Continuing from my Basic and AIT post:
"Are you okay?" the flight attendant asked me, looking down to where I sat, rivers of tears cascading down my face.
I thought to myself "Do I look okay?" - but I was too wrecked to be sarcastic. I just nodded and looked back out the window of the 737, towards the windows of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. There through the windows I saw the silhouettes of my family and my closest friends.
Mere minutes ago I was standing among them, trying to be brave. I'd maintained my composure throughout my 16 days of leave. However, minutes before final boarding my mom turned to me and I saw tears in her eyes. I lost it. I boo-hoo'd down the gate and into my seat.
I was headed to Germany via Saint Louis and Detroit. All three locations were exotic in their own way. While at the Saint Louis Airport I met up with several others from my AIT class. "CR" was there - and scared. He'd missed his flight the day before! He had read 11 PM departure vs the real departure, 11AM that morning.
The flight from Saint Louis to Detroit was uneventful. DFW airport got to see a gaggle of brand-new Soldiers schlepping hundreds of pounds of duffle bags and suitcases from one end of the airport to the other. I really should have packed lighter because in as good shape as I was, I was exhausted by the time I got to my gate - wearing my Class A uniform didn't help. I later found out I wasn't required to wear the uniform - of course, this was mid way across the Atlantic from a 'seasoned' soldier who was on the plane returning to Germany from leave.
An hour or so prior to landing, I borrowed a battery-powered razor from PVT Ferry, from California, in an attempt to tidy-up.
Wow. Frankfurt International Airport. Getting off the plane I felt immediately excited and dyslexic and afraid. I could make out partial words - at least the letters (generally) made sense to me. Lugging my gear from the baggage pick up to the awaiting Army Greeters at the airport reception station I didn't really know what to ask or where they should take me. The NCOs who met us laughed with delight and a little pity as we newbies would SNAP to parade-rest when speaking to them. We'd blurt out 'Sergeant' every 10 seconds. "Sergeant, I'm from Seattle, Sergeant." "Sergeant I am a 16S - STINGER gunner". "Sergeant I am still neurotic about saying Sergeant every fifth word, Sergeant, Yes Sergeant". After about 5 minutes of hearing broken, scared, and abrupt answers from the 10 or 12 of us, the NCO said "Guys. Really. Relax. You're not in basic anymore. Just TALK to me."
My first ride in a Mercedes! This Merc was HUGE. Sat about 40 folk. I had a front window seat on the bus as we made our way across and around the airport to the adjacent Rhein Main Air Force Base. We showed up late enough in the afternoon we had to spend the night in the transition barracks. I was in a fog. Still scared, thoroughly excited I doubted I'd ever get to sleep. Fortunately Jet-lag caught me and I drifted off in my bunk. The next morning we reported - in Class A uniform still -for our processing. Myself and about 7 others were assigned to 5-3 Air Defense Artillery, 1st Armored Division, McCully Barracks, Germany.
( http://wikimapia.org/beta/#lat=49.96...18&l=0&m=b&v=1 )
Boarding a bus once again, we set out on "The" autobahn. I learned a few things on that trip. First I learned saying "On THE autobahn, in Germany…" as most Americans do, is as silly as saying "THE freeway in the USA". There isn't "A" Autobahn. It's not some exclusive, super secret or prestigious road. It's just the German word for Freeway. And like most developed countries, there are freeways everywhere. The next thing I noticed was "Ausfarht" (http://www.matchvideozine.com/ausfahrt2.jpg ) must be the BIGGEST CITY IN THE WORLD, because every off-ramp seemed to lead there. As we motored along I was struck by the sheer numbers of cars and the sheer fluidity of traffic. Some lanes had different speed limits, but everyone seemed to drive as if choreographed. The scenery wasn't completely foreign to me - lush greenery, however fairly flat. Much better than Fort Bliss at El Paso.
I don't recall what was going through my mind as I peered through the windows of the bus, but I can remember the amazement at how small of an Installation McCully was. We were dropped off right in front of the Battalion HQ and sent in to see SGT Dewey. After a few Jumps-up to Parade Rest as he walked past us, SGT Dewey said "Guys. Dudes. Knock that shit off, okay? Just relax."
"P- (and three or four others) - You're going to A Battery." We were walked from the HQ down to A Btry and inside to meet the 1SG. 1SG something-bacher was there. He looked old. His voice was high pitched with a slight southern drawl. He was sort of goofy in his talk and mannerisms. From the 1SG's office we were assigned to platoons. I was sent to 3rd Platoon (Wheel), along with one other. The others were sent to Bradley Stinger Fighting Vehicle Platoons. As the other platoons had vacancies, those soldiers were assigned directly into rooms with current platoon soldiers - 2 men to a room. I, however, and another were sent to the Transition room - a room without carpet or decoration, or even a TV. Every room, however, had it's own bathroom. We stowed our gear then met up with our Platoon Sergeant. Mine was SSG Dave Heffner. SSG Heffner was a great man. A professional NCO through and through. SSG Heffner wasn't tall - about 5'8" or so. He had a sort of Texas sound to him, with a kind demeanor. SSG Heffner assigned me to my Team Chief - SPC Brian(?) Grant. At the 1630 end of day Formation - when the Battery would gather as a whole to be dismissed - I stood at the end of the line of one of the squads in my platoon. In a platoon, the senior-most soldier stands to the far right. I was a PV2, so I was at or near the end. When the 1SG dismissed the Battery to the charge of the Platoon Sergeants SSG Heffner welcomed the newbies, then dismissed us. We new folk, upon dismissal, stood there bewildered, looking around. I asked another Soldier from the platoon "What do we do now?? Can we get out of uniform?"
He laughed "Dude. Do whatever you want."
Several new folk talked about going downtown to see the sights. I, however, chose to head back to my room for the night. I was scared to leave post - sure we weren't 'supposed to' without having a pass.
