Failure to Adapt

Graduation

Having just received my first of many miracles, I was quite docile for the remainder of the Gold Phase. I was finished, on a technicality of course, but finished with Basic Training. I was still quite disillusioned over how I achieved it, though.

Granted, I did shave another forty seconds off of my time in 48 hours. That wasn’t bad at all. I did work my ass off. I did get serious like I promised myself I would. This all made me feel a little better, but for some reason the fact that I didn’t pass my PT test still meant a lot to me. I was also beginning to wonder if I passed the rifle test, or if this was all just a sham to fill slots.

But my peers were none the wiser. Jones didn’t say anything. Even the drill sergeant who taunted me on the way to the running track made a remark about my score, meaning that the news had already made it back to the unit. In the end, I quit fighting it. It was clear that nobody was ever going to find out about it, so why not just accept this little miracle and move on?

*****

In the true fashion of the military, our graduation was as grandiose as it was lengthy. We marched in a circle and performed a series of well-rehearsed rifle drills, and after about ninety minutes of that nonsense, we dispersed. Don’t ask me to elaborate any further on the rifle drills. I never had a clue what we were doing.

We were allowed to spend that afternoon with our families. My parents came up from Georgia to make sure their little monster didn’t default, but were quite pleased at what they beheld. I had my brother smuggle me a pack of Newports, and I puffed greedily in front of a stepfather who I swear was beaming at me.

There was an undeniable feeling of guilt mixed with the pride that I felt for the circumstances under which I graduated. I felt as though I had gotten away with a huge lie, and was hopelessly ambivalent about it all. Still, I grinned through the whole ordeal, accepting praise and gifts along the way. Being in the army was the only solution for a guy like me as far as my parents were concerned, so there was no need in disrupting their illusion that their son had finally found his place.

Of course, I knew it was never going to work. I had cleared the first hurdle, but I honestly had no idea how I was going to get through the next portion of the training. We were already warned that the PT standards would be higher. I barely made it through basic training. How the hell was I going to make it through the next phase? However, I never conveyed this fear to my parents, nor were the conditions of my graduation ever discussed.

I knew it wasn’t a happy fit, but my parents didn’t need to know that.

*****

On the eve of our final day, we were all packing our gear and getting ready to depart when one of the drill sergeants entered the barracks and asked us to gather around him. This was the notoriously mean guy, but he looked a little different on this day. He looked as though he had a lot on his mind. He looked upset. We eyed each other questioningly, thinking that he was going to take one more opportunity to kick our asses before we left.

As we gathered around, he paused for a minute to survey the group. He looked like he did not yet have the words to say. We began to look around at each other, because this was the first time he wasn’t glaring at us. Did somebody die? Was the country attacked again? These were all thoughts that went racing through my mind before he finally took a deep breath and spoke:

“Soldiers, I just want to say that I am sorry. You have been a part of a pilot program. We were supposed to push you all through. We’re supposed to be making a ‘kinder, gentler army.’ I never supported this idea and I don’t agree with it. This is not the real army.” He paused and appeared to be deep in thought. “Just… I’m sorry, soldiers. I’m sorry.”

And with that, he quickly walked out of the room.

*****

That night as I lay in my bed, the drill sergeant’s words kept playing on a loop in my brain. I had originally heard the phrase ‘kinder, gentler’ army from my recruiter, but I thought that it was merely one of the many tactics they used to lure people in.

I began thinking about my in-processing. I was really overweight. Did they just let that slide? What about the rifle range? Did I actually hit 23 targets?

I felt ripped off.

I wanted to fail. I had so far gone through life being too smart for my own good. In college I never attended class because I thought I was smart enough to pass without their lectures. At tech school I half-assed everything while hanging out with two rastas getting baked out of our minds all day. Even at the county newspaper I thought I was Hunter S. Thompson getting drunk in the middle of the day and driving to City Hall for a meeting. I joined the army to be forced to toughen up and fall in line.

Maybe I had toughened up a little. I was looking lean and felt somewhat strong. I certainly gained much more respect for soldiers since I had begun this journey. However, I didn’t pass any of their tests. I wanted to do them again. This was not a victory, and now I had all the proof I needed that they were letting everything slide.

What was next? What other bullshit formalities awaited me? Was my next period of training going to be the same way? If so, what was the point?

*****

Very few words were exchanged on our final day. We were far too preoccupied to think about anything but our destination, so we gathered our belongings and dispersed in relative silence. I remember Mike Jones slapping me in the balls, but I think that was one of the only interactions I had on that final day.

