For The Love Of God! chapter 1 pt1

Chapter 1

“In her hair she wore a yellow ribbon. She wore it for that soldier who was far, far away.”

“It’s a grim world, kid, and for you, it’s about to get a lot worse”—that’s what recruiters should tell you when you sign up. Instead, they simply tell you that it’s going to be a challenge. If there were a record of euphemisms, this one would be at the top of the list.

Saying good-bye to my girlfriend was the hardest thing I did the morning before I left my home in Savannah, Georgia, for the MEPS (military entrance processing station) in Columbia, South Carolina. I had never been away from home for any length of time before, and I was about to leave for thirteen weeks of OSUT (one station unit training) in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. We had been together for about a year and a half and were planning to be married in the near future. She knew that being in the military was what I always wanted to do, and she supported me in my decision to join. We had dreaded that moment since I had enlisted five months earlier, but we knew it was coming and had talked about it many times before, so there wasn’t a lot to say. We said the things that everyone else says when leaving a loved one for a significant period of time. The words weren’t unique, I’m sure, but it didn’t change how we felt. It was a very bittersweet experience—we didn’t want to part, but it was what we had to do to continue our long-laid-out plan. The only thing that I can remember saying to her was, “Please don’t change.” She was going to go to college, and the possibility that it would change her outlook on things that we had in common was not far from my mind. She gave me a copper necklace with the Star of David on it. It was something important to her because she had recently visited Israel with her family. I told her I’d give it back when I returned. Hugs and kisses flowed along with a few tears as the  mid-June morning sun shone  through the cedar tree in my front yard, and then she was down the road in her car. I watched as she drove around the curve in the road and disappeared from sight. It was going to be a long three months.

My mom took me to the bus station where I boarded a Greyhound bus. She had been through this before with my brother, who joined the army six years earlier, but I was her baby, the last one to leave the nest, and she was upset. But because I joined the National Guard, there weren’t going to be any overseas tours, so I would be back. I would come back home and train with my local engineer unit one weekend a month and two weeks out of the summer. I was going to be a weekend warrior, a member of the elite “Nasty Guard,” which is how the National Guard is known by regular army soldiers.

I arrived at the MEPS in Columbia without any problems, which is more than I can say for the trip I made home from there when I was sworn in. I was riding back to Savannah with a recruiter and another enlistee when the skies darkened and rain started flying sideways. We took refuge under an overpass to avoid the hail that began pelting the car. As soon as we got under the overpass, a tornado swooshed right in front of us. It was the first time I had ever seen one in real life. I joked that it was an omen. Nothing like that occurred on my trip to basic training,  but all types of weather and instant changes of climate awaited me at Fort Leonard Wood—literally and figuratively.

Several people from the MEPS got on the plane with me to fly to Saint Louis, Missouri. I remember two of them because they both wound up in the same company as I. The first one I met was Jergens. I only remember his name because I looked it up in my basic training “yearbook,” if that’s what they’re called. The book is filled with hundreds of black-and-white mug shots of sleepy-looking young men and a few young women. Most of us look like zombies staring into the distance as if we already had the mile-long stare that you hear about in war documentaries. But a few have ear-to-ear grins on their faces, which I have never been able to understand. What made them so happy? Did they have some sort of sick sense of humor? Nothing was funny. Nothing was even worth smiling about. Our photos were taken at what is called 43rd AG Reception Battalion, right at the beginning of our excursion. We all lacked sleep and were not even close to being used to the lack of physical comforts of home. We were getting yelled at constantly by what we only knew as “army people.” They wouldn’t let us talk, they wouldn’t let us lean against the wall, and they wouldn’t let us slump in our seats. If I remember correctly, one of the army people told us we were not even allowed to have joy in our hearts. So I assumed smiling was out of the question and went to wipe that smile off my face only to realize that, fortunately, I didn’t have one in the first place, which proved to be the only sense of relief that I was going to get. This made me happy, but then I remembered that I wasn’t allowed to be happy, so I returned to my preemptive zombie-like mile-long stare to avoid breaking another rule. The bottom line was that if we weren’t getting our heads shaved or being whisked through an issuing facility, we had to have our noses in what are called “Smartbooks.” These were given to us to read during any downtime (free time in army lingo) we had—like before we went to sleep at night, while we sat on the toilet, while we stood in lines, between bites of food, and at the slight pause between exhaling and inhaling. We really had to think outside the box to understand what “downtime” meant to them. Smartbooks were pocket-sized books that contained all sorts of basic military instructions. We had to keep them in our cargo pockets at all times. They’re called Smartbooks because, well, when you read them, you got smart.

Jergens was a thirty-one-year-old middle school PE coach. He just barely made it in because the army doesn’t accept non-prior service enlistees beyond the age of thirty-two. I wondered how it would turn out for him. I figured that he had a decent chance of making it through basic since he was a PE coach and, presumably, physically fit. I was wrong.

Barnett is the other person I remember from the flight. He was the same age as I was and was from Effingham County, which is adjacent to the county I lived in, so we became buddies. When you’re young and have never been away from home, you quickly become friends with those who have anything in common with you. Barnett and I stuck together as much as we could until alphabetical order separated us once we started our training. We ate together, slept in the same set of bunks, and were in the same room when we got injections in the ass of something that felt like peanut butter. He even witnessed me falling to the floor the morning after the injection when I got out of my bunk. The shot had really cramped up my right cheek overnight, but I didn’t realize it until I stood up.

We were becoming good friends, but we didn’t leave basic training together. Barnett, like Jergens and many others, didn’t make it. Jergens didn’t make it because he couldn’t handle it physically. Barnett didn’t make it because he couldn’t handle it mentally. I don’t know all the details about why, but Barnett was put on suicide watch, which meant that he had to sleep in front of the drill sergeants office. So that he wouldn’t hang himself, they also took away his bootlaces, which was standard procedure. He wasn’t the only one during training who clumped around in laceless boots. When someone got his laces taken away, it always resulted in whispered discussion and sideways glances. We always speculated about how someone could kill himself there, but we never questioned why someone would want to do it.

I ran into Barnett one day at a church back in Savannah about a year later, and he told me he had joined the Marine Corps and graduated at the top of his class and was going to be a sniper. I asked him what he was doing back in Savannah, and he said that he was being discharged due to a back problem. That’s quite a record, I think. Being booted out of two different boot camps, pardon the pun, is an achievement that most people can’t put on their resume. One kid actually ran away and made it to the bus station, where he got caught and returned. He was charged with going AWOL, and they made him sleep in the hallway outside of the drill sergeants office until they did whatever it was that they did with him. We never knew what happened to him; he just disappeared. Some people just aren’t cut out for the military, and it drives them to do crazy things.

4 Responses to “For The Love Of God! chapter 1 pt1”
  1. Damon says:

    More. Where are you in the process? Still writing? Or just trying to find publishing?


    • I’ve finished the manuscript, and it’s been edited. Right now I’m querying book agents in hopes of finding one to represent me. Also, I’m considering the possibility of self-publishing. Not sure which is the best route to take. Sent out two queries today, but it takes a while to hear back from them, IF they respond, that is.


      • Damon says:

        The wife has a friend in the northeast somewhere whose wife has a couple books published, She’s gonna get in touch with her and maybe give her your contact info if that’s ok with you. What she will be able to bring to the table i don’t know, but she might be able to put you in touch with her publisher or at least give you some feedback on what you should be doing to GET published.


      • Awesome! Any contact in the industry is a huge help. Thanks so much! I owe you.


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