One of the things that a soldier constantly hears is about safety. If you go to the firing range, you hear a safety briefing. If you are driving a truck, you get a safety briefing. Obviously, this is important because we’re dealing with some very dangerous equipment like rifles and trucks with 6 foot tall wheels.
During truck driver training (called Advanced Individual Training for Motor Transport Operators), this older dark-skinned man was giving us a lecture on some aspect of training. Of course, because it was training, the army was doing it’s best to keep us exhausted, so we were all struggling not to doze off in the classroom. Suddenly he got really upset at us, and his voice trembled in his anger.
Then he told us a story about an accident he’d seen. He was retired military, and he had been on a convoy, following behind another truck. The truck was a deuce and half truck, which you’ve seen in war films. It’s the truck with a large, canvas cover draped over the back and soldiers inside.
As he watched, the truck drifted off the road and went down the embankment. All the soldiers were killed, and he’d seen people he’d known die.
Most people don’t think much about safety. “It won’t happen to me,” or “We work in an office. What could happen here?” They can happen anywhere to anyone, and sometimes they can be quite strange, like this one at an Oklahoma military base. Someone at SciFy channel will probably now create a film about a deadly foam tornado that goes through a major city…
According to USA Today back in 1990, the average soldier deploying to Desert Shield would be carrying a total of 83 pounds. We were probably a little under that, since they listed the soldiers as carrying bayonets. We definitely didn’t have anything like that! Here’s a list of what we would be wearing in Desert Storm on a daily basis:
Uniform: The army uniform was made out of heavy duty cotton and practicality was designed in. Instead of a zipper for the fly, we had buttons. A button is a lot easier to replace than a broken zipper. The pants also had huge cargo pockets, large enough to store a meal pouch or a 2 liter bottle of water — both things we would have to do during Desert Storm.
On the jacket/blouse, the sleeves were designed to be rolled up and rolled down. We normally wore the sleeves down in fall and winter and up in spring and summer. In Desert Storm, the male soldiers wore the sleeves up and the female soldiers wore them down. That was because of Saudi nomads. In some respects, it may have been a good thing for the women since we ended up being exposed to less sun than the men.
On the pants, we tucked those into boots. You could get either blousing rubbers (a piece of stretchable string with two hooks) or a blousing strap (much wider, with velcro) to get the bloused effect. Sometimes I liked the blousing rubbers, but they also left marks in my skin. The blousing strap was more comfortable in some respects and not in others. It was too wide, probably made for someone taller.
Hat: Better known as cover. We had ball caps on the green side, and floppy brimmed boonie hats on the brown side.
T-Shirt: We always wore a brown t-shirt under our uniform jacket/blouse. It was cotton, and a lot of times it would get stretched out or the color would leach out.
Boots: We started out with the basic issue of leather boots. I remember the first time I was issued boots during Basic Training. I stood in line at the clothing issue facility, and the woman behind the counter looked at my feet and gave a pair without me trying anything on. Up until (and long afterward), I’d spent most of my life trying to get any shoes that feet. I had extra wide feet. I was amazed that they fit perfectly with room for my toes!
Prior to Desert Storm, I did purchase on my own the jungle boots. These were supposed to have originated during the Vietnam War, and they had basic leather for the for the shoe part of the boot. The part that covered my leg was green canvas. Later during Desert Storm, the soldiers would ask for these boots, though without the vent holes in it, since sand apparently got into them. I never experienced that.
Socks: The army issue was a basic green — no changes for the desert uniform. The socks were a cheap wool and very scratchy. I brought a softer wool and cotton blend. At the time, we were allowed to make substitutions of some things like socks and boots.
Kevlar with cover: That’s actually the helmet you see all the soldiers wearing. We don’t call it a helmet because the army never calls anything by it’s logical name. Kevlar is the material it was made out of. It came coverless, so we would have to put on a cloth cover that matched our uniform. Ever try putting on plastic bag over something round? Yup, it was a challenge to get on.
It also had an elastic band that fitted around the base — not to hold the cover on the helmet, but as another bit of army practicality. If you were camouflaging yourself, you could stick twigs and leaves in the band. The band was also great for storing paperwork, like your firing range qualification.
Sometimes it was known as the brain bucket.
Body armor: This was far different than the ones you see in the news today. Picture a piece of cardboard with arm holes and you’ve pretty much got the flak vest we wore. It was fitted for men (again!), so way too big on me. When I sat down, the flak vest collar pushed up the back of my helmet. It came in original woodland camouflage, so the army issued a desert camo cover — just like the helmet cover. It had velcro and straps all over and I could turn it this way and that way and could never quite figure out how to get it on.
