“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.

“Failure to Adapt,” Part III, Chapter 11

Arrested

I started hanging out with Cohen after Steve left.  SFC Smalls had left not long after Steve, so maybe Cohen finally felt that it was okay to speak with me.  Cohen liked cheap beer and listening to music.  He was an easy guy to get along with once SFC Smalls was gone.  We began a friendship that revolved almost entirely around nights spent talking about our favorite songs and albums, drinking Steel Reserve malt liquor, and trying to take our minds off of being in the army.

But I missed getting high.

*****

A guy in the barracks showed me a High Times magazine that had ads in the back for “legal highs.”  I had tried some before at a concert.  They did have a relaxing property to them. Not a “high,” per se, but they were plants that could help steady your nerves if you weren’t already a pothead.

Still, it was an intriguing idea.  We couldn’t have been the first ones to think of something like this.  In fact, I assumed that these blends of herbs were directly targeted to people like us, people who would have to submit to random drug screenings.

So, I ordered some fake weed.  I had it sent to the local address of a person I knew, then I brought it back to the barracks to try.  It smelled nice, it had a mild relaxing property, and it also didn’t have thick smoke like tobacco.

One Friday night, I took the fake weed over to Cohen’s room to see if he wanted to try some.  He was on board with no convincing needed.  I rolled a few cigarettes, and we smoked them down.  Cohen didn’t seem to be getting any of the effects I was, but he thanked me for trying.  I returned to my room to play video games.

About thirty minutes later, I heard a banging on Cohen’s door.  I figured it was one of his buddies, so at first, I paid no attention. Then I heard shouting, and I knew something was wrong.  I ran to my door and looked out of the peephole.

“There’s no drugs in here, sergeant,” I heard Cohen stammer.  He sounded scared.

Wait.  Had somebody called the MPs?

I grabbed the bag of fake weed.  Since it was clearly labeled as something that could be purchased legitimately, I opened my door and headed to Cohen’s rescue.  Just outside was a fat, red-faced MP sergeant, trying to look as intimidating as he was overweight.  He was accompanied by a specialist who was just about as fat but was much calmer.

Holding the bag out and waving it like a white flag, I told the MP sergeant that this was what he was smelling.  I told him that we smoked a little bit of it, but it was legal.

“Oh, yeah, sarge,” the younger MP said.  “I’ve seen this stuff before.  This isn’t pot or anything like that.”  The young MP took the bag from me and showed it to his superior, who snatched the bag and inspected it closely.

“Opium?  This stuff is OPIUM?” the sergeant shouted.  I must have been as perplexed as the subordinate MP, because we stared each other for a few seconds, confused as to how the sergeant had drawn this conclusion.  The young MP tried to take the bag back from his superior, but the sergeant wouldn’t relinquish it.

While the sergeant was waving the bag around and taunting me about my impending jail time, I managed to peek at the bag to see what he was talking about.  On it was the brand name of the blend of herbs.  Sure enough, whatever word was on the bag somewhat resembled the word “opium”… if you were a moron who didn’t do so well in high school.  Regardless, the big, stupid sergeant told me that we were going to headquarters, and that I was under arrest.

*****

I arrived, handcuffed, to headquarters, escorted by the younger MP while the sergeant proudly entered the room as if he had just arrested Pablo Escobar.  I couldn’t hear what he was saying to the CQ desk, but the young MP advised me to keep a cool head.

I would have kept a cool head, but then I heard the sergeant making a phone call.  Oh, shit.  He was calling Sgt. Windsor!

Though I knew that in this instance I had done no wrong, I was not very confident of my chances.  This situation could easily dredge up other offenses.  Furthermore, I was not entirely convinced that I could pass a drug test if it was required of me.  That was the one thing that was bothering me.

After a few minutes of the sergeant threatening me and arguing with his partner, a man with a metal briefcase entered the building.  This man was a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) detective, and he was there to test the substance in question.  The sergeant triumphantly handed the bag to the CID officer, who sniffed it and shook his head.

“This isn’t anything.  You can pick this stuff up across the street,” the CID officer said flatly.  He was referring to a head shop across from the base, which I would later find out did sell these kinds of herbs.

“The bag says opium, sir,” the sergeant insisted, a little less boisterous than before.  The CID officer smiled coldly, opened the bag, and took out a sample to be tested.

The sergeant turned to me as if to try and assert that he still had me in his clutches.  The other MP simply shook his head.  The CID officer, ignoring the sergeant’s theatrics, put a sample in the little bag of liquid, and waited.  A few minutes later, he handed it over.

“There you go.  Negative.”  The CID officer was smirking.

The sergeant looked shocked in addition to very, very stupid.

“Well, I guess that’s that, then,” I said.  I walked up to my captor with my handcuffed hands outstretched.  Once he undid my handcuffs, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone.  “I’m gonna need you to call Sgt. Windsor again.”

