Book I, Part I – Chapter 5

Blue Phase

 

The blue phase was somewhat enjoyable at least.  I can’t really describe to you what we did in this phase, though, because I was always simply following along (and barely, at that).  We marched around with our rifles, we camped outside, and we got to throw fake grenades.  It was pretty cool if you didn’t think about the fact that you were using instruments of war.  I’m not a pacifist or anything, but I always felt a little sick when I was popping off shots with my M-16.  It felt unnatural in my hands.

The drill sergeants by this point were no longer very tough on us.  For the most part we knew what to do and where to be at what times.  Each platoon had a few soldiers designated as leaders, and we had no problem following their orders, especially if it meant the drill sergeants left us alone.  We were sharper, we were in better shape, and we also worked very well together.

Even Pvt. Walker had rejoined us, free of her crutches.  She began participating in PT every morning, and she also began running the obstacle courses with us.  It didn’t seem like anybody was giving her any guff any more, either.  In fact, the word “shammer” had not been uttered since the white phase, towards Walker or anyone else.

By this point, however, the pain in my knee had become far more frequent.  It wasn’t debilitating, but it was enough to keep me from going as fast as I really wanted to go on my runs.  I felt like the bones were grinding from the impact of beating the pavement too often without a break.  I talked to one of the drill sergeants about it, but he insisted that once I lost more weight it would go away.

I tried my very best to believe that the drill sergeants had a plan.  Maybe they thought I was doing a good job and were just going to pass me based on that.  It wasn’t impossible, was it?  I didn’t prefer that outcome, but at this stage I knew I would simply have to accept it.

I still had to focus on passing the PT test.   I had to pass and pass clean.  I couldn’t just pass because they let me.  That was a bullshit outcome.  I had to pass on my own.

*****

As the last major exercise of the blue phase, you do a seventy-two-hour field training exercise (or FTX) out away from your regular training site.  You march into the woods and play war games, shooting and jumping and hollering and, if you’re me, simply mimicking what your buddies are doing.  It was an exciting exercise, regardless of how tired I was or how little I understood.  This was the first time in the army that I began to feel a little manly, too.

Following our FTX, we were given two days of rest.  During that time, we cleaned our field equipment and turned it all back in to the drill sergeants.  The rest was certainly productive, though I took the opportunity to train up for the final PT test.

I was feeling accomplished, albeit nervous.  My optimism came and went.  I had done everything I possibly could have to squeeze off the extra weight and to get in better shape.  In fact, I was certain that I had pushed myself a little too hard, but there was no turning back.  Whether or not I had an actual knee injury would just have to wait a few more months as I negotiated the second half of the training phase.

But there’s almost no point in setting these things up anymore.  I failed.  Again.

This time, I was not upset with myself.  I was upset with the army.  Why hadn’t they let me go back when they had the chance?  Why did they let me go all the way through basic training not having passed their tests?  I didn’t want to leave basic training half complete.  I couldn’t even imagine how much harder it would be to learn even more specialized skills if I was already deficient in all the core areas.

After this most recent failure, I was informed by one of our drill sergeants that any soldiers who failed their PT test would be given one more chance to pass in three days.  All soldiers who did not pass would be recycled for real this time.  No messing around.  Even though I had heard the exact same thing before, I still had to take the threat seriously.  The army had been many things so far, but it was becoming less and less predictable all the time.

My target run time was 17:35 for two miles.  I had seventy-two hours to prepare for my retest, and in that time, I needed to fit in a Rocky-esque montage of bicycling, climbing a mountain, and chopping wood if I was going to pass.  This had to be one of those near-impossible transformations that only happen when the hero wants it badly enough.

I trained for forty-eight hours in every manner I knew how.  However, one of the drill sergeants said I needed to give my muscles a break, so I took his advice on the last day and rested.  I tried to talk to the drill sergeant about why I was never recycled, but he wouldn’t give me an answer.  He simply told me to focus on the task at hand. He said that if I dug deep enough for this final test, I would have nothing to worry about.

You know, I’ve always hated those stupid phrases.  They insinuate that you’re not trying your hardest.  I was already fucking digging deep.  This is what me digging deep looks like, understand?

Whatever, sarge.  Your words are starting to mean less and less all the time.

*****

The day of the final test came.  Again.  I was so sick of PT tests and frankly I was sick of the army, but there was no way they were going to defeat me.  I honestly didn’t care about what the army wanted from me.  What I cared about was that I accomplished what I set out to do.  Nothing else mattered.

The first two test events went very well.  I had improved greatly on push-ups and sit-ups and was feeling quite confident as we marched to the track where I would make or break my military career.

