“Failure to Adapt,” Part I, Chapter 3

Shammer!

Despite my failure, I rolled over to the white phase.  I tried to shake off the feeling of defeat and keep going, but by the third week I was completely wiped out.  I felt as though I was getting a cold or a sinus infection, and I was experiencing sporadic pain in my right knee.  I tried to talk to the drill sergeants about both of my issues.  For my sinus infection, I was sent to ‘sick call,’ where a medic evaluates your condition.  Apparently, my condition was minor, because I was given sinus pills and cough drops and told to suck it up.

As for my knee, I was told: lose more weight and your knees won’t hurt.

There was also the fact that I was experiencing various degrees of physical withdrawal symptoms.  I was certain that my immune system was probably weak just like my muscles were.

I knew the drill sergeants weren’t there to coddle us, but I felt that in both cases I was dealing with something that wasn’t as simple as the people in charge said.  I felt that I needed antibiotics and bed rest.  I did not believe that soldiering on was the solution.

The pain in my knee was enough to make me wonder if I was going to have problems with it later.  We had a few soldiers with injuries in our platoon, and it didn’t seem like they were treated with much dignity.  We had a female soldier in particular, Pvt. Walker, who had sustained a knee injury in the previous cycle.  A drill sergeant explained to us that she was “shamming” and “crying to go home.”

Walker was a short, thin girl with mousy brown hair and no real defining characteristics.  She was pale, she mumbled when she spoke, and she wore thick-rimmed, army-issued glasses that were far too large for her small face.  She looked a mess every day, too.  She looked as though she was trying to get dressed with a broken arm, not a knee injury.

She also looked intensely demoralized.

Walker would go everywhere we went, but she was on crutches and was simply directed to stand on the sidelines and watch us.  She was not made to march in formations, but she was still required to keep up with everyone.  It seemed a little pointless having her along, though, and you could see on her face that she felt the exact same way.

I was able to talk with Walker one day, and I found out that the story was true.  She did injure herself in the previous cycle, and she had asked to be discharged.  She figured if she was already getting scuffed up in basic training, there was no point in continuing.  Her explanation seemed perfectly reasonable to me, but at the same time, whether it was her or the drill sergeant, I felt that there was some information left out of the story by somebody.

Who knows?  Maybe she was shamming.  Regardless, did it have to mean that this soldier was a coward?  Why was that a necessary part of her narrative?

Before long, my fellow soldiers started using the word on each other.  A few dickheads in the unit decided to break off and form a gang that picked on the fat soldiers.  Since there were soldiers fatter than I was, I was normally in the clear.  However, this one skinny guy, Pvt. Klein, called me a shammer at PT one day.  I gave Klein a one-finger salute as he ran by me on the track, but after the run was over, I told him that I work my ass off.  He told me I was too slow and that I slow the group down.  He also told me I should have been recycled.

I mean, he wasn’t wrong, but, I dunno, fuck him.

I took it on the chin like I was supposed to, but deep down I wanted to knock that guy’s teeth in.  How could anybody know how hard I was working?  That was my problem with the accusation of shamming.  “Sham” means that something is pretend or fake.  It’s a stupid way of using the word to begin with.

But I digress.

The part that pissed me off about shamming was that it should have been obvious that not everybody was cut out for military service.  I don’t think you should give a person grief over not making it through what has been specifically designed to filter out people who are not strong enough.  If you know how to do a backflip, you can’t just go around talking trash to anybody who can’t do a backflip.  That’s just poor sportsmanship.

Klein finally shut up on his own accord.  It didn’t surprise me to have a guy like that among us, but it did make me wonder how things would be later in my enlistment.  What happened to the Kleins after training?  What kind of soldiers did they make?  Would I be seeing more people like him?

Cracks were beginning to form on the already fragile ice that was my faith in my plan.  The pain in my knee was something I felt that would need to be addressed at some point, but what if something happened to me like it had to Pvt. Walker?  Would her fate be my fate, to just get dressed every morning and hobble along with everyone, being randomly dissed by strangers all day?

*****

After another forty-eight hours of trudging along, my sinus infection was turning into something much worse.  Whatever remedies the sergeants were giving me at the sick bay were not doing a thing.  I was at the point where I barely slept at night despite the physically arduous days.  One night I didn’t sleep at all because of my coughing.  I rose at four in the morning and dragged myself to the bathroom.  What needed to happen before the drill sergeants realized I wasn’t faking?  Did the drill sergeants think that I was a shammer?

A glimpse in the mirror filled me with hope.

The previous night, another soldier was sent to the hospital for having pink eye.  This was the one malady that a drill sergeant would not ignore.  Pinkeye is gross, and it spreads quickly, especially in damp, sweaty environments like the one we were in.  I believed that I needed a doctor to look at me, so I had switched that soldier’s pillow with my own once he left.  Unsurprisingly, it worked right away.

I was simultaneously relieved, fascinated, and appalled as I beheld my swollen eye.  It was gross, but it was what I wanted.  The other soldier had not yet returned from the hospital, so in my mind that meant I would be quarantined until my pinkeye went away.  That was all I needed, a bed and a couple days’ rest.

The drill sergeant took one look at me, and immediately sent me to the hospital.  When a doctor finally saw me, he ordered me seventy-two hours of bed rest and gave me three different medications.  I had developed an ear, nose, throat, and upper respiratory infection in addition to my pinkeye, which explained all the coughing and the overall feeling that I was dying.

I don’t know what kind of medicine I was given in addition to antibiotics, but I probably slept about sixty out of those seventy-two hours, maybe more.  I awoke on the third day feeling incredible.  I wanted to get out and run around now that my lungs had cleared up and I was rested.  I felt so good, in fact, that I started to believe I could pass the next set of tests that were waiting for me.

I still felt a bit of guilt over what I had done.  I had cheated to be able to see a doctor, but the drill sergeant had forced my hand.  This was not the way I wanted to get through basic training, but I didn’t think that ignoring problems was the right way to go either.

I didn’t want to be locked in a battle of wits and will with the army.  I know me.  I’ll always put up a fight.  I’m not a guy who suffers injustice.  In my mind, this was an injustice, and, as is my way, I dealt with this injustice with quick thinking.