Suspenders and ammunition belt: Our ammunition pouches, and more importantly, canteens would be mounted to this. The belts were made for men, though. I had the belt on the last notch, and it was still too big. The suspenders were clearly made for a much taller man, so the back of them was always getting twisted all over the place on me.
What we didn’t have: The goggles that you see in pictures of today’s soldiers. The army may have issued some during Desert Shield, but it would have been to the Rangers or Special Forces. The rest of us didn’t rate.
Over the last few weeks, celebrities like William Shatner and Brent Spiner have taken the ALS Ice Bucket challenge — essentially dumping a bucket of ice water over their heads on video tweeted or Face Booked out to help draw attention to the disease that killed baseball player Lou Gehrig.
The lawyers for the military weighed in and said that personnel couldn’t do it in uniform because it constituted endorsement for the cause. You know, that’s a shame. This could have been a great way to see military in a positive way. Most often, all we hear about is front page news about problems with failures in the Veteran’s Administration; homeless veterans; long lasting brain injuries; and sexual harassment. One of the reasons I generally don’t talk much about any of those subjects is because it’s too easy to associate soldiers as only those things, instead of as diverse people. Some soldiers have reported that it’s been hard getting a job because employers assume they will have a meltdown like the ones reported in the press.
I was surprised to hear on the radio today that Whole foods decision to sell rabbit is such a big deal. It’s even getting protests.
The reason I’m surprised is because rabbit has been on the Army’s master menu. I don’t know if it still is, but it definitely was in the early 1990s. Now, if you know anything about how the government works, deciding what went on this menu would have gone through many hands and been vetted and changed before anyone down the chain saw it. The fact that rabbit wound up on the menu probably means that it’s popular in the places most of the soldiers came from (possibly also that it was popular at the time the menu was created, but the Army hadn’t gotten around to changing it!).
One of my additional duties was to be on the Dining Facility Council. I ate in the Mess Hall, so I was happy to make suggestions so my eating would improve. At the time, we had a mess sergeant was actually pretty receptive. I suggested adding cream cheese for the bagels, and it was in the Mess Hall for breakfast in a few weeks. He also mentioned the master menu the Army had, so I was curious and asked to see it.
That’s how I found out rabbit was on the menu, alongside of the Chili Mac and Breaded Veal. Granted, I had never seen it served in the Fort Lewis Mess Halls. I also wasn’t about to do any food experimenting if it was made in an Army mess hall. I still remember Southern food day. They’d gotten a new mess sergeant, and she thought to make all Southern food for dinner.
What she didn’t think about was that some types of food are an acquired taste. Like pigs feet, which was the main course.
They ran out of hot dogs and hamburgers.
I imagine the same thing would have happened if they’d tried serving rabbit.
When I went to a science fiction convention a few years ago, Janine Spendlove, who is active duty Marine, was telling a story about a discussion she had with a male officer. All the men are referred as Marines. All the women are referred to as female Marines.
Never as Marines.
It was a constant reminder that women were there, but we weren’t quite part of the organization — and this is a place where teamwork is drilled into our heads. The army could kind of ignore us and that we were different.
But when Desert Shield started the build up that would eventually become Desert Storm and a war with Iraq over Kuwait, suddenly people started noticing that there were women deploying. Whoops!
Forty thousand women deployed, the largest deployment of women to war at that point. I remember seeing a lot of news articles, mostly about mothers who were leaving their children behind. Mother’s deploying! Leaving children behind! There was a lot of hand wringing about this.
Maybe it’s me, but we were all soldiers, and there were some of us who were leaving children behind. The children are still affected, whether it’s a mother or a father. I left parents and grandparents behind, like some of my fellow single soldiers, and it affected them, too. War is one of those things where it has a huge reach and affects people who aren’t even there.
A former soldier on a blog post elsewhere said that the military treats men like they’re disposable. I think that’s true in a sense. The soldier is a tool, and as as long as the tool is working right, the military’s happy. Women, however, did not elevate up to the role of tool. It was, in a way, like someone had ordered them to use these tools, but they didn’t really want to. So we ended up being a tool when they wanted us to be one, and when they didn’t, we were, well, this group that no one quite knew what to do with.
Women couldn’t be in combat. Yet, we were going to combat. And, in the case of Desert Storm, two women were captured.
One of the issues of the law that “prevented” women from being in combat was that they could be side by side with the men, have the same risks, but not be able to earn any of the medals. In the army promotion system at the time (though I suspect it hasn’t changed much), it was done by a point system for your occupation. The points would have times where they would drop, and if you had enough points, you were promoted. The medals were worth so many points, so when the women were excluded from earning them, they ended up losing out on the promotion opportunities as well. The officer promotions are different, but those medals also count in important ways.
