Tuesday, July 25, 2006

"Wreck that," Indeed...

Sitting this afternoon at Burger King, on lunch break, with Privates Oz, Hall, and Lafour. They don't have cars, so they've begged a ride with me. We're sitting down to our respective meals when past the windows goes walking a slender redhead into the Post Exchange. As expected, heads turn, and within minutes, I'm neck deep in bawdy commentary.

"Shit," says Lafour.

"Fine as hell," says Hall.

"Damn," chimes Oz, "I would so wreck that."

"Me too." Lafour this time. "Where you goin', baby?" The woman walks by. She can't hear us through the glass, but I'm sure she can guess the vibe. Eventually, the heads go back to their food. A brief moment of silence ensues, and I smirk as I take a sip of my chocolate shake. I wait for the perfect moment, and then I finally speak up.

"You realize," I casually note, "that that was the Captain's wife, don't you?" I'm referring to our company commander, a tall man by the name of Haskewitz.

The heads shoot up like prairie dogs from their holes, mouths stuffed full of lettuce and beef patty.

"Really?" says Lafour.

"Really." I nod.

Private Oz responds with, "bullshit.". I simply smile at him and raise an eyebrow. I sip at my straw. His expression changes slightly.

"You're serious."

I grin.

"I am."

A trio of faces look at each other, suddenly grateful for the layer of window between us and her.

I snicker, and dunk a cluster of fries into my Zesty sauce.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Life in a Box

I haven't had much time to journal lately. Things at the unit have picked up considerably, and as we prepare for deployment I find that I often come home simply too tired to write. I have a six-mile rucksack march tomorrow morning, but knowing our company First Sergeant, the "ruck march" will really be more of a "ruck run." After the brutal five-mile run I endured this morning with A-Group, I'm looking forward to tomorrow with a mixed sense of irritation and dread.

Preparations for shipment are finally underway. In the next several weeks, we will be switching to the new Army Combat Uniform (ACU). In lieu of woodland green or desert beige, these upgraded uniforms boast a mottled digital grey color scheme, and are intended for use in both garrison and combat environments. Honestly, I hear that they retain heat worse than our current garb, but on the high side, the boots for the uniform are the familiar desert suede, which means that at least I won't have to endure the daily bullshit of polishing and flame-sealing. Just as well. Shit destroys the boot anyway.

We've also been instructed to prepare our footlockers. Commonly known as "gorillas," these heavy-duty plastic chests are cheap and durable, and will be used to carry the first of our belongings to our duty station in the desert. I've started thinking about what I intend to pack--laptop and books, obviously, as well as possibly my Xbox and games. Also on the list will be extra clothing and uniforms. I've decided to send my Gorilla out with a generous supply of blank journals, as I suspect I'll have little time to compose blog entries while sitting on a Department of Defense computer. Many of my future entries, I think, will simply be transcripts of these hard-copy journals, as well as possibly letters to my wife and family from the sandbox. I expect that, at least for a little while, my journal entries will become fewer and farther between, and I am considering adding my wife Anne to the list of contributors to this blog. If nothing else, this might allow me more easily to keep this blog updated regularly, as well as shed some light into the dynamic of our marriage. Time will tell.

There is, however, something vaguely sobering about preparing a footlocker for deployment. When I stare into that empty container, I find myself wondering what possessions will be most important to keeping up my morale in the desert. It's like my life is there, sitting inside that box, and right now it just looks so very empty. It fills me with swells of alternating sorrow and fear. There are times when I question the choices and circumstances which led me here, and right now all those doubts seem to be embodied in this 4' x 1.5' x 1.5' plastic box.

We take small things with us into the sand, things which might remind us of peace and of home. But what are these things, other than exactly that--things? As with every other part of our lives, we fill up the void with objects and keepsakes, trying to drown out the pain for want of what we really need to be happy.

There was a time when I prided myself on being able to pack up the sum of my possessions in less than fifteen minutes. This appealed to the ascetic in me, and truth be told I used to look with scorn upon those who didn't know how to pack light. But now, facing a year alone in the desert, I try to find things to fill up that box, and suddenly I'm no longer sure if I'm packing too much, or perhaps not enough.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Little Shout-Out To The Family Values Crowd

Just once in my life, during some vapid award ceremony, I'd like to hear this as an acceptance speech:

"And finally, I'd like to thank my lord and savior the Great Deceiver, Defiler, Lucifer, the Prince of the Power of the Air; without Whose influence the world would never know anything but conformity and corruption, and without Whose spirit the bilking and exploitation of my supporters would not be possible. May His dark reign over all the Earth be neverending. Hail Satan!"

