Armies go to the field. There’s really no justification for the expense of maintaining a standing army unless they are constantly preparing for war, and the best way to train for war is to re-create the conditions of war and worse, mentally preparing the soldiers for discomfort and hardship.
I’ve spent three of my three and a half years in the Army studying languages, and so I’ve had little in the way of field training. There’s basic training, of course, but when I went through basic training the doctrine was so antiquated we were still training for a war of armies in Europe, with foxholes in forests. The lessons of urban and guerrilla combat were still largely things of the future. Our brilliant and far-sighted command at A Company, 229th M.I. Battalion, organized a one-day MOUT exercise at an FBI training site for us, which remains the best and most intense combat training I’ve had in the Army. Unfortunately, it was realistic and useful for precisely the reasons that it will never happen again: the observer/controllers lost their hold over the OPFOR (mostly Marines who had never been out of a training environment and were eager to prove their combat chops), and the scenario descended into a murderous havoc in which our company took a sound thrashing. The exercise was saved only when everyone’s MILES gear was reset and we were all magically brought back to life for one final violent battle to control the town. (Not unlike the “surge” option now being considered in Iraq.)
When I arrived at Fort Lewis, we did a series of ranges to learn close-quarters, “reflexive” firing. But after a couple of months, several of us were put into Arabic class, and we missed most of the field exercises that the unit has done over the past year. From what we heard around the barracks, this mostly consisted of training on outdated equipment that we will never use in theater, so I doubt we missed too much. But, on the other hand, the other members of our unit who went did experience some of the more typical aspects of military field training — lack of sleep, hygiene challenges, exercises (or sometimes, failures) in land navigation, road marches, and firing ranges.
I’ve been an armchair ranger for three years, and although I can hit the broad side of a foreigner’s barn and find my ass with two hands, a map, and a protractor, I was looking forward to this brigade FTX. After all, we have, essentially, this exercise and NTC to get the act right, before we have to do it for real. I want to know, as all soldiers everywhere want to know, that I can do what I am being sent to do, and more: military life is, or is always presented to us as, a constant test of what we are capable of. This is, perhaps, why we join, but it is also what makes us confident in war. We need to be tested, to be pushed beyond what we know we can do, beyond what we know we’ll need to do. I am afraid — I know I am not ready for Iraq — and I am ready to be pushed.
In theory, we linguists are supposed to move as part of the cavalry squadron. We’ve been told for more than a year that we “are cav” — we are held to a higher PT standard than the Army’s, we have to learn cav history for the promotion board, there are no women among us (highly unusual for a SIGINT operation), our leaders wear the Stetsons on Fridays, and a few months ago they all took part in a spur ride to build, um, “cav spirit.” In practice, and after much negotiation at the higher pay grades, it’s been decided that we’ll be working with the MI unit at Brigade HQ.
What this means for us is that, apart from convoy ops (which turns out to be a drive up to Southcenter Mall and back), we will be “inside the wire” the whole exercise. We’ll be staying on the “forward operating base” that’s been set up in a gravel parking lot half a mile from the Burger King.
The week prior to the exercise is spent setting up our area in the brigade tent. We are the milkman’s kids in the MI company’s house, tolerated but not well-liked, with a separate chain of command; we are assigned the section of the tent between the MICO and a briefing room, meaning we are essentially in the hallway. There’s an early freeze and an early snow in the area, and the gravel floor of the tents seems to suck away the heat, making them even colder inside than the ambient temperature. We test our cold-weather gear, which is plentiful and mostly excellent — silkweight long underwear, double-layer pilots’ gloves, fleece tops and bottoms, Gore-Tex coats. Only the cold-weather desert boots leave something to be desired — my feet are bone-chilled to the point of pain every day. There are far better cold-weather boots in the world — even the old black ones that went with the BDUs were better, having a thick insulating bootie that you wore inside. To be fair, the desert boots are actually only listed as “temperate weather,” perhaps to reflect our current operating environment, which, after all, tends to the hot more than the cold. But on the other hand, the winter temperatures in Baghdad and Mosul are frequently below freezing. The boots are, then, a kind of minimum bulwark, enough to keep us from getting frostbite, not enough to keep our minds off our feet. And this is the Army way in many things.