*****

The next morning, Sgt. Windsor and SSG Cooper pulled me aside before work.  They both looked angry, so I braced myself for punishment.  However, after a few nervous seconds, they started laughing.

“What the hell were you smoking last night, Perkins?” asked SSG Cooper.

“It was clove cigarettes, right?  Or were you smoking bidis?”  Sgt. Windsor was referring to a couple of smoking alternatives that created a pungent odor.  From the way it sounded, their understanding was that there was an MP who just didn’t know anything about drugs.

I told the two sergeants I had a bag of something that you could buy from the back of a magazine.  They both knew what I was talking about, as they were both once my age, and seemed satisfied that for once I wasn’t breaking a rule.

Sgt. Windsor, though, found it necessary to clear the air.

“You’re not smoking anything else, are you?” he asked.

“Only Marlboros,” I replied.  He nodded, SSG Cooper nodded, and that was the last time anybody spoke of the incident.

*****

There were several things that bothered me about what happened.  First, out of all the times I was trying to get caught, the one time I did was with a bag of fake weed.  That was just ironic.  Second, the command structure of that raiding party bothered me.  The stupid one was in charge, and it all could have gone much differently were the roles in that duo changed.  Third, how the hell did an MP know so little about drugs?

Maybe he was part of a “pilot program” for cops.

“Failure to Adapt,” Part IV, Chapter 10

Graveyard
Shift

After a few days at Camp Shelby, it came up in conversation that a soldier needed to check for press releases overnight.  This soldier may also have to write speeches for any officer who might have to address the media.  This sounded like the perfect way to distance myself from everyone, so I volunteered.  SSG McDonald once again protested, but no other soldier wanted to take an overnight shift.  I won by default, but once again my bad luck reared its ugly head.

On the day I was scheduled to take my first night shift, we were introduced to an air force captain who was going to be working with us.  I don’t know if he was an actual public affairs officer, but I know that he loved the sound of his own voice.  His name was Morgan Ottman, and you’re damn right he loved working it into his office phone calls:

“Good afternoon, this is Captain Morgan Ottman.  Ha ha.  Yes, sir.  Ha ha. No, sir, they didn’t name it  after me.  Ha ha ha.  I wish, sir.  Dur-hur-hur-hur-hur.”

What a moron.

Later that same day, I managed to hear a snippet of conversation between SSG McDonald and Capt. Ottman.  I couldn’t hear any of the particulars, but I did hear my name.  Judging by the tone of McDonald’s voice, it was not a happy conversation.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll keep him under control,” I heard Capt. Ottman say.  I stalked down the hallway, down the stairs, and out of building.

My hands were shaking as I stormed out of the building, fumbling for my cigarettes.  I couldn’t seem to catch a break.  It was hard to know exactly what Capt. Ottman meant when he said he’d keep me “under control.”  What had SSG McDonald told him?  Did he take it at face value, or did he think he was going to be a hero?  It was hard to get a read on him, because honestly, he seemed like an insecure dork who didn’t know what was going on.

I doubted that he was going to try and abuse me.  After all, the aftermath of our country’s largest natural disaster in a hundred years was just outside of our building.  That should take precedent over our quarrels with one another, right?

*****

One morning, I heard a few officers bellyaching about there being no coffee in the building.  I was bored, so I grabbed the local phonebook and called a Starbucks.  I wasn’t exactly prepared to talk to anyone, so when they picked up, I awkwardly asked if they had coffee.  The woman on the other end laughed.  I told her that I was at Camp Shelby, and that we had three dozen soldiers who could really use some caffeine.  There was a pause, and then the woman on the other end told me to come on out.  She said they had plenty of coffee and they were more than happy to provide some for us.  Armed with an excuse to grab a vehicle, I departed the building quickly and quietly.

The response was beyond what I expected.  Starbucks had three of their five-gallon jugs ready to go when I arrived.  They didn’t even ask for any money.  It was a donation for the poor souls who had to sit out in that miserable situation.

That was a classy move, Starbucks.

I was absolutely psyched as I drove back to the installation.  Here was a situation where the screwup managed to get something right.  I was intensely proud of myself.  For the duration of my brief military service, I struggled to be of some sort of use.  Today, I had found one.  Yesterday and tomorrow could suck it, because today I was the coffee guy.

When I arrived back at Camp Shelby, who did I see but the big man himself: Lieutenant General Bartholomew Gundersson.   I happened to pull up right as the general’s Humvee was arriving.  His aide noticed me struggling with the three bulky containers of coffee, so he came over and helped me out.  I briefly explained the coffee donation to the general’s aide.  He nodded, impressed, and told me to go offer to top up the general’s mug.

