06 January 2009

D+1: En Route

THIRTY-SOME THOUSAND FEET IN THE AIR -- It was a seven-and-a-half hour flight from West Fort Hood to Shannon, Ireland. The flight was fairly miserable. I tried to sleep as much as I could. Vaguely remember some movie called Ghost Town playing. Greg Kinnear gets run over by a bus, and is walking around NYC as a ghost, trying to sabotage his newly widowed-wife’s attempt to move on with a new man. Or something like that.

We ended up with a four-hour layover in Ireland. There were soldiers all over the terminal, with as many civilians roaming about. We grabbed food, stared longingly at the bottles of liquor in the duty-free shop, ogled pretty girls in civilian clothes, surfed the net, called our wives, or slept.

Re-boarded the plane at approximately 1300 Ireland time. Flew the next seven hours to Kuwait. Local time in Kuwait City was 2300 hours, 5 JAN 09. I remember thinking to myself, Well, the airport in Kuwait looks like every other airport in the world. There was nothing out-of-the-ordinary. A disarming start to a year of combat.

Days without beer: 2

Shannon, Ireland.

04 January 2009

D-Day: Good-byes

FORT HOOD, TX -- Woke up early in the morning. Threw the cot into the car, dropped the keys off at the apartment complex office, and drove away from the apartment for the last time. After making a quick stop to toss my cot into the storage unit, I slid behind the wheel, and made the drive to Killeen. With my CDs packed into storage, and my iPod tucked into my assault pack, the radio was my only option. I tuned it to one of the local morning shows that I usually listened to while driving to work. It was a repeat broadcast -- the crew still on vacation from New Year’s.

The butterflies were back, but they felt different this time. I felt calmer than yesterday. I headed to an Army buddy’s house, Stacy. Picked up some McDonald’s on the way (Egg McMuffin, hash brown and OJ -- a pathetic final breakfast). I left my car at Stacy’s. She would bring my car to my vehicle storage place the next day, since the place was closed on Sundays.

I also gave her a black plastic footlocker filled with last-minute items that I needed mailed to myself over there. After leaving her some final instructions for the car and the footlocker, we jumped into her pickup truck, and she drove me to post.

We were early. Weapons draw was 1115 hours, and it was only 1045. I hopped out of the truck. It was bitterly cold. The clouds seemed to be racing each other across the dull grey sky. There were a few cars in the parking lot, but not many. A couple of soldiers walking around with their wives and children, holding hands and holding back tears.

I hugged Stacy and J (another mutual friend of ours) good-bye, and watched them drive off in Stacy’s huge green pickup truck. I swung my assault pack over my shoulder, and headed into the battery, expecting to find only a few people. I figured everyone would be waiting until the last minute to arrive -- savoring final moments with the people they love.

The door swung open, and I was shocked to see nearly half of the battery already assembled inside. The second floor of our building has all of the offices and conference rooms, while the first floor is mostly empty space. A couple of caged off spots serve as our supply areas. An arms room, protected by a huge, vault-like metal door that’s at least five inches thick. And wall lockers arrayed along one side.

Soldiers were laying about, listening to iPods, reading books, talking to wives, holding babies. I walked over to a sergeant from our intelligence team. “What the hell is going on?” I asked. “You guys are early!”

He looked up at me, pulling one white iPod earphone out. “Detox, sir.”

It instantly clicked in my head as I looked around. Our standing orders were no alcohol for the eight hours prior to formation. Undoubtedly, these guys threw a hell of a party last night at the barracks, probably drinking themselves to the brink of death right up to that eight-hour mark. They then probably helped each other pull uniforms on, and crashed on the floor of the battery. It’s a simple plan: guarantees that no one faces UCMJ for missing movement. Responsibly irresponsible.

The line for weapons draw was long, so I decided to wait until the end, rather than stand in line for an hour. It was a good opportunity to finish making good-bye phone calls. I didn’t realize how difficult the task would be until I found myself hiding around a corner of the building, crying while talking on the phone, and struggling to maintain my composure while the freezing wind bit into my hands and face.

I don’t know what brought it on. The voice on the other end. The conversation itself. The thoughts of saying good-bye to others. The sight of other soldiers saying good-bye to their families and loved ones. The absence of having someone to say good-bye to in person -- to physically hug and kiss and hold onto until the last possible moment.

Maybe it was a combination of everything, but all I know is that despite all of the training, and the attempts to put up the hard, concrete fa├žade in front of the soldiers, I could not hold back my tears today. It’s never easy. It’s like saying good-bye to your mother the morning after Christmas, and watching her hold herself in the cold. She tries not to cry in front of you, because she wants to be strong -- so that you can be strong. But she’s your mother -- and you can see right through her. And it kills you to have to drive away, having told her that you’ll be all right, even if it might be a lie.

Pre-manifest was at 1330. Sat in an auditorium for a short while, then loaded up on buses to the airfield on post. A couple of the wives and girlfriends had stuck around, waiting for us to get out of the theater, and waved and blew kisses as we boarded the buses.

At the airfield, we waited some more in a holding area. As we walked in, our ID cards were scanned into a computer -- probably the last time they would be scanned on American soil. Standing guard at the door to the waiting lounge was an old lady -- had to be in her seventies -- passing out little prayer pamphlets and, of all things, hugs. The sight of this old, wrinkled, smiling lady, giving a hug to every single G.I. that filed through would have melted even the coldest, toughest of hearts.