Does this irritate us? Soldiers have an ambivalent relationship with their equipment and the conditions in which they work when it comes to suffering. On the one hand, we are proud of our strength and our toughness, proud of our hardness, proud of our ability to withstand pain and discomfort and annoyance. On the other hand, soldiers are always scamming a way to be more comfortable. They take every advantage of their cold-weather gear, as well as buying and improvising other gear. (There is, of course, a small industry around providing better and better gear to soldiers — to the point that, for example, our squadron handbook mentions by name which brands of eye protection and sunglasses are authorized.) Soldiers sleep on the hoods of running Humvees for warmth; they use the Stryker’s MRE heater to boil hot dogs or to warm water for shaving; in hot weather, they cut the sleeves out of their undershirts. Food that you buy and take with you to the field or on a mission is contemptuously referred to as “Pogey Bait,” but everyone carries it, and no one more than the experienced NCOs who’ve been to war. Everyone hears about the soldiers who spend weeks or a month at a time on mission without a shower, but reporters rarely seem to cover the way soldiers bathe — baby wipes bought in bulk, head-showers using the Hot Beverage Bag from the MRE, and “Febreze for Men,” the Army’s number one fragrance.
Ultimately, there are times when it seems the “toughness” argument is used cynically — be tough, don’t complain about the cold/the heat/your sore feet/your heavy pack. It seems cynical because we don’t go out of our way to suffer, we don’t refuse comfort when it’s offered to us — in short, we have no philosophical attachment to asceticism or objection to luxury. The Spartan model of a soldier is often used to justify inferior equipment and practices, or to end griping about things we can’t change, but it is only intermittently the way we think of ourselves.
The exercise is a good one, in that it carefully replicates the real-life conditions we will almost certainly face in the near future. Our S2 lays out a scenario in which we are occupying the fictional country of “Cascadia,” a Muslim Arab nation recently riven with internecine fighting between the Shi’a majority, supported by a large Shi’a state on the border, and the Sunni minority, supported by various militias and transnational jihadist groups. Both sides are trying to push the Americans out and simultaneously leverage American strength against their enemies. It is a very smartly constructed scenario.
It is also a frustrating scenario. The official goal set for us is to stabilize the region and quell the violence until local forces can take control. Since there are no local forces, this is pretty much an open-ended task. Which is perhaps appropriate to the situation we will soon find ourselves in, but it means that the exercise has no military objective. To rephrase: the scenario, while realistic, offers no particular measure of victory.
What does this mean for us in the intelligence section? Well, it means, of course, that we must keep track of multiple enemies, that we must anticipate shifting allegiances and antagonisms between the players, and, perhaps, most importantly, that there will be no “silver bullet” of intelligence — no single piece of enemy information that will turn the tide or bring a decisive victory in battle. There is also no single enemy whose methods we can learn, whose organization we can come to understand, whose leadership we can target. Instead we are constantly one step ahead of the spider, reacting to chance collections of intelligence that can prevent individual attacks, but not create a long-term advantage for our side. And ironically, the weakness of the many small groups works against us — if we destroy one, another can rise in its place and we are back to square one. From an intelligence-gathering standpoint, I think I prefer the Cold War.
But if it’s frustrating for us, those who watch from an eagle’s eye view, what must it be like for the infantry and the scouts? What does it mean for them to fight for tactical wins every day that nonetheless do not add up to a strategic victory? What is it like to fight in an environment where the phrase “Mission Accomplished” has become a cynical punchline?
