A Strange Day
S. I. Mette
So he was new to the unit. Had just arrived about three weeks ago. He was a private and most of the NCO's (Non Commissioned Officers) were decent people though he believed that they were a little clique-y. They treated him as such, but with a modicum of respect that he felt was lacking throughout the whole of his 8 months of training. It didn't really matter that much to him because he was keeping his head low. He liked a few of them, but really hadn't made a lot of close relationships with anyone since arriving. He figured it unnecessary since he was RD (Rear Detachment) and his actual unit was currently overseas in Afghanistan. This fort was his first duty station and he was glad to be out west instead of Georgia or the entirety of the South for that matter. He had hated it there and was relieved to be in a place that wasn't so damned strict; you were treated like a human man here. He could shake his head and laugh at himself for that one. Here at least he wouldn't get lumped into the group and labeled as completely worthless and stupid as was wont to happen on so many occasions during that hell. Training had been brutal to his body, but he felt that it was more so on his mental well being. He understood fundamentally that it was necessary for them to tear him down in the manner that they did, but it still left a bitter taste in his mouth whenever he thought back to AIT and Basic Training.
The Army wasn't what he expected it to be, but he had to take that chance for his wife and kid. He had to give them a new life and get them out of the Midwest and the poverty that they were in. Now it may have been on the far western edge of the Midwest, but it was far enough away for him. He never would have done it for himself because in the end he was one of those people that was afraid of everything.
He needed to be occupied constantly with something- anything- to keep his mind from going to those things that others wouldn't take a second inward glance at. Whether he was standing the right way when talking to a sergeant, or what the hell he'll be doing the next day when, more than ready to see his family, he gets off of work for today.
Ridiculous; he would worry needlessly. Will he be called out in formation to answer a question that he may not have the answer to? How the fuck do you put together this brand new ruck sack, frame and all? Was he too smart for his own good? Too much a thinker and not a doer? He believed that it, the Army, military life, was just like anything else; he wasn't against self analysis, but it came to the point where he would question his very existence and why he was doing what he was doing at that specific moment in time. His MOS made him different from most of those in the RD because he went to Fort Gordon, the signal school for all U.S. military branches. The rest were mechanics and truck drivers- he was computers and radios. He still couldn't believe that he graduated third in his class, but then again he knew he could. He was also one of those people that good things happened to. You could call it a sense of luck or God, but whatever seemed to happen to the man, he would have a good day in spite of himself. But for some reason that he couldn't articulate, it was something that he couldn't accept it; he couldn't for the life of him take it as something that was a good thing. Fundamentally he hated the military establishment and everything it stood for. He was patriotic, sure, but why did he feel since he enlisted that he was always bracing for something he knew not what?
He just had to worry and worry and worry . . .
So when he heard that he had 24 hour CQ (Charge of Quarters) duty that Wednesday his insides heaved at the thought. He was relieved that he didn't have to do the piddly shit that they had been doing since he got there. Cleaning up barracks for the soldiers that would be returning in a month or so from the 'Stan, picking up trash on the side of the road, moving office furniture and supplies from one building to another, etc.; he also worried about having to sit in a room with a sergeant he didn't know and try to make pleasant conversation to pass the damned time. He told his wife about it when he heard that he had duty about a week before and how he would have to basically sit there the whole time since the normal duties of CQ (helping those that were visitors to the barracks get situated, making sure messages were passed, and walking through the barracks to make sure anyone soldier or group of soldiers weren't drinking too much, whatever) were suspended because the CSM (Command Sergeant Major) wasn't around to get all uppity and anal retentive about the whole thing.
She told him not to worry about it because he would do his duty and be, 'just fine.'
He rolled his eyes at that even though he appreciated her a lot. He just didn't tell her enough, just remembered when she wasn't around.
So he went to work that morning around 0850 after sleeping in a little later. He had a slight hangover from the night before and his throat was dry from the mountain air, but he went into the Day Room, his computer bag on his shoulder, with a neutral expression on his face. The previous shift was getting off and he signed in on the desk where a sheet for CQ was placed for the incoming shift to mark persons or activities of interest. The sergeant he was to work with was engaged in a conversation with the outgoing sergeant. His counterpart had already left before he arrived. The sergeants were talking about living on this post as opposed to others they'd been stationed at before coming here. He only half listened because his brain would only allow him to go so far away from paying too much attention to himself.