Preferably at some kind of Christian music convention.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Things You Never Want to Hear

Wednesday morning, and we in the Army all know what that means: Ability Group Runs. This is a variation on morning PT where all members of a given unit are broken into three groups: A, B, and C. If you hate running, be warned, Wednesdays are unlikely to be your favorite day of the week.

C-group runners are usually the younger female privates and overweight men, with a few recovering injuries thrown in for some good measure. This group gets run at a leisurely pace (see Airborne Shuffle), usually for 2 to 3 miles, before returning to post. Nothing spectacular. I've never been a C-group runner. B-group runners are the middle of the road, and therefore the largest group. The runs for these individuals usually ranges from 3 to 5 miles, often with some subtle variations on sprinting thrown into the mix. Strenuous workouts are typical, but nothing that most soldiers can't handle. I generally fall into this category. A-group runners, however, are almost invariably young, male, and anyone qualified for Ranger school. The runners here never number more than a dozen, and as a rule they tend to look like pieces of jerky; wiry and slim. A-group puts these motivated masochists through brutal routines that often stretch 4 to 7 miles, often at full-sprint, with heavy doses of calisthenics and cross-training along the way. Suicide for all but the most physically conditioned.

Normally, I run B-group. I hate morning PT, and I've pretty much run B since my days in Basic Training. I'm a decent runner, but I'm nowhere near motivated enough for the kinds of 12 minute-and-below 2-mile times typical of an A-group runner. That being said, my endurance over long distances is solid, and as a result I tend to end a morning run at the front of the pack. On a good day, I can run two miles in about 13 minutes.

So you can imagine my chagrin when morning formation passed, and we were fallen out into our usual groups for the morning run. B-group here is run by Sergeant Browning, a lanky black man in his mid-thirties. Sergeant Browning pushes us hard, and to be honest, if I thought I could get away with it I'd rather run C-group then run with him. But then, out of the blue, I hear Sergeant Browning call my name.


This is never good. Sergeant Browning knows my face well, as I usually pace him at the front of the formation. People harass me for not running A-group every Wednesday, but the first and only time I ever tried, my shinsplints nearly progressed into full-blown stress fractures. I could barely walk for a week. So hearing Sergeant Browning's voice, obviously, is not a good thing, I'm sure. Nevertheless, I sound off.

"Hooah, Sergeant!"

"Freeman," he says to me. "Go to A-group."

"Roger, Sergeant!" I turn to move into that sparse-looking group of methadone refugees without complaint, but as I move out of earshot I let my true feelings show through.


I hate Wednesdays.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Your Tax Dollars at Work

The old recruiting posters always said, "We do more before nine a.m. than most people do all day." Ostensibly, this refers to our early morning runs in the rain and snow, but though I don't doubt the truth in that statement, I should nevertheless clarify by adding that "if you just wait 'til about ten-thirty, we'll probably top ourselves."

Second day back at the company, and this morning we're down at the motor pool. The ground is damp with last night's rain, and our mission for the day has just come down from the new section sergeant. We have to demolish an old wooden shack sitting back on the line with our platoon's trailers and flatracks. It has to be done by the end of the day, says our sergeant, so he has suggested that we get creative.

For about fifteen minutes, our squad hacks away with sledgehammers and pickaxes, but we meet with little success. The hooch is built of strong plywood, and laced with thick reams of cable and electrical wiring. After a little while with no real progress, my buddy Brooks suggests we actually take the section sergeant's advice to heart--use the trucks--and thus we offload some equipment from one of the HEMTTs and begin using its built-in hydraulic arm to smash up the hooch. We start off by repeatedly backing the truck into the structure, but of course, give a few young soldiers a toy, and they will immediately set out to break it.