As we marched, one of the more obnoxious drill sergeants had somehow managed to sneak up on me.

“What’d ya fail, Perkins?”

“Nothing, drill sergeant.”

“Really?”

“Hope you brought your ice skates, drill sergeant, because that cold day in hell is coming fast.”

The drill sergeant seemed impressed by my uncharacteristic bit of confidence.  Too bad I didn’t believe my own words.

One of the platoon leaders, Pvt. Simpson, had volunteered to be my partner for the run.  This was permitted by the drill sergeants and was a very helpful thing to have.  My partner was a much more experienced runner, so he could set a pace for me to keep.  More importantly, I wouldn’t have to run alone.

Seventeen minutes and thirty-five seconds.  That was the magic number.  On my last test I had run an 18:40, so I had to be a minute faster.  It was absolutely possible.  As I walked toward the starting point, I repeated that number in my mind.

The call was given, and we were off.  The whole world began spinning as I poured every ounce of strength into propelling myself forward.  I had no sense of space or time; I barely even remembered why I was running in the first place.  I couldn’t see or hear anything, save the faint outline of Simpson drifting in front of me.

I knew that I wasn’t doing well.  I felt as if I were running the fastest that I ever had, but that I was still not keeping the pace that I needed.  Simpson was shouting for me to speed up, but my muscles simply couldn’t do what I was telling them.  My knee started to throb, and it made my stride wobbly and uncoordinated.

I managed to stay not too far behind Simpson.  My muscles were on autopilot by this point, as if my survival rested entirely on not letting this guy out of my sight.

After what seemed like an eternity, I came to my last lap.  This was my storybook moment.  A drill sergeant shouted that I needed to pick up the pace, so with every bit of strength I could harness, I ran.

My muscles were on fire.  I felt sick.  The PT test no longer mattered.  I would transcend space and time and simply disappear.  The only trace of me they would find would be my New Balance sneakers at the finish line, and they would posthumously give me the Medal of Honor.  My parents would gloat until their last days, the legend of their heroic son becoming more and more unbelievable as they aged.

This would be my moment.

There were checkpoints where a drill sergeant would shout out the time as I passed them, but for the duration of the run I hadn’t been able to hear what they were saying.  However, there was no mistaking the number I heard being called out when I crossed the finish line.

“Eighteen minutes!”

Well, shit.

*****

I’m pretty sure I blacked out for a minute when I was finally able to slow my poor body down.  I remember feeling lightheaded and badly off-balance. One minute I was standing, and the next I was on all fours, trying not to vomit.  My eyes were blurry as tears of rage began to form.  I couldn’t take it.  I started punching the ground in anger.

“Whoa there, soldier, get up!”  The drill sergeant responsible for keeping my time put his hand on my shoulder and shoved a clipboard into my face.

Across from my name was written 15:35.

What?  That was impossible.  I had just heard eighteen minutes being called.  I looked up at the drill sergeant, and he was smiling.  He looked at the number, and then nodded at me.

He doctored my score.

“Now pull yourself together, soldier!” the drill sergeant ordered.  I brushed myself off and went to go find Simpson.

I was angry over this turn of events.  It was illogical that I could have gotten that much faster in three days.  My drill sergeants would have to know that.  This time was well beyond the minimal score.  I think you could look at me and tell that I was not capable of running a mile in under eight minutes.

But nobody said a word about this obvious discrepancy in my run time.  In fact, I had a drill sergeant come up to me and congratulate me for my ‘improvement.’  This was the same drill sergeant who told me to dig deep, so he gave me a brief “I told you so” lecture about believing in myself.  I wanted to scream at him for being complicit in this sham, but I decided that this was just how things were going to be in the army.  If I was going to get stronger, I was going to have to try a lot harder in the next phase of my training.

Thanks a lot for that, by the way.

Still, having just received the first of many miracles, I was docile for the remainder of training in the gold phase.  I was finished—on a technicality, of course—but finished with basic training.  I was still disillusioned with how I had achieved it, though.

Granted, I had shaved another forty seconds off my run time from the previous PT test.  This made me feel a little better, but the fact that I didn’t pass my overall PT test still meant a lot to me.  I was beginning to wonder if I had passed the rifle test, or if somebody had changed the score the way they did with my PT test.

My peers were none the wiser.  In the end, I quit fighting against my discomfort with how I’d passed.  It was clear that nobody was ever going to find out about it, so why shouldn’t I accept this little miracle and move on?

Book I, 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.