He sighed to himself inwardly and took his place on the lumpy couch that was one of two that the Day Room afforded those on CQ. He looked around even though he'd been in there numerous times and took stock of what the place had to offer him on his 24 hour shift.
A very nice flat screen TV stared him in the face about three feet away, but, of course, the picture didn't work. It broke about a week ago and though he had seen another TV on the ample stand in front of it brought by another on an earlier CQ shift it was gone now.
So, no tube.
That's fine, no biggie.
He had music and the internet on his laptop.
The other half of the last shift finally left around 0930 and he was alone with the Sergeant.
The day went on as it does in RD. People on duty- not too many yet as there weren't a lot back from deployment- went in and out of the place. Mostly bored with nothing much to do but the same ol' same ol'. They played pool as the place sported one off the Day Room next to the laundry area. Other sergeants came in and out too. One of them even called the Private 'coke bottles' in reference to his ample eyeglass prescription. He laughed it off as that was the only thing he could do. He was older than most of the privates there and even some of the sergeants. He was late to the game, but he knew his place and kept his mouth shut even though he wanted to say something smart ass back. No big deal, he would have his say when he had credibility.
And the day went on.
He played games on his computer (the ones that weren't online because he couldn't get a useable signal even though the barracks had several Wi-Fi hubs throughout) and in between scenes of Office Space on his PSP he got to know the Sergeant, the headphones half cocked on his head to listen to the movie and follow what the conversation was about.
As it turned out the Sergeant was very cool. He was from New York- northern New York- where it was poor because of the economy and cold as a tit in a steel bra for the winter months. He was younger than the Private by about four years and that made the Private smile inwardly to himself though he didn't know quite why. The Sergeant wasn't married and had no children. He also lived in the barracks which he detested. Said he wanted to have his own place off post, but the command here was different than back at Hood- E-5's had to live with the geographical bachelors and other unmarried soldiers in the barracks.
Time drifted by as it does when one hasn't much to do and they passed it well enough together. After the duty day was done for those that worked from 0900 to 1600, there was a palpable relaxation of the atmosphere and since the day had been a warm one and there was not a window or a vent in the Day Room, they took their ACU tops off to get some air flowing through the Army brown T-shirts they wore underneath.
Sergeant told the Private about his experiences in Iraq during the last part of 2007 and well up into 2008. He told of the heat and dust. The wind storms and the people there- the enemy as well as the civilians. All in all it hadn't been so bad as people had put it in the media or in the score of books and movies coming out about the war. The man was a fuel tech and didn't have a combat action badge- the black one with the combat knife over a grenade all nestled between two branches of some kind of plant (he thought they looked like olive branches, but weren't those supposed to be a symbol of peace and friendship? Couldn't imagine how those, if they were, got mixed up in with a combat knife and grenade) – but that didn't mean that he was untouched by war; the Sergeant had a friend that had been killed and that was something that the Private couldn't ever imagine.
He thought to himself that they should have given a medal away to those that had suffered the emotional discharge of innocence half a world away in the desert. He supposed that in the end it didn't matter much to the Sergeant, but he decided not to press the man after he revealed that he knew someone close that had died.
Just keep it to yourself.
His wife called around 1700 and asked if she should bring the Sergeant dinner as well. He turned to the Sergeant and asked if he'd like to have something different than the Burger King he had had for lunch.
Sergeant didn't take much convincing and was obliged a short while later when she brought a big brown sack filled little Tupperware containers each holding a little treasure of warm food for a nice Sunday supper spread. She brought sliced ham, mashed potatoes with gravy, steamed sweet corn off the cob, bread with real butter. It was needless to say that the Sergeant was grateful for not having to eat fast food and after they were finished he gave the gracious complement that he hadn't eaten like that since he had been back home which had been over a year ago.
