(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)
At fifteen hundred, joes are crowding around the mechanics as they emerge from the LSA and come walking towards the vehicle line. McElroy is already pulling Burks toward his truck. A few guys have got Duarte cornered. We’re all trying to get daily maintenance done quickly. The sooner a mechanic signs off on your MRAP, the sooner you can go back to sitting on your ass. I spot Jurek and hop down from my truck. Rivera and I get to him at the same time.
“I need you to do me a big favor.”
“What’s that?” Jurek has a wary look on his face.
“I’ve got to shit like nobody’s fucking business,” I say. “I need you to give me one of these so I can get out of here.” And I make an exaggerated sign of the cross in the air.
“You checked everything?”
“Fluids are good. My shit is smooth pimpin’.”
“It’s like this, son,” Rivera says, turning his patrol cap around backwards.
“Okay, you’re good.”
“You are a fantastic human being.”
I lock up the truck and head back to the CHU. In the room, Mies is playing Age of Empires with his gigantic headphones on. Raneo is on myyearbook.com, trolling for random chicks again. I swiftly drop my gear, change my shirt, and grab a pack of baby wipes.
“Gentlemen,” I say grandly, “‘Tis a far better poop that I poop than I have ever pooped. ‘Tis a far better latrine that I go to than I have ever known.”
In reality, our latrine is horrendous. The stalls are so cramped my knees butt up against the door. I’ve had digestive issues for the last few days, which is strange because I haven’t altered my diet. Probably some bug going around, or one of the cooks didn’t wash his hands properly.
Our operational tempo has been slowing down lately as we prepare to leave for Kuwait in a about a month and a half. People are starting to cycle through R&R, which has caused some grumbling as not everyone has been granted leave. Because I am childless and unmarried, I will not be getting leave. I could honestly care less. I imagine it would be harder to come back here after two weeks relaxing in California.
The Army screws everybody in equal proportion. And while being a soldier is akin to being an indentured servant, it liberates you from making pretty much any decision. With the right frame of mind, this can lead to a considerably Zen existence. You don’t have much to worry about because you have no control over where you go or what you do.
The grumbling is a bit greedy, in my opinion. We have no right to complain about anything. Soldiers and Marines in every previous war have had it far, far worse—the 101st Airborne at Bastogne, the First Marine Division at Guadalcanal, any of the fighting men humping through the jungles of Vietnam. We have air conditioning and hot chow. We have the goddamn Internet. But suffering is a relative experience, I suppose.
* * *
Failure is an unusual sensation. Today it feels like a hard bleacher seat and a knot in my stomach. It smells like a sticky-hot Georgia morning, looks like a charcoal thunderhead roiling on the horizon past those monolithic jump towers.
I look down and realize I’ve been rubbing my hands together compulsively. I sit on them to make myself stop. There are about fifty of us in the bleachers now. Most are staring at the ground or shaking their heads in disbelief. Sergeant Airborne strides up and barks at us.
“Hey, you know how many times I’ve fucked something up in the Army?” he says. “Plenty. There ain’t a soldier here who hasn’t fucked something up at some point in their career. Not one NCO. Not one officer. Get over it.”
His words aren’t comforting. We’re here because we were failed on our PT test, many would claim unjustly. Almost everyone in the stands is muttering some complaint, mainly that standard pushups and sit-ups were intentionally not counted. This is allegedly how the Black Hats trim the numbers in the class. We are all about to be dropped from Jump School.
“The CO is going to talk to you,” Sergeant Airborne says. “Stand fast.”
After a couple of minutes, the Battalion Commander arrives. He briefs us on how we will be out-processed, and he gives us a pep talk. There is a note of sympathy in his voice, but I wonder how many times he has given this speech. For him it is just another procedure: one more point on the Airborne School agenda to be crossed off. For many of us—for me—it’s the death of an ambition.
I won’t say dream. That would be melodramatic.
“How many of you think you were graded unfairly?” the Colonel asks. A few people raise their hands. “Does anyone want to appeal?” Only one guy has his hand up now. The Colonel instructs the soldier to see him afterwards, and then walks off to confer with some other cadre members. We are formed up and marched off the field.
The muttering continues. This will last for days. Sour grapes. Cries of foul play—this is, after all, how the Army screws you; who needs jump wings anyways?
I refuse to go to that place. I have never been a victim. To think along those lines makes the whole experience seem trivial and arbitrary. Crying about it solves nothing. I will not bitch. I will not moan. I will look inward for the problem and fix it. And I will come back for those wings. But for now I’m left with that knot in my stomach and too much time to think about it.
I wanted to step up to that door and jump out into nothing. I wanted to feel the rush of the slipstream and the snap-tug of the chute as it opens. I wanted to fall through the sky amidst that rain of canopies. I wanted to be a paratrooper.
For now, it is beyond my reach. So it goes.
It is early June 2010. Fort Benning. The enlisted Army personnel who are straight out of basic training, like me, are all reassigned to the Headquarters & Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 507th Infantry Regiment, commonly referred to as Airborne Holdover. The Black Hats don’t waste any time. We are marched directly from the PT field to the barracks, where we are instructed to pack up all our gear, turn in our Airborne-issued equipment, and move out to the HHC barracks. I suppose they don’t want us hanging around the remaining jump school recruits. It might affect morale.
