Early Fall, 2005
Finally, some good news came. My doctor managed to make an appointment for me to go and get an MRI in late September. This was another hard-fought victory, and a solid piece of news that once again helped to boost my morale and repair my faith in the system ever-so-slightly.
I was also still on an emotional high since my visit to JAG. For the first time, I felt that I had a measure of protection from the people who wanted to simply smack me down. I wasn’t sure if the lawyer really did want to follow up on the other things that went on with the unit, but at least I finally had somebody represent me. That alone helped to snap me out of my angry rut and compel me to keep being a decent guy.
But then Hurricane Katrina hit, and that unruly bitch wrecked up my plans almost as much as she wrecked up our coast.
Maj. Dwyer informed us that the 40th PAD would be going to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where we would be responsible for sending out press releases and covering the hurricane relief efforts. It was another TDY that had no definite end date, which meant that if I had to go, I would have to cancel my MRI appointment. I begged Maj. Dwyer to simply leave me out of it, but she said it was out of the question. I told her that if she did this, there was a chance that I would not be able to get an MRI again for months, and maybe even not at all if we kept hopping up and going to different installations like we were.
Maj. Dwyer was not moved.
Not only did Maj. Dwyer volunteer our unit for their third TDY in year, but she also saw this as an excellent opportunity to duck out and attend an officer’s school herself. Not only did she make me cancel an appointment I had waited half a year to get, but she also left me to fend for myself with two people who were going to do whatever they could to prevent my medical discharge. This wasn’t about me being essential to the mission. This was about her not having to bother with the situation. This was a cheap trick to run away from the problem and deal with it later.
How could I see this as anything but a betrayal?
Somehow, I ended up with driving duties in one of the two vans when we were heading out to Camp Shelby. Those who know me know that I love to play DJ, so I focused on playing all of my most abrasive albums (especially the Sex Pistols, who I knew she hated). I was going to try and get a rise out of SSG McDonald in any way I could. I knew she would be on edge from having to separate from her daughter, so my plan was to show Maj. Dwyer and the rest of the army how crazy this woman was.
About halfway through our trip, we started to encounter swarms of flying insects that are known as ‘lovebugs’ where I am from. They have a horrible tendency of splattering and smearing on a windshield, and are quite difficult to remove without some intense scrubbing once their guts dry. When we made a stop for fuel, I discovered that was a special formula of windshield cleaner for these bugs, so I bought a couple of bottles to clean our vehicles.
While I was pumping gas, SSG McDonald began spraying the windshield of the van furiously with the windshield cleaner. The wind was rather strong that afternoon, so while she was spraying, the wind blew some into my eyes. I involuntarily blurted out something like “Ow” or maybe “Ahhh,” something monosyllabic and not quite a word. SSG McDonald completely freaked out. She stormed over to me and got directly in my face.
“What the fuck did you say?” she demanded.
My instincts flared up. I thought we were about to fight. She was my height, she was my build, and she had her shoulders squared. As calmly as I could, I drew in my breath and gritted my teeth.
“You got bug spray in my eye, sergeant, and I said ouch.”
She glared at me long and hard. I could see a nervous twitch in her eye, and I was beginning to wonder if she was going to take a swing at me.
“Don’t you say another fucking word to me,” she growled.
“Roger that, sergeant,” I said, holding eye contact until she broke it off.
Randell was riding shotgun in our van, with Camp being the only other person willing to ride along. Camp was still my friend, but he was never going to do anything that went against the structure of the army. As such, I really couldn’t count on him to do anything other than what he was currently doing, which was silently supporting me by sticking close by.
I always appreciated his professionalism, by the way, and I still do.
But Randell hated SSG McDonald, so he played along with my plan to drive her crazy. He even put on the Sex Pistols a second time, and I could see that he was trying his best not to smile as he did it. We began to chat as if nothing was wrong, and it felt nice to get away with acting like a couple of bratty kids.
However, I felt that it was a pity that everything had gotten so ugly in our unit, because I truly believed that we all could have been friends if things were different. That’s the main reason I try not to hold a grudge, by the way. The army makes jerks out of even the nicest, most timid individuals at times.
Camp Shelby was not at all like any of the other military installations I had visited. It was a lot smaller, had almost no places to buy anything, and on top of everything else, there were places where the electricity had not yet been restored. In fact, the main command tent outside of the headquarters building was powered entirely by generators. The installation had been hit hard by the storms, as evidenced by the fallen trees that had not yet been cleared out and the huge puddles of water that had not yet dried.