“Big Bart,” as he was known in many circles, was a man’s man; even a non-soldier like me could recognize that.  He stood three or four inches taller than me, easily, and though he was well into his fifties, he was lean, muscular, and spoke with a booming voice that compelled you to do what he said.

I cautiously approached the general like a silly fanboy looking for an autograph.  He was sitting on a bench, chomping on a cigar with his back to me, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to do or say.  He had brought his own coffee mug, which had just a little bit left over in the bottom.  My plan was to quickly pour it out and refill the mug, then say his name and hand it over.  I would then be given the Medal of Honor, and the big man himself would personally sign my discharge papers.

That’s how it went in my head, anyway.

What happened instead was that Capt. Ottman swooped out of nowhere and jerked the container from my hands.  He circled around the bench and offered to refill the general’s coffee mug.  I was too shocked by this childish, sycophantic act to do anything but walk away.

*****

The day of my MRI appointment came and went.  I was particularly morose that day, so I decided to get up and take a look around the building.  I waited until Capt. Ottman was out of the office, and I busied myself emptying the garbage cans and recycling bins.  Capt. Ottman came back and saw what I was doing, but to my surprise he simply nodded.  Granted, he did make a remark about the task being perfect for me, but I didn’t care.  At least I wasn’t sitting around listening to him call himself “Captain Morgan” all night.

From that point on, I opened every shift by taking out the trash and the recycling.  The officers seemed impressed that a soldier did not consider himself to be above this kind of work.  A little at a time, they began to chat with me.  I met an IT guy who was into heavy metal, a medic who let me bum cigarettes, and an extremely nice lady who was a chaplain.  These positive interactions would help me to brace for around two or three in the morning, when I would have to return to the office to scan the Associated Press for articles.

The first few nights of my new routine went smoothly, but there was a major problem.  I had begun to experience serious insomnia.  The barracks were so hot during the day that I often would only sleep for an hour at a time before I woke up sweating.  Not only that, but after my doctor appointment passed, I found myself so angry with everything that I could never seem to make my brain shut off.  No matter how tired I was or how close I positioned myself to the air conditioners, I could not get more than two or three cumulative hours of sleep.

I had finally managed to fall into a deep sleep on the third day, but as luck would have it, I was awoken an hour later by Claire.  Foggy and absolutely certain she wasn’t traipsing around the men’s barracks, I demanded to know why she was bothering me.  I thought I heard her say something about a camera, but I rolled over and told her to go away.  Claire said that she wasn’t leaving until I came back to the office with her.  Furious, I gave her an earful as I struggled to pull myself together.

When I arrived at the office, I was stopped by a colonel.  He looked me up and down and insisted on knowing what I was doing.  I told him I was probably in trouble, and that I needed to go see my sergeant.  He shook his head and said that I needed to come with him.

The colonel took me to a room and sat me down.  When I asked what was going on, he said I looked dehydrated and about to pass out.  I admitted I hadn’t slept for a few days.

“Yep.  I knew something was off,” he said.  He wagged a finger at me and told me to stay put.  After he left, though, I got up to confront SSG McDonald.  The sooner we got this over with, the sooner I could go back to bed.

As I walked into the room, I noticed Claire and Struck looking rather smugly at me, like a couple of younger siblings who just ratted to Mom.  Cohen looked away conspicuously, pretending to be reading.  Camp and Randell were in a corner looking sympathetic, but I tried not to look at them.  I was sure that not hating me would have some kind of repercussions.

SSG McDonald, who was breathing heavily through clenched teeth, stood amongst them like a hulking mass of pure rage.  “Is this your camera?” she asked impatiently.  She lifted up one of our camera bags and held it out, as if that was going to give me any clue as to what was going on.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I blurted out.

The room fell quiet.  SSG McDonald’s eyes popped wide open and her face began to turn red.

“Perkins,” she said with that kind of calm that precludes screaming, “is… this… your… cam-er-a.”

Too tired to care about the consequences, I let her have it.  “You have everybody in the fucking unit but me here, and you can’t figure out whose fucking camera this is?  Did you really wake me up for this shit?”  I looked over at Claire and pointed.  “Furthermore, sergeant, why the fuck are you sending a female soldier to the men’s barracks?”

Claire stopped smirking, but Struck did not.  He crossed his arms and smiled, glancing over to SSG McDonald as if to say “sic ‘em.”  Camp very quickly walked out of the room.  SSG McDonald shook her head in disbelief.  I don’t even think she blinked.

Right then, the colonel walked in.  “Soldier, come with me,” he said, clearly annoyed that I didn’t follow his directive the first time.  He took me by the arm, walked me to the door, and told me to go back to the other room and not to move until I drank the entire bottle of water that was sitting on the chair.