Holdover is half labor camp and half summer camp. We have formations every morning, where most of the soldiers are selected for various details: mowing lawns, trash cleanup, the occasional loan-out detail to a civilian-run Army program, and Jump detail. Those who aren’t on a detail, or who finish early, usually hang out in the dayroom, watching movies or playing foosball or ping-pong. As long as you show up for formation and don’t ditch out on details, you’re free to do whatever you want. It takes a little getting used to after four months confined to a high-stress training environment where you can barely use the latrine without permission. But I grow into it. I wind up spending most of my free time walking the mile or so to the movie theater and library.
Every week, they post the new list of assignments on the bulletin board in the dayroom—names and duty stations. My name isn’t on the list the first week, which means I’m stuck here for at least one more.
For the infantrymen, this is our first extended interaction with soldiers from the support MOSs—non-combat soldiers. We call them POGs, perhaps unfairly. We start hearing horror stories about the limbo that is Airborne Holdover. Some have been recycled repetitively. Others have been stranded en route to their new post. One guy I talk to, a supply clerk, has been here for over two months, just waiting for a duty assignment. I’ve been contenting myself with the thought that my original, pre-Airborne assignment orders would stand. Those have me headed for Germany, an acceptable consolation prize given the circumstances. But the information I am piecing together casts severe doubt on that possibility. We are “needs of the Army” now. We go where they tell us. I start to imagine a huge, ludicrously-complex computer system that extrapolates the myriad openings across the global military commands and fills those slots accordingly based on the available candidates. My future now relies on some incomprehensible mathematical algorithm, and sheer luck.
I get picked for Jump detail one morning and sent to the flight line. The airfield at the Basic Airborne School consists of a wide runway and a few pre-fab aluminum buildings. The interior of one of these buildings is lined with big wooden benches where all the airborne recruits sit in their parachute rigs and wait to board the C-17. Our job is to wait outside this building, wearing reflective vests and earmuffs, and to offload the spent harnesses from the plane when it lands. We run up behind the plane as soon as it touches down and scoop all the lines into a big plastic bin, then run that bin over to the riggers’ shack so they can repack the chutes. This may be the closest I will ever get to jumping out of an airplane.
After lunch, one of the black hats stomps outside and looks hard at the four of us sitting along the edge of the tarmac.
“Give me one,” he says.
I follow him inside, and he hands me a cardboard box.
“I need you to hand these out,” he says.
Inside the box are several hundred sets of jump wings, black enamel still glossy, each wrapped in its own little plastic sleeve. I stifle my initial reflex, which is to throw the box in Sergeant Airborne’s face and tell him to go fuck himself. He mistakes the look of revulsion on my face for confusion.
“Just go up the line and hand one out to each person,” he says.
As I work my way up the bench line, handing a set of wings to each soldier, I’m trying to remember a time when I’ve choked this hard on my own pride. This is a slap in the face after getting kicked in the balls.
When we get back to the barracks, the new assignment list is up. I wait until the few people crowding around the bulletin board have dispersed. Then I scan the list for my name. It’s there. I slide my finger over to the duty assignment column. It reads Fort Hood.
* * *
Raneo, Mies, and Craddick are all huddled around the laptop in our room. They’ve discovered a website that allows you to video chat with random girls around the world, so for the last week or so they have been online nonstop, attempting to see as many indiscriminate breasts as possible. This new hobby tends to draw a crowd, and on most nights there will be as many as six or seven guys from our platoon in the room, all swarming around the computer. It can get rowdy—cheering, raucous laughter, dudes shouting, “let me see them nips”—but I don’t mind. It has, for the time being, distracted my roommates from their previous pastimes, which have included watching marathons of Jersey Shore and pestering me to tell them ghost stories.
The ghost story thing started one night when, as we were going to sleep, Raneo and Mies began repeatedly saying goodnight like a couple of third graders at a slumber party. Curmudgeon that I am, I said, “Are we going to start telling ghost stories now?” with all the grumpy tone in my voice I thought necessary to convey the sarcasm behind this suggestion. I immediately realized my mistake.
“Yeah, that’s happening now,” said Mies.
I googled “ghost stories” and found a website containing such prosaic titles as “Axe Murder Hollow”, “Death Waltz”, and “Don’t Turn on the Light,” and for a week running I read them a story every night before bed, until they became obsessed with random video chat.
Tonight they’re hitting on an eighteen-year-old, quasi-goth girl from Australia. She’s got a lip ring, a tongue stud, and has dyed her hair black. She’s a bit on the heavy side and seems enamored of the attention she is receiving from this trio of American soldiers, as offensive as they are. They’re shouting every stereotypical catch phrase imaginable involving kangaroos, dingoes, shrimps and barbies in the most horrific imitation of an Australian accent I’ve ever heard. Every third or fourth question uttered is aimed at convincing her to take her top off or move the webcam around so they can see her butt.