I spent the majority of nights in my room. I didn't easily make friends because of my faith/fear, frankly. Because I was alone and scared I spent every moment of free time clinging to Religion or calling my family or then-girlfriend. I really wanted somebody who knew me. I was never more alone. The Transition room was supposed to last for a few days. My stay lasted months. There never seemed to be an open space in the 'furnished, decorated rooms.
Over the next 4 months I spiraled down further and further. My uniform was never pressed enough, nor my boots shiny enough. I was no PT stud, and really felt uneasy talking to most folk. The "humor" I had growing up tended to annoy the hell out of folk. There are drug addicts who 'hit bottom' and begin to fix themselves. I hit bottom on 3 December of that year. "Brian" was one of the few friends I'd made. Brian was in D Battery, but would let me stay nights in his room so I wouldn't have to sleep in the Transition Room. Brian and I talked a lot and I think his friendship saved parts of me. SOMEBODY cared about me. Somebody wanted to hang out. The day I turned 20, nobody knew. After work I got on a bus and headed into the nearby-city of Mainz - at the bus stop I was greeted by Brian and his team chief, Vinny. Brian mentioned it was Vinny's birthday, so they were going to Chi-Chi's mexican restaurant (located in a Military Housing area near Mainz) to celebrate. Knife in the heart, my eyes dropped. Poor Brian…
"Oh my god! Darin, it's YOURS too, isn't it??? I'm sorry man - do you wanna come with us?" Being a whiner and a bit of a drama queen, I gave him the "no….(cough)…that's alright..(wheeze)…I'll be fine…you guys have fun…" I let them get off the bus and go without me. When I got off the bus at the Hauptbahnhof in Mainz ( http://wikimapia.org/beta/#lat=50.00...19&l=0&m=b&v=1 ) I had no plan. I walked across the street, past the best kabab place I've ever known, past the Das Crazy - Mainz's largest brothel, and down towards mid-town. I wanted to get lost. I was lost already, on the inside, and figured there wasn't much hope I'd ever be found. After a couple hours I headed back to McCully, distraught and at the point of tears. I felt hurt and loneliness I'd not thought possible. I was SO down I decided to try to drink. I knew I didn't like the smell of beer (as an aside, the entire 2.5 years I lived in Germany, I NEVER drank a beer. In fact, the first beer I tried was the night before I left. I'm an idiot. I know). But what could I do? I went to a little kabab stand outside the gate (where a SMOKIN' HOT lady worked, who was, unfortunately, married to a SGT in D Battery) and picked up a package of Mon-Cherri candies. In Europe (and other places) these have real rum inside. My pack contained about 5. I bit into one, hoping to start my first trip towards getting drunk. HORRIBLE. Nasty. Ugh. What could I do? I wanted to "ease the pain" but I couldn't stomach the taste. "Rum and Coke". GOOD idea! I went to the vending machine in the 1st floor kitchen area (which also sold Heineken) and picked up a coke classic. Methodically, back in my room, I cracked each candy like an egg and attempted to pour it's sugar + a modicum of rum into the opened can. I didn't get drunk. I didn't get buzzed. Worthless. I literally cried myself to sleep that night.
Sometime later Brian invited me to visit Frankfurt with him. We took the train up on Saturday, and spent that afternoon and evening sampling places to eat and the night-life. On our late ride back, there were four people in our train car including us. One of the two was a short, quiet Japanese woman. The other was a rather pissed (drunk) Britton. He was comin' on to her with everything he had. She sat in silence. After he started getting more aggressive, Brian and I moved to sit by her. We engaged the drunk in an attempt to deflect his unwanted advances to the woman. As the train stopped in Mainz, we asked the woman if she'd like us to walk her home. She agreed. Michio was her name. She walked confidently and had poise and posture of a geisha. I was quite stricken.
The next morning Brian and I went back to Michio's apartment and rang her. We were just checking in to make sure the Brit didn't follow or harass after we left. She invited us up. We spent the next several hours chatting and talking with Michio and her room mate. The 28-year-old Michio and her roommate worked as flight attendants for Lufthansa Airlines. They both worked Frankfurt to Tokyo. Both were home 2-3 nights per week. As afternoon turned to evening Michio brought me into her room to look at some photos of her family and 'other' home in Tokyo. After picture 4, she and I were going at it. This was the first 'woman' I'd kissed. Prior, I had a girlfriend or two - one long-term, whom I loved (and likely still love in some capacity) for years. But Michio was exotic. A honest-to-goodness woman. And a bit aggressive. Not TOO aggressive that night; after about 20 minutes of schmucking around, pawing and petting, we emerged to the giggles of her roommate and smiling Brian. They knew.
Within a week Brian and I had a dinner date at Michio's house. Present was another flight attendant - a man whose name I've forgotten. As the evening was winding down, Michio walked me down the stairs to leave. The lights in the stairway were on a timer. She and I walked slowly. Not even half way down, the lights shut off, and we turned on. Passionately tearing at each other right there in the stairwell. As things progressed, we moved down to the very bottom of the stairs, to hide our actions. I held her up against a wall...I felt like I was in a movie.
Over the next few weeks Michio and I met several times a week. She was very….VERY enthusiastic. She was subservient to the point I was uncomfortable at times. Eventually she asked me to move in. She said she'd give me money for a taxi every day to get to work by 0615 for Physical Training. She'd give me money for food to keep the fridge stocked. She'd not be there half the time due to her schedule, but I'd stay there to be her 'warm body' with whom to curl up and share the night. She didn't even mind if I dated other women - OR brought them there when her roommate wasn't in town - as long as I used protection with them.
