An Army Wife's Life

Once upon a time I was a college student, then I was a teacher, and now I'm a mother. Technically, I'm currently a freelance writer... but really I am an ARMY WIFE. Expect to find... funny (at least to me) anecdotes, thoughts about la vida military, hopes, anxieties, dreams, commentaries on current events.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Aid to Katrina Victims in Temple, TX

A brief break from the narrative:

I just got off the phone with the Salvation Army. Some families fleeing Katrina are coming to Temple, TX. Some of them need blankets, food (especially baby food), clothing (especially baby clothing), and personal hygiene items.

I'm working with the Junior League of Bell County to get some of these items to them.

If you are in the area, please consider helping. The Temple Salvation Army office is at 2604 West Avenue M.

If you are not anywhere near the areas that were hit, you can still help. Michael at A Word From the Right has a list of organizations who are helping to provide relief.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Family Day and Graduation Day!

Finally, two months and change after I dropped DH off in Massachusetts, I was able to see him again. I flew into Atlanta on Tuesday, Nov. 11 and picked up my rental car. At the rental car agency, I ran into an army major who provided all sorts of useful information. I lost his name and address before I could write a thank you note, unfortunately. After a two-hour drive to Columbus, I checked into the La Quinta hotel.

Early Wednesday morning, I set out to find Fort Benning. At Sand Hill, I waited with other family members for family day ceremonies to begin. Each platoon marched in singing cadences, some funny ("put me in a barber's chair, spun me round I had no hair; the army life is not style, they've got me looking like Gomer Pyle"), some eerie, others downright creepy ("kill the enemy and take his soul, so early in the morning").

I was toward the back and couldn't even tell DH apart from the other bald-headed, uniformed men. When the platoons shouted their names, Renegades (DH's), Wolf Pack, Mad Dogs, and Rough Riders, I could at least tell which group was his. After this very brief display, DH was mine for the day!

I kept double-checking to make sure I had the right soldier. While he wasn't completely bald, DH's "high and tight" haircut made me feel like I had a new husband! The haircut is a lot of fun to touch. DH also lost a bit of weight and was wearing camouflage throughout family day. Due to too many Vietnam movies, he looked most like a soldier when his dogtags occasionally peaked out of his green shirt.

I had rented a car and we set out to explore Columbus. Over the next few days, we covered every inch of the two main blocks of Columbus and the area surrounding our hotel. There is a surprisingly robust counter-culture in the area, and we quickly settled into the local coffee shop, "The Fountain." The men were still not permitted to drink alcohol or smoke so you can imagine how many joined us there for their caffeine fix and internet access. DH was very excited about this opportunity to drink coffee and read the newspaper.

These two blocks also included a barbecue, a brewpub, Caribbean food, a used bookstore ("Judy Bug's Books," run by a man who LOVES the Wizard of Oz and can't wait to travel to New York to see "Wicked," you connect the dots), and access to the riverwalk and historic district. Outside of these blocks, you can find "Ranger Joe's" (where we picked up some supplies for DH); strip malls; and, of course, strip clubs.

DH's actual graduation was a lot shorter than I had anticipated. One of the drill sergeants immediately recognized me (DH had my pictures up in his locker) and directed me to the best vantage point. We heard the soldiers before we could see them. Finally, they marched onto the blacktop. There were speeches, and a short parade, and then we were allowed to go meet the men. DH was so handsome in his Class A's (uniform equivalent to a suit) and I was so excited to spend a second day with him. I knew I would have to return him again to the barracks at night but after two months I was grateful for anything I could get!

On the third day, I had another taste of the Army's capriciousness. On Friday, DH needed to report to headquarters and then he was supposed to get a weekend pass. While most of the new soldiers were going on to AIT (advanced training for enlisted soldiers), DH and a group of others were waiting around for the next OCS class, which would begin in early January.

I was not expecting a call until noon but the phone rang at 6:30 am. DH's drill sergeant suggested that the presence of a group of anxious wives might speed-up the paperwork. The women arrived to drive the men to headquarters. Just as we were about to leave, a drill sergeant ran out to us to announce that there would be no pass. The men were to report by 1300 hours and then they would be on "lock down" until Christmas exodus. We were in shock. We had no idea why they would do this; the men didn't even begin OCS until January 5. There seemed to be no possible justification for this decision.

Still hopeful that things might change, we left to spend a few more hours with our men and then converged on headquarters at 1300 hours. There were a few jokes about sending one of the officer candidates in first with his newborn baby. The men went to see what the afternoon would bring and the women exchanged contact information. One candidate working at OCS headquarters informed us that there was at least a possibility of seeing the men in the evening on the base. A few of us ran off to the base lodging to get rooms, just in case our men would be allowed to see us but only on the base.