Within minutes, the HEMTT--driven by Private Oz--is barreling through the mud on the back lot of the motor pool, doing doughnuts as the rest of us shout cheers and laughter. The hooch is first bowled over on its side, then crushed entirely, splintering as Oz makes repeated passes like a WWII dive-bomber on a whiskey-fueled strafing run. A young sergeant accosts us, demanding to know what we're doing. We simply explain that the section NCO told us to "use the truck," (wink, wink) and with this the sergeant backs off, though as he leaves he casts a suspicious glance toward our rowdy crew. The festivities resume.

After a few I turn to my buddy Spc. Kanelos, by now the two of us gripped by teary-eyed fits of laughter. "Shit," I tell him. "All we need now are a few cases of beer, and we've got ourselves a party."

"I know," giggles Kanelos. My colleague is literally doubled over.

"It's like a ghetto-ass monster truck rally," I say.

"Bigfoot ain't got shit on Oz."

As if to speak of the devil, Private Oswald tears by us again, and our merriment is suddenly interrupted by an interloper. A mechanic in camo-green coveralls strides over to our group, shouting. He's just another specialist like me, so I remain relaxed. Nevertheless, the mechanic, who is responsible for maintaining our fleet, is clearly unhappy.

"The fuck," he barks. "The hell y'all doin'?"

I shrug. "Sergeant told us to use the truck, man." I toss a wry glance over to Kanelos.

"Yo," he says, "that ain't right. Y'all need to check that, for real. Shit like that gonna fuck up the tires. You can't just--"

The roar of a diesel engine cuts him off. Oz comes by for yet another run, causing a loud crunch as seven tons of armored HEMMT slams into a pile of wooden debris at forty miles an hour. The suspension shrieks, and the forty-foot-long truck literally catches air, tearing up clods of mud and grass as the entire thing lands--not so much a landing as a controlled accident. As Oz goes tearing by, yanking the truck hard right for another pass, I hear him shouting, like a boozed-up redneck on a four-wheeler.


Another crunch and shudder, followed by raucous applause. The mechanic rolls his eyes and storms off. We are all so dead for this.

A seven-ton truck, an old shack, and the liberal interpretations of a sergeant's orders. Goddamnit.

I love the fucking Army.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Back On The Line

Last week marked the end of a six-month detail with the local Army law office. Since January, I'd been assigned to a desk position, providing tax assistance to local servicemen and their families. It was a decent position with flexible hours and a laid-back, but always professional work environment. I enjoyed my stint there, and in the future I may seriously reconsider changing career fields to Military Paralegal.

But of course, that's behind me now. Today, I returned after six months to my regular unit-of-action. We're part of the Corps of Engineers, and as I've mentioned before, we are currently preparing for a yearlong deployment to Iraq. Between my initial arrival to a unit already deployed, and my six month stint with the Tax Center, I've actually spent precious little time with my fellow soldiers. In addition, this has put me at a disadvantage in terms of proficiency in my specific MOS, so as the senior E-4 in my unit, the pressure has been placed on me to learn quickly and assume a leadership role. That said, even though I'm not as stimulated by the work I do back here, I'm actually glad to be back on some level.

It's evident that a lot has changed in six months. For one thing, I've been assigned a vehicle (finally). It's a HEMTT variant, basically a heavy truck meant to replace the aging "five-ton" fleets. It's used in a variety of roles, from shipping to fuel storage to missile defense. They're great machines, really--durable and easy to drive, with a reasonably comfortable crew cabin vaguely resembling the cockpit of an airplane. They can be easily retrofitted with gun-turrets, and in the case of my particular ride, can also be equipped with an up-armor suite for the cabin. And course, mine has the full work-up. Automatic transmission, double-pane ballistic glass windows, available in either Woodland Camo or Desert Tan. Seats two. Plus all-wheel drive. Standard.

I know, I know. Envy me.

Anyway, I've also been reassigned to a new squad, though my platoon is the same. Big shake-up in the NCO leadership. I'll be working with a whole new group of guys during this deployment, and I have to say, I'm pretty excited to be in this squad. I'd actually like to take a few here to write about some of them, to flesh out some characters I suspect will be making repeat appearances in this journal. Names, as always, are altered:

Spc. Ryan Brooks, 25, Oklahoma

Brooks and I go way back. We went through Basic together, and though we're from radically different backgrounds, we get along well. He's one of the few people I work with who actually addresses me by my first name. Brooks is something of a good ol' boy, but while not always the most intellectual or tactful of men, he's good at his job, and has a good heart. Brooks is also one hell of a guitar player, as well as an aspiring country crooner. His drawling tenor made him extremely popular as a performer with the drill sergeants during Basic.