Perhaps they don’t care. I don’t know; I don’t spend my days and nights with them — not during the exercise, and not during ordinary training. There were scouts and infantrymen in my Arabic class, but in that context none of us were much inclined to talk about how we would fight, or to what ends. During the exercise, we are split up and assigned different areas of operation — each of the three infantry battalions and the arty battalion holding a certain sector, with the cav squadron roving through all of them and the support battalion largely hiding on the FOBs. But really, we had already been separated after class; even in a brigade whose entire footprint is only about 4 square blocks, we quickly faded back into our respective units.
Maybe the combat arms guys, in the end, don’t care that much. After all, holding the Ardennes or taking Calais matters most to non-professional soldiers who want to fulfill their duty, see the war through to the end, and then go home. But for professional, volunteer soldiers, soldiering is defined by specific lengths of time, not by campaigns. Enlistment contracts commit the soldier to serve for certain periods of time, regardless of the conduct of a given war. And the Army’s lifecycle program encourages him to think of deployment in the same way — as a fixed period of service, unconnected to the progress (or lack of progress) in the war as a whole. So maybe, for a lot of soldiers, combat is a just a job — a highly dangerous and unpleasant job, like firefighting… but no one expects that we will win a “global war on fire.”
The conditions under which we fight have varied throughout history, depending on the war and the societies involved in fighting it. Homer‘s warriors carried live cattle with them over the wine-dark sea and engaged in animal husbandry and, perhaps, agriculture during their 10-year wait outside the Trojan walls. Soldiers in the Spanish Civil War carried small chocolate pellets covered in candy shells, supposedly inspiring Forrest Mars, Sr. to develop M&Ms — though I’m curious as to exactly what a chocolate magnate was doing toodling around Spain at the time. On the other hand, the Tsar’s soldiers in World War I were often sent to the front without weapons (let alone food), the idea being that they should strip the weapons from the dead they found in their path. Meanwhile the Babis pinned down at the siege of Fort Shaykh Tabarsi were reduced to eating horseflesh, grass, and saddle-leather.
According to Meryl Rutz of the Navy and Marine Living History Association, sailors in the eighteenth-century British Royal Navy
received a pound of biscuit and a gallon of beer daily. In addition, they received
Sunday 1 pound pork, 1 pint peas
Monday 1 pint oatmeal, 2 ounces butter
Tuesday 2 pounds beef
Wednesday 1 pint peas, 1 pint oatmeal, 2 ounces butter, 4 ounces cheese
Thursday Same as Sunday
Friday Same as Monday
Saturday Same as Tuesday
Which sounds like a boring but not terrible diet — I suppose a lot would depend on seasoning. The article goes on to mention that the ship’s surgeon would often insist on various goodies supposed to be good for combatting scurvy: “sugar, currants, rice, garlic and other spices, including the popular salop made from orchis roots… barley, tamarinds, sago, almonds, mace, nutmeg, and shallots….”
Currants and a few other fruits may well have done something for scurvy until James Lind figured out the citrus remedy. Contemporary military scientists, on the other hand, while they have put vitamin C in everything from cheese spread to oatmeal cookies, have had only middling success dealing with the worst deficiency of modern field rations: fiber. Seriously. Three to four days, sometimes, in the field, before the too-long delayed relief. A few of the current menus have incorporated some fruits and vegetables — spiced apples, something called the “wet pack fruit” which I haven’t been fortunate enough to run into yet, raisins, and my personal favorite, “Cranberries, Sliced.” But generally, the foods in MREs — various combinations of meat and gluten — quickly solidify into something impassable.
We are told, during the first day of the exercise, that our three daily meals may be “MAA, or maybe AMA, or it might even be MAM — we’re not sure.” The “M”s of course, are MREs — the “A”s are for “hot A” — presumably A-rations, the kind that take refrigeration and cooks, contrasted with B-rations, essentially canned foods, and the individual C-rations, the predecessors to the MREs. When we go to the improvised chow hall that night for the first time, the cooks have their extremely high-tech mobile kitchen set up — it’s a good-sized trailer, big enough for four or five cooks to work in and half a dozen soldiers in full gear stand in line inside. The vegetables seem like fresh-frozen, the meat is oily but flavorful, and the starches aren’t ruined — all in all, it’s no worse than the chow hall on post. In the building we’ve commandeered as a dining room, they’ve set up fresh and canned fruit, individually wrapped muffins and pastries, pudding cups, coffee, Gatorade, and Kool-Aid.