In the end, the candidates were granted their passes, and I spent a heavenly weekend with DH. One night the OCS candidates and wives/girlfriends went out to a pretty good Mexican restaurant. While we were there, the waitress's soldier boyfriend proposed! We left her our best wishes and a nice tip. The base lodging turned out to be pretty cheap and clean. The visit ended too soon and I returned to the realities of my empty studio.

Reality also had a few tricks up its sleeve as well. I returned on a Sunday and went to work the following Monday. When I went to drive to work on Tuesday, my car was missing! At first I thought perhaps that, tired, I had parked in the wrong spot and the owner of that spot had my car towed. No such luck. The car was stolen. The police officer told me that even ancient Honda's with a lot of miles are often stolen for their parts. Apparently, my New Rochelle apartment was just a mile away from some of the most notorious chop shops in the Bronx.

With life so up in the air, I had no intention of buying an expensive car but I began to look at used cars. We had no theft on the Honda because we never thought it would be stolen.
I called the American Red Cross to get a message to DH. He still had no phone privileges but that is how you get "emergency" messages to soldiers who are incommunicado due to their "mission."

Of course, this was not a true emergency but, given that his mission was to sit around in Georgia and wait, I thought they might pass it on.

They did and DH called just as I was looking at a car. When I told him that I was looking at a "new" car, he got upset...but I quickly clarified that I meant "another" car and was only looking at inexpensive cars. Within a couple of days, DH and I became the proud owners of an outrageously teal but very functional '93 Saturn, which he did not see for another couple of months.

WARNING! UNSOLICITED ADVICE: In relating this story, it reminds me of the need to communicate with your spouse before he or she leaves for training or deployment. DH and I had briefly discussed "What if something happens to the car?" but had not made any real decisions. Chances are, as a military spouse you will have to make at least one major financial or life decision when your spouse is unavailable. Sit down and make a list (What if I get accepted to a graduate school far from post/before you know your assignment? What if the kids need braces?) and then write down what you agree is the ideal outcome in each case, of course leaving room for error, crisis, opportunity, and your best judgement in each case. You make not be able to follow each plan exactly, but at least you'll have your spouse's input.

An American Soldier

On November 5, 2003, my husband officially became an American Soldier.

As the men reached the end of basic training, many of the rules relaxed. I was able to spend a little more time on the phone with DH and he was still wonderful about sending me daily letters. His letters made me feel connected with this part of his life and provided me with something to look forward to every day. Usually there was a sad day in the middle of the week, a result of the lack of Sunday mail service. However, the following day I often had two letters to make up for the interruption.

I have them stored in a binder with clear plastic sheets and still enjoy reading them when he is away in the field. I consider myself lucky to have a husband who makes communication with me a priority.

Life in Basic was definitely a different world for DH. His latest night of “mandatory fun” was a trip to a local high school football game. After warnings about dire consequences if the men did not respect the cheerleaders (remember, most of the soldiers were 18) they were herded into a stadium to root for the brigade commander’s son. So, DH enthusiastically supported the Vikings against the other team, also the Vikings. (surreal)

On October 27, the men completed a "Confidence Course." DH identified the highlights as "the Skyscraper, the Weaver, the Zipline Descent, and the 'Tough One.'" The Skyscraper required DH's team of four to form a human pyramid and raise themselves over successively higher platforms. The weaver involved snaking their bodies through the rungs of a log pyramid. For the Zipline, they climbed a tower and then lowered themselves down a steep, diagonal rope. The Tough One involved a series of acrobatic feats at dizzying heights, with only "meager" nets and mats for protection! One challenge involved a 7-foot wall that DH needed to vault over. Marc says that each challenge looked insurmountable until he conquered it, bringing the promised confidence.

The next day brought more of the sort of training one would expect from boot camp. The men learned about grenade launchers, antitank rocket launchers, claymore mines, and light machine guns and then the fun part--firing the weapons. The weapons produced a satisfying whoosh sound and parachuting airborne trainees provided the perfect background.

Between these two days of hurling himself against walls and firing large weapons, DH was declared "too bruised to move" by the doctors. Apparently, as the body works to heal bruises, it produces byproducts that the kidneys need to process. DH was bruised so extensively that the doctor insisted on running tests. The doctor placed him on a three-day no-PT profile. Although the drill sergeants usually give people on PT-profile a hard time, DH has been so consistent with his physical efforts that the sergeants actually seemed concerned about him. DH began to do some push-ups and a sergeant walked over and said, "Just don’t blow a gasket."