Book II, Part I – Chapters 7 & 8

The Family

Unit

It was not long before my deficiencies became apparent to my new commander.  Sgt. Windsor had already trained me to the point that I was able to pass my PT test, but I would barely pass my run every time.  Capt. Dwyer said that she didn’t want any soldiers who were barely passing on any of the standards, so she told me that I needed to improve.  I found it hard to disagree with her logic.

Capt. Dwyer also informed me that I was going to get certified.  If a soldier’s commander is a motivated go-getter like mine was, they would sign you up for different certification courses.  These courses ranged from military knowledge, such as basic medical skills and first aid, to physically challenging training such as Pathfinders and Rangers.  Even though I did not have promotion on my mind, I once again agreed with Capt. Dwyer’s plan.  Perhaps I could finally make up for some of the things I didn’t pick up on early in my training.

I was also told that I was to contribute at least two articles to the newspaper every week.  Capt. Dwyer was cool enough to smooth everything over with the newspaper staff, at least enough to promote a bit of tolerance for my increased participation.  I managed to write a few decent articles when I was given a real assignment.

I also managed to get a few phone calls to Chuck Holder speaking positively of me.  One in particular came from the aviation brigade.  I did not think I had done anything outside of the ordinary, but the commander was pleased with my article and how I conducted myself.  It was nice to hear that these people were capable of communication other than barking and criticism.  It was also nice to know that my reputation was on the mend.  It would be one of the ways that my shaky morale would recover for a time.

SSG Cooper and Sgt. Windsor were real leaders.  I felt accountable to them.  For the first time since basic training I felt that my performance mattered.  I had something to strive for.  It was hard to imagine getting any faster at my run, but I was going to give it another try for these people.  They had given me no reason to distrust them, so I felt that I owed them a good performance.

I also felt like I owed my leaders complete transparency.  As such, I tried a few times to talk to Capt. Dwyer about sobriety.  We sat down on two or three occasions after work, once for more than three hours.  I was trying to get her to convince me that I was going to make it.

But I was not sure if I would ever be able to bounce back from such a shitty start.  I also wasn’t sure how I would respond to any other changes.  I was trying to get her to promise me that she would help me keep my head on straight, but at the same time I felt like this dynamic that we had couldn’t last.  Soldiers are never this close to their commanders.  Our unit, much like our training, was far different than the rest of the army.  While I was grateful for these subtle differences, I also couldn’t help but wonder if this was once again all just temporary.

I did have a little bit of hope for the future.  All I needed was more time to rectify some of the attributes I lacked.  If we needed to go to the rifle range, fine.  If I had to get out and do more soldier things and less journalism, fine.  Just wipe my slate clean and show me how to function as an adult, err, I mean, soldier.  Please.  Just please help me find and fix the gaps in my soldiering knowledge, because it feels to me like there are a whole lot of holes in this pail.

*****

Then one day, all the troops came back.

Everybody, HHC and PAD, all came back at the same time.  Some of them did not immediately show up to the office, but they all did within a few days of their return.  One day it was quiet, the next day our building was stuffed with bodies.

The returning troops knew the other people in the building, so they all carried on conversations loudly together.  It was hard to see how we even managed to put together a newspaper during the first week that everyone came back.  From what I could tell, all anybody was doing was catching up with everyone else.

As for me, I met the soldiers a few at a time.  Sometimes I would have to corner somebody to get them to talk to me, but I was persistent.  Bare minimum, I shook everyone’s hand and welcomed them back.  I figured it was the decent thing to do.  After all, I had no reason to believe that anybody would be deliberately avoiding me.

The one person who didn’t require cornering was Dub.  He was the same friendly guy that he was when I first met him.  I didn’t bother asking him about any of the other soldiers, though.  I was still trying to observe everyone in a way that was as unbiased as possible.

Several of us ended up in the same section of the barracks, and one soldier dropped by to see if I wanted to hang out.  I was on a vegetarian diet and had been sober for about a month, so I declined his offer of spaghetti and beer.  However, later that same evening I went to his room because I figured he would think that vegetarianism and sobriety were a couple of shitty excuses not to hang out.  He said that they were, but all was forgiven because I had dropped by to say hello.

Nobody else was particularly warm.  We had not yet begun to separate into the groups of PAD and HHC, so I was not sure who was in my unit and who was with HHC.  All I knew was that there were a lot of cooks in that kitchen, and none of them had very much to say to me.

Then one day, Barry ordered pizza for everyone.  He made an announcement that there would be an unofficial welcoming party for the soldiers at noon, so I figured this would be a much better set of circumstances under which to try and meet the rest of the two units.  However, as I was headed down the hall to the conference room, the soldier who invited me to dinner a few nights prior said, “You can stay in your office.  I’m pretty sure there’s no broccoli.”  I wasn’t sure if the guy was making a joke or if he was actually upset over me not eating with him, so I tried not to take his remark too seriously.

