So I’ve been there 7 times in my 14 years in. Not kidding. I’m editing this anthology and I wanted to let everyone who has submitted read some of my writing. Lead by example, right? Here is a small portion of the book I’m working on. During this time I was a squad leader. I went back to Louisana during Katrina as an E7 “platoon leader” since we were lacking LTs, and even wading through that shit-water and destruction was better than a month in the box.
Bravo Company – 2/162 – Viking Ninjas of JRTC
JRTC stands for Joint Readiness Training Center. This was not as fun as it sounds. The only weed there was of the noxious variety. The Army carved out a big ugly chunk of land in the middle of Louisiana we all called the Box. US Army units from all over would send a unit of unfortunate soldiers there to suffer all the heat, humidity, and bugs the South had to offer. I had been there six times during my prior service years. If I were asked to design Hell, the Box at JRTC would be my starting point, the top rings.
We were counted again once the bus stopped, just in case one of us had decided to jump out the window during the trip from Fort Hood, then we trudged through the gaggle-fuck of finding our equipment and putting it on. We walked like a giant turtle exodus to a set of WWII barracks.
The air was different in the South, like the smaller trees made it taste different. I heard the buzzing and chirping of bugs, as loud as power-line transformers, from every direction. The First Sergeant stood with his arm pointed in a Moses pose at a row of weather and rodent ravaged two-story buildings. I looked right past them, thinking that our barracks couldn’t be the old buildings with the paint peeling from the wood siding and windowpanes so old the glass appeared to have melted.
He told the platoon sergeants two of the six buildings were condemned and we weren’t to go sleep in those ones before he hurried off to a meeting, leaving us to figure which two. Each platoon took a building and Second Platoon lugged our shit into the nearest one. I told SFC Salerno that my squad would sleep on the top floor, because I hoped it would be easier to survive a fall than to have the top floor land on us.
We had no training that night and we weren’t slotted to head into the Box for three days. I emptied my bags and refolded all my T-shirts, underwear, and socks placing each carefully in the wall locker. I hung my two changes of civilian clothes and Hawaiian Shirt up. I always told my guys to have a Hawaiian Shirt and a flask on their packing list. When they asked why I told them a Hawaiian shirt could trick your mind into thinking you’re on vacation in some exotic land. Of course you never really consciously forget that you’re in a shit-hole eating bad food from plastic pouches and actively exploring new diseases you can’t pronounce, but if even one tiny, little part of your brain buys it, well then maybe you can hold on to some sanity in a fucked-up situation. The flask, well, that was to carry alcohol.
We stayed in a very remote part of Fort Polk, miles away from the normal folk who lived and worked on the base. The old barracks sat right on the edge of the swamp surrounding the Box. While smoking on the top-floor metal fire escape, I saw a motor pool full of tanks, a circular road cutting through the weeds that was no doubt a running path, and almost a mile away there was a small PX, or Post Exchange, the army’s convenience store. I called for Eric to follow me and slid down the fire-escape ladder because I knew that as soon as the rest of the battalion discovered the PX they would descended upon it and buy them out of cigarettes and beer within an hour.
An hour later we returned victorious with three twelve packs each and a carton of Marlboro Reds. It was a good night. Even Lieutenant Chris Kent our platoon leader said we did a hell of a job securing supplies for the men. LT Kent had to have been a Viking in his previous life. He was tall, bulky without being fat, and had a bit of a clumsy streak, but he could take apart a weapon in a minute, fix it, and shoot the hell out of it. The more he smiled the more his eyes squinted and there was no doubt whether or not he liked someone. With me he spoke mostly with squinted eyes. Another thing about Kent was he always surprised the hell of me. One day I would hear him speaking Russian, the next Korean, the next he’d pick up a musical instrument and play. That night he found a guitar and the entire platoon sat around the front of the beat-down barracks and sang every Jimmy Buffet song we could remember.