Despite being the human bruise, DH completed the final PT test with impressive scores on November 1. Technically, this test was the last requirement but Field Training Exercises still awaited the men.

To get to the FTX site, the men road-marched 10 miles. DH carried one of the large Squad Automatic Weapons (SAWs), much to the delight of his fellow soldiers. Impressed by the size of DH's, ahem, weapon, they called out such witticisms as, "The defense rests!"

Once at the site, the company formed a circle and each platoon prepared to guard a quarter of the perimeter. DH's squad leader chose DH to share the foxhole so someone "squared away" would man the foxhole solo while the squad leader patrolled throughout the night. They dug and chopped through roots with shovels, pickaxes and axes for most of the afternoon and then set up the pup tents.

According to DH, that evening's Night Infiltration course was one of the highlights of the training. Again, DH's own words convey the most dramatic moments best:

"Our entire platoon lined-up in a trench and, on command, hopped over the wall, yelling… [We] began crawling toward a machine gun emplacement that was throwing real bullets at us. We had to keep our heads at 18" above the ground, or below, or else we would be hit. The machine gun spewed tracer bullets, so bolts of red sailed overhead as we frantically crawled the length of a football field. As we moved, explosives also rocked the earth around us, sending showers of dirt flying over us. During the crawl, we had to negotiate barbed wire fields and logs. We scrambled beneath the wire on our backs and slithered over the logs, always maintaining a low profile to avoid enemy fire. It took us about 10 minutes to make our way across the dark field. Whenever a flare went up, we had to freeze so the enemy would not notice our movement and direct fire accordingly."

The following day, encrusted with dirt, the men dealt with "near" and "far" ambushes during patrol training. DH was a squad leader in one of these sessions. Once the enemy was spotted, he silently directed the group in a flanking maneuver and poured fire (blanks) on the would-be ambushers. After the patrol training, the men went to a range to practice night fire. Some of their tracer bullets started a fire in the wood behind the targets, producing a dramatic backdrop for their nighttime practice.

Returning to camp at 2000, the men received warning that "enemy units" would be probing their perimeter until dawn. At 2200 (10 pm), DH's foxhole companion needed to use the facilities. To provide cover, DH followed him halfway up the hill and then took a defensive position and waited. Somehow, though, the soldier returned a different way and ended up in another platoon's perimeter! DH waited for about 15 minutes and then, when the soldier did not show, returned to his platoon's area. The soldier was not there, but DH heard that he had been brought to the drill sergeants.

DH headed to the drill sergeants' encampment and discovered his companion handcuffed around a tree. The drill sergeants decided that DH, as the battle buddy of this prisoner, must be an enemy, too! Since he was being treated as an enemy, DH refused to give up information despite the interrogation techniques of one of the drill sergeants (tightening the handcuffs, shining bright lights in their eyes, etc). So, DH ushered in his birthday handcuffed to a tree--and not in a good way!

After being freed, DH and the others returned to their camp and raised a raiding party. His battle buddy's crew provided a distraction and DH's crew mowed down the unsuspecting guards and fired into the tents to eliminate the rest. With a real enemy and live ammo, this might have worked. In this case, however, the corpses ignored their recent deaths and surrounded DH's crew. The drill sergeant of this platoon, one of DH's early captors, exclaimed, "I said I wasn't going to release you because you'd turn around and attack us. You did. Good stuff."

On November 5, DH's birthday, the men broke camp and killed some time with skits and impersonations. To much amusement, DH led the company in a song parody he had created. After a night fire training session, the men who completed graduation requirements had their Rite of Passage Ceremony.

Judging from DH's letter, this is an intense ceremony, with flashing grenades, machine gun bursts, patriotic and "mosh-inducing" music. On this day, my husband officially became a soldier in the US army.

In preparation for graduation, the men acquitted themselves well in a Drill and Ceremony competition. They would have won but their drill sergeant forgot to call out two of the moves. The loss of those points was enough to knock them to second place. The drill sergeant felt terrible -- and even did push-ups as penance -- but the men were in good spirits nonetheless. The following days mainly involved cleaning in preparation for Fort Benning's reorganization.

For our Soldiers:

Soldier's Creed

I am an American Soldier.

I am a Warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people of the United States and live the Army Values.

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills. I always maintain my arms, my equipment, and myself.

I am an expert and I am a professional.

I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.

I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.

I am an American Soldier.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Non-Routine Routine

By the end of October, 2003, DH and I were settling into routines.