My 39 year old mind tells me "That is AMAZING. PERFECT. Dude…" My 19 year old mind said - no - screamed "RUN!" I left that night, after the proposal, and never went back. I was terrified. Not of Michio. Not of living in her rather nice apartment. I was terrified because - "Living with a woman" is NOT what a "good Christian" does. Yeah, I see the hypocrite in me - I was shagging this woman a couple times a week, but to LIVE with her? OMG! SIN!. Yes…actually it all was sin - the sex and lust and stuff. For some reason, however, I wouldn't cross the line any further.
Michio became my stalker. I'd get messages to my room saying there was a 'fine' Japanese woman waiting for me at the front Gate. I'd drive through the gate and see her standing there by the phone booths, holding a gift bag or a box, at times pleading with the guards to let her in, or deliver the gift to me. The last time I saw her, she was walking through the Bahnhof in Mainz, in her Lufthansa uniform (looking STRIKINGLY Hot, by the way) boarding a train for Frankfurt. I was hiding behind a couple vending machines.
It blows my mind to some extent to realize with the passage of time, today that vibrate hormone-driven woman must be approaching 50. Yes..sometimes I wonder about the choices I've made. Generally I don't antagonize or fret, but I do think about the possibilities.
I spent my first christmas away from Family at the quarters of now PFC Ferry and his wife Andrea, CR was there - perhaps Brian, too. Xmas eve we started a game of Risk - which lasted until about 7am the next morning, as I defeated CR. Andrea and Matt were great hosts.
CR and I became good friends. He'd often visit me in the transition room. We'd chat about God, home life, and families. After several weeks, after my prompting of him to open himself up to God, he confessed he'd grown up in the church and Loved God. He said the problem he had was claiming Christ. See, CR was gay. You might imagine my shock. CR told me that every time he'd spoken of having a girlfriend back home, it was really a guy. He told me he'd struggled with this for years. From the time a family friend had molested him as a child - which went on for some time - he'd never really known how to relate to men, or to what feelings meant or how to act upon them. He tried church and youth groups and prayer and fasting, but when he saw an attractive guy, he'd feel the same, so he said, as I would upon seeing a hot woman. For him to claim christianity and continue in his sin made him the worst possible - a hypocrite.
Having grown up in a very traditional Ass. of God denomination church, I had known the 'perils' of sin and homosexuality. In addition to my church teachings, I was grown up where almost anything 'sexual' or even the word 'sex' was forbidden. I was not allowed to take sex-ed in school. Of course, being the youngest of 4 brothers, I learned about 'how that all works' from my eldest brother on night, when I was about 10. Maybe 8 or 9. I'm thankful (and a little sad) Jim broke the news to me, because my Parents hadn't. I haven't had 'that talk' with them yet. Now I'm 39 and have kids of my own, and by what you've read I eventually had a very good idea of how it worked. But here was CR - a guy I'd become close with, trained with, and yes, would die for, confessing the "worst" of all sins. I had to make a decision - to "flee" from "evil" as I thought I understood, or...to simply continue to be his friend and love him as a comrade. I chose the latter.
New Year's Eve, at the Western Bar and Disco in Wiesbaden. Lyle D. Freeman and I and a couple others were there. I was perhaps the very least attractive guy there. Not because I'm ugly, but because at that time I could dance only worse than I dressed. I had no 'game'. Still don't, frankly. I remember as the balloons fell a young thin girl with amazing lips and doll-like eyes was 'allowing' me to dance with her. At the stroke of midnight she wrapped her arms around me and we kissed. Natalie was VERY pretty. For a few days after that, she and I would go out with Lyle, and others around Mainz. Four days after our kiss, Natalie said she was more attracted to Lyle. They started dating immediately. About the 15th of January I went back to The Western with Lyle and Natalie.
(Lyle on the left)
I was walking to the restrooms, across the dance floor, when the crowd parted and there SHE was. Long blonde hair. Dimples. A smile that caused my heart to slam against my chest with all the force of a Mark McGuire Steroid-fueled home-run swing. Sandra smiled with her whole face. I was smitten at first sight. I walked back to my seat and told Natalie and Lyle who I'd seen. Turned out Natalie knew her and invited her to sit with us. For the next 30 minutes I was fumbling and goofing and weirding through broken conversation. My first question was…how old are you? I suppose it didn’t matter…here she is at a bar, drinking and smoking beside me. Next question - seriously - was this "So…what does your dad do (for a living)?" She looked at me…and said…"uh…." and that was that.
[chris farley head smack and voice = on] IDIOT[/voice].
By some stroke of grace and wonder she allowed me to drive her home. Before we headed home we had to drop off one of her friends. In the elevator riding up to her friend's place (friend was very drunk - Sandra and I carried her), Sandra was standing just in front of me. I can't believe I had the courage, but I couldn't resist. I reached down and gently grabbed her right butt cheek, giving a soft squeeze then release. Sandra audibly giggled. Down a few autobahns and back roads and we arrived in Nackenheim. She lived with her parents, in a basement studio apartment, at the end of Sunsweiler Weg past a long drive way and line of townhomes. She kissed me there at her door, and gave me her phone number.
One week after a couple more dates, Sandra introduced me to her parents. Bernard and Silvia were non-english-speaking but AMAZINGLY welcoming and full of excitement. Bernie was gregarious and dramatic. As he'd babble on saying God knows what, I felt I was being preached to (NOT in a condescending way - but in the fluidity of voice and rise and fall of tone and volume.). Silvia was much quieter, however, but smiled constantly.