I was given back the civilian clothes I was wearing when I first left for basic training. That life seemed a million miles away and a thousand years ago. When I put them on, I didn’t even recognize myself. For starters, they had become incredibly baggy. Second, I was clean cut and trim now. My appearance did not seem to go with this deliberately slobbish attire.

In fact, I actually looked a little like a soldier. I had a jawline now, no extra chins (maybe just one). I looked like a guy who set out to get his shit together and did. I appreciated the person I beheld in the mirror. He looked strong. He looked decisive.

Strange that I didn’t feel any of those things.

I reflected on everything that had happened. All the sweat, snot, and tears. All the pain. All the running. All the shouting. All the sleepless nights. The road ahead was sure to be as challenging, at least for a while.

Especially if this whole pilot program thing was going to continue.

*****

A shuttle drove me and a few other soldiers to an airport in Columbia where we would be flown to Baltimore for the second part of our training. My destination: Fort Meade, Maryland, home of the Defense Information School (DINFOS). There, I would learn how to put together a military newspaper and also learn the protocol surrounding the media. As the plane began to roll down the runway, I closed my eyes and turned up my Faith No More CD as loud as it would go. I didn’t need to see what was coming next. The unknown awaited me once again, and there was no need to worry my brain any further until I was there.

In Charge

I’m not even sure what I did to piss off this drill sergeant on this particular day. There were only two drill sergeants who didn’t like me (out of eight), but of the two this male drill sergeant was far more vocal. A drill sergeant can make you stop and do push-ups because he doesn’t like you, and that was almost where I was with this guy.

Again, though my offense I do not recall, this drill sergeant decided to give me the worst kind of punishment a soldier in training can receive: more responsibility. The bathrooms on the second floor were not being cleaned adequately, and since I “knew so much,” then I was to come up with a cleaning roster that all of the soldiers would adhere to. Furthermore, I was to see to the adherence of the roster.

I was the floor leader.

The task ahead of me was not a simple one. I had to convince thirty-something Soldiers to listen to me, and I had to do it as quickly as possible. I took a few days to survey the climate of the second floor. A few people were adhering to the cleaning roster, but there were days were nobody would clean the bathroom at all. I very quickly discovered that the reason for this was that the roster had soldiers’ names that were no longer living on the second floor. God only knows how long the roster was like that, but screw it. I caught the mistake, so I was going to fix it.

Another thing I noticed was that a lot of people had a problem with whom they shared a room. Each of the rooms in our barracks had two beds, and though this meant far more privacy than basic training, it also meant a serious annoyance if you didn’t like the person you were with.

As my first major decision as floor leader, I appointed one of the new soldiers as my assistant. After a few discussions, he and I agreed that if the soldiers all shared a room with a person that didn’t piss them off, they would be more apt to listen to the floor leader. If we were able to give a soldier a say in the politics of the floor, maybe they would feel more compelled to help out. The drill sergeants refused to see to the adherence of floor maintenance. They only meted out punishments when the floors were not up to the standard. It was entirely up to us to make these guys listen.

When we finally agreed upon a course of action, I called a floor meeting to discuss our plan with the rest of the soldiers. I had my assistant pass around a clipboard requesting that every soldier write down who they would like to share a room with. In a stroke of extremely good luck, the list came out perfectly even. Every soldier paired off with another. I couldn’t have planned it any better. I was able to invoke a bit of a liberty by not assigning myself a roommate, something that ‘accidentally’ also fell into place.

As the soldiers were moving to their respective rooms, my assistant and I created a cleaning roster. There was still no telling at this point whether or not soldiers were going to adhere to it, but we were hoping that by first giving the soldiers what they wanted, they would be more inclined to do what we asked.

But there was a way to try and grease the wheels.

I had a few meetings with some people after hours. I passed out a few gifts of alcohol to some tired people on fire guard, and I slipped a few more to some people after the afternoon formation the next day. Since I had not yet begun my classes, I took the time to make pre-measured bottles of Jack and Coke, a fairly standard drink for young soldiers.

And wouldn’t you know it, the overall cleanliness of our floor improved greatly in a matter of days. The drill sergeant who gave me the position even made it a point to tell me that I was doing a good job. He admitted to me that he had expected me to fail, and when he asked me how I did it I just shrugged and told him I was just a likable guy.

While the drill sergeant was in a good mood, I sprung on him my idea of creating door signs for each room. I told him that it would make the drill sergeants’ job easier if they saw the name, rank and phase of each soldier posted on their door. The drill sergeant agreed. In fact, he seemed impressed that I had put so much planning into my work, so he gave my plan the green light with almost no persuasion.