To these requests she keeps replying, “calm your farm,” which sounds like “com ya fom” and which, from the context, I gather means chill out. Mies begins saying this back to her continually.
McElroy enters the CHU, and Raneo grabs him by the shoulders and positions him in front of the camera.
“This is Buford,” Raneo says. “He’s our platoon mascot.”
“No, it’s Gilbert,” says Mies.
“Isn’t he cute?”
The Aussie lets loose an extended, multi-tonal “awwww.” I assume this is because McElroy bears a striking resemblance to a ten year old. They push McElroy aside and resume their hooting.
My roommates, like the majority of the company, are over a decade younger than I am. The generation gap is obvious to me, if not to them. Raneo is twenty-two, the “pretty boy” of the platoon, perpetually shirtless. Mies is twenty, a Midwestern redneck, racist, obnoxious, yet somehow endearing.
“On a real note,” Mies says to the internet girl, “why don’t you take your shirt off?”
“Calm your farm.”
“We could die tomorrow. You might be the last woman we ever see.”
I find it amazing that she hasn’t disconnected them yet. I’m sitting on my bed in the corner, out of camera shot, trying hard to contain my laughter and making fun of Mies whenever he says something idiotic.
“Don’t ruin this for me, Groh!” When he is not doing his appalling impersonation of an Australian accent, Mies is using an extra-heavy southern drawl.
“So you’re from Indiana, right Mies?” I say.
“Then why do you have a giant Confederate flag?”
He sighs. “I don’t want to have that conversation right now.”
“Then you’re aware that Indiana was not a part of the Confederacy.”
“Northern raised, Southern ways. You ever heard that?”
They are on with her for hours, persistent in their attempts to get her naked. At one point, a Blackhawk flies directly overhead, causing the whole room to shake. Craddick and Raneo both jump up and grab their weapons, feigning some emergency for the Australian girl’s benefit. Apparently, she buys it.
I leave to go to the gym. When I get back an hour later, Mies is alone in the room.
“Want to see something?” he says. He proceeds to show me a series of still shots from the webcam of the Australian girl stripping and then masturbating, both manually and electrically assisted. Mies leans back in the chair and gives me a crooked grin. All I can do is shake my head.
The Internet is our lifeline. For most of us, growing up in the Information Age, it is as much a necessity as any other form of sustenance. I am developing an unhealthy Facebook habit. It is really my only connection to friends back home, as I am terrible at correspondence. I rarely pick up the phone to call a friend or family member just to see how they are doing, unless I have something specific to say. And I rarely have anything specific to say. I don’t even use Facebook to contact people directly. I usually just browse people’s status updates to find out what is going on in the real world. Every now and then I’ll post a random comment, normally a funny quote or some tongue-in-cheek nugget of information about what I’ve been up to.
These posts typically float without any comments from my friends list. This is a peculiar form of rejection I never imagined I would experience. Who knew my self-esteem was so reliant on digital validation? Receiving no response to a status update is like making a comment at a party that is completely ignored. Your audience looks away to avoid any awkwardness, takes a sip of wine to appear busy, and a nauseating surge of embarrassment rises up from your gut. You want to run out the door and shame-vomit in the bushes. This happens to me every time I feel inclined to update my Facebook status. I’ll post something I think is noteworthy or thought-provoking or just plain funny, and it’s virtual crickets. Meanwhile, some other guy gets fourteen unique comments on a post about a sandwich he ate.
The truth is it’s me. Facebook is a façade. It’s a showcase for smiles and congratulations and baby pictures. It’s a conduit for goodwill and happiness, or the semblance of it, or the outward display of it at least. Nobody likes a bummer. If you aren’t smiling and domesticated and tasting wine and attending engagement parties and dropping the odd liberal tidbit and smiling and running a 10k and posting compelling YouTube videos and photos of your trip to Costa Rica and the baked salmon you cooked for dinner . . . if you aren’t smiling smiling smiling, you are the pariah. There is no room for awkwardness or loneliness or sadness in the hip new age. To acknowledge the existence of these diseases is to allow the possibility of affliction.
The best thing to do, when you’re not having fun at the party, is to leave. Cancel the Facebook account. Put an effort into correspondence. Call your friends on the telephone. Fawn over their babies. Make sure to tell them how cute the babies are. Invite them over for board games and feed them cheese. Plan and execute elaborate weekend excursions, double dates, karaoke. Saturate yourself with their smiles and maybe it will catch.
Things are starting to wind down, though we’ve only been in theater four months. We have fewer security missions each week. A few days ago, we drove to a hospital and an orphanage to hand out back-to-school supplies to kids. The focus now is on our removal to Kuwait. There is talk of being home by Christmas. People’s attention is now drawn to what comes next—new assignments, staying in or getting out. My reenlistment window is approaching. The NCOs recently passed around a spreadsheet on which we were required to list our top three choices for reassignment. I listed every possible airborne duty station. But I’ve pretty much decided that I’m done with the Army, though I’ve still got a year remaining after the deployment. I need to figure out what I’m going to do with myself and how I’m going to be able to reoccupy my house. I need to figure out how I’m going to reintegrate with society.