The next week, on a Friday, Sandra had asked I stay the night. I was petrified, but accepted. That night we began an intimate relationship which would last years. I was in love. Instantly and completely. Our first time was NOT magical, however, not per se. In fact, it was rather clumsy. I was scared. She was annoyed. But…she liked me. For some reason. :)
The next morning. About 7:30 or 8am, I awake to find Sandra already up. She was just walking back into the room fully dressed. "Come on, lazy!" she said with a jab. "My mom went to the store so we'd have fresh brochens." Talk. About. Awkward. I dressed then fearfully walked up stairs to the main living area. Her parents greeted me warmly. The awkwardness was mine, and mine alone. Here was I - an American Soldier who had just spent the night with their 16 year old daughter and they are serving me BREAKFAST afterwards. After a couple brochens with cheese and meat, Silvia poured me a large glass of milk. They drank 3.8% fat Milk. Creamy was putting it mildly. After I put down the half-finished glass Silvia scolded me gently. She gave me some sort of instructions in broken english and german. Something about…what did she say??? Sandra laughed "She said to finish your milk, it's good for Potency." Wow.
After about two weeks of dating Sandra, while driving downtown Mainz, I turned in front of a 928 Porsche which hit me broadside. In February of 1993, while driving home from Sandra's place I had my 1987 Acrua Integra steady about 110mph. The car was floating. I came over a small rise and into an over-pass. I'm unsure what happened, but instantly the left side of my car was being mashed against a jersey barrier, then back across the lanes of traffic to the opposite guard rail.
After two wrecks in 6 months, my Commander revoked my driving privileges. For the next year or so, my moving about was regulated to public transportation. At first I was destroyed - but the exposure to the culture was pretty slick, really. Riding busses and trains I met very interesting folk, learned the ins and outs of the transportation system and developed confidence in my abilities to navigate through the country.
One trip to visit Sandra I was running late. I jumped aboard at the last minute without buying a ticket. A bit unusual - the conductor came around collecting tickets. Generally, on the odd-occasion I'd get asked for a ticket, he'd sell one to me (Or she - they rotated trains). This particular gentleman would have nothing of it - no matter how 'dumb american' I played. I was booted off the train about 5 or 6 miles from Sandra's City. I walked. Lesson Learned. From then on, when I was on board a train without a ticket, and I spied the conductor, I'd move to the bathroom and ride-out the trip there. :)
I showed up to Sandra's one day forgetting she had to head to school with her mom that evening for an event. Sandra told me her Dad was having a few friends over that evening. My self-imposed mission was to be inconspicuous. After sandra and Silvia had left, I was watching RTL -German langue TV - "Alf". I heard a voice beckon,
"Dhair-rin! Come! Come-Up!"
I meekly walked to the top of the stairs and entered the foyer of the living area. Bernie was there smiling (his daughter shared his grin). He was holding his hands open, directing me to the dining room table, where each chair - save one - was filled with a smiling German. I was introduced - most spoke english to some degree. I remember Bernie asking me something in German - I missed most of what he said. My reply was "Sprechen Sie Bitte langsam" - or, Please speak slowly."
The table erupted in laughter. I got sholder slaps from the folk next to me. "Sie?" I heard someone ask Bernie. They were ribbing him for "making" me call him "Sie" which was the formal 'You'. Bernie, red-faced, "gave me permission" to call him Du - the casual 'you'. "Spricht Du langsam, bitte".
Towards the end of the evenng Bernie brought out shot glasses set atop 7" bases/stems. Then Bernie produced a clear corked bottle with grease-pencil markings. "Kirschwasser" and "40%".
I thought to myself "This must be the GOOD stuff". We all 'prost!'-ed and I took the glass to my lips. I shot it. As the evilness was cresting my gums I looked to see every other person there was sipping. "Bad move" I though. In fact, I assumed those would be the last words I ever thought as the fire began to burn down my face and throat. My eyes watered, my face turned red and I started a fit of caught - which sent the company into rolls of laughter. Many MANY slaps on the back and hand shakes later everyone departed. Bernie hugged me.
In the early stages of my career, the Army was what I did – not who I was, or so I thought. I wasn’t a model soldier from the get-go. I felt alone. I was out of my element for many of the reasons listed above.
After months in the transition room I finally found a ‘home’. SPC Klein – who worked in the battery training office, kept a room in the barracks, but didn’t stay in the barracks – he lived out on the economy. He volunteered to let me stay in his room, up on the 2nd floor. I jumped at the chance. SPC Klein was hardly there, he told me to make myself at home, just don’t be blastin’ the hell out of his stereo. I blasted the hell out of it. One evening I got caught, actually. Thinking Klein had left, I cranked up the bass and was showing off to a friend – probably Lyle. After a few minutes Klein came in and told me in no uncertain terms to KNOCK THAT ST off!. I was humbled. As an aside, when Klein left the Army, his stereo and other belongings were packed and shipped. I had left a (dating myself here) “Cassette Tape” in his player. I placed a $5 bill in an envelope and a note asking for him to ship it back to me. Was the last I heard from Klein until about 18 months ago when I got an email out of the blue. Seems his now wife was going to be needing a large bag, so while emptying out one of his old duffel bags, my envelope fell out. Here’s the note [link will be added later] (spelled his name wrong and everything) Klein forwarded to me after scanning it. Klein is now doing very well with a great family in the Dallas, TX area. I’m very glad I left that note, because it was great to hear from him after all these years.
I joined the Battery’s Flag Football team looking for camaraderie. I was regulated to a ‘blocker’ – which had nothing to do with blocking because the rules dictated we can’t touch opponents, only ‘get in their way’ as they tried to get the flags of the Quarterback. One morning I woke – at Brian’s place – and saw rain. I knew practice would be cancelled so I went back to sleep. About an hour later I heard a knock on the door. PFC Scott Cole was there – a guy from AIT. Scott was…intense. Scott had seen it all, done it all, or know somebody who had. When we talked cars, Scott had a supercharged mustang back in Texas. When we talked Car audio, Scott had a couple 15” subs in the back of his mustang. When we talked women, Scott had done them all. Yes. Every single one.
Scott told me I was ‘busted’ and I was to report to SSG Livingston – acting Platoon Sergeant to explain why I missed formation. At first SSG Livingston listened to me try to fumble excuses about me ‘not being able to find’ where practice was. After several minutes I just said “Sergeant – the truth is, I saw the rain and thought I could get away with it (not showing up)”. He fought back a little laughter. My punishment was to clean and mop the platoon office that evening.