It turns out we average two hot meals a day, probably more because of our shift schedule than because the cooks couldn’t provide three. They range from completely satisfactory to, on the final night when they serve lobster and steak, delicious, but I can’t help noticing that most of the people eating there are the ones who work exclusively on the FOB. Despite the fact that the cav squadron is headquartered on this FOB, I almost never see a cav scout in the dining hall. Every now and then the Tactical Humint Teams pop in, dirty and exhausted but generally looking pleased with themselves. Presumably they’re coming back to report to the MI Co., dropped off by the cav and infantry teams with whom they’re embedded. I suspect this means that the cav guys are eating on an “MMM” schedule.
A few days into the exercise, our “white cell,” the guy who brings us recordings intended to simulate SIGINT intercepts, comes into the tent with bags of his wife’s Snickerdoodles bulging from his cargo pockets. This is only the ultimate example; he brings us, throughout the exercise, all kinds of cookies and candies, and many of us have packed snacks in our bags. I, myself, have a pound of dark chocolate M&Ms, a giant can of peanuts, trail mix, turkey jerky, and Chex Mix. I am the world’s largest squirrel.
When I was acting as an Arabic-speaking civilian-on-the-battlefield during a previous exercise, I moved and camped with the cav platoon acting as the OPFOR. We had it far easier than the blue units, but we were still living in the field.
This is where I discovered that sleep is actually not too bad in the field. There’s often not enough of it, but the Army’s sleeping bag is one of the best pieces of equipment we’re issued, warm, soft, waterproof, adaptable. And, of course, soldiers have long since found the best places to sleep. The first night, I tried sleeping on the narrow bench of the Stryker; the second night, I tried the floor, but that was too close to the heaters, which are pretty overbearing. But the scouts recommended either the ground outside — the bag really is thoroughly waterproof — or the roof of the Stryker. I tried the latter and found it flat, warm, and comfortable.
But even here, those of us on the FOB are at an advantage, and even within that group, there’s a certain small minority who end up in the best of all possible worlds — a contractor warehouse, heated, with lights and a soda machine that is quickly exsanguinated. We were supposed to sleep in the MI Co. tent, but our platoon sergeant, on discovering brigade personnel in the warehouse, quickly stakes a claim on a small corner, and we move our cots in. We sleep on cots or on the floor, whenever we’re not on shift — I get about nine hours of sleep a night, far more than I usually take in garrison.
Halfway through the exercise, two cooks are sent outside the wire from another FOB, with no security, to dump trash from the mobile kitchen. It’s a stupid move on somebody’s part, and, although it’s not a part of the original scenario, the OPFOR takes advantage of it, seizing the two guys and their truck (presumably not the trash). A few hours later, we receive a video through anonymous channels identifying the soldiers and making a series of impossible demands — withdrawal of all American troops from the Hijaz, release of prisoners from Guantanamo, etc. It’s all in Arabic (nice, solid MSA), and so we linguists are the first to get access to it. It’s a great moment — four of us stand around the computer watching and translating on the fly — and later I get to do the final gist, correcting our initial mistakes. It feels, after days of predictable and boring cuts, spontaneous, a little like doing real work. Rather than pushing small bits of information to the analysts about potential explosives suppliers and speculating about code words and cover terms, we are finally in the narrative, taking the lead in an emergency. For a little while, our job becomes very exciting.