He told the Sergeant about where he came from and what he did before he came into the military. It was funny to both of them and sad as well that most parts of the country be it East Coast or West Coast, the Midwest, the South and every part in between suffered from such unemployment and low prospects for opportunity. Was it to be another depression like nearly a hundred years before? The Private joined up to provide a foundation for his family and the Sergeant agreed that that was an honorable thing. He also told the Sergeant that he was scared to death of going over to the 'Stan or any part of the Middle East. He also said that he was thrilled to hear that when he had arrived at the Replacement Battalion, he wouldn't be deploying probably until about two years from now. It was because his Brigade was already over there. The Sergeant said that he supposed that was well and good because he had such a young kid, but that RD would get to him eventually and that he (the Sergeant) would rather be overseas doing his job rather than on a cockamamie detail that had nothing to do with nothing. Sergeant reassured him that it wouldn't be as bad as he imagined because depending where you were stationed, you would be finding most of your days taken up by boredom and looking for a routine to lose yourself in because there just wasn't a lot to do even during a war.
But still the worry again. The goddamned worry.
The conversation petered out after that for about an hour or two as they went about doing what they did to stave off the boredom.
The Private watched another movie and the Sergeant played on his computer and texted on his phone to his girly back in Germany.
It was around 23:30, during mandatory 'quiet time', when the Private and his Sergeant were roused from their computers by a siren warbling into the night outside.
At first the Private and Sergeant both thought it was a fire whistle telling those on the road outside to watch out as a fire engine was coming by. Then more sirens on the base began to take up the blaring and commotion. Both the Private and Sergeant went outside to have a look see. There weren't any vehicles on the road that went by the barracks and the Private went down to the street to look up and down. He did see three or four MP vehicles round a corner up further north heading toward Gate 3, but other than that there was nothing.
The Private wondered out loud to himself if all this racket had roused his wife and kid from sleep as he had said goodnight to them over the phone about two hours ago.
He told the Sergeant what he saw and they both went back into the Day Room with a not- quite-so-good feeling of something in their guts.
By that time the soldiers that lived in the barracks were being roused from their sleep by the sounds outside and all over base. They started coming down from the second and third floors and into the Day Room. Others still were leaning over the balcony asking their friends and others what the hell all the noise was about.
After about five minutes of trying to field questions with the gathering crowd, the Sergeant told them to all go outside and make a formation. He said that they'd probably make an announcement soon. They being the NCOIC (Non Commissioned Officer In Charge) at Brigade about a block away on the opposite end of the barracks. In the meantime the Private turned his computer off, put it away, and went outside to wait for what he didn't know.
Rumors have a way of finding the ears of anyone wanting info that lacked it and those flew around the growing crowd outside. His phone vibrated in his pocket and it was his wife on the other end. He went off to the side and answered.
She asked him what was going on. His son was up, she said, and was a little wide eyed, but fine. A good boy.. He said he didn't know and that it started up about ten minutes ago. He assured his wife that he would tell her the moment he knew. Before he could get off the phone, someone that lived on the second floor ran outside with their laptop and was shouting something at the top of their lungs from the railing above them.
The Private saw the look on her face and his heart stopped and stomached tightened. He knew that what she was trying to say was of the most serious importance.
She screamed at them to shut the fuck up and listen: half of New York City had just been blown up by what was reported as a nuclear explosion.
The crowd of soldiers were quieted instantly by this news and then an uproar and clamor that the Private would remember, just like the face of the female soldier for the rest of his life, came up through the ranks of soldiers in their PJ's.
Denial came through the rank and file as well as himself. No; it was that simple.
The Private felt sick and almost swooned at the revelation that was thrown out from the balcony in the sobbing, cracking voice of the soldier.
Someone shouted that it was another 9/11 and that the terrorists had did it again.
The Sergeant shouted at the private on the second floor to come down and shut the fuck up. She, after all, wasn't a commander or CSM or general or newscaster giving a brief or telling the 5 o'clock news. But the damage had been done. The word was out whether or not it was true.
When she came down she still had fresh tears and the laptop open to the Google News feed. She instantly showed it to the Sergeant before her and he took a cursory glance at it and was drawn further in when there was a picture of the explosion from a long way off; maybe a satellite picture. At that moment the Sergeant's phone vibrated in his pocket and he opened it. It was the NCOIC at brigade. The NCOIC told him to get as many soldiers together as he could and to bring them all to the parade field opposite the brigade building because the Colonel (one that is usually in charge of a brigade) was coming down to make the announcement. The Sergeant asked him what that would be and the NCOIC said that he didn't know yet.