In the end, I made peace with my decision.  Perhaps if I had let the sickness go on a little longer, I could have gotten more bed rest, but the way the drill sergeants were acting, I doubt they would have let me stop at all.  Up until this point, I felt like they knew what they were doing.  Maybe they were right about my knee.  There would come a point in my military career when I wouldn’t be doing all this strenuous activity every day.  Maybe it would stop hurting.  Still, I was really sick, and both the drill sergeants and the medics ignored it.

What else did they ignore in the army?

 

“Failure to Adapt,” Part II, Chapter 3

Shammers and
Broke-Dicks

Soldiers who were new to Student Company were designated AFI, or “awaiting further instructions.’  There was nothing for an incoming soldier to do initially, so they would simply hang around the barracks while everyone else was at school.  There were other reasons for a soldier to be AFI, though.  They might be injured, they might be in trouble, or they might have failed one of their classes.  If one of these were the case, the soldier might find themselves in administrative limbo for a very long time.

Regardless of the reason, all AFI soldiers were subject to being given errands to run or cleaning tasks to perform during the day.  Most of the time, though, we were simply free to hang out.  The drill sergeants would not normally allow us to leave the barracks, but a soldier was allowed to go back to their room or to relax in the common area on the first floor.

Personally, I wanted to hide in my room so that nobody would bother me, but Hudson insisted on looking around during the first few days.  While he was checking out the barracks, I tried talking to a few of the AFI soldiers.  Most of them were going to be in the next set of classes with me, but there were a few curious individuals who had more going on than it seemed.

There was one extremely tiny female soldier who you would swear was in middle school.  She had shockingly bright red hair, was extremely pale, and aside from being under five feet tall, she looked like she would fly away if the wind were to pick up too suddenly.

This soldier, Pvt. Sellers, had somehow broken her arm on a very old-fashioned piece of furniture in her barracks room, and even though the fracture had healed, she was placed on AFI for a medical board to determine her eligibility to continue.  She had already completed her classes, but the question that remained was whether she was too delicate to stay in the army.  I think she told me that she was going on her sixth or seventh month at DINFOS, and by that point she was simply burned out and wanted to leave.

Holy crap, I thought. Six months?!  How much of that time was spent just sitting around?  Medically mandated AFI sounded like a horrible thing to happen to a person.  Never mind the injury, but all that hanging around must have been torture.

Even as I was talking with Pvt. Sellers, a drill sergeant emerged from his office and made a comment to me about “hanging out with shammers.”  She winced slightly and lowered her head, her slight overbite coming down hard on her bottom lip.  The scene was very much reminiscent of Pvt. Walker.

And there was that word again.

After the drill sergeant walked away, Sellers told me that this was exactly why she wanted to leave.  She had gone to a great deal of trouble to get into the army, being instructed to take protein powder and eat bananas every day for a week in order to make the minimum weight requirement.  She said there was a time when she really wanted to be a soldier, but she realized after this unusual injury that perhaps she had made a mistake.  After all, she and the doctors were of a like mind.  If she had already broken a bone in training, and not even during an exercise session, it may be in her best interest to leave.

I met another female soldier who was on AFI, according to rumor, for failing a drug screening.  Her name was Tisha, and she was a rather striking mixed-race girl who I had to admit I would probably pursue in the outside world.  She was cute, she was petite, and she seemed like the kind of girl that enjoyed smoking a blunt and listening to some Outkast.  A drill sergeant warned me to leave her alone, though, lest I draw unnecessary attention to myself.

I needed to know more.

I tried more than once to get out of her why she was on AFI, but she wouldn’t talk about it.  She simply told me that she was sick of the army and sick of being picked on.  She was forced to man the desk at the front of the building every day while the students were at school, she wasn’t allowed to wear anything but her military-issued clothing, and she was only allowed to leave the barracks when it was time to eat.  She was even being kept in a room by herself by the drill sergeants’ offices.

Tisha’s situation left me with a lot of questions, but in the end, she insisted that I left her alone.  I think she was happy for the interaction, but I also think she didn’t want me to become guilty by association.  From that day forward I always surveyed the barracks to see where she was.  I hoped that, guilty or not, she would one day get the release from the army she was seeking.

*****

I met or at least encountered the rest of the AFI soldiers during my first few days at Student Company, but there were whispers of a guy named “Thievin’ Cleveland” whom I had not yet seen.  The list of his infractions ranged from being drunk in class to stealing things from other soldiers’ rooms.  It was also rumored that he had failed a drug screening and was waiting for a discharge.

Apparently, this guy had pissed off the drill sergeants so greatly that he was told it was best not to show his face.  He didn’t even come to formation.  He simply hung out in his room all day, paying people to fetch him food, alcohol, and tobacco.  At least, that’s what the rumors were.

Later that first week, I summoned up the courage to seek him out.  I cautiously stood in the doorway that was supposed to be his room.  What first struck me was that he had completely covered his window, creating a dark and rather ominous scene.  The entire barracks was well lit between the sun and the fluorescent lighting, so instead of seeing into the room, I was only able to detect the outline of furniture and a large lump on one of the beds.

The second thing that struck me was the smell, even as I stood outside of the door.  It smelled like an unwashed human wearing an unwashed uniform tucked into unwashed linens with various articles of rotten food.  Just as I was about to turn and leave, a deep voice bid me to enter.

The figure reached over and turned on a lamp.  As I entered the room, I beheld a soldier who was as obese as he was smelly.  His head was recently shaven by a razor, made evident by spots of blood and toilet paper, and there was some kind of food or sauce in the corners of his mouth.

I felt like I had entered Jabba the Hutt’s palace.  The only thing missing was a small creature at his feet cackling at me.   Well, that, and Leia in a metal bikini.  In one hand, this mysterious figure held a can of computer duster, which he promptly stuck into his mouth and inhaled.  He waited for a few seconds, and then he spoke.

“What’s up?” he croaked.