Spc. Wayne Redding, 20, North Carolina:

Redding's a decent guy. He may be a little immature, and slow on the uptake, but he has good intentions. He's loyal and a hard worker, so that earns him respect in my book. Biggest flaw is that he falls in love quickly. He's been engaged twice since being in the Army, both times to girls living back in the States, and both times he got burned.

Pvt. David "Oz" Oswald, 26, Missouri

Oz is probably my closest friend in the unit. I met him when he was still a Private First Class, and he was the first soldier to really welcome me in. In his spare time, he's a master DJ, specializing in House, Break-Beats, and Trip-Hop--a true genius on the turntables. Before my wife got her sponsorship to come to Germany, Oz and I were neighbors in the barracks. Since then, we've remained tight, but sadly Oz fell into a battle with alcoholism several months ago. The resulting workplace issues have since cost him his rank, but the good news is that Oz has been three months sober and has become known as the hardest-working soldier in our platoon. I'm convinced that now, after all that has happened, Oz will regain rank and respect quickly. For all his recent troubles, Oz is a great person, and a great soldier.

Sgt. Joseph Burroughs, N/A

Like me, Sergeant Burroughs is a recent arrival from the Army Reserve. I've only really seen him once, but he seems young and inexperienced. Brooks and I have been talking, and our suspicion is that we're going to have to pick up the slack for him a bit, until he can truly step into his role as our first-line leader. Time will tell. For now, though, Sgt. Burroughs is an unknown variable.

So. Yeah. It's going to be an interesting year. I feel a little bit more settled in now, and I'm learning quickly. If I get to spend my 12 months in the desert with these guys, I think I'll be okay. I just hope I don't let them down.

Monday, July 03, 2006


As a dyed-in-the-wool hippie, it is my supreme conviction that few small pleasures in life are greater than walking barefoot on a hot summer day. The prickle of dry grass, the searing of sunlit blacktop, the coolness of freshly-mowed lawn or precious shade. It forces you to pay more attention to your environment, something which I don't think enough people these days do.

As a boy growing up on the shores of Lake Huron, I didn't have many friends, so I spent a great deal of time in solitude. This was easy for me, being a latchkey kid, and so by the time I was about ten years old, I had developed a habit of going on long strolls through my hometown and the surrounding countryside. My father, having watched "Crocodile Dundee" too many times, called these wanderings of mine "walkabouts," owing to the long stretches of time for which I would disappear. It was common for me, as a kid, to wake up early in the summers, pack a few light snacks and a beverage, and spent the entire day walking. At times, I didn't even return home until it was nearly dark

Obviously, being an active child, I went through a lot of shoes, so oftentimes rather than waste the effort treating blisters and athlete's foot, I eschewed footwear altogether. I used to cover dozens of miles a day on foot, and I rarely entered business establishments, so it wasn't usually an issue. If I needed to restock, I simply returned home briefly. That said, I realized quickly just how much we take things like shoes for granted. Shoes cut us off from the earth; they leave us ignorant of the subleties of terrain and make us clumsy. Walking barefoot during those summer days of my youth, I learned much about nature and my own ways of interacting with it. I learned how to supinate my foot when walking over hot sand; learned how to grip with my toes when climbing steep riverbanks or sandstone cliffs. Stalking wildlife through the woods near the old Air Force radar post, I learned how to walk so as to be completely silent, even in the densest underbrush. When the Lake brought sweet breezes from the North, I found myself appreciating the respite from heat more thorougly. I relished the way the wind brushed between my toes, and the way the morning dew cooled my soles.

Ultimately, I find that there's something to be said for that whole "barefoot hippie" thing. I don't much care for peasant skirts, but when I see young men with dreadlocks wandering around in windblown sarongs, I can honestly say I understand the liberation such affectations bring. Shedding those accoutrements of civilization can be refreshing, even empowering, and it can put you in touch with your world in ways you might not otherwise notice. It's about being free, about making contact with some ancient sense-memory of our long-dead ancestors. It's about reconnecting with something we've long since lost. On this long weekend, I'd encourage everyone I know to just, well, lose the shoes for a while, and see how different it feels.

Here's to being a barefoot hippie.