snotty, from the way he smirked to the way his head bobbed as he moved his tiny body. I suppose that might have been why he acted like such a prick; the man was almost smaller than Capt. Dwyer. He must have had quite a complex at that size. Thank God he wasn’t a cop, or he’d probably be in a whole different book.
At first SFC Smalls avoided me. When he did finally speak to me, it was only in the presence of a few junior soldiers. Also, it was generally about my PT scores and my weight. They would snicker for a few minutes, and that would be it. In my mind, it was some weak hazing, and it was best to just go along with it.
However, he began to mutate over the ensuing days. Before long, SFC Smalls had something rotten to say at every turn. He’d check me for the tiniest thing, like a thread sticking out of my uniform or a lace popping out of my boot. These were things that you wouldn’t be able to see unless you were looking for them, and closely at that.
He didn’t just correct me on things I may have been doing wrong either. He would also insert himself into any conversation he would overhear.
“You like that band? They suck.”
“You think she’s pretty? I think she’s a dog.”
“You’ve never seen that movie? Is there something wrong with you?”
Everything was made into an issue with this guy. It was hard to remember half of the time that not only was he a leader, but he also had seniority over Windsor and Cooper. He didn’t even appear to be interested in getting along with anyone. The only people he spoke to with any semblance of respect were the PAD members who had deployed with him.
Though they had been deployed together, SFC Smalls gave Dub a ton of grief. In fact, one of the first times when he wasn’t talking down to me was when he was explaining Dub’s situation. According to SFC Smalls, Dub was a shammer and a crybaby for wanting to get out of the army. It was hard to listen to this man, this leader, and all the contempt he had for one of his own soldiers.
In fact, it seemed like everybody was mean to Dub. It was hard to discern at first because I thought that some of the soldiers picked on the nerd as a joke. However, it became clear that these were not good-natured barbs. Dub had done something to irreparably upset somebody, and it was clear that the fallout was a lot of cold shoulders from his fellow service members.
Dub was seeking a medical discharge for an ankle injury. Either that or he had been seeking a discharge before the deployment. I never got the full story. In any event, he said he had an injury and SFC Smalls said he did not. I knew that somehow this was a part of whatever problem was going on. It may have not been the full problem, but it had to be a contributing factor to the coldness with which everyone treated Dub.
I’m not sure if Dub got his medical discharge or if his contract simply ran out, but I know that just about everybody gave him grief until his last day. At the insistence of Capt. Dwyer, we had a going-away party in his honor, and I tried my best to deliver a speech that allowed him to leave with a little bit of dignity. My attempt was met largely with snorts and scoffs, while Dub brushed away a nostalgic tear as if we had been friends for twenty years.
There was something that I took away from this situation, and something that I hoped for as a result. What I took from the situation was that you were supposed to starve people out if they displeased the leader. I think that Dub displeased SFC Smalls somehow, and the rest of the troops had turned on him. What I hoped for was that the days of that behavior was at an end. We had nice people as leaders now. We had leaders who helped you fix something instead of just pointing out what was wrong all the time. Hopefully, all the sourness would depart with SFC Smalls, because there was no way I was going to let another group of people get away with fucking with me.
Regardless, SFC Smalls was the outgoing NCOIC of the PAD. Sgt. Windsor was his replacement. As for the rest of the PAD, the members were as follows.
SPC Timothy Struck. A preppy guy who volunteered to join the army for political reasons. He spoke too loudly and always used his hands when he was speaking. He also had this annoying tendency of name-dropping people he knew. It was amusing to see a person who believed so much in their own persona.
Tim had a medium build, black hair, and whenever he tried to smile it looked like half of his face was in on the effort to push the corners up his mouth upward. I think he had emotions, but they were underdeveloped. The word was that Tim was the son of a politician and had plans to run for office once his service was up. I had a hard time imagining him as a person who ever turned out to be important, but politics were foreign to me. I didn’t know what the requirements were, though his apparent lack of charisma seemed like something that wouldn’t work very much in his favor.
SPC John Randell. A wiry Southern boy with brown hair and a rather stern chin. He was a year younger than I was but didn’t look it at all. His time in the army had aged him much faster than his counterparts. His eyes were tired, his face was weathered, and he seemed like he was rarely able to relax.
Randell was a chain-smoker, so I eventually went outside one day to bum a smoke from either him or Laura (quitting was not going well). In fact, it was the smoking that started us talking to each other. I liked Randell just fine, though at times he was hopelessly dour. I would later find that he was married to Hannah, and at the time of my arrival the two were going through a rather acrimonious separation.
SPC Matt Cohen. Cohen looked like he could be Struck’s younger brother. He had the same crew cut, almost the same build, and was just about the same height. Cohen was a happy-go-lucky guy, which was certainly a contrast to the other two soldiers. He always had a joke or an observation about a movie or a song, often randomly interjected when the office was quiet for too long.
Cohen had come down with a case of leishmaniasis some time during his tour in Iraq, a disease caused by a parasitic sand fly found in the Middle East. He spent some time at Walter Reed Hospital before returning to Fort Campbell with everyone else. Because of this ugly brush with nature, he had scars on his hand where the disease had done permanent damage.
Cohen was the ladies’ man of the bunch, at least according to SFC Smalls, who relentlessly kissed his ass about it. They would often have a loud conversation in which SFC Smalls would talk up Cohen’s conquests, with Cohen sheepishly conceding that he had, indeed, bedded whomever it was. Out of the entire group, Cohen seemed to be the nicest, but this ladies’ man shtick made me want to dislike him. I could handle SFC Smalls and all his shit because I knew he was leaving, but I was about to be working with Cohen every day and didn’t want to believe that he was nearly as dumb and shallow as his esteemed leader was helping him look.
All told, I didn’t like any of these guys. Dub was all right, but upon spending more time with him, I found him to be obese and slobbish. It felt like there was a little bit of truth in what SFC Smalls said about him. Randell seemed okay, too, but he was so damn grouchy. I tried not to make snap judgments of anyone, but they all came in and left mostly bad impressions on me.
One of them didn’t leave a bad impression per se, but he certainly did leave me feeling a bit confused. I remember one day I was at the local mall walking to my car when I heard the words “Yo, skinhead!” being shouted from somewhere across the parking lot. Since I had a shaved head, not a military crew cut, I assumed that whoever this was was talking to me. I turned to see Struck grinning stupidly, holding up the heavy metal horns. Still grinning, he shouted, “Six-six-six, man!”
I stood there, lost for words.
Judging by his self-satisfied expression, I knew that he was being serious. This guy honestly believed that he was identifying with me, just like a politician might. He took a stab at what demographic I was, then he said what he believed were my accepted buzzwords. I tried my best not to write him off as a complete idiot in that moment.
I didn’t have much time to respond, so I threw up the horns in kind. I don’t care who it is, one always returns the horns. Satisfied, Struck wandered to his car and drove away. I stood there for several moments after wondering if Timothy Struck actually believed that I worshiped the devil.