Creating an intensive AP course (Art History) from scratch was quite a challenge for me. In addition to teaching AP Art History, I was also taking an art history course at a local college. I really fell in love with art history at this point. I love the blend of formal and contextual analysis and I just get so excited helping others to look more closely at art.

Of course there was also my normal teaching load, coaching the mock trial team, and hanging out with friends and family. Every payday I met with some friends from work at a dive bar and we had the usual complaining and camaraderie. Most weekends I either went into Manhattan or spent time with family.

One of my colleagues was having a difficult year with some family health issues and I asked her what I could do. She had always been so helpful to me. Well, she asked me to organize a trip she usually plans to go to West Point to see "Les Miserables." Somehow I managed to get 125 tenth graders on buses up to West Point, not cause too much trouble during the show, and then got them all back safely.

In the middle of October, DH and I had our first special occasion apart--my birthday. I went into Manhattan with some friends. We had Indian food (which I love but DH doesn't... so it is a birthday tradition) and the tropical ginger drinks at Waikiki Wally's, a fun tiki bar with live birds and a waterfall.

DH sent me a loving note for my birthday with pressed little flowers.

I wrote back, "How does a soldier at Basic Training pick flowers?"

The answer is apparently, "As discretely as possible." He looked both ways and then pretended to pick up gum wrappers and other garbage. In addition to my bouquet, I received pictures of my soldier and flag magnets with a space for the picture. My final present arrived two weeks later, as P/X (the mini department store on post) privileges are limited. Opening the bubble envelope I found a dog tag inscribed: "I belong to a soldier."

My presents made my day... but I felt a little sad, DH's birthday is less than a month after mine and I would only be able to send letters.

Towards the end of Basic Training, the drill sergeants seem to be relaxing discipline somewhat. One night during the pennant race, a drill sergeant left a radio in the bay. The poor guys couldn't get the game to come in properly but, the following morning, they became perhaps the only platoon in the history of Basic Training to listen to NPR's morning edition.

In Basic Training, they have "mandatory fun." On Oct. 19th, they were marched over to the "Soldier Show", song and dance routines performed by various soldiers. The soldiers enjoyed seeing "real live women" (DH included a string of euphemisms for his compatriots' reactions) and made various jokes regarding the audition process for male performers functioning as a way to circumvent the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

At the show they were also permitted to taste the sweet nectar of soda and the ambrosia of ice cream and Little Caesar's Pizza for the first time since Basic Training began.

Of course, give an inch and teenagers take a mile. The younger soldiers interpreted these small privileges as a license to cut loose. One private smuggled a USA Today into the barracks. I can't believe someone would take a risk like that for a USA Today! The Economist, maybe--but USA Today? A real case of the forbidden fruit being sweeter, I suppose.

In the last few weeks of Basic Training, the men learned the skills necessary for their field training exercises. During a one-day session, DH learned how to construct and camouflage a foxhole; self-camouflage to conceal himself just 30 feet from a group of people; and "bound." Bounding involves advancing through and over obstacles while your partner covers you.

Also on this day, he had to "low crawl" (lying flat on the ground and pulling yourself along with one hand as you push with one leg). Many men lost their canteens and had to start the whole course over again. Although this was an exhausting day, this training is closer what DH and the others imagined when they envisioned Basic.

DH has also received bayonet training, which consists of attacking target areas framed by rubber silhouettes. Here is an anecdote from a letter:

"I low-crawled through the sand toward a wall as another private poured gallons of water on me, turning my approach into a mudpit... I kept moving forward and, despite the drill sergeants' warnings not to get in the way of the course-goers, this idiot ran into my bayonet as I crawled. He limped away- I think I just ripped his boot and bruised his shin. The Captain yelled down from his perch a top the wall, 'L--, are you ok?' I shouted back, 'Sir, yes, sir- but you should ask the other guy.'"

Basic requires that the men reach certain benchmarkbirthdayrious skills. One day before my brithday, carrying my picture for good luck, DH earned his marksmanship medal for completing the first of these requirements. After qualifying early in the day, DH was told to use his "problem-solving abilities" to coach his fellow privates.

Perhaps our friends found it surprising, but DH did exceedingly well on the PT (Physical Training) tests. Sometimes it is easy to forget how fit he is because he is so brilliant! Early on at Basic, DH reached the 97th percentile on the two-mile run and was off the charts on sit-ups. With these numbers, he effortlessly met the physical requirements.

DH also qualified as a Grenadier [do I hear Tories singing?] and came within one toss of earning Grenadier- First Class. Unfortunately, one of the more exacting drill sergeants claimed that Marc kept his head up a moment too long when he made a perfect toss.

Meanwhile, I was back at home making plans to see DH for his Graduation from Basic on November 13.