So that put the women in the position of being ordered to do what was needed like the men, but not getting the same opportunities. Desert Storm’s new face on war brought that out, and it continued to be a focus during the two wars that followed. It’s only now — 24 years later — that we’re starting to see opportunities for women open up.
One of the challenges for my army unit during the mass build up that would become Desert Storm was that we didn’t know if we were going or not. I’m on a Desert Storm mailing list, and one of the veterans asked when we were notified, and i had to say that no one ever came out and said, “You’re leaving on XX date.” It simply happened, as a natural, logical conclusion on the process.
We would be preparing for deployment for about three months with this not knowing. I’m not sure if it would have been easier if we had a date or leaving it to the unknown. An actual date would have brought in the anticipation as we approached. Yet, as we did get closer, the rumor mill churned out that there was indeed a date. But it was also constantly shifting, so maybe that’s why no one told us anything. I think a shifting date would have been the worst of the three choices because I would have readied myself for that date, and and then it wouldn’t have happened, and I would have had to go through it all over again for the new date.
Every day was spent in some form of preparation. Getting supplies ready, making sure we had wills done, getting shots, and, of course, training. It was constantly wearing on us, almost like a river flowing down stream that eats steadily at the rocks on the shoreline.
The women soldiers couldn’t really have a reaction to this stress. If we had tried to relieve the stress — if that was even possible — in ways that women tend to, the men soldiers would have sneered at us for being weak.
There’s a scene in the most famous of Star Trek episodes, The City on the Edge of Forever, which kind of sums it up. The crew that beamed down to the planet has just found out that Dr. McCoy somehow changed the past and the Enterprise simply no longer exists. They’re effectively stranded unless they can fix the problem.
Uhura has the following line of dialogue: “Captain, I’m afraid.” (Sorry, I couldn’t quite get a clip of her saying this, but occurs right after this scene.)
If we even said anything like this, most of the men would have taken it and exaggerated it to point where we sounded like we were the most incompetent people, as proof women were not competent of doing anything men could do.
The men tended to express their fears one of two ways:
They strutted around with a tough guy facade and proclaimed, “I’m going to kill me some (OMITTED).”
They played soccer and football.
The later was done during physical training in the morning, and the men soldiers got very aggressive during the games. The games were actually pretty violent, and the women learned to stay out of the way. I still had to participate because it was physical training, but I had no desire to be squished flat. I went down to the end of the field to be the goalie, where it was at least somewhat safer because most of the action happened on the middle of the field.
The games got so aggressive that one soldier broke his toes during pool volleyball! Another sprained his ankle on the playing field, and a tackle broke the leg of another, making him non-deployable.
This month, my story “War Happens” comes out in the anthology Red, White, & True. I wrote the story for this back in 2012, and it went through something like four revisions. Considering the amount of revision I had to do, I was amazed it got accepted in the first place!
The original version was 1,500 words, and the final version was over 3,000. Part of it was that Tracy Crow kept saying to go deeper. That part was really hard for me. I hadn’t really written about the war like that before, and there are places I still don’t want to venture.
But I’d thought about writing about war. It’s like I wanted to purge myself of the poison of whatever war is. But I was still in the army at the time, and they wouldn’t have done too well if I’d wrote about the not so good sides of war. But fiction, I was safer. Put in a fantasy world, and it wasn’t real, except in the story.
That caused me to veer into quite dark territory in my fiction writing, and I was completely unaware of it. By dark, usually things were resolved for the main character, but not overall in the story. Like in a recent science fiction story that just got rejected again, the army decided to experiment with making soldiers cyborgs. One of the characters volunteered, and then couldn’t get out of it when things didn’t work the way she wanted. The army was disappointed with the volunteer rates and decided to order everyone to do it. The first sergeant gives all his soldiers an “out” before they’re forced to do this, and the main character is able to escape, but the army was still doing the experiment.
That’s a lot of the way I felt as a private. Mission first, private second to last, and woman soldier last. Because sometimes something would happen, and the results wouldn’t be right, and all you could do was accept it. In the last months before I transferred from Fort Lewis, we had a terrible platoon sergeant. She was so bad that it was going to be either the transfer or I would get out. In a job, you could quit and go somewhere else. In the army, you’re stuck.
And the first sergeant thought it was a big joke, that she really wasn’t that bad. So he didn’t do anything, and all of us suffered in frustration and anger. My own squad leader (who I was older than at that point) would come back from meetings with the platoon sergeant and take her anger out on me. Not cool. But she was in charge, and I really couldn’t say anything.
It wasn’t until all the sergeants got fed up and mutinied against the platoon sergeant that something was finally done. The sergeants had been plotting and documented everything, and the platoon sergeant was gone.