Aside from cold treatment from a couple of the soldiers, I also met a few sergeants who, if I didn’t know any better, were trying to push me around.  In fact, one of them arbitrarily made a remark about my weight during Barry’s pizza party, and again I had to remind myself that I didn’t know these people and I just needed to let things slide for the moment.  Still, there was a lot of tongue-biting that went on those first few weeks.  It’s a miracle that I didn’t choke on my own blood.

 

Friction

There’s no easy way to do this, so I’m just going to have to introduce all of the significant people and get it over with.  Here they are, the opening cast of characters for this next act.

Specialist (SPC) Henry “Mitch” Mitchell. This was the soldier who asked if I wanted to hang out over spaghetti and beer.  Mitch was deeply tan, sarcastic, and portrayed himself as much more intelligent than he really was.  The guy was literate, but he seemed to believe that nobody else was, because he had a terrible habit of speaking down to people.

Also, Mitch was rude to my girlfriend, Cadence.  Cadence pointed out one day that he was the only person to openly use so much vulgarity in the office.  Mitch took that as a sign that he needed to keep doing it.  Call me biased, but openly irritating a lady is strike one.  Irritating my extremely nice girlfriend is strikes one, two, and three.

The only other HHC soldiers there were after all the pieces moved around were Katie and SSG Cooper.  The two male soldiers I met when I first arrived were supposed to be in my unit, but they both got out a few months after I arrived.  There were also a few sergeants I never had much contact with, but they left almost immediately.  Mitch would also be gone by the middle of the next year, but not before pissing me off one more time.

That brings us to my unit, the 40th PAD.

You’ve already been introduced to the new command structure, but there was one other leader that I need to mention.  His name was SFC Martin Smalls, and he was the guy who started bashing me about my weight at the pizza party.

It’s hard to describe SFC Smalls in any way that doesn’t make him look like a piece of shit.  Everything about him was snotty, from the way he smirked to the way his head bobbed as he moved his tiny body.  I suppose that might have been why he acted like such a prick; the man was almost smaller than Capt. Dwyer.  He must have had quite a complex at that size.  Thank God he wasn’t a cop, or he’d probably be in a whole different book.

At first SFC Smalls avoided me.  When he did finally speak to me, it was only in the presence of a few junior soldiers.  Also, it was generally about my PT scores and my weight.  They would snicker for a few minutes, and that would be it.  In my mind, it was some weak hazing, and it was best to just go along with it.

However, he began to mutate over the ensuing days.  Before long, SFC Smalls had something rotten to say at every turn.  He’d check me for the tiniest thing, like a thread sticking out of my uniform or a lace popping out of my boot.  These were things that you wouldn’t be able to see unless you were looking for them, and closely at that.

He didn’t just correct me on things I may have been doing wrong either.  He would also insert himself into any conversation he would overhear.

            “You like that band?  They suck.”

“You think she’s pretty?  I think she’s a dog.”

“You’ve never seen that movie?  Is there something wrong with you?”

Everything was made into an issue with this guy.  It was hard to remember half of the time that not only was he a leader, but he also had seniority over Windsor and Cooper.  He didn’t even appear to be interested in getting along with anyone.  The only people he spoke to with any semblance of respect were the PAD members who had deployed with him.

Except Dub.

Though they had been deployed together, SFC Smalls gave Dub a ton of grief.  In fact, one of the first times when he wasn’t talking down to me was when he was explaining Dub’s situation.  According to SFC Smalls, Dub was a shammer and a crybaby for wanting to get out of the army.  It was hard to listen to this man, this leader, and all the contempt he had for one of his own soldiers.

In fact, it seemed like everybody was mean to Dub.  It was hard to discern at first because I thought that some of the soldiers picked on the nerd as a joke.  However, it became clear that these were not good-natured barbs.  Dub had done something to irreparably upset somebody, and it was clear that the fallout was a lot of cold shoulders from his fellow service members.

Dub was seeking a medical discharge for an ankle injury.  Either that or he had been seeking a discharge before the deployment.  I never got the full story.  In any event, he said he had an injury and SFC Smalls said he did not.  I knew that somehow this was a part of whatever problem was going on.  It may have not been the full problem, but it had to be a contributing factor to the coldness with which everyone treated Dub.

I’m not sure if Dub got his medical discharge or if his contract simply ran out, but I know that just about everybody gave him grief until his last day.  At the insistence of Capt. Dwyer, we  had a going-away party in his honor, and I tried my best to deliver a speech that allowed him to leave with a little bit of dignity.  My attempt was met largely with snorts and scoffs, while Dub brushed away a nostalgic tear as if we had been friends for twenty years.