For those who joined the Army, perhaps at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) they were allowed to watch a produced video explaining their Military Occupational Specialty. I didn’t however – not for this job. I spent my days to or from the Motorpool, or the platoon office. In the former, we’d do Preventive Maintenance Checks and Services to our vehicles. Then, after that 40-45 minutes (or 10 minutes if the vehicles hadn’t even MOVED in the last week or so), we’d do one of a couple things. Being knew, I was sent to the motorpool office for things like ‘a box of gridsquares’ or ’50 feet of shoreline’ or the occasional trip to the Communications section for ‘liquid Squelch’. The remainder of the motorpool time was spent aligning and re-aligning vehicles, sweeping the line, or sitting in one or two of the trucks BSing. I loved the bs’n in the motorpool times. It was then I was able to connect. Most of the stories centered around ‘remember when….(in the field) so-and-so did (insert goofy action)’. Speaking of field exercises, let me dish out a tip to prospective Soldiers. If you decide to join the Army for one term, then get out, do yourself a favor and pick a dirty job. Pick a grunt job.
Pick a job where you might deploy and not shower for weeks at a time. Without fail, those jobs create the best stories. It’s like this – while you are in the field, everything sucks. I remember stories of guys in Bradley’s breaking the track that runs along either side of the “tank”. Generally the track would break while the Bradley was on a steep incline, at 0-dark-30 in the morning, during a freezing monsoon type rain. When the Bradley would get repaired, and head back to the HQ, those in the HQ would brag “Ha-hah! While you were out there in the rain and wind and cold, I was here playin’ Playstation!” Likewise, the soldiers doing the repair would bitch about how nasty and horrible it was. Weeks later, the unit would return to it’s station.
Then…something magical and wonderful would happen
The Soldiers who spent their time getting cold and dirty became rock stars. Stories would ring through the motorpool such as “Dude!! It was AWESOME…there we were, FREEZIN’ our A$$es off – it was raining and muddy! Smith there had the pry bar and was trying to get that piece of track lined up when BAM! It snapped off and he rolled down the hill! Man, it was awesome…Then…THEN…Opfor (Opposing Force – US Soldiers playing the enemy during exercises) showed up and Sturgil was on the 25mike-mike tearin’ It up while we were on the other side tryin’ to fix that track! Man it was cool!”
And for the HQ guys…”Dude. That blew. I spent a MONTH in a tiny-ass room stuck in front of a playstation.”
So – trust me on this – for your first, or ONLY enlistment, pick a Grunt job. Infantry. Short Range Air Defense. Armor. Cavalry. Combat Engineer. Field Artillery. If you move on in your career, then pick something useful to the outside world. Doing things in that order will ensure you get plenty of cool stories, the maximum amount of college and other monies (Combat Arms type jobs offer more benefits typically), and the satisfaction of knowing no matter how bad your cubical gets – it’s NEVER as bad as breaking track on a Bradley on the side of a hill.
During one visit to the motorpool, very early on, I met SFC Lopez. SFC Lopez changed my life in a couple ways. One morning I was standing there at Parade Rest – due to his presence – he walked over to me and said, “Hey P- – do you know what ‘Relative Humidity’ is?” As I fumbled through the barometric answer he stopped me. “No…it’s the sweat that forms on your sister’s back when you’re F*$King her.” I didn’t know what to say or do. Sensing my tension, he said “It’s okay if you laugh, man.” That was the first change for me. Here was a senior Noncommissioned Officer being “a guy.” Not some magical or mystical bastion of intense duty. Not to say he wasn’t committed to his duty – SFC Lopez was perhaps the best motor sergeant I’d ever served with – but SFC Lopez really liked people. He was open to correct a young soldier for the soldier’s sake – not his own. SFC Lopez became a model for me of the kind of leader I wanted to be. He’s in my ‘top 5’ of NCOs I’d most like to emulate. The afore-mentioned Dave Heffner is on that list too.
The second way I changed - SFC Lopez greeting everyone, regardless of the time of day with “ ‘mornin’!”. He’d smirk when people would laugh and say, as if declaring who shot Kennedy, “Hey! It’s AfterNOON!!! Silly! Hah!”. That was SFC Lopez’s way of controlling people I suspect. He’d get them to say that – almost to a man. I can’t stop doing that now. It’s the only greeting I use.
The other side of our training was “Stinger knowledge and Visual Aircraft Recognition”. In both of those areas I was at or near the top of my platoon. For as much of a doofus as I was, and as incapable of not being a dork, during the Knowledge Testing and Aircraft Rec, I kicked major butt. At our first evaluation I scored 100% on both tests, and 100% on Stinger Crew Drills. My platoon Sergeant then – SFC Hamilton (another of my Top NCOs) – was thrilled. He mentioned the possibility of an Army Achievement Medal (never saw it, don’t know what happened). My team chief at the time – SGT…I can’t believe his name escapes me. I can SEE his face. If I get it, I’ll come back – was very happy with me. During the “Land Navigation” phase, I still hadn’t earned my HMMWV license so he drove while I navigated across the countryside and through the tiny surrounding villages. Land Nav came easy to me, and I directed him to EVERY location we had to get to. At each location was a code, or the image of an Aircraft – something unique. At times the targets were as close as 50 meters, so the plotting of our coordinates had to be precise. We hit our targets and made it back to the start point 10 minutes before the next team. SGT was very happy with me. He looked good. Look what ‘He’ had done with Pemberdoofus!
