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.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

In Defense of Pudding

Early in the OCS process, my DH served his rotation as platoon leader. His duties kept him very busy; he functioned as the channel between the candidates in his platoon and the TAC instructors. As a result, he acquired extra demerits whenever anyone in the platoon made a mistake. Certain numbers of demerits earn him "tours of duty" (extra work details) or restrictions (periods during which he cannot leave the barracks).

The earlier you serve as leadership in the process, the more likely you are to get stuck with demerits you could not control. Fortunately, the demerits do get reset each week.

Since the TACs (Teach Advise Counsel...kinda like Drill Sergeants for Officer Candidates) control everything in the beginning of OCS (down to when you go to sleep), these tours of duty are not a huge deal. Still, we had a picnic coming up in February and I was a little anxious that he might not be able to work those off before the picnic.

DH described his physical training as "unrelenting, but not impossible." He held up well on the five-mile road marches. Not surprising since he has always been known among our group of friends as the guy who leads us on "Death Marches" during vacation--really, a friend once had pools of blood in his shoes. I do not know why this friend didn't ask DH to stop--I guess other guys do not like to admit weakness in front of DH. He is just that kind of guy--he makes you want to be better than you are.

During the "very fun" Combat Swim Test, DH was pushed off a high-dive, blindfolded, in full "battle rattle." Then, he had to swim in full gear. OCS is also training him in Brazilian jujitsu. The company commander strongly believes in the idea of "every soldier a rifleman first." In other words, no matter what your assignment, you are expected to be a competent and confident fighter.

In the classroom, DH is wrote essays, deciphered combat maps, and learned the legal underpinnings of his work as a soldier. Once again, DH enjoyed his field exercises. Even in chilly weather, DH enjoys sleeping under the stars. They practiced day and night orienteering, locating markers amidst thorns and clumps of barbed wire. DH's hands got pretty cut up and he had to read a blood-splattered map. To make things a little more interesting, the TACs launched simulated artillery attacks on the OCs.

Mostly, the stress comes from the demerit system and from the psychological pressure. The OCs are allowed very little sleep, and they are kept busy constantly. Each day, they are quizzed on the day's Operation Order (daily temperature, safety reminder of the day, quote of the day, end-evening-nautical-twilight time, etc.). One week, the student leadership had the clever idea to include news in the Operation Order; the men got news, but the TAC instructors ruthlessly quizzed them on the minutiae, doling out many demerits in the process.

Everything, from their non-standardized lockers to the way they fold laundry, must be exactly uniform. They even need to sleep synchronized. Every night during their lights-out procedures, they exercise, sing the alma mater, lie down on their beds, assume the position of attention, and then allegedly and miraculously fall asleep - all in unison.

This vigorous training did not sap DH's sense of humor. Some background - at this stage of training, the candidates' food intake is closely monitored and they are not allowed to consume "dessert." When a fellow OC took some forbidden pudding, a sergeant asked DH if pudding qualifies as dessert. DH proceeded cautiously, offering that, as the pudding is in the salad bar, it is not dessert.

A captain jumped in, "But isn’t pudding sweet?"

DH countered, "So is fruit, but we’re allowed to eat it." The TACs were bursting out in laughter.

The captain continued, "In the L-- household growing up, did you think of pudding as a dessert?"

"We considered both pudding and fruit dessert but this is not my household; this is a mess hall with a salad bar."

DH's "defense of pudding" succeeded, or was at least sufficiently amusing, and his fellow OC was let off with a warning. Only goes to show--you can take the lawyer out of the courtroom, but you can't take the courtroom out of the lawyer...or some such.

OCS is difficult enough that many of these soldiers dropped out due to injury or by choice. When an officer candidate wants to quit OCS, he rings the bell in the company area. However, there were a lot of physically and mentally fit men there with DH. He met a man who served in Afghanistan, a Citadel graduate, and a Classical history major; true, the last fellow's from Harvard, but we'll forgive him for that.

I am confident that most of those who eventually graduate OCS are excellent leaders of our Army.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Officer Wife Responsibilities

DH did not have much time to write at the beginning of OCS. His first few letters consisted of scribbles on whatever paper is available. I felt lucky that he took those few available minutes to write to me.

Still, I wanted more contact and more of a connection. So, I decided it was time for me to take on some responsibilities as the wife of a future Army officer.

I joined a discussion board for OCS grads, future candidates, and their families. They had separate forums for each class and I started to get to know some of the other women better. A woman whose husband was a career NCO involved with training another class was nice enough to post on our thread and offer support and information.

On this board, I learned about the Army's "Family Readiness Groups" (aka FRGs). The FRG is supposed to facilitate communication for the families and help them become more independent--so the soldiers can concentrate on the mission. Each FRG has a leader (and in many cases, a co-leader) who coordinates FRG efforts. Traditionally the leader is the wife of the commander because she has the experience and she can get the necessary information from the commander.

Helping out AND quick access to information? That sounded perfect. I decided that I would love to become involved with the FRG. Even though I was in New York and the unit was at Ft. Benning, GA, I was sure there was something I could do to help.

A girlfriend of one of the other candidates was also interested in assisting the FRG leader, so, at the urging of the NCO's wife, we nervously called the Captain who commanded the class.

As it turns out, the commander was not married. Only a handful of wives, those whose husbands would have further training at Benning after OCS and then be posted there, had moved to Georgia. There was no FRG leader to assist--if we wanted an FRG, we WERE the FRG.

The following months became an exercise in the blind leading the blind but we had tons of fun. We mainly communicated through e-mails and newsletters. A third woman (another girlfriend) joined us and we gave ourselves a crash course on Army life and did our best to communicate this information to the other family members.