I wasn’t exactly prepared to engage him, but I told him that I was just looking around and trying to figure things out.  He asked me if I needed anything, to which I replied in the negative.  I didn’t know what he meant by that, and frankly I didn’t want to know.  All I wanted was to see if the rumors were true, and it looked as though they were.

We didn’t talk for very long.  He told me he was in trouble, but never said why.  All he really said was that the army was bullshit and so were the drill sergeants.  He told me that the rules were a joke, and that you could get away with just about anything so long as the drill sergeants liked you.  I listened to him for a few minutes, but I began to feel horribly uncomfortable.  Plus, the smell of the room was getting to me.

I told Thievin’ Cleveland that I was going to lunch, and he simply nodded.  He took another hit from the can of duster and told me to come see him if I needed anything.  Also, if I ever managed to get off base, he’d give me twenty bucks for another can of duster.  I nodded and quickly made my exit.

*****

By the end of the week, I had made it a point to try and brush elbows with every single AFI soldier regardless of the rumors surrounding them.  The only people who stood out to me then were Sellers, Tisha, and “Thievin’ Cleveland.”  Each of them was, in their own way, an example of what could go wrong with a soldier.  To me, this bolstered the argument against hanging on to soldiers who couldn’t make it through their training.  It made me wonder what other kind of dissatisfied, disgruntled “shammers and broke-dicks” I would encounter on my journey.

It also made me wonder what happened in the army to cause people to turn out that way.  After all, these three people were still in training, and all three had clearly given up some time ago.  I wondered how much of it was their fault.  I wondered if they were pushed too far, or if they never should have joined the army in the first place.  I wondered how I would react if something happened to me.

This was not the first time I had wondered if I had what it took to survive.  Never mind the PT.  What about the boredom?  What about the isolation?  These soldiers were all at the end of their proverbial rope.  I couldn’t help but feel bad for them.  I don’t think anybody ever intends to turn out like any of these people.

For the time being, it scared me straight.

Another New Category

Anybody who knows me knows that I am a huge music-head.  Most of my preferences tend to be on the obscure side of things… bare minimum on the lesser-known side.

This category will be reserved for both interesting trivia, and reviews of songs or albums that have impacted me the most.  I actually had this as a category a couple of years ago, but for whatever reason, I stopped.

I will try to have a bit of research behind my posts, and I am a nerd for facts just as much as I am a nerd for music.  Hopefully, this will be as educational as it is entertaining.

I’m probably going to kick out a review of something by The Fat Boys for my first post.  I find them to be one of the unsung innovators of hip-hop, and I love their entire (portly) body of work.

Stay tuned, darlings.

New Category

I’m a late-in-life comic reader.  It actually started when I was in grad school.  I needed a break from the heavy, depressing prose of Randell Jarrell and the dense and perplexing manuscript of Piers Plowman, so one day I opened up a Batman one-shot entitled The Killing Joke.

The rest was history.

In the future, I’m going to post a little about the comics that have impacted me the most.  I am going to stray from any TV shows or movies, however, because they generally irritate me.  I’m not a snob, but I am picky.  One season of Arrow and one season of The Flash was enough to turn me off permanently.

And yes, I know that Gotham is good, but who has the time to watch that many episodes of anything?

For those of you not familiar with anything comic-related… GOOD!  You’ll enjoy it, too!  I’ll make sure of it.

My first post will be on my favorite Elseworlds one-shot, a little book called I, Joker.  Not a well known story in the canon, but for some reason this is one of my favorites.  After that, who knows?  Maybe I’ll do The Sinestro Corps War.  I’m a huge Green Lantern fan, so I’m definitely going to tackle more than one major event in that story line.

I don’t do much of Marvel or the indies.  I’ve been reading so much Batman, Green Lantern, and major event comics that I haven’t really had to time to examine anything outside of that.  The Injustice story had something like 200 books… that was quite time-consuming (and not a bad read, if you were curious).

Also, I don’t normally ask for requests, but if there is any comic you would like me to review, I’m all ears.

Drop me a line in the comments, or email me at pmccollum1980@gmail.com

“Patterns of Misconduct,” preview chapter

THE WHITE PHASE

We did a lot of weapon maintenance in the beginning of the white phase.  The drill sergeants taught us how to disassemble and clean our rifles, and for the duration of the white phase we were required to perform some kind of maintenance on our weapon every day.  In fact, we had to carry the damn things with us everywhere we went for the rest of basic training.  Every morning, we would have to go to a supply closet and retrieve an M-16, sling it over our shoulder, and carry it with us.

And there were consequences for not taking the responsibility of the rifle seriously.  You were punished for putting it down, you were punished for not holding it correctly, and you were especially punished if you ever dropped the thing.  These were all necessary measures, of course, as all deployed soldiers were required to carry their weapon at all times.  However, I simply didn’t appreciate the reminder that my intended line of work may still involve the use of weapons.

The training on the M-16 was almost constant.  That’s why I was so pissed at myself for never hitting the targets.  There was a method of training for every single aspect of the rifle, from how you breathe to how you brace yourself against a foxhole wall.  There was even a clever acronym for what you do when your weapon gets jammed and ceases to fire:  SPORTS.

S – slap the weapon as a warning for being insubordinate

P – pull out the thing

O – observe the thing

R – replace the thing

T – tap the side of your weapon politely and remind it of its purpose

S – squeeeeeeze that trigger, soldier

At least it was something like that.  I have the general theory of it.  One thing I can say about the army:  they are absolutely thorough in their protocol and training.  I don’t ever want any readers to glean from my words that the military didn’t offer a thorough enough program.  A detail-oriented freak such as myself couldn’t help but admire how specific and tedious everything was.

*****

There was another activity introduced when we were given our rifles:  Drill and Ceremony, otherwise known as DNC.  Have you ever seen a high-profile event where a group of soldiers are marching and snapping their rifles?  That’s basically DNC.

In between firing exercises, we had to learn how to form up and moved in a synchronized manner.  The only difference between this and our combat training, essentially, was that this was purely for show.  However, this set of exercises did teach us a few commands that we would have to follow for the rest of our careers.  For example, DNC taught us how to line up correctly for formations and how to get into step.  Sure, DNC itself was designed to be part and parcel to a display of military superiority (if not only through the virtue of intense discipline), but it was also generally quite useful.  You’d be surprised how hard it is to sync yourself up with fifty other people while you’re jogging in boots.