Good test and skill scores aside, I wasn’t a prized Stinger Gunner. In fact, I was bounced around a time or two. As people left the platoon, and I made rank – was promoted to Specialist in Jan of 1994 – I was given a new Team Chief. SGT Alonzo Kelly was the best thing to happen to my career. From the get-go, SGT Kelly welcomed me. Shortly after being assigned to me, he visited me in my barracks room. SGT Kelly sat me down and told me he didn’t care about the past. The good and the bad are now gone. All we have is right now and the future. He laid things out for me in a way which I got. He told me the importance of not only getting good scores on tests, but the importance of LOOKING like a professional. In very plain English he told me about perception. The perception of P- around the battery, among the leadership, wasn’t positive. I was a liability of sorts. SGT Kelly was convinced they were wrong, however. SGT Kelly know our TEAM would be fantastic if we worked together. My job was to keep him informed at ALL times. My job was to execute what he wanted done – and if the job was big, he’d absolutely pitch in because we were a TEAM.
Sitting down with me like that – and the daily leadership SGT Kelly provided struck a cord with me. Finally the light inside me clicked on. I got it. I learned accolades don’t just happen – they are earned. And even if accolades don’t arrive, there is an amazing satisfaction from doing or being the right thing. For being the best you can possibly be.
I thrived under SGT Kelly’s leadership in the few months we were a team. My uniforms never looked better. My boots were shiny enough to use as a mirror. I was on-time, looking sharp, with my hair cut. I didn’t want to fail in any task because SGT Kelly was counting on me – and I wouldn’t let him, or my team, down.
Shortly thereafter, however, SGT Kelly was moved up to Section (Squad) Sergeant. Under him was another SGT, a few of us SPCs, and a couple PVTs. A few weeks later we were due in replacement Soldiers – fresh from AIT and Fort Bliss. There were three SPCs of my approximate date of rank – however all were promoted before me. SGT Kelly announced one of us would get a Gunner, and be a Team Chief. SGT Kelly said he hadn’t made his decision, but would be watching the three of us the next few days to see who had ‘it’. I desperately wanted that position, but I didn’t know how to be better. I didn’t have a scope of responsibilities which allowed for much initiative or improvement. I was sure he’d go by what happens most every time – the ranking Soldier gets the job.
One evening after his announcement, SGT Kelly told the squad about an upcoming inspection of our platoon vehicles. The squad who was responsible for the platoon 5-ton truck wasn’t around, but the truck desperately needed maintenance and cleaning. I stepped forward and volunteered to look after the truck. I performed and documented the truck’s maintenance, and after work that night I made arrangements to get the steam cleaner to the underside. MUCH to my surprise I noticed a familiar figure there in the motorpool, also dressed in wet-weather gear. It was SGT Kelly. He and I spent several hours – until nightfall – cleaning that truck and getting it ship-shape.
Within a day or two SGT Kelly was addressing the squad, introducing the new Soldiers. When he got to PVT Jamison Johnson he said, almost as an aside, “And PVT Johnson, your team chief will be…Specialist P-…” I nearly fell over. I could feel my chest puff a little bit. My head went a little higher. SGT Kelly continued “You know – the other night while the rest of you were out doing whatever you want – drinking beer or going out, or being with your families, Specialist P- and I were pressure-washing a nasty dirty 5-ton. It wasn’t HIS 5-ton to wash, yet P- stayed there until nearly 8pm with me, cleaning and scraping to ensure we passed that inspection. It’s that kind of commitment I’m looking for in a Team Chief. It’s that sense of duty. Congratulations, P-.
Things weren’t always roses with Sandra. With much passion comes much drama. I was fighting my upbringing to a large extent. While I knew it was wrong to live with her, as I basically did (with the occasional night in the barracks as work required), there were aspects of her I certainly feared more than her physical temptation. Sandra didn’t have any use for God. She thought of God as a fictional character to a large degree. As she and I grew closer our future together pointed towards a crossroads. One day we were fighting about something. I went to the dresser and started grabbing my stuff and putting it in a large bag. As I would put clothes in, she’d take clothes out. We went on for about 3 minutes before I turned to her and she jumped me. In a very very very very very good way.
We had the occasional break-up, however. There were times when I’d go weeks without seeing her. It was usually during those times I’d revert to my Faith. Without Sandra I had no guilt to keep me from God. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, I know – but that’s how it was.
While I’d lost my girlfriend I eventually got my driver’s license back. I honestly cannot remember how or why, but at one point I drove 90 or so miles to Mannheim, Germany to attend a church event. The occasion featured a guest speaker I had never heard as well as a choir. As the choir rose to sing I spied an angelic face in the group. She was on the short-side of the mid 5 foot range. She had brown hair. Dimples. Doe eyes. When she smiled as she sang I got goosebumps.
After the concert I approached her as she was walking out of the church. I introduced myself in German, she caught my accent and answered in English. Her name was Zeljka and I was SURE she was The One. We chatted for a few minutes – talking about where we came from and how we got to Germany. She and her family left Bosnia because of the growing violence in the region, if I recall. Zeljka and her friend (and roommate) – whose name I regretfully forget – were going downtown for coffee and invited me. We talked through the night. As we were leaving Zeljka ran across the street to a young woman (in her 20s I’d guess) and they embraced. Now..Sandra and Michio and Zeljka were attractive women. THIS woman (again I can’t get her name) was STUNNING. I’ll call her She. She was from Hungary. Perhaps 5’8” tall, athletic body and long full brown hair. I’m serious when I say she is the most-attractive woman I’ve ever been close to without being pepper-sprayed or issued a no-contact-order. But…after the talking about, and having just come from Church with Zeljka and her friend I was on my best (read: Non-oogling) behaviour. For a few more hours we 4 walked and talked. Yes, it occurred to me I was the sole Man among 3 Attractive women. As it was getting late, we concluded our evening. I offered to drive the girls’ home in my ‘rocken’ Mazda 626 Coupe (like this one: http://images.onesite.com/my.telegra...oupe_1986_.jpg
First we dropped She off at her hotel – as She was only in town for a few weeks. She gave me her card as she exited and said “I know it’s a long drive for you, after you drop off the others, you’re welcome to spend the night in my room.”. My. Gawd. My Heart Sank. I Know I Am Misusing Capital Letters But I Am Trying To Make A Point. YES! HOLY GOD YES!
