Daily Life in the Military: Morning Cleanup

After breakfast, we returned to the barracks to shower and change for the workday. For the female soldiers, we had our own section of the building, and later, after we moved, our own building. During the time after PT, men were not allowed in the barracks at all. It was kind of an unspoken rule, because all the women were getting changed. It wasn’t like we had private bathrooms in our rooms; women were going down to the showers in various states of undress.

We did have one time where one of the male sergeants tried to get in. He was up to no good, and I happened to be the one who stopped him outside and told him, “You know you’re not supposed to be here now.”  He slunk off, and I reported it to my squad leader.

It was a lot of bustling of activity during that 90 minutes. When we had our own barracks, it was something like twenty women sharing three showers, sinks, and toilets. No privacy – the shower was an open bay with three showerheads and an older style floor that always smelled like mildew. We had to wear flip flips – we called them shower shoes – because the floor would give us athlete’s foot.

After showers, it was off to get dressed. The uniform was typically the BDU—Battle Dress Uniforms. That’s the older style green camouflage ones, called woodland camouflage. The uniform was a set standard for the time of the year, so we couldn’t change it up any like wear a field jacket because it was chilly that day. We could change up the boots a little and instead of wearing issue boots, wearing jump boots (wide toe and very stiff sole) or jungle boots (green canvas sides). We could also use a polyester/wool blend sock instead of the issued wool sock (very scratchy), green, of course. Everything else was standard, though.

The hair for the women then was always a challenge. Then we just had to keep our hair off the collar with a rubber band or barrette that was similar to our hair color. I have really thick hair, so it was always hard to put up my hair. Initially, I tried cutting it short, but that’s surprisingly high maintenance. I had to be really on-time getting it cut, and there was a point where if it got just long enough, I was in violation of the regulations but it was also too short to put up.

What I ended up doing was put it in a pony tail or a French braid. Then I folded it up, then folded it down and put a barrette on it. That wasn’t the far off from what the other women were doing. My roommate had hair down to her butt, and she braided it and folded it up, too.

There were women there who would use every minute of that 90 minutes to get dressed and do their hair. I was like ten minutes, and then I could chill out for a while before doing any clean up.

Cleaning had to be done every morning. Two areas needed cleaning: The bathroom and the hallway. One of the women made up a rotating schedule, so everyone got it every few weeks. One of the women typically volunteered to come up with a roster of assignments for the week, so we could go two weeks without cleaning the common areas, the bathroom and the hallway. We still had to do our rooms as well, though.

The hallway consisted of stripping down the floor (usually on the weekend), and then waxing it. After that, sweeping with a mustache broom and then a quick buff. Sometimes we had to go chasing after the buffer – the guys would sneak in and steal it.   The buffer was quite heavy, had bike handles, and was like a bucking bronco – tough to control.

The bathroom was cleaning the floors, cleaning the showers, dumping pine oil in the toilets, cleaning the sinks. If I did it, I dumped bleach on that floor so it smelled clean.

Then we had to clean up our individual rooms. Sometimes that was buffing the floor, but it was also sweeping up, cleaning out the seal on the refrigerator, making the bed, etc. I was never very good at cleaning. The Army wanted us to learn attention to detail by cleaning, but I was terrible with details. Where the first sergeant would bark about cleaning the cracks in the seal on the fridge and expect us to pick up details like that, I simply added “crack in seal” to my mental blackboard of things the first sergeant wanted me to look for. For me, it never translated into how to look for other details like that.

About once every week or two, the first sergeant would make random inspections during the day, checking for cleanliness, so the rooms always had to be pristine.  When I got out of the Army, I practically exploded with junkiness! Staying that obsessively neat was too much for right-brained creative me!

At 15 minutes to 9:00, it was off for another formation.

Daily Life in the Military: Breakfast

Even with something like breakfast, which seems simple, the Army had its own way of doing things. Once we got done with physical training (PT), we had 90 minutes to eat and get dressed. Some of the married soldiers went home to eat and change. For the soldiers living in the barracks, we came back all sweaty and hot from the run and went straight to the mess hall.

To get our food, we had to sign in with the “headcount.” That was a soldier detailed for the day to sign people in and take money from the officers. I did that on occasion. Got to miss PT, which I didn’t mind, but was pretty much boring duty. The headcount reports in at meal time, sits in a chair as the soldiers file in, flash a meal card, and then sign their name.

They probably have an electronic version of this today, but the headcount was to help the mess sergeant (head cook) get an idea of how many soldiers he had to plan to feed.

The mess hall was a small room with a serving line and tables to eat at. The room didn’t look nice at all. Think cafeteria, and then knock it off a couple notches on the quality scale. Well, maybe more than a couple of notches. The Army made no effort to try to make it better. Functional. That was it.

The trays were like what you’d find in a cafeteria, with the top corners cut off so four can fit on a table. The plates were white, though I doubt if the Army was thinking of using the color to make the food look better.

One of the shifts of the cooks served the food on the line. The eggs would already be cracked and sitting out on the line in bowls, waiting to be used. Most of the food was pretty standard to what you’d find. One of the typical Army breakfasts was chipped beef, which was beef in a creamy gravy. It didn’t look very good, but actually wasn’t too bad. The nickname for it was “Shit on a Shingle.”

Fruit was usually bananas and Red Delicious apples. There was also had a small section of bagels, but very limited choices on what do with them. At one point, I was on the Dining Facility Council and got the mess sergeant to add things like cream cheese. One day we got a new mess sergeant and all of that was gone overnight. Disappointing.

Drinks were coffee, tea, water and juice. The juice was usually in a pitcher on ice. No sweet rolls, donuts, pastries, or anything like that.