Regardless of the pageantry element to it all, it came as no surprise that DNC was just as grueling as anything else we had done so far.  Dexterity was always something I never had much of, so having to execute crisp starts and stops along with snapping my rifle and raising it at just the right times was something I could not manage in the beginning.  Even though I had no idea we’d be doing anything of the sort before I entered the army, it did not surprise me that I sucked at this as well.

But believe it or not, I did get better.  Muscle memory is key; one thing we didn’t account for was how taxing these specific motions would be… when repeated fifty times.  In its own way, DNC put a few extra touches on my physical development.

And more importantly, DNC helped with my confidence.  I was OK at the theory of the rifle and all the maintenance involved, and since we did not actually go to the rifle range until over a week into the white phase, I was actually feeling pretty confident about being a soldier again.  As a matter of fact, at the end of the cycle, our platoon was selected by the drill sergeants and the commander as being the best of the four platoons at DNC.

It made sense to me that we had to do something like DNC.  Soldiers also need to appear organized and neat in addition to rugged and ready.  They need to be able to live in both worlds, ideally, or that’s what I supposed.  Who really knows?  Maybe it’s a control thing.  Maybe it’s to show how the general can make his circus perform by the sound of his whip.  I’m trying not to be cynical here, either.  The truth of the matter is that I always found it to be superfluous, but to be fair, very few soldiers have to do this kind of thing after training.

In fact, there are special units that train specifically for DNC, just as there are soldiers who train specifically for the army marching band (yes, that is a thing).  The next time you see a group of soldiers performing DNC, I hope my half-assed description of it makes you able to appreciate how much work goes into that nonsense.

*****

White phase also gave us our first FTX of the cycle.  However, it was merely a warm-up FTX, as all we did was march to a site, set up our tents, and then learn how to set up a rotating guard.

However, there was an upside to this FTX:  this was the first occasion in which soldiers were allowed to finish eating their “chow.”  We were all given MREs, and we spread out all over our camp site to enjoy our first peaceful meal in a month.

And I loved MREs.  To me, those things were like a Happy Meal.  Here’s an example of what an MRE might have to offer:

 

MRE #11:  Vegetarian Pasta

– Pasta with vegetables in tomato sauce

– A granola bar (name brand… no generic crap here)

– A pouch of peanut butter and another pouch of crackers

– Freakin SKITTLES… an entire bag (no Halloween fun-size crap here)

In addition, each MRE would come with a little accessory pack of odds and ends.  Generally speaking, it would contain a pouch of salt, a pouch of pepper, some instant coffee and a little bit of powdered creamer and sugar, and also a few practical items like matches and some toilet paper.  Although the contents of the MRE would vary, there was no denying that, with few exceptions, MREs were outstanding.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the drill sergeants would come around and take your matches and your coffee.  You weren’t supposed to have caffeine and you definitely weren’t supposed to be starting any fires.  I was no pyromaniac, but I certainly never parted with coffee willingly.  In fact, I regularly rounded up coffee pouches from my fellow soldiers.  It would not be uncommon for one of my canteens on my pistol belt to be full of water, and the other to be full of tepid Taster’s Choice.

As far as the FTX went, we were responsible for setting up and executing our own watch.  Our platoon once again went out with 2nd Platoon, so the two platoon leaders decided on times for shifts, and who would cover what side.  That was the extent of it.  The purpose for the exercise was to simulate vigilance in a combat setting.  We were also shown for the first time how to set up our tents, but Boomhauer had that finished almost before I could ask him if he needed any help.

The only other thing memorable from that evening was the noticeable drop in temperature resulting in quite a few soldiers scrambling to figure out how to stay warm.  No fires were allowed because we were supposed to be hidden, so we had to try and pile as many pieces of our clothing and gear on top of ourselves, because the army-issue sleeping bag did very little to keep out the cold on this particularly frigid February night.

The drill sergeants warned against this.  They told us that if we bundled up with everything we had, we would still end up feeling cold after our bodies adjusted.  Of course, they left it at that.  No solution or alternative was presented.  I’m sure they said something, but I’m sure it was something dumb, like “get up and jog in place” or simply “suck it up and drive on.”  I hated when they gave us bad news with no alternatives or recourse.  Basic training was good about that, too.  The whole damn army was good about that.

While I was on my roving duty, I found a stray canteen.  Since it is one of the most misplaced pieces of gear that a soldier will have in basic training, I picked it up and decided to keep it.  I had already been punished once before for losing a canteen during an exercise (having to also pay for a replacement), so I scooped this one up in anticipation of the same thing happening again.

Just remember, friends:  there’s only one thief in the army.  Everyone else is just trying to get their shit back.

When I went to my tent to try and get some sleep that night, I was already having trouble because our tent was set up over some rather thick tree roots.  I had a horrible time padding the ground with my loose gear and clothing before I could even lay down, and then there was the cold to contend with.  Just as the drill sergeants warned us, my attempts at getting warm were met with disappointing results.

I managed to somewhat settle in, basically creating a cocoon made up of my extra uniforms all piled on top of me in the sleeping bag.  I had succeeded in warming myself and getting reasonably comfortable, but just was drifting off, I realized that I had to pee.

Frustrated, I mentally tried to envision how I set up my sleeping situation before I attempted to get up to relieve myself.  I wondered if I would even be able to replicate this super-comfy setup a second time.  It would take a few minutes to even extricate myself from this tightly-zipped sleeping bag with all its various coats and uniforms stuffed inside.

That’s when I remembered the canteen.

I had thrown my new acquisition carelessly in my tent while I was on roving guard, so I pulled an arm free from my sleeping back and groped around blindly for it.  After a few minutes of uncomfortable squirming (and a “What the hell, dude?” from Boomhauer), I managed to secure the vessel.  However, I was well stuffed into my sleeping bag, so the next step was going to take a lot of work.