The whole tenor of the exercise changes. Suddenly the squadron commander and the brigade sergeant-major are standing in our tent; suddenly all our resources are directed toward getting these two guys back. The SIGINT section and the cav scouts take the lead, in our corresponding areas, in figuring out where the kidnappers have taken them. But the scenario starts to change so fast that game play and reality keep cancelling each other out: first, we translate and send up a piece of intel so fast that our troops arrive where the bad guys are supposed to be before the actors have a chance to get there; then our scouts observe a black SUV pulling up to a building and some blindfolded men being hustled inside, but when they get approval for a raid, they surprise a bunch of Special Forces guys on a different exercise.
It’s disorganized and often ridiculous, but there’s a palpable thrill in our tent and a surge of energy throughout the brigade. We have an objective. There’s something to accomplish. Not “peace in our time,” not “a stable government” or democracy or “an end to sectarian violence,” but this — a material problem, with solutions of technique and technology. Find and retrieve — these things we can do.
A more cynical buddy refuses to be taken in. On the second day, he notes that this kidnapping is very convenient — when we bring our guys back and kill or capture the terrorists, we have a “result,” we can declare “victory,” despite the total lack of measurable improvement in the overall situation of “Cascadia” or its capital.
I know he’s right, but I don’t care — when I take a high-level call on the Arabic tip hotline and later brief the brigade commander in his tent, it feels good. I’m on top of my game, and it doesn’t, ultimately, matter that bringing in our two guys only puts us back where we started. Performance is enough; results don’t concern me too much.
Twice, I pull Quick Reaction Force duty. Those of us in the cav squadron who stay behind with the headquarters — mostly medics, plus us surveillance guys — act as a supplement to the brigade and MI Co. personnel who guard the FOB. It’s our job to wait for something bad or out of the ordinary to happen, and then to, well, react quickly.
When we’re not reacting, we wait for the call — a 24-hour shift in which the members of the QRF are encouraged to sleep as much as possible, so we are fresh in case of action. (The linguists, too few in number to be missing from the job two days in a row, work out a system of sharing shifts, so we only end up on duty for 12 hours at a time.) Of course, you can only sleep so much, and people find ways to amuse themselves. I read from the Quran: a paragraph at a time, the English first, then I struggle through the Arabic. Others carry PSPs, and one medic has brought his laptop to the field with him.
The guards are antsy and inexperienced, so we get called out every time more than two people come to the gate at a time. The first time, the master sergeant who rules the FOB with a benevolently gloved fist tells us there’s been sniper fire from a field three hundred yards away, and that we should take cover behind a tree. I can’t kneel for more than about two minutes at a time, and there’s no good way to keep one’s weapon up for long periods of time without taking a knee, so I shift around a lot. I’m pretty sure I’m an easy target, but I do try to keep an eye on the field.
It’s eight in the morning, and contractors are trying to come in to work, so we are constantly pointing our weapons at civilian vehicles. Later we hear that only government vehicles will be used by the OPFOR, and that it’s not nice to flag civilian cars, but apparently word doesn’t get around to the 4/9 Inf. guys, because one of them ends up pulling a (real) civilian woman out of her car at a checkpoint and putting her face into the ground in front of her children. I suppose the best that can be said about this gaffe is that that soldier has an active and energetic imagination, though his inability to distinguish between an exercise and real life is disquieting. But even in real life, what does it mean to detain and harass somebody’s mother? This is a deep, dark well of emotion we’re throwing rocks into. But it’s one of the things that happens when you send soldiers to do, essentially, police work. Soldiers are expected to be lethal and to protect their own tactical advantage at all times; policemen are expected to be subtle, to build rapport, to put their own lives much more in danger for the sake of ensuring the rights of the citizenry. When you send soldiers into an area, it’s assumed that the people of that area have forfeited all but their most minimal human rights by declaring war on you; your soldiers’ job, then, is to dominate them and bring them under submission. But you can’t expect a modern civil society to emerge under such conditions. This is the great, insoluble problem of colonial occupation — you can’t expect soldiers to act with concern for the civil liberties of the people when they’re still seen as an outside, enemy force; but you can’t expect the people to go about their business and build a healthy society when they’re denied their civil liberties.