Even worse, the barracks were set up like a shitty summer camp. They were open-bay just like in basic training, except they had no toilets or showers. The bathroom was a good fifty-yard hike away, which, in my mind, made the whole scene the ultimate shitshow. No electricity, nowhere to get any food, and showers so far away from where you slept that by the time you made it to your bed, you’d be sweating all over again.
And that wasn’t all. The barracks were cooled by two wall units. This was fine, in theory, if you chose a bed close enough to feel it, but even then, you’d have to wait several hours for the concrete and steel enclosure to cool from the extreme heat and humidity that still lingered. This was one of those situations where I just had to laugh at how perfectly crappy everything was.
As it turned out, we were the lowest-ranking soldiers on assignment by a long shot. The whole camp was occupied by senior-ranking NCOs and officers. This added an extra bit of tension in the beginning, as we expected everyone to have very stern demands of us little people.
However, the vibe of the place was far more relaxed than any of us would have expected. Nobody was particularly stressed or uptight like I thought they would be. Colonels would insist that you called them by their first name, and a master sergeant might even ask you to take a ride with them into town to find food.
Of course, the only person who was unable to relax was SSG McDonald. If she wasn’t dressing me down for some random nonsense, she was barking at Cohen for appearing too happy. Struck seemed to be having a great time, however, skipping around and name-dropping to any who would listen.
But none of that was important to me. I needed to somehow break away from the PAD and bend the right ear. I still had thirteen days before my appointment, so I had not yet abandoned the idea that I might be able to leave early.
Somehow, however, SSG McDonald knew this. Perhaps she didn’t know what my exact intentions were, but for the first few days she did her best not to let me out of her sight. When we got to our office one morning, I saw that the trash cans and recycle bins were full, so I started grabbing bags and asking around where to dispose of everything. SSG McDonald demanded that I stop and go sit in the office, but an officer praised my attempt to stay busy and asked that I continue.
In truth, I did want something to do. Not only was I being denied a crucial doctor appointment, but I was being forced to sit in the corner like a kid in time-out. It was some of the most perfectly orchestrated meanness I had seen since I joined the army. I truly had no function there. She was going to make me sit and watch the days go by leading up to my appointment.
But what was guiding this woman to be this way? What could she possibly be getting from waking up angry with me and carrying that chip on her shoulder all day? We actually had some good luck with an informal TDY this time, and she was the only one who couldn’t chill out.
Of course, I didn’t need her to chill out. I needed her to get even more angry at me. I needed her to lose her cool in front of these nice people. Screw the doctor appointment. I wanted to embarrass this woman. Judging by how she had been acting for the first few days, it looked like I already had the upper hand. All I needed to do was keep pissing her off, and she would definitely crack.
It came up in conversation after a few days that there was 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 fourth or fifth day, we were introduced to an air force captain and a subordinate of his. I don’t know he was an actual public affairs officer, but I know that he loved the sound of his own voice almost as much as he loved smooching army butt cheeks. His name was Morgan Ottman, and you’re damn right he loved working it into conversation:
“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.
And I’m not just being a jerk here. There’s no way for any of you to know this if you’ve never been in the military, but when you’re on the phone like this, you generally don’t give your first name. You give your rank and your last name only. He knew that. He just thought he was being cute. I hate people that have to do these dumb little tricks to try and superficially warm up to a stranger. Insecurity breeds all kinds of absurd behaviors like this.
It can also lead to some extremely unfair treatment.
Later that same day, I managed to hear a conversation between SSG McDonald and Capt. Ottman. I couldn’t hear any of the particulars, but I did hear my name and judging by the tone of her voice, it was not a happy conversation.
Wow. She wasn’t wasting any time, was she?
“Don’t worry. I’ll keep him under control.” Capt. Ottman said. I quickly walked 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 just 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 a little nerd who didn’t know what was going on.
However, I doubted that he was simply going to try and abuse me. There were too many people around, and let’s not forget this was an army mission. He knew he was outnumbered. I reasoned with myself he wasn’t going to do anything stupid.