The Sergeant on CQ told the Private that everyone was to go to brigade down the road and wait for further information. Someone shouted, "Why? We already know what the fuck's happening!" The Sergeant decided not to even acknowledge that with an answer, but continued the crowd to go to brigade.
Those at the RD barracks were some of the first to arrive and as time crept along more and more began to show. Some from an MP battalion others from a Special Troops company and 61st Cavalry; those that lived in nearby barracks mostly. By that time a fleet of MP vehicles were blaring on bullhorns as they drove around base housing telling those up and about because of the sirens to turn on their radio or television sets to the news channels. The knowledge of what had happened was traveling fast through the Net and over the airwaves across the base, the nation, and the world. To anyone who has served in any military anywhere at one time or another it rings true that the lower ranks and masses of soldiers are always the last to know, but as the formations grew larger on the parade field and people grew impatient those with 3G and 4G phones started to give their own unofficial debriefing about what happened. Even the Private knew because his wife confirmed it from the news on CNN. It took perhaps forty minutes from when the Colonel told his subordinates to them telling their sergeants and so forth that the word got to the masses of E-1's through E-4"s: there was indeed a nuclear blast on the western end of Long Island (it was actually set off about a block from 9/11's ground zero) and that the destruction was unprecedented. They didn't know how many were killed yet, but 'expect it to be very high', one sergeant said to his soldiers. The base was on lock down as was every other fort and base under US control around the world. The president was to address the nation soon and there was even rumors of activating all Reservists and National Guardsmen around the country. The Sergeant and Private looked at one another as the formations broke apart into crowds. The air was alight with the buzz of hurried conversation and speculation. Soldiers with families in and around the New York City area were either on their phones trying to reach those loved ones back home or were crushed under the realization that their family members were more than likely radioactive dust in the remains of the Big Apple.
The Private knew that the Sergeant had family in New York state, but couldn't remember if he said that any were near the city. The Private's wife called again and he answered. She asked in a voice he couldn't recognize if he was going to be deployed now.
It now dawned on him that by being caught up in the atmosphere of talk and blather about what was or wasn't happening he hadn't realized that this could change the very state of the world like 9/11 had; maybe he did unconsciously, it just didn't sink in yet. There was too much to take in; and deployment- didn't even cross his mind.
"I don't know, baby. I,... I don't know." The Private managed. "Look, I'll call you later. I love you both, 'kay?"
She said she already knew that and then hung up the phone.
Thoughts of dread like no other came into his mind then in the middle of that crowd of soldiers under a cloudless sky.
Just run away.
He could see the lights on top of NORAD about five miles distant and wondered what they were gonna do about all this. He imagined them scurrying around under 1000+ feet of rock and concrete like ants in a maze and it made him sick to his stomach.
He vomited up the remnants of the dinner of ham, potatoes, and everything. Nobody seemed to notice except a couple soldiers from his platoon that lived in the barracks. They asked if he was okay, but he didn't answer or even hear them as his mind raced with the possibilities of fighting a nuclear war or being part of some new offensive in Pakistan or China or where ever the fuck this bomb came from; fighting from a muddy foxhole against whoever waiting for his destiny? How many more enemies do we need now? Where are our friends when we truly need them? Would they launch a missile? Who or what would they launch it at?
He wanted to cry with fear and absolutely terror because he just didn't know.
JUST. DIDN'T. KNOW.
That right there is probably one of the worst feelings in the whole universe- not knowing whether or not something is going happen one way or the other.
The Sergeant was nowhere to be seen now and the Private wondered whether or not he should
JUST GET THE HELL OUTTA THERE!!
just go across the street, get into his car, drive home, gather his wife and child, not bother to even pack, and just leave.
Then he remembered that the base was on lock down.
So he did the only thing he could. The Private returned to his post back at the barracks across the street and awaited further instructions.
© S. I. Mette
20100607 to 20100709