The second time we’re called out I’m not lucky enough to get to hide behind a tree. When we reach the gate, a crowd of role-players has gathered; they’re playing townspeople demanding to see the commander about local issues. Unfortunately, many of them are Arabic teachers from my class; when they see me they all light up and start babbling in Arabic. This leads the role-players who aren’t teachers to start banging away in their own dialects, and all of a sudden they’re inside the gate and all trying to talk to me at once. The guards flounder, and I’m trying to explain in patchy, stilted Arabic that they have to wait here, that we’ll find a representative to talk to them. These role-players are experienced gate-crashers, and they know how to play this. “Are you in charge?” “I’m in charge here.” “Then we want to talk about the town — there’s no electricity, no water, the school is closed….” “I can’t help you with those things, but if you can wait –” “Oh, so you’re not in charge?” And they all make a big noise and inch forward, and we try to restrain them without laying hands on them, but they gain a little ground, and it goes on like that for a while, until we are standing together in the middle of the road inside the wire and now if they make a break for it we’ll have to shoot them. Fortunately, I manage to charm them a little by laying out my stiff but very formal Arabic; for the ones who weren’t my teachers, it seems to be a genuine novelty.
Eventually a major from public affairs shows up. While he’s dealing with the leader of the group, one of the HUMINT warrant officers peels off and asks me to translate for him. He doesn’t really get anywhere, but it’s fun for me.
Eventually all the citizens are persuaded to go back outside the wire and back to their homes, and the major promises to meet with their representatives the next day. The QRF returns to its tent, where we all take naps.
It can’t go on like this forever, of course. For one thing, the cav squadron HQ is right next to the brigade HQ tent, so they can see for themselves how we live. For another, the squadron leadership still seems to be a little sore that they’ve lost us to brigade. We were supposed to be their surveillance assets, a part of what the cav can offer to the fight. If brigade simply appropriates the SIGINT cell and the UAV pilots and treats them as its own assets, the cav loses some of the prestige and all of the control.
But the real problem seems to be that the cav guys have never been able to make up their minds whether they like having us around or not. They like it that we win awards, and that we actually seem to study for the promotion board. But they can’t shake the feeling, never articulated outright, that we’re a bunch of nancy boys who somehow managed to cheat our way into the cav.
There is grumbling from the line units — that’s what we hear. People — whether officers or enlisted, we never hear, though I’m strongly inclined to think it was mostly first sergeants — start saying D Troop isn’t pulling its weight. None of us really knows what that’s supposed to mean, “pulling its weight” — we’ve been doing our jobs exceptionally well — but near the end of the exercise, the demand comes down for us to pack up our things and go “out on patrol.”
This is a stupid idea for a number of reasons. First of all, we have no armored vehicles, certainly not Strykers, and in Iraq you never leave the FOB in unarmored trucks. Second, we have a job to do and a “battle-rhythm” already in place; to pull us out now would deprive the brigade of its eyes and ears. Third, there’s no prescribed mission; they just want us to go out and drive around and stay up all night, like they do.
This is where our pain-in-the-ass captain comes in handy. He is a giant meathead, an immovable ox once he’s made up his mind, and he has no problem whatsoever making things suck for us when he wants to get something done. On the other hand, he’s just as much of a blunt force in dealing with the command, and today he’s a human shield, stubbornly arguing against sending us out anywhere. It’s dumb, he points out, and also useless, and a ridiculous exercise in “treating everybody the same.” He makes his points forcefully and usually with a lot of swearing, and he openly uses his considerable size to intimidate people. He’s a bully, but today he’s our bully, and he wins the fight, even though he eventually has to throw himself on the grenade to do it. They finally agree to leave the UAV pilots and the SIGINT cell alone, but he and his headquarters platoon still have to go do it. They tear down their command tents, pile into the LMTV and the commander’s Humvee, and go drive, literally, every mapped route in the Fort Lewis area.