“Oh – that is wonderful of you, but I should better get back to base tonight.” came out of my mouth. I didn’t want pretty Zeljka to know I was a bit of a manwhore. With that, She closed the door and walked off. I never heard from She, nor saw She again. Zeljka later told me She was a news-show host and spokes model type, on TV, back in Hungary.
I visited with Zeljka several times – in fact, some weekends I slept over – on the floor of their apartment. One trip back with the Mazda’s speedometer firmly on 115mph or so I heard a POP! And the engine died. A trail of black smoke and oil followed. Using the roadside emergency phones the German version of AAA showed up within an hour. Not only did he call for a truck for me, he drove me home – back to the barracks. I never received a bill. God Bless Horrendous taxes the germans pay, eh? Having no car I had no Zeljka. It wasn’t but about a week after I lost my car that I called Sandra. She and I got things sorted out (go figure) nearly immediately.
Again carless I was back to busses and trains to visit Sandra. Every night I’d make the trip – getting to her about 6:00 or so, based on leaving work at 4:30-5. On nights I had guard-duty or other late-workings, Sandra would sleep over in the barracks. Our relationship felt closer and stronger than ever. Maybe distance really did make the heart grow fonder.
Our installation had no Military Police or guard personnel. Thus, each Battery would rotate as “Duty Battery” responsible to field a guard force and other post-wide manpower requirements. I was selected regularly. In fact, everyone was. One possible get-away from having to pull duty was to be “Super Numero” (no idea where that title originated). The Super Numero would be the one soldier – always a non-NCO – who had the outstanding uniform during the initial inspection of the guard. We privates and specialists worked tirelessly for that title because that person would be free from any guard shifts for the 24 hours, except to lower the flag at 1700, and raise it again the following morning at 0630. I spent the entire evening before starching and re-starching my battle dress uniform. I had it so completely stiff It’d nearly stand on it’s own. When I’d move it from the ironing board to the hanger I heard a ‘woka-woka’ sound like heavy cardstock in the wind. And then there was my boots. My boots were amazing. I had Leg boots (Standard issue boots from basic training) with rubber ‘sawtooth’ soles. I swapped to the new soles simply because they looked cooler than the standard lug sole. Picture these soles, but black: http://www.uscav.com/prodinfo/images/20666.jpg
As for the toes of my boots – seriously, I could see colors reflected. It was like looking at a dark tinted mirror. No fancy gimmicks – just LOTS of standard black Kiwi, my own Spit, and polish rag made from an Army-issue brown T-shirt. I learned in AIT one fundamental guideline to follow when shining boots. The shiner is NOT shining the leather – he/she is shining the polish. More Polish. Even More. I’d dump polish on my boot until it cracked when I wore them – then, I’d put MORE polish on. These leg boots were magnificent. Toes and heels spit-shined to a mirror finish, sides and uppers spit shined to a high gloss.
During my inspection I stood confidant. SSG Young was the Sergeant of the Guard and conducting the inspection. When he got to my boots he asked “Is that leather-luster, P-?” (see: http://www.leatherluster.com ). “No Sergeant – that’s Kiwi and hard work!” I replied. “Buhhhhhhhl shit!” he said smiling and reached down with a key.
My heart SANK as he SCRAPED.
“Well damn! That IS kiwi!!” he marveled. I thought “Thanks a lot, jerk for putting that gouge in my boots!”
I won Super Numero that day. I was elated. Back to my room – I was not allowed to leave post – I flipped on the TV, then played some Nintendo. As 1700 approached I did something stupid. I put on one of my regular, non-pressed uniforms. When I got to the place for the flag detail SSG was appalled. “How the hell you gonna show up looking rag-bag after that uniform this morning?” he lit into me. I was immediately put on shift. I had a 4 hour shift in the motor pool, followed by another 4 at a side gate. Lesson learned, SSG Young. Got it.
There are two types of Soldier (THE QUICK AND THE DEAD!! ARGGGGGH!!!) – sorry, Army combatives /bayonet training kicked in! (What makes the grass grow?!! BLOOD AND GUTS!!”) – two types of Soldier. “Field Soldiers” and “Garrison Soldiers.” Field Soldiers, as you can imagine, thrived in a field environment. These Soldiers generally had less-than-impressive uniforms or hair cuts or grooming while at home station, but once they deployed for an exercise, they are the type that would storm the enemy machine gun nest. They’d shout “DO THE VILLAGE!!” as they charged into a mock Urban Terrain site. Field Soldiers wore equipment they NEEDED – and no more. They thrived on all things tactical. They were unstoppable. Garrison Soldiers were models. They were glam. They thrived on tacti-COOL gear attached to their uniforms and harnesses. In the field they’d bitch and moan and cry about being dirty. They’d fail at most of their tasks because they were scared. I strived to become the former – and honestly did a pretty good job of balancing the two.