I think in my writing, I’d sort of been dancing around this darkness. But once I had to write “War Happens,” I dove right into it. The story was about a friendship that was destroyed by the war, and I wrote it in one sitting.
I remember when the first request came back for editing, I thought I knew the place she was talking about. I went in and fixed it, thought all was well. Then Tracy came back again and wanted more about the experience. At that time, I had just taken a workshop in writing where my strengths were analyzed (workshop was discontinued after three sessions, but is coming back in a different form). One of the things I found out was that I entirely left setting out of my stories. So this time, when the revisions were supposed to go deeper, I understand instantly what they were looking for and what the story wasn’t doing.
But it was so hard actually doing it. There was a part of me that didn’t want to wreck the original story and what I’d done with it. But there was another part of me that was dragged into kicking and screaming, because it was much safer for me not to go into that much detail. Details meant more of the experience — both to the reader, and to me, and I tapped into things that I’d forgotten, sometimes willingly.
The deadline was tighter, too. I dropped everything else and worked on only it for an entire I think. It was exhausting writing it, and I was never more grateful to look at it and realize I was done. Then I noticed it had doubled in size!
It had also changed quite drastically (I’m an organic writer, so this is common when I write). So that little devil popped onto my shoulder and suggested that I might have changed it too much, because it was still like the original and not like the original. I plopped into an email, pretended like my head wasn’t screaming “You screwed it up!” and sent it. Everyone was happy with it. Only minor edits to clean stuff up after that.
Earlier this year, I had a review done of my writing, which is different from a critique. I’d had one done before, but this time, everyone told me I was writing really dark. I knew instantly that goes back to being in Desert Storm. I’m now now working on shifting my writing to be lighter and happier.
War has a very curious legacy.
Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present
Even as we celebrate the return of our military from wars in the Middle East, we are becoming increasingly aware of the struggles that await veterans on the home front. Red, White, and True offers readers a collection of voices that reflect the experiences of those touched by war—from the children of veterans who encounter them in their fathers’ recollections of past wars to the young men and women who fought in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The diversity of perspectives collected in this volume validates the experiences of our veterans and their families, describing their shared struggles and triumphs while honoring the fact that each person’s military experience is different.
Leila Levinson’s powerful essay recounts her father’s experience freeing a POW camp during World War II. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tracy Kidder provides a chilling account of being a new second lieutenant in Vietnam. Army combat veteran Brooke King recounts the anguish of raising her young children by day while trying to distinguish between her horrific memories of IED explosions in Baghdad and terrifying dreams by night.
These individual stories of pain and struggle, along with twenty-nine others, illustrate the inescapable damage that war rends in the fabric of society and celebrate our dauntless attempts to repair these holes with compassion and courage.
When I hear flip-flops, I always think of summer, and Southern California. As scary as it sounds, when I was growing up, we didn’t initially have air conditioning. So it was leave open the front door, leave closed the screen door, and crank open all the windows. Didn’t help much though. Hot is hot in California. Even in Virginia, with the humidity as bad as it is today, isn’t the same as August in California.
I’d walk around the asphalt playground and feel the heat rising off it around my shins and calves. Then, the city sometimes patched cracks in the street with tar. When the summer sun hit it, it always smelled like the tar had just been laid down a few minutes ago. Hot enough to melt.
From the backseat of the car, I’d see the heat rising off the cars on the freeway. It wasn’t actually visible, but it made the air waver above the cars, sort of like what steam does. Sometimes the heat would cause mirages, too. Mostly, I would see them on the road ahead, looking like a layer of water sitting on the surface, until we reached it. I was reminded of this yesterday when I watched a Smithsonian special on the Titanic. Think of it as a layer cake. You take a slice out and you can see these layers. The layers are the different temperatures of the layers of air. For Titanic’s area, they layers were cold, and Los Angeles was, of course, hot.
I haven’t seen a mirage since I left Los Angeles. I hadn’t thought about that until I watched the special.
Summer also turns everything yellow and brown in Los Angeles. With the draught now, it’s even more so:
I used to joke that my father never needed to mow the lawn. He just let it grow tall in the backyard and then die when the summer came. It was so tall that our min-pin Bubbles had to take a leap with each step to see where she was going. Snoopy, who was a lot older, wiser, and often cranky, would just forge ahead in the grass, his curling tail poking up like a periscope. He always knew exactly where he was going, even though he couldn’t see it.
Of course, that yard was great for adventuring for us kids. When we first moved into the house, I forged through it myself, looking for treasures. I found this piece of concrete with crystals set into it — crystals was what I called it at the time. It was some kind of quartz in a yellowish-white. I also found, curiously, blue beads in the exact shade that was my favorite color. Maybe one of the reasons I like turquoise is because it was so much the opposite of the colors I grew up with!