After struggling for about ten minutes to bring my arm back into my sleeping bag, I hit another snag when I realized that I would have to somehow roll onto my side if I wanted this plan to work.  Again, with all the excess stuffing in my bag, that was no small feat, and let’s not forget the roots constantly poking me in my back and my ass.  It felt like I was already being punished for the dumb thing I was about to do.

But I pulled it off.  Somehow.  Somehow, I managed to pull a canteen into my army-issued sleeping bag and relieve myself whilst lying on my side.  I heard a chuckle from Boomhauer, but outside of that, I was able to relieve myself in peace.

It was still a struggle to put the lid on the canteen and pull it out of my military-issued cocoon, but I was able once again to free an arm and fling the canteen towards the entrance to our tent.  I kicked it a few times to make sure it was gone, and then I laid back down to go to sleep.

In the morning, the canteen was gone.  I always wondered what happened to that thing.

*****

An exercise that I will never forget is the night fire exercise.  For this portion of the training, we would be low-crawling under barbed wire through a pit of sand while M-16 bullets with a special kind of tracer that makes them visible at night were being fired overhead.  Finally, the drill sergeants would be setting off live grenades in a concrete hole that was in the middle of the pit.

We set out just as the sun was going down for this particular exercise.  Nobody seemed to be too terribly excited about this one.  One look at the training field as the sun was setting showed us that we were in for a crazy evening.

After waiting until the sun had set entirely, the exercise began.  Bullets began zipping overhead, their sound was frightening and their red glow made them that much more ominous.  The bullets were being fired well overhead of us all, but they were bullets!  It didn’t matter to me how much control the people firing them had!  They were still bullets!

After not nearly long enough of a wait, it was my turn.  The pit was at least the length of a football field, so there were no shortcuts.  Just get on your belly and crawl until you feel grass.

As I began the exercise, I found myself having very little difficulty.  I was much stronger by this point, and even though it was definitely taxing my muscles I was keeping a decent pace.

Then I heard the grenade.

A terrible explosion shook the ground and left a sickening smell of gunpowder in the air.  For several moments I froze.  For several painful moments I found movement to be impossible.

In fact, I don’t remember anything after the first explosion.  I remember thinking to myself that the exercise wasn’t too bad, I remember the explosion, and I remember getting up off of the ground when I was finished, but I have no recollection of those final seventy-five yards.

*****

There was one other major exercise during the white phase.  For their training, every soldier is required to be exposed at least once to CS gas.

And what is CS gas?  It’s the same kind of gas found in the grenades that police use to suppress rioters!  Doesn’t that sound like fun?

It wasn’t.

The drill sergeants didn’t even get us prepped for this one.  They simply told us what it was and what it was going to feel like.  They said it would burn.  They said your pores would open up and you’d probably start leaking from a few different areas on your face.  They also said not to touch your eyes once you exited the chamber.  That was pretty much it.  In fact, that’s pretty much all anyone needs to know; anything outside of that can really only be left to experience.

In short, soldiers would go into a small concrete building wearing a gas mask, and exit not wearing one.  Inside would be a few canisters of the aforementioned riot gas in the center of the room.  A group of soldiers would line up, and one at a time the drill sergeant would tap soldiers on their shoulder, signaling for them to remove their mask.

The drill sergeant would then ask you three questions.  What the drill sergeant asked of you was varied.  Every time they would ask a few short personal questions, like your name and your age.  However, that is where the uniformity stopped.  Honestly, I say with a great deal of certainty that what the drill sergeant did from that point was based entirely on what they thought of you.  However, you could not leave until you satisfied their answers.  Only then would you be tapped a second time, meaning you were free to leave the chamber.

Since this exercise didn’t involve anything outside of holding your breath and keeping your cool, I had a good feeling about it.  From what we were told, it seemed like there would be some discomfort no matter what.  I was ready for that.  Outside of that, I figured it was all controlling how much air you let out when you spoke to the drill sergeant.

I wasn’t wrong, but…

“What’s your name, soldier?”

“Devon James Perkins, drill sergeant!”

“Where are you from, private?”

“I’m from Savannah, Georgia, drill sergeant!”

I felt smug.  I was already through it.  I had barely used my stored oxygen.  Nice try, sarge.  You almost got me.  My face was burning, but I was cool, calm, and in control.

But the third question didn’t come.  I began to tear up.  My nose started running.  I involuntarily tried to pull the snot back into my head, and it burned the left side of my nasal passage.  Then my head began to burn.  I realized I was not going to be able to hold my breath any longer.

“Last question, soldier.  How old are you?”

You son of a bitch.

“Dwenny-free, dill sahjen.”  I felt a tap on my soldier.

When your body is exposed to CS gas, your lungs seize, your pores open, and you find yourself extremely disoriented while trying to sort out this fiery intrusion.  For just a second, you think there has been a mistake, and you are going to be the first casualty from this supposed non-lethal gas.

Of course, what the drill sergeant did was typical for the exercise.  Every last one of us thought we could game the system, but the point wasn’t to learn how to avoid the gas, it was to show us how it felt.  Police trainees are forced to take pepper spray and maybe even a taser for basically the same reason.

In other words, nobody was allowed out of the gas chamber until they started choking.

But it wasn’t over there.  You still had to navigate the perilous Chili-Mac Road (thusly named because vomit… tee-hee), a suspiciously rocky and winding path that had a tree planted conveniently in the middle.  More than one concussion had been given by that tree, no doubt, because it claimed me that day as well.  Even though I saw the tree as I was dashing away from the chamber, I was still off-balance.  Though I did succeed in slamming on the brakes, my foot dug into the ground and I fell forward, smacking my dome on the base of the tree.

Great fun, indeed.

“Patterns of Misconduct,” preview chapter

THE BLUE PHASE

At the very beginning of the blue phase, the pace slowed significantly and we were given a few days to learn and practice a little bit of fighting.  We took a few hours one afternoon to learn grappling and takedowns, and then the next day the drill sergeants demonstrated a few pressure points and various other hand-to-hand fighting techniques.

Another afternoon was spent beating each other with pugil sticks.  They are basically enormous Q-Tips packed with rubber foam that is not nearly as soft as they appear.