The next afternoon was spent rounding up the soldiers’ information and creating the labels. I couldn’t help but laugh while I was doing the project, because this was going to be my first test to see how attentive the drill sergeants really were. My assistant and I took great care to create a clear and easy to identify format, but I purposely volunteered to make the signs myself because frankly, I felt that I deserved a promotion.

This is what the sign on my door read:

McCollum, Peter

Private First Class

Phase 5 Alpha

About a week later, the drill sergeants decided to give us identifier cards. These laminated cards were to be carried on us at all times. This was both a safety precaution and a way to know which soldiers were breaking their phase rules. That Friday the drill sergeants lined our entire company up outside of our barracks to hand out the new cards.

I definitely did not expect for my plan to be tested in this manner, but there was no taking it back now. I tried to imagine what the consequences would be if I were caught, especially since I was AFI for failing a class and still not so great with my PT. I braced myself as the drill sergeants went through the roster.

Phase IV cards were given out first. I winced as they called every name. I was supposed to drop back down to Phase IV after failing my class, but none of the drill sergeants ever took notice. The drill sergeant moved on to calling out the Phase V Soldiers. My name was not called. This meant one of two things: I was somehow overlooked while the roster was being created, or I had successfully given myself a promotion.

“McCollum, Phase 5 Alpha.”

Yep. The Drill Sergeants had set their roster to my door signs. From that point on I was considered Phase 5 Alpha.

Holy shit. This was so easy.

*****

I was fired from my job as the floor leader after only a few weeks. It wasn’t because I did a bad job, either; my time was up and another soldier took my place in the hot seat. I surprised the drill sergeants by not only how well my plan worked, but how proactive I was when given a task. I think this might have bought me some leeway, but I can never be completely sure. All I know is that I made a drill sergeant eat his words, and he was not slow to inform me of how much I surprised him.

Steve

About six weeks after I began dating Cadence, I received a phone call from Sid. He was out in the world with his own independent photography business, but he had a little bit of news for me. Apparently he made a friend after I left, somebody who took control of the operation after I had departed. Sid gleefully announced how this crazy friend of his was heading my way, and told me to get ready. I couldn’t help but laugh, because in the mother of all twists, I was actually in a van with Cadence and her family coming home from a church service. I gently suggested to Sid that maybe his friend would need to come out here and tone it down. He, however, insisted that I would be coming out of retirement.

*****

As predicted, Private Steven Holmgren arrived at Fort Campbell about two months later. I had broken up with Cadence by that point, mostly due to our differences becoming too glaring to ignore. However, contrary to what you might think, I was not looking to jump back into my old lifestyle. In fact, I snubbed Steve based entirely upon Sid’s phone call. Steve noticed, and he looked visibly hurt.

However, I soon realized that nobody else was being friendly to the guy. He was a member of HHC, and for the most part it seemed that nobody cared much for him. SFC Smalls had completely snubbed him and relegated him to the attic room in the HHC building, so it made him immediately resentful of the people around him. Furthermore, nobody seemed interested in showing him around or helping him get integrated.

Sgt. Windsor thought that we would be a happy pairing, so after a few days he told Steve and I to go out and write a story together. He gave us the lead and the location, and turned us loose. I knew what Sgt. Windsor was doing: he was keeping us away from the HHC guys and giving me a chance to lay low. Steve and I promptly disappeared until the end of the workday.

Instead of looking for news, we went outside of the installation to go get coffee. Steve voiced boredom with the army, and frustration with life in general. He told me he was recently married to a girl he had just met, and that he thought that maybe he had made a mistake. I was on the same page with him about the boredom, and had my own frustrations as well with the fairer sex. He seemed far more emotionally mature than Sid ever was. He also didn’t strike me as a particularly wild individual, as was suggested. I was wondering if perhaps Sid had embellished a little bit just to make sure his friend was not alone.

But Steve had a devious streak, and it didn’t take long for him to show it. Within about two weeks of us going out and doing our ‘assignment,’ I went to his apartment one Friday afternoon to get stoned.

We rolled up a few joints and went for a drive. We took a long look at our surroundings. The city of Clarksville was just so sad. Everything had an army taint to it. Everything seemed to cater to the kind of male that neither of us were. Everything was designed for instant gratification for Alpha males. The food was nothing more that fattening bullshit with no substance, the diversions were cheap and boring, and the women all seemed to be married or in between marriages (and ironically cynical about soldiers).