During one field problem in Hohenfels Germany, at the Combined Manuever Training Center, I was paired with another SPC for a few of the missions. SPC Jose Sanchez was from south texas. He had the persona and voice of a surfer from LA. He was slick. SPC Sanchez and I were to deploy out of the back of a Bradley Stinger Fighting Vehicle to engage aircraft. Before the most particularly interesting mission we had, we were briefed to watch out for Army UH1 Iroquois helicopters (as an aside, the army does NOT have any ‘Hueys’ in the fleet despite what you see in movies). The helicopters were to be brown and flying low and into our position. They were to represent Soviet HIND helicopters (see: Red Dawn – although I think those were Pumas mocked up…but whatever). As Sanchez and I set up our fighting position just below the top of a ridgeline we heard the familiar whomping of the UH1s. We ran to our firing position and I readied the missile. As the helo approached on-coming I acquired Missile ‘tone’ with my Stinger Simulator, and went through our firing procedures. As it approached Sanchez gave the (correct) order to Engage. BANG! A noise and smoke device came out the back to simulate a launch. The Helo swerved wildly at seeing our “engagement” and departed back over the ridge. Sanchez and I were ecstatic! Back at the Bradley we were High-fiving the Bradley crew when across the valley we say a trail of smoke. It was an Observer Controller (usually an Army Major as an expert in the field) hauling ass towards our position. In no time the LTC was out of his truck and cussing and yelling and DEMANDING to know who just killed the Commander of CMTC, a few Press, and VIPs who were there to observe training. Sanchez and I stood tall. When asked how we felt about killing a General officer I replied “Sir, I would hope a General officer would know better than to fly into a battle field in an enemy helicopter, approaching low and fast towards the area I am charged to defend WITHOUT prior coordination.”
The LTC was speechless. He stammered a bit…then said he supposed we did what we were supposed to do, in that case. He drove off befuddled, I stood proud. The next morning he was back to observe how we engage ‘real’ targets. Sanchez and I launched SIX “missiles” at aircraft with our Stinger Simulators (which fired lasers at targets attached to the helicopters). I KNOW I hit those helicopters but not once did their whoopee-lights start (the signal vehicle was ‘dead’). The LTC Popped live Flares with each “launch” to simulate the missile rising and giving the Helo crew a bit of authenticity. 0 Kills but the LTC reported back, during the after action review, he was VERY pleased with the ‘multiple active engagements’ he witnessed by our team.
Coming back from Hohenfels, however, making that trip back to McCully barracks, changed my life forever.
I was on the convoy back from Hohenfels with about a platoon-sized element of A Btry. I don't recall most of those there except CPL Stevens (thin, black man - worked in Commo). Just past Nurnburg we came upon an over-turned 5-ton along the side of the autobahn. As we approached I got on the radio "Stop-Stop-Stop! They're americans!" When I stopped my HMMWV on the shoulder I sprinted back to the scene. German Paramedics were around the truck, as was a crowd of on-lookers. Thankfully I had picked up a good deal of the german language from Sandra. I was able to make conversation and coordination with the responders and medics. I shared with the others there were two known occupants inside, then moved in front of the truck, noticing a gap just below the hood, between the truck and the ground. I remember low-crawling under the truck to look for the occupants. I was greeted by a SGT on his back, forehead skin peeled back some. He was incoherant but conscious. I grabbed him by the shoulder and told him "were americans. We're here. It'll be okay." I could smell fuel and feel fluid everywhere. Occasionally we'd see sparks.
Luckily, we had a wrecker with us, so we were able to hook to the
undercarriage of the truck and lift it about 2 feet. We couldn't go much higher because the wrecker was a 5-ton, too - in fact, we had by-standers perched up on the front bumper of the wrecker to try and provide a modicum of counter weight. I was called out from under the truck while they attempted a lift. As the truck got a little more clearance i went back under and was able to position myself under the SGT and sort of wiggle him out to the waiting paramedics. At one point the front of the wrecker started raising up off the ground! Dozens of bystanders and other Soldiers rushed to climb on it, in an attempt to act as a counter-weight.
As the man I helped bring out was being put into the ambulance I looked down at my right hand to see it painted with blood and what seemed like pieces of flesh. CPL Stephens, and this is why I remember him being there, walked with me to the medic and helped me wash it off. The driver of the vehicle, however, was still there. He was trapped by the weight of the under-seat batteries. There are 4 batteries in a 5-ton, if I recall. I'd guess each weighs 50lbs. The driver was screaming and moaning for most of the event. Myself and a german paramedic grabbed the seat and pulled up in an attempt to allow room to remove the driver. As they got the driver out, and turned him face up we saw his Army-issue "Birth Control" classes had shattered. The glass, unfortunately, filled his eyes, sort of like a snow-cone.
The first man was airlifted to a hospital - a helicopter landed right there on the freeway. I walked to the bird along side his stretcher - MASH style. When we got there, he looked up at me and a single tear rolled down his cheek. I put my hand on his shoulder and said "Sergeant...you'll be fine." He flew away. The driver of the 5-ton was driven away.
Moving back along we ensured there had been nobody had been in the back of the truck - we found the dispatch and some personal gear which we secured. One thing we noticed - the Truck did not have a proper 'dispatch' - wasn't properly authorized to leave post. I remember looking at one of the kevlars the soldiers had with them containing a literal puddle of blood. We dumped it there along side the road and headed back for our installation.
When we got back to McCully a group was waiting for us. One SFC was passionately telling us how we'll get screwed because none of our leadership would put us in for the Soldier's Medal. Now, I'm not sure what we did would have met THAT criteria...But eventually their battalion commander sent down "Certificates of Achievement" to us which read:
Meritorious achievement during the recovery and evacuation of two B Co, 501st FSB Soldiers involved in an automobile accident. Your actions allowed for the quick medical evacuation of both soldiers and very likely, saved their lives. This reflects great credit upon..." yadda yadda yadda.
The reason I know the citation is because it's the only Army award I keep in my office/cubical. Now..yeah, I get it...a f'in COA. People get COA's for...doing a good police call. As silly as the level of award may be, it's the only award where I really feel I 'did' something, ya know? Sure, i've got a couple ARCOMS and whatever - but with being able to provide a service to those two Soldiers - that was special to me.
I frequently search for news archives for July 94 and often google the unit and their Commander's name in the case I might find out what really happened and how those soldiers recovered.
That's all I have so-far. I'm not even sure where to go from here - I have more of Germany, then while in the National Guard, and in Korea. Someday I may complete the story - still not sure.