The drill sergeant paired me up with the biggest guy in our platoon, too.  He was affectionately called Ox by everyone, as he was an unusually large specimen of a human being.  I was friends with this soldier, at least friendly with this soldier, so I hoped that he wouldn’t try to beat my brains out when I stepped up to take him on.

For whatever reason, Ox went easy on me.  It was clear he was holding back, because when his hits connected, they did not at all knock me back or sideways the way they should have.  I even had a moment where I thought I might get him, as he missed a shot at me and I checked him with the stick hard across his chest.  He lost his balance, but came back swinging from his hip.

But before he could connect, I came at him with a few shots of my own.  I popped him right in the head with more force than I originally intended.  The shot cancelled his last attack, and he even took a moment to grin and nod in approval before he corrected his center of gravity.

He wanted me to win.

The message having been received, I let out a flurry of shots to his abdomen, intermittently shoving him with the end of the stick in an attempt to keep him off-balance while I decided how on earth I was going to finish this bout.

But my hits weren’t throwing him off balance the way I thought they would, and he finally deflected one of my shots with his stick and tried to twist and disarm me.  As our sticks clashed a second time, he smashed my left hand and I let go of my weapon for just a split second.  I knew this was a mistake, and I cursed that silly impulse.

However, instead of knocking me senseless, Ox opted instead to use my own tactic against me, shoving me off my perch at full force using the center of the stick.  I flew off of the platform, almost in cartoonish fashion.  I landed hard on my rear, but I laid back after falling to catch my breath.  As I was about to sit up, Ox came and stood over me, extending his hand and grinning.

“Y’ok, Perkins?” he asked.

I nodded.  “I’m good, brother.”  I accepted his hand, and he clumsily jerked me to my feet.

“Y’almost had me, man.  Next time, yeah?”  He patted me on the back and then gave me a playful shove.

I laughed.  “Yeah, next time, buddy.”

*****

We also had a rather unusual occurrence only a few days before our final series of tests:  we were allowed to attend a concert.  We had absolutely no indication that anything like this would be happening, either.  After a Saturday filled largely with light yard work outside of our barracks, one of our drill sergeants told us to get ready for a break.

The drill sergeant did warn us, however, before we left for the evening’s festivities that there would be concessions being sold.  He said that the drill sergeants would not be present to stop us from buying snacks, and while he informed us that it wouldn’t be prohibited, he did send a rather stern warning that perhaps some of us should skip that part. With that, we were marched to an auditorium and told to march back when the concert was over.

The concert was OK.  Actually, I remember thinking that we could be in the barracks instead, sitting on our beds instead of hard bleachers listening to some shitty band that was probably made up of a bunch of semi-talented NCOs.  It’s not that I was ungrateful for this break, but the whole thing felt a little out of place for what was supposed to be military training.

Still, I enjoyed myself.  Of all the concessions being offered that evening, I opted for a bag of sunflower seeds and a bottle of water.  I had been chewing pen caps for the duration of basic training as a replacement for tobacco, so having actual food to chew on for the duration of the concert was actually more enjoyable than the concert itself.

But the event did manage to make me forget for a few hours what I had been through.  It also kept away the lingering anxiety about what might be next.

*****

And just like that, it was time for our final FTX.  We were awoken at three in the morning to begin gathering our gear.  We painted our faces with camo, helped each other with our gear, and gave reassuring slaps on the back to one another.  Though we were all poorly rested, we were incredibly lively for a group of poor saps who were about to be tormented by their drill sergeants all weekend.  It was almost like a pep rally.

It started raining almost as soon as we hit the trail, and it didn’t let up for the duration of the FTX.  For the most part it was only a gentle drizzle, but the drizzle was persistent.  After a great deal of trudging, we arrived at our campsite.  All that was left to do was dig a foxhole and set up our tents.   The drill sergeants explained that after those two simple tasks were completed, we would be free to turn in for the day.

That’s all we had to do.

A foxhole, as it is referred to in the military, is supposed to be the length of two and a half M-16s and as wide as one (lengthwise, of course).  Furthermore, the hole was to be as deep as the shortest person’s shoulder.  Boomhauer and I both stood over six feet tall, meaning we would be digging five and a half feet into the ground, just a few inches shy of a standard grave.  Don’t think for a minute that I didn’t have this on my mind as we were digging.

We were also informed that our campsite itself would need to be fortified.  Aside from digging a foxhole, it needed to be sheltered with sandbags and branches.  All displaced sand was to be put into bags that we would lay around our fighting position.

Also, we needed to have a small trench ready to fall in, just in case we were ‘attacked.’  This trench was called our hasty fighting position.  This position was to be as long as we were tall, as wide as an M-16, and about six to eight inches deep from top to bottom.  Finally, we needed to set up our tent, dig a trench around it, and cover the bottom with pine straw so the water from the rain on the ground wouldn’t leak in (I guess… I was just doing what Boomhauer did).

Just like the first day of basic training, more and more tasks unfolded as we went along.  The drill sergeants made our tasks even worse by firing all sorts of spectacular weapons into the air and causing blank explosives to go off everywhere we tried to go.

After about ten hours of grueling work, we established our guard roster and turned in.  It was probably only eight or nine in the evening, but after a day like the one we had it was well past our bedtime.

Day one was complete.

The next day was spent conducting all sorts of crazy exercises on and off for about another twelve hours.  After our meals we simply went back to running around.  Day two turned out to be as exciting as it was exhausting.  That evening we all marveled at how we breezed through the FTX so quickly.  This meant that we were finished; the next day was supposed to be only for a closing-down briefing from the drill sergeants, followed by a mass packing of our gear and a march to our checkpoint.

But the drill sergeants had one final trick up their sleeves before they were going to let us go home.

It was right before sunrise on the third day when Boomhauer and I were relieved of our fire guard duty.  I scrambled to the tent to lie down and Boomhauer went to one of the portable latrines.  If I was a good battle buddy, I would have gone with him.  After all, that was the rule while we were in these combat scenarios.

But screw that.  I was tired.

As I was lying down, I heard a soldier in the distance shouting “Gas, gas gas!”  This was the signal we were supposed to give in the event of a chemical attack.  The chemical for our exercise was CS gas, the same gas grenades we used for the exercise in the white phase.