We grumbled about the futility of it all. Steve was an aspiring musician and I was an aspiring academic, and we felt like we had seen enough. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to align myself with a guy who was as dissatisfied as I was, but what do you do when your job is also your home? What do you do when you’re crammed on an installation with fifty thousand people who are nothing like you? My stability was gone and my job sucked. I was right back to having absolutely nothing to lose.

So I started getting high with Steve.

And no, we wouldn’t smoke in our uniforms. We would duck out early to go to his house, change clothes, smoke, change back into our uniforms, then get back into my smelly old Saturn and smoke a few cigarettes. Every now and again we’d use a splash of CK One, but honestly I think we were ignored so frequently that it didn’t matter either way.

There was one day where we were feeling particularly bored and restless, and Steve casually asked me if I had ever tried “robo-tripping.” Sid used to do that nonsense all the time in our barracks room, and he would scare the crap out of me because he would be absolutely out of his head for hours. Even though I wasn’t particularly interested in ever trying it, I was in a particularly foul mood that day, and so was Steve. I was not yet sold on the idea, but we received a slap in the face from the HHC staff that I think pushed us both over the edge.

Basically, one of the civilian interns, Kelly, was given a job that she didn’t want to do. It involved something ridiculously tedious, like taping numbers that were out of order to a thousand pieces of paper. When she tried to give it to Steve, I told her to bugger off. She then came back with Sgt. McDonald, who insisted that we were supposed to do what the interns told us. I told him that they were not in our chain of command, and that she was just pawning something off on us that had nothing to do with the newspaper.

So the buck-tooth sergeant mustered up some of that false courage that seemed to be in abundance and proudly proclaimed: “Oh, yeah? Well then I’m ORDERING you to listen to Kelly.”

That’s when I said to myself screw it.

Let’s fucking robo-trip.

*****

Steve and I went out for Mexican food at lunch, then we went to a grocery store to pick up a box of Coricidin. I was still a little on the fence about it all, because it was starting to sound like something that was not a proportional response to the conflict that just occurred. I was back and forth with it in my mind, and I voiced concerns with it to Steve. Whenever I saw Sid robo-tripping, he looked supremely out of his head. He assured us that we would not be dosing anywhere near as high as Sid, and I suppose that was what convinced me.

After all, a nice buzz would certainly curtail the frustration of the task ahead.

Just as I had caught up with Steve on the medicine aisle, he motioned for us to leave. Son of a bitch. Was he really shoplifting? What a way to kick off the festivities.

When we got to my car, we split up the haul. Sixteen pills, eight apiece. That’s seven more than the suggested dosage. That should do the trick, right?

We hurried back to the office, up to the attic room that was supposed to be our work space. As expected, we were ignored, disregarded, and left to our own devices. We tried to pick back up on a task that we were given. I cut out the numbers, and Steve began taping them. After about ten minutes, Steve began pulling out his pubic hair and taping them to the pages. Somehow, this made me feel a little better about the argument that had taken place that day.

After about thirty minutes, I started to feel incredibly hot. Another five minutes passed and I began to sweat profusely. I was completely unable to concentrate. My stomach was doing all kinds of rumbling and gurgling, and I hopped up and quickly hurried down the stairs to go vomit.

My path was clear when I burst into the bathroom and retched in the closest stall. A wave of bright colors appears before my eyes as I did. It was incredible and disgusting all at the same time. As I snorted to try and dislodge an undigested bean that had made its way into my nasal cavity, I heard the door open. Dislodged, the bean hit the back of my throat and immediately caused me to gag again. I coughed and blew chinks again. The smell was horrible, but the colors were oh so pretty.

I waited for whoever it was to clear out of the bathroom, then I made my way to the sink and tried to rinse out my mouth and then splash water on my face. When I looked in the mirror, I freaked out. It looked like my eyes were ninety percent pupil. Everybody would be able to tell that I was tripping. I began to panic.

I rushed back upstairs to see how Steve was doing. When I entered the room all I could see was an army uniform with a big, red, dopey-looking balloon coming out of the top. He was grinning stupidly, his mouth more agape than forming an actual smile. His pupils were enormous like mine, and he was also sweating profusely.

“How you feelin’, man?” he asked. He was beginning to morph into Judge Doom at the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

“I just puked! What the hell did we do?” My voice sounded weird. It sounded like I was talking extremely slow, and in somebody else’s voice. It was only then that I even stopped to question the consumption of that much cold medicine. How much worse was the trip going to get? Could I get a handle on it? Steve seemed to be in control. How do you reign in this horrible drug?