It was February in the south so the night was cool and smelled sweet like tree sap. We drank and took pictures of each other to send home. When the sun went down we all went in the barracks and kept singing, smoking, bullshitting, and messing around. I never saw a group of people so incredibly content, completely peaceful, and genuinely happy. We had the shoulder-grabbing-and-smile-without-having-to-say-a-word type of understanding. This was it, the family I was looking for. I lacked nothing but hardly had anything.
If you were to ask our colonel, the training at JRTC was a huge success. Bravo Company in particular showed such an improvement that his higher ups fought over the opportunity to put us in special roles for the upcoming deployment. The two-star general came down to see how the training was going and saw an assault planned by Captain San Miguel and executed by the company. This visit was purely routine, but the general left so impressed he told one of his aides to use “those Oregon boys” as his personal QRF, or quick reaction force. When this got out all the battalion commanders wanted us too. It was nice to be wanted but we weren’t doing anything different. The real hero was Dirty Herb, his tendency to do stupid things, and his tolerance for pain.
Our entire battalion lived within a war-like scenario for a month on a fake FOB, or forward operating base. A series of tents of all sizes made up the FOB, some with hundreds of cots and others housed logistic needs, like industrial-sized washing machines or mailrooms or chow-halls. Every tent was wired with electricity and every wire lead to a diesel-generator. These generators became so commonplace in training and in combat that I can’t pull up a single memory of being at war without the smell of diesel or a low hum. A few tents within the FOB were called TOCs, tactical operations centers. A TOC was where most the bad decisions were made. Every few days we were sent to the field where all the good decisions were made. It worked like this: a real colonel would call us for a fake mission and we threw on our really heavy gear and trudged to a fake city to play laser tag. When we started beeping we’d find some shade to be dead in and smoke cigarettes until everyone else was dead. Then we would lug all our shit back to our tent to hose the mud off and start again next time we were called. All the little missions built toward the big mission at the end, when Dirty Herb turned us all into heroes.
The soldiers we played laser tag with were called the OPFOR, or opposing force. They took their jobs very serious, as they should. They were training men and women for combat, but not in the way you’d expect. Most of their training taught people how to not get themselves killed, not how to kill others.
OPFOR consisted of soldiers stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana. The civilians hired to be Iraqis actually spoke Arabic and wore the man-dresses, head-wraps and everything like they did in Texas, but they were civilian federal employees and being such they took weekends, holidays, and sick days off. It took a while, but even us infantrymen started to see a pattern. Most of the fake missions came Monday through Friday, so on the weekends we went to firing ranges and grenade-launcher ranges, or Humvee driving courses.
We lazed around on our off time, but the rest of the FOB buzzed with busy little bees. The administrative, bureaucratic, and logistical jobs always went on, but the killing jobs only came when all the other jobs lined up right and the enemy had enough people to fight. After we read all the books, got tired of playing cards and jerking off, got sick of the music we brought, and wrote everyone there was to write, we were left with an amazing amount of time to think of very stupid things to do.
Our path to glory started the night before the two-star general came to watch the big battle. Fast-talking Tommy Houston bet slow-thinking Dirty Herb he couldn’t daisy-chain twenty 9-volt batteries together, lick his thumbs, and hold them for ten seconds. This turned into a competition where a young private could make a name by showing how much pain he could take. By the end of the night we found the maximum amount of batteries that could be snapped together and held for ten seconds was exactly 42. I know this because Dirty Herb wouldn’t volunteer to do 43. Still, 42 was more than the 20 they had bet in the first place so Tommy had to hand over his prized possession, the Anna Nicole Smith Special Edition Playboy. Dirty Herb left directly to the port-a-john.
The 9-volt batteries they drained that night were supposed to be used in our laser tag harnesses. Without the batteries they didn’t beep, and without the beep we didn’t die. We became ninja-vikings who could not be killed. We fought like maniacs and fired our blanks at the OPFOR and no matter how much they fired back we kept advancing. Our battalion commander would tell us later that he had never been so proud of his infantry boys. He had personally heard the general lean over to one of the majors and say, “Those Oregon boys are the types of soldiers I want on my QRF.”