Oh man.  Some poor saps are getting a rude awakening, I thought to myself.

That’s when I saw the stick.

For some reason, my instinct forced me to sit up.  I wanted to see how far away the “attack” was, just to make sure that the same wasn’t about to happen to me.  However, as I rose to poke my head out of the tent, a curious-looking stick met me halfway.  I could barely make out the stupid thing because the sun had just begun to rise, but I could have sworn that I was looking at a stick that had some kind of can tied to it.

And that’s when I realized I was already way too late.

We were taught to go straight for our gas masks when under attack, but panic set in and I did my best to cover my face with a shirt.  The shirt did nothing, of course, so I kept fumbling around until I found my gas mask, trying to keep a cool head while the CS gas had begun to burn my eyes and my face.

We were taught to exhale before putting on our gas masks, but I was already choking by this time.  I breathed out as best as I could, but a reflex caused me to involuntarily attempt to take a huge gulp of air.  I began to choke uncontrollably, and I found that my basic motor functions were beginning to fail in the throes of my panic.

Frantically, I threw off my mask and scurried out of my tent on all fours, blinded, drooling, crying like I just huffed an onion, and groping for nothing in particular, save a remedy for my miserable state.  I began rubbing dirt on my face in a vain attempt to quell the discomfort.  Spitting, cursing, and gasping, I propped myself on all fours and let my various glands try to clear themselves out.

From a distance, I could hear Boomhauer shouting, but it was far too late for consolation.  I plopped down on my belly, finally able to breathe again, and shakily delivered the thumbs up like a battered Evil Knievel.  That is what happens when you don’t listen to the drill sergeant and let your battle buddy out of your sight.

But after that, we were free to go.  Boomhauer and I got a head start on taking down our tent, and I once again scrounged for leftover pouches of Taster’s Choice from my fellow trainees.

However, there was an issue that none of us anticipated.  After three days of nonstop drizzling, all of our gear had become significantly heavier.  After all, at the beginning of basic training you are basically given two dozen different pieces of heavy cloth.  Let those pieces of cloth slowly soak up water over 72 hours, and you have a burden that has nearly doubled in weight, made worse by the fatigue of the exercise.

We were just lucky that the drill sergeants didn’t make us walk the entire ten miles back.

*****

Thhre was actually a short phase following the final PT test.  It was called the gold phase, and though it only lasted three or four days, it was a very rewarding stretch of time.

We did PT one or two of the days of the gold phase, but during the day all we were tasked to do was clean all of our field equipment that wasn’t made of cloth, and tidy up both the inside and the outside of the barracks.  As our assigned leaders were well-versed in delegating, we did these tasks not only with little to no supervision, but quite enthusiastically.

During the gold phase, our two platoons made plans for our final night.  With the exception of a handful of soldiers whose AIT would be on the same base, we were all going to have to fly or ride out of there in the morning, which would likely afford us the time to sleep that we were probably going to miss.  If the drill sergeants were going to leave us alone, we were going to try and have ourselves a last hurrah.

As we lined up for our last evening formation by our beds, there was a palpable feeling of manliness in the air.  Those of us who survived did so not only under the constant stress of the physical demands, but also with the nagging reality that most, if not all of us, would one day soon be sent off to war.  These thoughts were quite pervasive for this guy in particular, but an ungodly shriek broke me from my daze.

“Where is Perkins?  Private Perkins, where is he?”  It was Drill Sergeant Lafayette, and she once again forgot to adjust her volume to an indoor setting.  She also seemed to have forgotten that we lined up by the same bed every night, as she asked a third time where I was before I finally sounded off.

“Hooah, drill sergeant,” I said, because why not?

Within two seconds she stomped across the open bay barracks and was directly in my face.  I could smell alcohol on her breath, so I expected either a kiss or a firm headbutt to the bridge of my nose.  I know myself, friends.  I knew I deserved one of each.

“So, Perkins,” she paused, smirking.  “You gonna walk out of my door tomorrow?”

I had no response for that.  She was drunk.  This was all for her own amusement.

Predictably, she repeated herself in a most dramatic fashion: “Do you, Private Perkins, believe you are going to be walking out of THAT door tomorrow?”  She was pointing, but not at the door.  I was trying not to smile at how obviously drunk she was.

“I plan on it, drill sergeant,” I responded, immediately unsure if that was what I should have said.

“You plan on it, huh?”  she snorted.

But then her face became calm.  All signs of amusement, frustration, and fatigue melted away for just a moment in time.  I was no longer looking at a drill sergeant.  I was looking at another human being.

She silently extended her hand, and I accepted.

“You did it, soldier.  Congratulations.”

I honestly didn’t know how to feel about this.  Every fiber of my being wanted to reject this praise, because I felt that I had not earned it.  However, following the drill sergeant’s earlier revelation that we were part of a pilot program did slightly nullify the feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

Across the room, Chris Moretti began clapping.  One at a time, soldiers from 2nd Platoon followed suit.  Boomhauer was the first to do it on our side, then 1st Platoon all joined in.  I was left to awkwardly bear this strangely triumphant moment, still locked in at parade rest as Drill Sergeant Lafayette smiled a genuine smile at this young fuck-up.

I say this with no hyperbole:  that was one of the single most beautiful moments of my life.

“Teaching Abroad,” Chapter 1

The Arrival

The first thing I did after I said my goodbyes and dropped off my bags was park myself at the terminal bar.  I needed a buzz before confronting the unknown.

I ordered a too expensive scotch and water, and drummed up a conversation with the bartender.  I told him I was starting my life over in another country, and he for whatever reason insisted that I listen to some of his poetry.  Just the same, I had no desire to be alone for any stretch of time, so I indulged this weirdo.

When there was about twenty minutes to go, I went and waited by my gate.  My head was spinning just the perfect amount.  I timed it so that I would sober up a bit before drinks were served, then I would start hitting the scotch again.  I would think about life another time.  I would ponder my existence another time.  I had just made an irreversible decision, and it was time to just take that ride.