“McCollum!” A voice called from downstairs.

This was the end. I was screwed. Everyone knew what I was doing, and this was the final straw. It was time to turn myself in. I would find a job in time. Maybe I could go and get my old job back at The Landings. I left on a good note out there. I could spend the rest of my days cutting grass, and…

“McCollum, hurry up, man!” It was Sgt. Windsor. Thank the Good Lord. He might go easy on me. If one of those other idiots found me, I was doomed for sure.

I crept slowly down the stairs, trying my best to avoid eye contact.

“Listen, man,” he started, looking at my eyes suspiciously, “I’ve got a really bad sinus infection, and I heard you throwing up earlier. Let’s just quietly make our way out that door and come back tomorrow. Hooah?”

“Hooah,” I blurted out, already having done an about face. With all the secrecy and care of a three-year-old, I burst through the door and hurried to my car. I cautiously drove back to my barracks room, closed the curtains, and turned off all the lights.

After a long shower, I made a blanket fort and watched Jackie Chan movies for around eight hours. Sergeant Windsor had released me only half an hour after returning from lunch, so I had a nice, long afternoon to trip my brains out without having to worry about premature separation from the army. That night, I dreamed of weird colors and shapes, and had some of the most restful sleep since those 72 hours I spent in quarantine during basic training.

*****

It didn’t end with the robo-tripping. About a week later, Steve was injured on a mechanical bull at a bar outside of Fort Campbell. However, he went to the clinic on Monday after a PT run and blamed it on the run. I don’t exactly know the nature of the injury; all I know is that Steve came back to the office right before lunch to show me a bottle of 90 Percocet that had just been given to him by an army doctor. That’s when I realized that Sid’s words were absolutely prophetic.

So after being pill-free for eighteen months, I dove back in.

When you have access to that many pills, you get to the point where addiction is absolutely inevitable. I have no idea how anybody didn’t notice during this time. We finished the first bottle in a little over two weeks, and Steve was given a second bottle just like that. It was absurd. I remember I was in my barracks room one day with Steve and my hands were shaking from anticipation of pumping more poison into my body.

We were also smoking joints laced with some kind of throat spray. I can’t even tell you why we felt the need to do this. All I know is that our dealer would ask us if we wanted a regular bag or a ‘special’ bag, and we normally went for the special bag. Blame the marketing, I guess.

Again, I have no idea how nobody noticed.

The third time Steve had his pills refilled, he was only given 30. It was then that we had to sit down and talk about how we were going to ration them out better. Steve suggested we begin snorting them, but I was against that idea. However, I suggested that chewing them was rather effective, as was grinding them up and taking them with alcohol. He chose his way, and I chose mine.

One afternoon I was in my barracks room eating lunch by myself. I made two veggie burgers, a Tom Collins, and then I pulled out out one and a half Percocet to break up. As I shakily completed the ritual of crushing my bounty, I looked at my desk. In the corner sat the veggie burgers, ironically contrasting the cocktail of poison I was about to suck down. I couldn’t help but wonder how everything had gotten so bad again. It was so easy to get pills and it was so easy to get away with everything. Why didn’t anybody see what we were doing? Why was I unable to control myself?

And how the hell did this happen? How did this old flame of mine manage to track me down? I washed down the powder with my Tom Collins, fighting back tears.

*****

Fortunately, Steve did get his medical discharge. It was around two months from the day I was assigned to take him around the installation. But it all ended exactly when it needed to. We had become so hung up on pills that I don’t know what else would have stopped us other than a sudden interruption of this kind.

For his last week, I completely avoided him. He left me a few voicemails telling me I was a jerk for being that way, but the only reason I was avoiding him was that I needed to try once again and get my head on straight. I went to his weed guy a few more times after he left to make sure I was back on an even keel, and then I committed myself once again to trying to find a way to navigate military life without having to be so fucked up all the time.

The Article 15

Remember Kelly the intern? The girl who pawned off that assignment on Steve and I? This is the story of how Kelly tried to play army, and accidentally pushed the domino that would one day bring an end to this stupid game.

*****

I was given a rare assignment from the top where I was to interview an incoming command sergeant major. I think that this was one of the ways that Maj. Dwyer tried to renew my motivation. To her credit, she never stopped trying to figure out how to get me to rejoin the group, even though too many things had happened by that point for me to ever trust any of those people again.

