Tuesday, November 28th, 2006
Realistically speaking, right about now I should be combing gel through my crimped hair and drawing on my eyebrows while two babies scream in the next room, and an equally loud man cranks up the wrestling on TV to block it out. Fortunately (and unfortunately, depending on the day), I was gifted with some degree of intellect as a child, combined with the kind of naiveté that allows a person to ignore the reality of their surroundings in favor of a crank fantasy world where everybody gets a fair shot. And why not: that is America, right?
I guess you could think of the Army as a facet of that “fair shot,” though most people never even consider enlisting unless they already feel they have been failed by “the system” in one way or another. So, here I am, in Columbus, Georgia, a small town with very little to offer aside from drugs and proximity to Atlanta. I am stationed at Fort Benning, on Kelley Hill, in a mechanized infantry brigade. Don’t believe that shit they tell you about women never going into combat zones. It’s (mostly) untrue; support personnel may not technically be in an Infantry position, but we pull guard and do combat patrols and hide from mortar rounds all the same, in the same neighborhoods, against the same people. I’ve been here since sometime in June, though I am nearing my one-year mark being in my life in the Army so far.
My MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) is 68W (”W” is “whiskey”, from the phonetic alphabet). My day-to-day consists almost entirely of “moving boxes” and “mowing lawns.” There is a reason we call ourselves “Landscaper Medics.”
68W is on the list of top 25 most-wanted MOS. If you fail out of your original school, you will be directed to that list of 25 to choose an MOS “at the needs of the Army”—a phrase we hear a lot. It strikes me as illogical that we are apparently filling a very necessary position with many more slots to be filled, and yet many of us only approach carrying out the duties of aforementioned MOS while we are deployed. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the situation seems to be that the only place they really do need us is in Iraq. While in garrison, we are essentially useless bodies taking up valuable real estate, which is why we as a support company are saddled with every pointless tasking known to man. The situation is pathetic enough that a startling (and depressing) number of girls get pregnant in order to get assigned to the TMC (Troop Medical Clinic), where they will be carrying out medical duties every day, or to leave the military completely. I’d say about, oh, near a fifth of our company is working at the TMC right now only because they got pregnant. Only the lucky ones are assigned to a hospital or clinic from the beginning.
I have to say thanks for that naiveté; it’s the only thing that kept me going throughout a childhood spent in flooded apartments and houses with tarps for roofs. Par for the course, I was a pretty weird kid. I didn’t know how to make friends, so I drew some for myself instead. I hardly had a father; he disappeared when I was three and only appeared in my youth to make idle threats of kidnapping. My mother seemed to lack whatever tolerance for other people is required to work at even the easiest job, and so she could not support me on her own. I slept in a dining room with three other people while the living room was lights on, TV up until three or four in the morning, creating a ridiculous span of time in high school where I slept about an hour a night. You’d be surprised what that does to a person, without you even realizing it’s happening. You just don’t fathom the degree of utterly fucked up shit you’ve gotten yourself into until long after, when your sleep cycle has recovered for long enough for your sanity to start creeping back.
So maybe it’s not such a shock that I somehow got it into my head that I didn’t need high school. I knew I didn’t need my house, it wasn’t very good, anyway. I certainly didn’t need what sad shamble of a family I had. I thought I would have an easier time getting better jobs and making my own way if I dropped out of high school and got my GED. I applied for financial aid two years in a row, but a funny fine combination of clerical errors on the part of FAFSA and my mother’s inability to give accurate tax information kept simple, widespread government grants out of my reach. Yeah, I felt stupid. I always felt that if I was so smart, I should have more control over these circumstances, and that luck, while seeming like the obvious perpetrator, shouldn’t be blamed for situations that surely a smart person could get under their control. Being “young and stupid” has always seemed like an excuse in bad taste to me.
I spent a few years trying to make money any way I could. Getting entry-level jobs in Houston when you aren’t bilingual and don’t have any connections is nigh impossible; even spending six months down at the Texas State WorkSource office couldn’t do the trick. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself at that point, but there was still an option — I could move to another part of the country, where being bilingual wasn’t so vital to getting even a minimum wage job. With that in mind, I moved to Sarasota, Florida, and lived (illegally) with my boyfriend in his tiny one-man dorm room while I worked at Walgreens (full time) and Movie Gallery (part time). I was able to move out into a room for rent, but there was a Catch-22 — if you do not work, you do not have enough money to go to college or to even afford cheap rent; work, and you only make enough money to cover rent and no longer have the time to go to school. Even as I climbed the ladder of dead-end jobs to one that paid $8.75 an hour (!), I was riding my flat-prone bike to work down the side of a freeway, stopping at every gas station I came across to put air back in the tires. It was all I could manage not to throw myself into oncoming traffic in frustration with the black hole of wasted potential I was convinced my life had become. It had gotten to a point where the only way I could make any real money was to take off my clothes and dance around for horny frat boys and desperate men with sad home lives.
So, naturally, the best decision I could have made was to join the Army. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that even something as lowest-common-denominator as that was a hassle. The Air Force would not take me because I have a bum eye and a GED; I can’t swim well enough for the Navy; I haven’t the physical stamina or even the vaguest desire to become a Marine.
Recruiters are a pain in the ass. They have what has got to be one of the worst jobs in the whole military, no matter what your recruiter tells you with a straight face. They constantly have their superiors breathing down their necks, threatening to extend their hours (which are already very long) or end their careers over not meeting recruitment quotas. Is anybody surprised that recruiters have a bad reputation for being dishonest? Thing is, they’re just regular people like you and I, and regular people will do whatever it takes in most situations to lift that kind of constant pressure. Lying, or more accurately, “strategically omitting things you will really wish you had known,” is just about the only way you can get most people who don’t have insane criminal records to enlist in the Army. Or at least it often feels that way.
I was desperate and burning for college money, for that opportunity that all my friends were enjoying and unknowingly dangling in front of my nose. I had become obsessed with all things medical in the previous few years. Burn patients, maxillofacial tumors that will grow back forever no matter how many times you remove them, plastic surgery, angioplasty, disgusting rare skin conditions — you name it, if somebody finds it disturbing, I like it, I love it. It seems as if the masochist in me chose to love a profession that is not only intellectually very challenging, but not a field known for its rags-to riches success stories. What I’m hoping is that even though I don’t like the Army at all and don’t identify with anybody here, I can use what I’ve learned here (and most obviously, the money) to become a dermatologist later.
But right here, right now, I’m exactly where socioeconomics wants me. The Army is the domain of the Working Class American, but my mind is far away dreaming of art kids and hack sociology, dermal cysts, and indie rock music.