We also served as a contact for the family members so the commander would not have to answer every single question. Since family members could not directly reach the officer candidates, we fielded a lot of concerns.

If we could take care of the issue we did. One mother, a retired officer, was upset that she was not getting news. We let her know that we would be sending regular newsletters on behalf of the commander.

If it was a non-emergency issue we could not handle, we passed the information onto the commander on a weekly basis.

If it was an emergency, we dealt with it as best we could. A candidate's grandfather passed away and the family followed the correct procedures for reaching a soldier unavailable due to training or deployment in an emergency: they contacted the Red Cross. The Red Cross told the family that this was not enough of an emergency. I gave her the number for her local Red Cross and suggested she try again. Then I contacted the Commander. He was pretty steamed. He said that it was up to him to determine whether or not it was an emergency--the Red Cross is just supposed to pass along the message to him.

Some people we could not help. One thing we could not do was pass along news about individual candidates. Some family members, especially mothers, wanted information we simply could not give them.

Although this was a unique FRG, operating without a geographical base, I had a great first experience in my new role as an officer's wife.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Waiting Game & OCS Begins

Poor DH was stuck doing nothing for about a month and a half. After the rush to get DH down to basic, they told him that his OCS class was canceled. So, he had to wait a month and a half.

Each individual commander can decide how to treat the soldiers in the HHC (Headquarters and Headquarters Company) who are either waiting for OCS to start or have been "recycled" (are waiting for another try) because of injury or other issues.

This particular commander decided to treat the soldiers like Basic Phase Officer Candidates--meaning they had NO privileges.

I understand when I have to be separated from my husband because the mission requires it. I also am willing to accept that I may not always understand the mission or its requirements. In cases like these, however, I can't help but wonder if this is really necessary.

Thanksgiving and Christmas were also part of this month and a half and I kept waiting for words as to whether or not I would be able to spend these holidays with my husband.

When DH was finally able to call, he could not say if he would have time off for Thanksgiving. He did say that I would at least be able to share a meal with him in the DFAC (Dining Facility). So, with high hopes, I booked a plane ticket.

As it turned out, DH had CQ duty the day before Thanksgiving. That means that he had 24-hour duty manning a desk. In this case, it was 0900 (9 a.m.) on Wendnesday to 0900 on Thursday.

As late as that Tuesday, I still did not know whether or not DH would be allowed to leave post. Others with family in the area had been given passes to see them, but there was little provision for wives flying in.

As it turns out, I had the privilege of spending Thanksgiving with a very sleepy DH and then a wonderful Friday and Saturday with him, as well. He was not allowed to leave the Ft. Benning / Columbus, GA area but he was allowed to stay overnight with me.

Even better, he had received tentative permission to take Christmas Exodus (two weeks of December vacation).

Of course, nothing goes off without a hitch. Shortly after we booked tickets to Spain, HHC tried to change the travel dates. An announcement was made that anyone who could not produce tickets by the close of business would not be allowed to leave on the day originally chosen.

Given the restrictions, however, DH had no access to e-mail, a cell phone, or a fax machine. He offered to give his password to a sergeant but the sergeant said, "That's just a trap. If I do that, you'll get me into trouble for identity theft. I don't need your identity. I have my own."

Yeah. Uh huh. Hmmm...

Finally, they relented somewhat. DH was able to call me and I could e-mail the necessary documentation to him. He would be allowed to check in a couple of days and, if the reservations had the correct dates, our trip would be approved.

Too easy.

In fact, shortly before he was to leave to meet me in New York, he found out through the grapevine that no one was allowed to leave the country without a safety briefing on terrorism.

No one had informed him of this and he and several others ran around post, trying to get this briefing. Everyone told then it was too late, they couldn't fit in.

The day before they left, they finally got their briefing--a fifteen minute videotape.

Two magnificent weeks with my husband! After spending the holidays with Marc’s family, we flew to Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. We traveled by train and bus throughout Andalucia, practicing our Spanish, visiting cathedrals and mosques, and sampling tapas. From the friendly Barbary apes of Gibraltar, to the pedestrian-friendly streets of Seville, and the beautiful views of Granada, we had a spectacular vacation.

We spend New Year's Eve in the town square of granada, sipping champagne and eating the traditional New Year's grapes. There was a band and fireworks and an appearance from the town mayor.

On Saturday, January 10, I received DH's first letters from OCS. He reported that the beginning of OCS was even more exhausting than the beginning of Basic. There is no free time in this beginning phase. They are not allowed to stay up past lights out and they only have two or three minutes to consume each meal. Officer Candidate School also requires a degree of memorization that even my DH called “intense.” DH's time was also taken up with additional responsibilities as first squad leader. Throughout OCS, the candidates rotate leadership responsibilities.

Although they were not yet plugged into the demerit system of OCS, candidates began dropping early. Several came back from “Christmas Exodus” with injuries and will be “recycled” into a later class. Another four of DH’s platoon of 30 did not survive the first PT test.

The TAC (Teach, Advise, Counsel -- the OCS equivalent of drill sergeants) staff managed to create enough stress that one female candidate fainted at a morning formation.

Although DH was already 27, he fared well on his first PT test! DH led his squad to beat all the other squads in his platoon on the obstacle course. His wall-jumping ability also began to improve. His squad faced off against the champions from other platoons and won, earning the name “Warrior Squad.” As leader of the Warrior Squad, DH was called upon to make a brief speech in front of the company.

So, as usual, I had much cause to be proud of my Dearest Husband.