Regardless of her motivation, it didn’t matter to me. This sergeant major, unbeknownst to Maj. Dwyer, was the replacement for the previous sergeant major who had very nearly cut my career short after the basketball incident. For me, this was a chance to erase a mistake. This was to be a symbolic victory, one of me redacting some of the lesser flattering portions of my permanent record, if only in my own mind.

And, yes, by this point I was done with trying to earn accolades or ‘bring it home’ for the PAD. But I was absolutely going to try and play politics, even if I didn’t quite know how. Besides, why should Struck be the only one to do it?

I arranged the interview and arrived at his office at the appointed time. I was pleasantly surprised when I went into the sergeant major’s office. He was remarkably relaxed, friendly, and very open. You never know what kind of personality you’re going to get when you do these interviews. Some of them glare at you for the entire interview and don’t give you anything to work with, but every now and then you get somebody who is agreeable and makes your job much easier. Fortunately, this man was the latter. Perhaps it was because he was new to the installation, or maybe he was just a nice guy.

In the interview, the incoming sergeant major talked about his expectations for the installation. He lauded the troops and their performance in recent campaigns. Even though it was boiler-plate command messages that we learned ourselves in AIT, there was a genuine air of sincerity with this guy. After we were done with the interview, we started talking about other things. We talked about Tiger Woods. We talked about family. This guy was genuinely nice. He even let me grab a few jelly beans from his candy jar. When it was over, I was happy to have met him and happier still to have been given the assignment.

*****

After writing the article, I sent it to him by email as he requested. He responded to me later that day, asking me to hold off publishing the article until he returned. Apparently he had a TDY overseas, and was needed elsewhere for two weeks. He took issue with a few of the quotes I put in the article, and he wanted to basically dictate how it would be written. I was a little irritated about how he took issue with his own quotes, but whatever. I was still happy to oblige.

Kelly, however, did not agree. She was now the head of the news staff, and all articles had a process in which they needed to follow. First, you were to write the article. Second, give it to one of your peers to edit. Make whatever changes were necessary, then pass it over to Maj. Dwyer for final approval. She would rarely have anything to say, so after that you were to pass the article off to Kelly, who would decide where it fin in the next week’s publication.

Three days before everything was supposed to be sent to the press, she came around looking for the article. I told her that we couldn’t release it because the command sergeant major wanted to hold off until he returned. Kelly was not impressed with this answer. She gave me a little lip about cooperation, but I told her once again she was not in my chain of command. Besides, this was a direct order given to me. She was just going to have to wait.

As any good sport was apt to do, Kelly went and tattled to Maj. Dwyer. I explained to Maj. Dwyer that the sergeant major did not want me to run the article. I showed her the email backing this up, and she seemed to relax.

But Kelly was not finished, she came in a few hours later and talked with Maj. Dwyer again, and Maj. Dwyer came back to me saying that I had to turn the article over to Kelly. She assured me that Kelly wasn’t going to run the article, but that she simply needed to check the size of it just in case it was given the green light. I sighed. Can we please just hold off until he contacts me again? PLEASE? But Maj. Dwyer ordered me to send the article, so what recourse did I have? I sent the damn article.

Naturally, there it was on the front page of the paper that Thursday. Bottom fold.

A few days later, I received an angry phone call directly to my desk. It was the big dog, and he was less than pleased. I tried to explain to him what had happened, but he did not seem to be in a listening mood. He hung up the phone on me. I slammed the phone down. I was furious, but above all else I was hurt. Here was yet another attempt to do something right, and it just felt like I was doomed no matter what I did.

I was pissed at my commander for letting a civilian tell me what to do. I was pissed at the army for being so stupid. I was pissed at everyone around me. It seemed like all they wanted from me was insubordination and bad news. Even when I followed orders they managed to find a way to screw me. What the fuck did these people even want from me anymore? Everything I did was wrong, even when I followed protocol!

*****

About a month later we were all on a TDY to Fort Monroe, Virginia. Maj. Dwyer and SSG McDonald didn’t seem to expect much out of me during this exercise. Half of the time, they wouldn’t give me anything to do. They just let me sit in some corner somewhere and play on the internet or with my phone. I was fine with the arrangement.

One day Maj. Dwyer and SSG McDonald told the rest of the troops to take one of our vans and leave for the day. Since I heard them clearing out the building, I knew something was about to go down. I took a seat in an office and I waited. Maj. Dwyer and SSG McDonald entered at the same time, the former looking cautious and the latter looking disgusted as usual. They both stood in front of me silently, then Maj. Dwyer produced a piece of paper. She wordlessly placed it on the table in front of me. I didn’t look at the paper; I continued to look directly at Maj. Dwyer.