Walking across the tarmac to the plane felt like a movie. It was still cold, and the sun was setting, turning the clouds into a bunch of pink, purple and red streaks. A huge, dark grey Air Force cargo plane sat in the background, nose open; pallets of some kind of equipment were being loaded into it.

Our commercial plane was in front of the cargo plane, and there was a grey line of ACU-clad soldiers snaking towards the stairway leading up to the hatch on the left side of the plane. There was no time to stop and look around -- no time to take it in, or savor the last breaths of Texan air. I can vaguely remember shaking hands with the brigade sergeant major, brigade commander, the division sergeant major, and division commanding general. Good luck, son. Make us proud.

I wasn't impressed. I'd rather that they didn't show up at all -- their appearance now seemed all too choreographed and empty. I'm pretty sure the brigade commander would never recognize me at a function, or remember my name -- not unless I earned him a positive bullet on his evaluation report in the form of some kind of spectacularly courageous feat, or a place in newspaper headlines as a tragic statistic.

Suddenly I was in my seat, buckled in, feeling the vibrations of the plane around me as it taxied its way to the runway. A sudden increase in the shriek of the engines, a quick rumble, and we were gone.

Days without beer: 1

The hug lady

D minus 1

FORT HOOD, TX—The 30-minute drive from my apartment in Belton, Texas to Fort Hood was different this time. I don’t know what it was...maybe the huge cup of coffee I purchased at the Texas Java Coffee House around the corner from my now-empty apartment. All I know is that as I was driving in to work, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. The sudden sense that this was really going to happen washed over me. I could feel my pulse in my temples and in my fingertips. It seemed to take forever to reach post.

Butterflies were flapping their wings in my stomach as I pulled into the parking lot in front of our building -- swarms of soldiers milling about. Golf Company (one of the units in my battalion) was leaving today. My unit -- Thunder Battery -- was leaving tomorrow.

I looked around as I parked the car in front of the building that served as headquarters for our battery: soldiers were wandering around, saying goodbye to their families, clinging to a last warm embrace. The black metal of rifles slung over the back glinted in the sunlight. It was a sobering sight, and did nothing to allay the increasing sense of anxiety within me.

A long line of soldiers carrying duffel bags and rucksacks was snaking around a cordoned-off area of the parking lot. At the head of the line was a desk manned by a few NCOs, and a scale. Soldiers would check off their names, and drop their bags on the scales. Seventy pounds per bag was the limit. A handful of soldiers were off to the side, carefully rearranging their bags -- re-distributing items between their duffel and ruck to meet the weight restrictions.

I was a first-time go at the station -- I packed according to the packing list, and although I had my doubts, both bags made weight. After throwing my bags in into the container truck marked with our battalion, the Red Dragons, I made my way over to a fellow LT, Jeff. He dropped the tailgate of his Chevy pickup, and we sat there in the sun, watching and waiting for our soldiers to finish making their way through the baggage station.

Jeff's whole family -- parents, sister -- and his fiance were there. I stood to shake hands and introduce myself when they approached. The other LTs, Chris and Albert also made their way to the truck, accompanied by their fiance and girlfriend, respectively. Our commander and his wife joined the party as well. It was like a tailgating party, minus the beer, burgers and football game.
By this time, the butterflies had disappeared. It wasn't until after formation, and after I had made arrangements with a local storage company (for my car) that the strange anxiety came back... Even with all of the training that I had undertaken with my unit in the preceding seven months, I could not shake the fact that I was once again headed into unknown territory. Never before had the responsibility of the soldiers' lives under me become more salient than now.

I spent the night grabbing a couple of last beers at a restaurant just down the road from my apartment, and moving the last boxes into my storage unit. Caught a couple hours of sleep on a cot (the bed had been packed into the storage unit weeks ago), next to my last remaining possessions: the uniform I'd be wearing, a pair of boots, my assault pack, and my car keys.

02 January 2009

The Mandatory Introductory Post

I'm a New York City native who sold his soul to Uncle Sam for the price of law school tuition. Currently serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army with a field artillery unit out of Fort Hood, Texas.

I'm going to try to write some notes as I go about my business over the next year -- more for myself than anyone else...something to help massage the aging memory cells when I want to look back at this tour.

The other reason for this blog is to help paint a picture of what life is like in a deployed combat arms unit. For my fellow colleagues, nothing here will be new or extraordinary. But for my friends and loved ones back home, this may be the first, truly detailed account of "Army life" they've ever heard from me.

I've chosen to not include my parents in my circulation of emails. They're worried to death about me as it is, and are able to find comfort in the prospect that maybe as an executive officer for a field artillery unit, I'll be relegated to sitting in the rear inside the wire for the entire year. I'm happy to perpetuate this myth in their minds, but should the worst happen, this will at least stand as a record of my thoughts and feelings for them, after the fact.

I'm going to throw out a disclaimer right now: I'm going to be true and honest in this thing. I don't want to dilute or distort anything, and I won't apologize for language or anything upsetting that may end up here. If things turn sour, you'll know it. If things are peachy, you'll know it. If things are just downright ugly and nasty...you'll know it.

So here we go...