*****

My clearest memory of the flight to Bangkok was when I had finally sobered up and was beginning wonder what on earth I was doing.  I had little money, next to no clue, and on top of everything else my thesis was unfinished.  Bear in mind that I was still in close contact with the professor who told me to go to Thailand, but a 24-hour flight is plenty of time to sit and deconstruct all of the positive appraisals a person gives you.  In order to try and prepare myself for what was ahead, I decided to look around the plane.  For the most part, I could not get a read on who or what most of the people were, but I noticed a rather chubby blonde girl behind me who was unusually happy and optimistic, a stark contrast to the air of grouchy fatigue that permeated the atmosphere of the plane.

I spoke to her briefly about her plans.  She was in her early 20s, and was a bit like me in that she was looking for a teaching job.  I was impressed by her optimism and idealism, and took a bit of comfort knowing that another serious person was entering the country with the intent of trying to do some good for the world.  She seemed to have a plan and no shortage of motivation, and I remember trying to see if she had heard anything about teaching or any advice she was given.  I don’t remember the particulars, but I do remember our dialogue being cut short by two crusty old men who were sitting directly behind her.

I took one look at these men and realized a bit of truth about what I was getting into.  They both appeared to be in their 60s, and didn’t seem to have a care in the world.  They both wore tropical shirts with far too many buttons unfastened.  Messy gray chest hair stuck out from their shirts, but it was clear that they wore them with confidence.  They spoke confidently about Thailand to the girl, trying to reassure her that she would be fine.  However, once she asked them why they were there, they balked.  They balked once again when asked where they would be staying, and that was when I knew that I had heard all I needed to hear.

***

About an hour later, my plane touched down.  Following a series of tasks with unloading, retrieving my luggage, and getting my passport stamped, I was let loose inside the airport.  It was quite an airport, too.  Dozens of stores and restaurants filled my small-town eyes and sent my imagination into a topspin.  I was too tired to process what I saw, but I knew that I was impressed.  However, I also knew that I didn’t have the money for any of that crap, regardless of what it was, so I rushed to a currency exchange counter and cashed out what remained of the two hundred dollars that I had taken out at the airport in Minnesota.

When I exited the airport, I had the eerie feeling that everyone was watching me.  I knew I was a rube in this situation and I also knew that I was not going to be able to pass as a non-rube, but I was hoping that I could meet somebody who didn’t have exploitation on their mind, because I was exhausted.  I moved as confidently as I could through the airport and made my way outside.  Almost immediately, a man flagged me down.

“Taxi, mistah?” he said, grinning.  I nodded, but I told him I wanted a cigarette first.  He clapped his hands and shouted something in Thai, and before I knew it I had a cigarette in my mouth with him lighting it.  I was immediately reminded of the movie Kickboxer, and identified this man as a finder of sorts, one who would coolly try to reassure the unsuspecting tourist that they were an honored guest.  Again, I tried my best to compose myself as if I knew what was going on, but I knew this man could see right through me.

The man seemed to be in a constant state of vigilance.  He kept looking around as I was puffing frantically and waiting for the nicotine buzz to set in.  I was starting to get fidgety just watching him.  He made smoking rather un-enjoyable, especially since it was clear that he wanted me to finish up.  So, I threw out my cigarette and was herded into a car.  The finder stuck his hand in my face after I was seated and asked for a tip.  I stuffed a fifty baht note in his hand, trying to play it off like I had money to burn.  He made a few gestures of gratitude, then asked where I was going. I told him the name of the hotel my professor recommended, and he gave instructions to the driver and closed the door.

As I was looking around, I noticed that the taxi was rather nice. Unusually nice. It took about five minutes before I realized that I was in a BMW.  Wait a minute. Was this right?  Was there some kind of mistake?  Knowing what I know now, there was no mistake.  I was a damn rube, and within ten minutes of being in the country I had fallen victim to my first hustle.

Oh, well. I was already in the car.  Not much to do now but pray that I don’t get kidnapped.

*****

The ride ended up costing around $70.  I tried my best to forgive myself of such a blunder as I got out of the car, but I looked up at the ridiculously elegant hotel and realized that I might have already wandered into my second blunder.  I gave the name of the hotel that I thought my professor gave me.  In fact, there were the words, The Atrium, clear as day on the building, yet somehow, I got the feeling that there was a mistake.

The notion was confirmed when I got inside.  Right before I left, I had made a reservation on the website that my professor gave me, and the clerk informed me that no such reservation existed.  Furthermore, the rooms were $50 and up per night, not the $18 that were promised on the website. However, I was too tired to go any farther.  I had to eat some food and sleep everything off.  I gave the lady my credit card, which had about $200 available, and I slogged up to my room.

Once inside, I knew I had to acquire food.  I showered and had some coffee, then wandered outside to try and find something resembling nourishment.  I was greeted at the end of the driveway by a man who was holding a laminated flyer. He wore the same grin as the finder-guy at the airport, and as I tried to avoid him, he very deftly stepped directly into my path.

“Mistah, you want girl?” he hissed.  Holy crap.  Here we go.  I had to look, of course, and sure enough, the dude was holding what was basically a prostitute menu.

How nice, I thought to myself, I can’t wait to write about this one day.

With all the politeness I could muster, I declined the offer and pressed down the street.  I found a microwave meal at a 7-11, and figured I would eat the complimentary fruit in my room along with my meal and then crash for a while.  I took notice of all the fascinating snacks and drinks I had never seen before, but had the wherewithal to know that I had just inadvertently blown far too much money during my first few hours in country and I needed to hold on to what I had until I was rested and could figure things out a little bit.

As I was walking back to the hotel, I was once again cornered by the man with the menu.  I had seen him from a distance eyeing me, but I was absolutely certain that he would remember the answer that I had given him five minutes ago.

Apparently, he did not.

Once again, the menu was thrust in my face.  I pushed it away.  I was angry this time.  I don’t remember what I said, but a combination of fatigue and frustration emboldened me to the point where I uttered a few ugly words and shoved past him.

As I trudged up the driveway back to the hotel, I let out a rather loud stream of curses and oaths.

Welcome to Bangkok, Pete, I said said to myself morosely.