“Read it and sign, please,” she said timidly.

I was thinking that they had finally had enough of me doing nothing and decided to contrive some bogus counseling statement, but I was definitely mistaken. As soon as I glanced down I saw the first and the last name of the command sergeant major himself. He had written an Article 15 for Failure To Obey A Direct Order.

An Article 15 is the pinnacle of punishment. They are hard to fight, and even harder to beat. Counseling statements are general warnings, but an Article 15 is for big mistakes. I was shocked that this guy wanted do bring down the hammer on me like this. It seemed to be a bit of an overreaction, especially since the article made him look damn good.

I continued to stare at the paper, wondering what would happen if I refused to sign. I knew there wasn’t much of a chance of me getting out of this situation, but I wasn’t simply going to give in so easily. At the very least, I was going to make them work for it.

After a few minutes, SSG McDonald became impatient and snapped, “Just SIGN it!

I regarded her with indifference, then turned to Maj. Dwyer.

“You know I followed orders. I followed orders to the letter. I did the interview, I wrote the article, I gave it to somebody for proofing. He told me not to run the article. I told you. I showed you the email. I’m not signing this.”

“SIGN IT!” blurted SSG McDonald with her usual level of volume regulation and self-control.

Maj. Dwyer looked at SSG McDonald as if to tell her to cool off, then turned to me.

“McCollum, we’re not going anywhere until you sign this.”

I pulled out my phone.

“What are you doing?” barked SSG McDonald.

“I guess I’m going to order a pizza.”

*****

Since I refused to sign the document, I was sent to JAG. JAG is a group of military lawyers who have a highly specialized position in the army. They normally only deal with the most serious of allegations. This is where you go when a major incident occurs. I think my two leaders believed that this would put me in my place once and for all.

My case was given to the head of JAG. She looked over the write-up, then looked at me. I was trying to imagine what was going on in her mind. I found myself once again wishing for a separation. I was sick of fighting with everyone and I knew it was only going to get worse. My best hope was that since I did not have an extensive record, they would mercy-kill my career and let that be all.

“So tell me your side of the story,” the officer instructed. Before I proceeded, she insisted that I relax. She told me that I was not in any trouble; she simply wanted to hear about the incident in my words.

I told her about the meeting. I told her about the protocol. She wanted to know why I was answering to a civilian, so I explained. This caused her to have many more questions about the unit itself. She told me to give me the entire story.

I told her everything. I told her about my history with Tim. I told her about the work environment. I told her how even when I did follow orders somebody always found a way to screw with me. She listened intently. I waited as she sat and thought about everything I said. After an uncomfortably long pause, she spoke.

“Sounds like a dysfunctional work environment, but let’s not talk about that right now. Let’s talk about this big, bad man who wants to make an example out of you. This case is a crock of shit, and I will tell him so myself.”

I could not believe my ears.

She explained to me that JAG was there not only to prosecute, but to protect. She said that this was a clear abuse of power, and that is why she took my case herself. Even though my superiors were only following orders, they could have done a better job to explain the situation to him. Regardless, she said it was over.

“So what do you need me to do, ma’am?” I asked.

“I need you to go to lunch and let me take care of this.” She smiled, then playfully made the shooing motion at me with her hands.

I did as I was instructed.

*****

After lunch, I returned to the office and calmly took a seat at my desk. One by one, the soldiers all came back into the office and went about their business. SSG McDonald was nowhere to be seen, but Maj. Dwyer came in and immediately made a beeline for my desk.

“So what happened?” she asked. All things considered, Michelle Dwyer is a nice lady. She just is. I understand why certain things happened while I was there, and times like these I still had to forgive her for being so entrenched in politics. However, I don’t think she knew that she was smiling when she asked. She was probably smiling just because she’s nice, but the smile did piss me off quite a bit.

“Nothing,” I replied, returning her smile in kind.

Then the smile left her face. Finally. I was happy to have a break from those ridiculous pearly whites.

“What do you mean ‘nothing’?”

“Talk to JAG if you want any more details.” With that, I went back to my computer game.

*****

Sure enough, a few days later the Article 15 was rescinded. The guy even called me to apologize. I couldn’t help but feel a little smug at the outcome.

And I made sure to let everyone see it. I went back to doing as little as I could for them. I would stay out on ‘assignment’ for as long as I could, I would take half a dozen smoke breaks , and I would do other petty things like make lots and lots of doctor and dentist appointments to keep me out of the office.