Still, our commander doesn’t go down without a fight. They are supposed to be ambushed three times during the night, but he re-arranges the routes and calls in the checkpoints early or late, so the OPFOR never knows where he is. They come back twelve hours later completely exhausted but carrying the wreath of moral victory over the forces of idiocy. We set up the commander’s tent, though we don’t tie it down, and he promptly falls asleep. Not long after, a vicious windstorm kicks up, and we find ourselves scurrying around to keep the tent from falling in on him, but he sleeps so deeply he doesn’t seem to notice the joes running in and out of his tent with sandbags.
The cav guys aren’t wholly wrong. It is stupid and pointless to send us intel geeks out to do their job, but the inevitable consequence of that is a two-tiered system in which some people stay largely secure and mostly comfortable within the wire, while others are called on to go out into neighborhoods and city streets and subject themselves to attack. Some of us will live lives of tedious, clockwork regularity, while others will be called to do without sleep and eat terrible food and ride around in cramped, smelly vehicles and go kick in doors and make mistakes and alienate civilians.
There’s a glamourisation of the real combatant’s life, nowhere more than within the military itself. Yet the truth is that all of us who can, avoid discomfort and danger by whatever means are available to us. And although they accept the praise and the valediction heaped on them, the warfighters can’t help being rankled by the fact that some of us will be more successful in that avoidance, will have more opportunities to step out of the way of suffering.
For my own part, I came to this exercise ready for the worst, but quickly and happily accepted the generally good conditions. If I long to test my mettle, to know I am ready for hard conditions, some other part of me is equally eager to be reassured that I will not, in the end, have to live as hard as I thought I might.
When they finally call “endex” — the end of the exercise — we go back and pack up our A-bags, then find ourselves with nothing to do. The headquarters platoon has already packed the commander’s tent, and we, having slept in the warehouse, never bothered with a tent; we have six cots and our personal gear. Two of us go over to the MI Co. and help them tear down their working tents, but they’re so well-prepared that the whole operation only takes about an hour and a half. As the last few bags are being loaded on the truck, we go back to the warehouse and lounge around on the cots. We talk about how we’ve been in this field exercise mindset, how no one expected it to be done so soon. We talk about hot showers and food from restaurants.
It’s then that someone remembers we’re only half a mile from the Burger King on North Fort.
“We could just take the Humvee and drive out the gate.”
It hangs there for a moment, suspended — audacious and beautiful.
“What if Sergeant _______ saw us? Or First Sergeant?”
“Dude, they’re all in that leaders’ meeting.”
The most conservative and cautious of us, a sweet man and a good Christian, stands up. “I’m in.”
“Grab your Kevlar — let’s go.”
“Are you guys really going?”
“Hell yeah we’re going!”
And they do. Half an hour later they’re back, giggling and carrying booty — candy and a case of Coke from the Shoppette.
“What happened to Burger King?”
“Well, all right, so –” and the two fearless champions launch into an explanation. They had gone down to the motor pool and gotten the Humvee with no problem. As they had thought, all the NCOs were in an after-action review, and of course the privates on gate guard don’t know which vehicles have legitimate business going out at night and which don’t. Our guys found some shipping containers stacked behind the Mini-Mall (which includes several fast food joints and the Shoppette); one guy stayed parked among the containers, with the motor running, while the other guy jumped out and ran inside.
“It turned out they were just closing, and I went up to the girl and said, ‘Look, can you help us out, I’m here trying to get food for some guys on an FTX near here.’ And she said, ‘Look at my name tag. I’m Sergeant-Major _________’s daughter.'” We all laughed. “So I said, ‘Well, just forget we were ever here,’ and she said okay.”
Cokes were passed around, and gummi bears, and Sour Patch Kids. We laughed and joked until it was time for bed, kids who had successfully beaten curfew, though unlike kids we mostly remembered to brush our teeth after all that sugar.