After I entered the room and sat down, I realized that I was not alone.  The chaplain I had been getting to know was seated on the other side of the room, and she looked concerned.  As I gulped down the water that was left for me, the chaplain asked why she heard shouting coming from the other room.  I assured her it was all a misunderstanding, and she simply nodded.  The look on her face told me that she didn’t believe me, but I think she was still trying to evaluate what she had heard before asking me any other questions.

From the other room, I heard the colonel’s calm voice, but I could not hear exactly what he was saying.  I did, however, hear SSG McDonald’s voice very clearly, informing him that the situation did not concern him.  I couldn’t believe she said something like that to a person who so greatly outranked her.  The chaplain heard the remark to, and she gasped in response.

I didn’t hear the conversation that followed.  All I heard was the colonel’s calm voice and SSG McDonald’s harsh voice going back and forth.  I wished that the colonel would write SSG McDonald up for insubordination, though I doubted anything like that was going to happen.  The chaplain listened to the exchange as well, and she once again asked if there was anything I needed to talk about.  I motioned to the other room with my head and shrugged, as if to say, “That pretty much sums it up.”

The colonel came back to the room a few minutes later and asked why I hadn’t been sleeping.  I told him that the barracks did not get cool enough during the day.  He said he would send somebody to fix that right away.  In the interim, he had me sit there and drink another bottle of water while he questioned me about what was going on with my unit.  I knew that I could have gone into detail, but I chose to refrain.  I simply told him that a few of us didn’t get along.  He told me to talk to the chaplain if I had any more trouble, and I agreed to that.  If I had an inkling that either of them could help my situation, I would have been a little more open.  However, SSG McDonald had seemingly just gotten away with telling him to mind his own business, so I decided to let it lie.  I did not feel safe enough to divulge anything else.

I did get a little bit of justice, though.  The colonel ordered that I take three days of bed rest.  As it turned out, he was a medic, so he drew up the temporary profile for me that stated I suffered from fatigue.  He made it completely official, adding that I didn’t need to tell anyone, he would do it himself.  He even gave me three Valium to make sure I fell asleep and stayed down.  After we were finished, I went back to talking with the chaplain for a while.

We didn’t talk about what was going on in the unit.  Instead, we talked about religion.  I needed to talk to somebody who wasn’t in the PAD, and I needed to talk about something that wasn’t related to the military.  The chaplain was an extremely motherly African American woman, and she had such a peaceful presence about her that I couldn’t help but let my guard down.  Truth be told, I wanted to cry on her shoulder.  I’m sure she would have let me, too.

*****

The colonel made good on his promise to cool the barracks down.  I don’t know how he managed to do it, but that evening when I got back to the barracks, it was actually cold by my bed in spite of the humidity that lingered outside.  Showered and as free from sweat as I could make myself, I remembered that I had a few Valium.  I popped two of them, and I ended up sleeping for well over twelve hours.

After my first real sleep since I had arrived in Mississippi, I got Randell to sneak me the keys to one of the vans.  I took the remaining Valium, then I searched around outside of the base for any businesses that may have been open.  I managed to secure a pizza from a Little Caesar’s, I picked up a pack of Parliament Menthol Lights from a gas station, and I grabbed a few donuts from a local shop.  I returned to the barracks to enjoy my rest, my snacks, and, most importantly, my stress-free brain.  It was a well-fought and well-earned reprieve.

On the final night of my mandatory rest, I called Maj. Dwyer and told her everything that had happened (minus the Valium).  I halfway expected her to ignore my phone call, but she picked up on the second ring.  Surprised, I walked out of the barracks to sit down and smoke.  We ended up talking for almost three hours that night.

We had been close at one time.  I used to trust her.  I used to try my best to be a good soldier because of her.  I wanted to hear that she had a reason for leaving like she had.  Lie to me, I don’t care.  Just please tell me that you didn’t leave because you didn’t know how to handle the situation.

Out of nowhere, a kitten walked up and rubbed on my leg.  I had no idea where it came from, but it was nice to see something other than a human during this stressful time.  I scooped it up and put it on my lap, still talking with Maj. Dwyer.

I told Maj. Dwyer about the kitten, and it helped to break the tension.  We talked about cats.  We talked about life.  She talked about wanting to get back into the dating game.  I talked about what I would like to do after the army.  It was like the Christmas ceasefire during World War I.  For a few hours, it was just two humans talking on the phone.

After we were finished, I hung up, somewhat relieved but not exactly satisfied with how the conversation had gone.  We had resolved absolutely nothing, and I was trying my best not to go back to resenting her.  I knew at that point that Maj. Dwyer was not going to be able to help me.  I was going to have to figure this out on my own somehow.

But that was tomorrow.  Tomorrow I would be back in the trenches, but that night, I was going to stare at the stars with this random cat.  I put the tiny creature on my chest and laid back on the soft grass.