But I knew what this all meant. It meant that SSG McDonald and that dickhead Struck were simply going to keep trying to get me kicked out. I wasn’t sure what kind of behavior would be considered too much, but I knew I was in for a long road. There was no way they were going to let me get a medical discharge if they could help it. Sure, I had won the battle, but the war was nowhere near finished. In fact, a few days later I overheard them talking, and I could hear SSG McDonald very clearly say “He’s not getting that medical discharge.”

So it’s gonna be like that

The Showdown

As promised, the air conditioner had been repaired once I returned to the barracks. After a good period of rest, I returned to work. I was feeling a little better about everything, and I was hoping that all of the parties had learned their lesson. Our dysfunction had been seen by others. I was hoping that everybody had finally gotten the hint just do leave me alone.

I did a few more errands and articles. I still did what Capt. Dickless told me to do. There was no point in screwing it up. He was still an officer. I didn’t need to show any open insubordination in front of a night shift who all saw me as a hard-working guy. There was, after all, our country’s largest natural disaster in recent memory right outside of our office.

But I was coming unglued. As much as things had changed since the colonel stepped in, I was too stressed out and my sleep once again began to suffer. A little at a time, I began talking with the chaplain’s assistant. It’s always nice to have a dose of wisdom in times of trouble, and she was indeed a wellspring of that wisdom. However, she was also becoming suspicious of the things I was telling her. She specifically wanted to know about the people in charge, especially why our commander was not present for such a high-profile, high-visibility event.

So I broke it down for her. Everything. After listening for a few days to bits and pieces of the story, the told me that I needed to inform JAG what was going on.

An excellent idea.

I was able to get in touch with my lawyer from the previous ‘incident’ on the phone, and she wanted me to put everything in writing and fax it over to her. For the next several nights, I took time in between assignments to put it all together, and then discreetly began to print everything out. It was time to end this stupid game. I was going to try and withdraw from this stupid exercise and from the unit as well.

One evening, I noticed that my letters were missing. I looked around to office for a minute and quickly realized that they were not missing. Somebody had absconded with them. I looked up to see Capt. Dickless standing outside the office door. He ordered me to follow him outside.

He took me to the parking lot, and ordered me to lock up at the position of attention. I knew what was going on, so I complied. Then, as if scripted, he began waving the ‘missing’ papers in front of me.

“You think you’re so smart, don’t you, McCollum?” said Dickless, smugly.

I said nothing.

“What were you going to do with these, McCollum?” he pressed.

I still said nothing.

“Do you have any idea-“

“Sir,” I interrupted, “with all due respect, I’ve been on the phone with JAG all week. I’ve told them everything. I’ve also told the chaplain’s assistant.”

That’s when he stopped smiling. I waited for him to process everything. I waited to see if he had any more empty threats in the chamber.

“This was never any of your business, sir. You could have just left it alone.” He was not confident any more. It looked like he was thinking it all over, but not quite putting it all together. Keep the pages, don’t keep the pages. Stand here until the sun comes up. I could care less.

“This isn’t over McCollum,” he said, predictably, with about as much conviction as you would imagine. I allowed him that last word, remaining at the position of attention until he re-entered the building.

That was the last I ever heard from Capt. Dickless.

*****

A day or two later, I was ordered to return to Fort Campbell. It wasn’t from JAG, either. SSG McDonald was perfectly convinced that she had created a big enough case against me to finally take me down. She ordered Randell to take me back to Fort Campbell to prepare for punishment. Randell and I had a nice, quiet drive home, listening to music and talking about our next vacation.

I only reported to HHC once. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to be doing, but I came in only to see if anybody knew why I was there. It was clear that they did not, so I made myself scarce, as did Randell. I did, however, talk to Ron Milton because he happened to be on his way out along with me. I told him what had gone on. He smiled, though it looked as though he felt sorry for me. He told me that he had always hated Struck, and that I needed to stand my ground. This was the most he had ever said to me, and it was unusual to have a person taking my side like this.

A few days later, Struck returned to take me to JAG. He was just as smug as he had been for the past few months, but that didn’t surprise me. He still couldn’t see the writing on the wall, so I wasn’t going to ruin it for him. I was going to let him watch it all play out and realize that he and everyone else was bested by a nobody. As we pulled up to the JAG office, I told him it was not going to end the way he thought it would.

He scoffed. “Peter, if I were you, I would be-”

“Whatever it is you think you’re going to accomplish,” I interrupted, “I can promise you it’s not going to work.” I exited his car and proceeded into the building.