After all, the aftermath of our country’s largest natural disaster in a hundred years was just outside of our building. That should take precedence 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 even 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 two dozen soldiers who could really use some caffeine if they were serving. There was a pause, and then the woman on the other end told me to come out and pick some up. 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 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 thrilled while I was driving back to the installation. Here was another one of those situations where the screw-up managed to get something right. I was intensely proud of myself. For the duration of my brief military service, I always struggled to find some sort of use. Today, I had found one. Yesterday and tomorrow could suck it, because I was the coffee guy today.
When I arrived back at Camp Shelby, who did I see but the big man himself: Lieutenant General Bartholomew Gundersson. I just 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, told me to go offer the general a cup. I almost peed my pants.
“Big Bad 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 simply compelled you to do what he said. He had served numerous tours overseas, and now he had been tapped to come and oversee the relief efforts. The country had a great deal of confidence in this man, especially the locals, as Gundersson was a native of New Orleans.
I cautiously approached the general. 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 then the big man himself would personally sign my discharge papers.
That’s how it went in my head, anyways…
But that’s not what happened. What happened instead was that Capt. Ottman swooped out of nowhere and jerked the container from my hand. 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.
Unfortunately, the day of my doctor appointment came and went. I was particularly morose on 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 quickly busied myself emptying the garbage cans and recycle bins. Capt. Ottman came back and saw what I was doing, and 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, I met a medic who let me bum cigarettes, and I met an extremely nice lady who was a chaplain. These positive interactions would help me to brace for around 2 or 3 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 fall asleep for an hour at a time. 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 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 put my uniform back on and pull myself together. I tried to convince her to go on ahead, but she refused. She stood there, smirking, as I stumbled to dress myself.
When I arrived at the office, I was stopped by a marine 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, however, I got up to confront SSG McDonald. The sooner we got this over, the sooner I could go back to bed.
As I walked into the room, I noticed both Claire and Struck looking rather smugly at me, like a couple of younger siblings who just ratted on me to mom. Cohen looked away conspicuously, pretending to be reading. God, what a bunch of dicks. Camp and Randell were in the 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 was 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.
The room became quiet. SSG McDonald’s eyes popped wide open and her face began to turn red. She looked like an angry zombie.
“McCollum,” 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 arrogantly, 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.
Right then, the marine colonel entered the room. “Soldier, come with me,” he said, clearly annoyed that I didn’t follow his directive the first time. He and 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.
As I sat entered the room, I noticed that the chaplain I had been getting to know was seated in the room. 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, so she nodded and left it alone. The look on her face told me that she didn’t believe me, but I think she was still trying to process everything before asking me any other questions.
From the other room, I heard the medic’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 it did not concern him. I couldn’t believe she said something like that to a person who so greatly outranked her.
I didn’t hear the conversation that followed. All I heard was his calm voice and her harsh voice going back and forth. I wished that he would write SSG McDonald up for insubordination, though I doubted anything like that was going to happen. The chaplain heard what was going on 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 about why I hadn’t been sleeping. I told him that the barracks did not get cool enough. He said he would send somebody to fix it right away. In the interim, he had me sit 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.
The colonel could tell I was deliberately holding back information. 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 he could help the 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 just to let it lie.
I did get a little bit of justice, however. 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 himself. He even gave me three Valium to make sure I stayed down. After we were finished, I went back to talk to 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 or the task at hand. The chaplain was an extremely motherly African American woman, and she had such a presence about her that I couldn’t help but let my guard down. Truth be told, I wanted to cry on her shoulder. That’s what kind of peaceful presence she had.
I’m sure she would have let me, too.
The colonel had 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 cool in spite of the humidity that still lingered. Showered and as free from sweat as I could make myself, I remembered the Valium. I popped two of them, and I ended up sleeping for well over twelve hours.
After my first real sleep since I arrived, 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 also grabbed a few donuts from a local shop. I returned to the barracks to enjoy my rest, my snacks, and my Valium buzz. 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). She didn’t have much to say on the matter. She simply sighed and changed the subject.
Why did I call her? Because we were 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 it doing what she did. 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 sat down on the ground to pet it, still talking with Maj. Dwyer.
We talked about cats. We talked about life. She talked about trying to get back into the dating game. I talked about what I would like to do after the army. For a few hours, it was just two humans talking on the phone. It was like the Christmas cease-fire during World War I.
I hung up the phone, somewhat relieved, but not exactly satisfied with how the conversation had gone. I knew now that Maj. Dwyer was not going to be able to help me in any way. I was just 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 kitty. I put the tiny creature on my chest and laid back on the soft grass.