There was something that I took away from this situation, and something that I hoped for as a result.  What I took from the situation was that you were supposed to starve people out if they displeased the leader.  I think that Dub displeased SFC Smalls somehow, and the rest of the troops had turned on him. What I hoped for was that the days of that behavior was at an end.  We had nice people as leaders now.  We had leaders who helped you fix something instead of just pointing out what was wrong all the time.  Hopefully, all the sourness would depart with SFC Smalls, because there was no way I was going to let another group of people get away with fucking with me.

Regardless, SFC Smalls was the outgoing NCOIC of the PAD.  Sgt. Windsor was his replacement.  As for the rest of the PAD, the members were as follows.

            SPC Timothy Struck. A preppy guy who volunteered to join the army for political reasons.  He spoke too loudly and always used his hands when he was speaking.  He also had this annoying tendency of name-dropping people he knew.  It was amusing to see a person who believed so much in their own persona.

Tim had a medium build, black hair, and whenever he tried to smile it looked like half of his face was in on the effort to push the corners up his mouth upward.  I think he had emotions, but they were underdeveloped.  The word was that Tim was the son of a politician and had plans to run for office once his service was up.  I had a hard time imagining him as a person who ever turned out to be important, but politics were foreign to me.  I didn’t know what the requirements were, though his apparent lack of charisma seemed like something that wouldn’t work very much in his favor.

SPC John Randell. A wiry Southern boy with brown hair and a rather stern chin.  He was a year younger than I was but didn’t look it at all.  His time in the army had aged him much faster than his counterparts.  His eyes were tired, his face was weathered, and he seemed like he was rarely able to relax.

Randell was a chain-smoker, so I eventually went outside one day to bum a smoke from either him or Laura (quitting was not going well).  In fact, it was the smoking that started us talking to each other.  I liked Randell just fine, though at times he was hopelessly dour.  I would later find that he was married to Hannah, and at the time of my arrival the two were going through a rather acrimonious separation.

SPC Matt Cohen. Cohen looked like he could be Struck’s younger brother.  He had the same crew cut, almost the same build, and was just about the same height.  Cohen was a happy-go-lucky guy, which was certainly a contrast to the other two soldiers.  He always had a joke or an observation about a movie or a song, often randomly interjected when the office was quiet for too long.

Cohen had come down with a case of leishmaniasis some time during his tour in Iraq, a disease caused by a parasitic sand fly found in the Middle East.  He spent some time at Walter Reed Hospital before returning to Fort Campbell with everyone else.  Because of this ugly brush with nature, he had scars on his hand where the disease had done permanent damage.

Cohen was the ladies’ man of the bunch, at least according to SFC Smalls, who relentlessly kissed his ass about it.  They would often have a loud conversation in which SFC Smalls would talk up Cohen’s conquests, with Cohen sheepishly conceding that he had, indeed, bedded whomever it was.  Out of the entire group, Cohen seemed to be the nicest, but this ladies’ man shtick made me want to dislike him.  I could handle SFC Smalls and all his shit because I knew he was leaving, but I was about to be working with Cohen every day and didn’t want to believe that he was nearly as dumb and shallow as his esteemed leader was helping him look.

All told, I didn’t like any of these guys.  Dub was all right, but upon spending more time with him, I found him to be obese and slobbish.  It felt like there was a little bit of truth in what SFC Smalls said about him.  Randell seemed okay, too, but he was so damn grouchy.  I tried not to make snap judgments of anyone, but they all came in and left mostly bad impressions on me.

One of them didn’t leave a bad impression per se, but he certainly did leave me feeling a bit confused.  I remember one day I was at the local mall walking to my car when I heard the words “Yo, skinhead!” being shouted from somewhere across the parking lot.  Since I had a shaved head, not a military crew cut, I assumed that whoever this was was talking to me.  I turned to see Struck grinning stupidly, holding up the heavy metal horns.  Still grinning, he shouted, “Six-six-six, man!”

I stood there, lost for words.

Judging by his self-satisfied expression, I knew that he was being serious.  This guy honestly believed that he was identifying with me, just like a politician might.  He took a stab at what demographic I was, then he said what he believed were my accepted buzzwords.  I tried my best not to write him off as a complete idiot in that moment.

I didn’t have much time to respond, so I threw up the horns in kind.  I don’t care who it is, one always returns the horns.  Satisfied, Struck wandered to his car and drove away.  I stood there for several moments after wondering if Timothy Struck actually believed that I worshiped the devil.

Book II, Part II – 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 phone book 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 screw-up 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 tonight, 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.