We didn’t have to race through the food like we did in Basic Training (there, we were often headed to the washing line still eating our food!). Once we were finished, we took the trays to a rack next to the kitchen. Soldiers did not work in the back on kitchen duty. Contractors — usually women — did that. The only time I did kitchen duty was while I was at Reception Station before Basic Training. Never saw that again while I was in the Army.

After breakfast, a walk back to the barracks to clean up and get ready for the next formation.

Daily Life in the Military: Physical Training

I picked up a book on what it’s like to be a sous chef, so I thought it would be interesting to follow through the “Daily Life in the Military.” Of course, this was a number of years ago, so some things may have changed and others may not have.

Mondays, we’d start the day with physical training, called PT, since the Army likes its acronyms. Normally we did it Monday, Wednesday and Friday, though later, the post commander decided everyone was going to do it five days a week.

Formation for PT was at 6:30. A few hardy souls would get up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready, banging doors and flushing toilets. The rest of us dragged our zombie selves out of bed and changed into PT uniforms.

The full uniform was gray sweat pants, gray, sweat jacket, gray t-shirt, gray shorts, black watch cap, calf high socks, leather gloves, and running shoes. During winter, we wore all of that, and some of the women who hadn’t styled their hair yet would hide it under the watch cap. During spring and summer, we went down to shorts and t-shirts.

It also didn’t matter if it was too cold, too hot, raining or snowing. We went out and did PT, no matter the weather conditions.

We’d get out to formation ten minutes prior and line up in our platoons. Most of us were still half asleep, so the designated PT instructor that day (usually one of the sergeants) would start out with some stretching and then warmup exercises.

The stretches were your basic ones like bending over and touching your toes or

The warmup exercises were the horrid things. We always had pushups and sit-ups. The guys could always knock out the pushups, but grunted, groaned, and strained for the sit-ups. The ones I hated were the side straddle hop and the flutter kick. The side straddle hop is a jumping jack, and it was always very hard for me to do, probably because of my flat feet. The guys were always making fun of me. The flutter kick was just plain hard. This is what it looks like (shirtless guy alert):

No fair! He makes it look easy!

It would take about half an hour to finish that part of PT. The last half hour was the run. We always did it in a formation, which was supposed to encourage to slow runners to run faster to keep up. Amy logic. That never worked.

We ran on the streets of Fort Lewis, as cars drove past us.   When I was on main post, we would run through the housing areas, where it was kind of nice, and definitely quiet. If it was hot out and the person leading the formation spotted a sprinkler, we took a trip through it.

But someone would always get the idea to go up to Engineer’s Bluff, which was a steep hill and a killer to run up it.

With my flat feet, I was such a clumsy runner that I probably took at least three times the effort to run and came back exhausted. Once we stumbled back to the company, all sweaty and hot, it was off to the next scheduled event of the day: Breakfast.

Stuff and the Army

This post was inspired by comments on moving when I lived in the barracks.  There always seemed to be the assumption that somehow we all lived like monks who had taken a vow of poverty.  In fact one of the biggest impressions that barracks life left me was that where I was living was always considered “temporary.”

I lived in the barracks for six years.  Hardly temporary.

I think some of this comes from World War II military. Despite the fact that WWII was over 70 years ago, it’s still very much a part of our culture.

We have a local insurance company that uses a cartoon general.  WWII fatigues, steel pot helmet, and five stars (a rank that no longer exists).  And Beatle Bailey, which has the same type of uniform, the fat sergeant (who would be kicked out today), and the bay barracks.

So it seems like the imprint WWII made on our culture also impacted the military’s own image of soldiers living in the barracks.

Then, the soldiers would have been temporary, drafted for the war.  Once they finished their hitch, they would go back to civilian life.  It makes sense that everything was temporary.

But it’s seventy + years, and the world’s changed a lot.  What were the soldiers supposed to do once they got off work at 5:00?  Eat dinner, come back, and clean up the barracks and go to bed every night?

For six years?

So there was always that disconnect.  The sergeants sometimes forgot that we did have lives outside of the military.  No one thought hat we might want a place we spent a lot of time in to look halfway decent and not like a place to park for the night.

Moving, Military Style

Moving in the military is always messy and stressful. So much so that the military classifies it as one of the top stressors.

But that’s when the soldier had a family — a spouse, children. But for the single soldiers who lived in the barracks, we always had problems with the sergeants, who seemed to think all we had was two duffel bags.

Not the TV set, video player, computer, books …

Lots of books.

Fort Lewis kicked us out of our barracks on main post, to move to the old World War II “temporary” barracks on North Fort. That was six miles away.

Initially, all the men were moving, but the women’s barracks wasn’t ready. We hit a holiday weekend, and the women were told “Move now!” A hurricane hit Washington State that weekend. So I’m throwing stuff in the back of my Geo Metro, which was a roller skate of a car, as I get pelted by high winds and rain.

Drive up this winding, six mile road as the rain battered at my little car. Got to the new barracks, hauled out my stuff, made a mad dash inside, dropped the stuff off, and back for another trip.

The problem part of the move was my computer desk. It wasn’t a monster like the ones you can get today, but it had a hutch, so it wasn’t going to be fitting on my roller skate car.   My squad leader had promised to come by with his truck, but he was a no show (boo! Boo!).

It was getting dark out, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do about this desk. I was the last one in these barracks, and I was stuck. Then one of the other platoon sergeants stopped by to check the barracks, and he had a truck. Yay!

It was probably good that I was the last one there. We discovered that the orderly room had left behind the company guidon. The first sergeant would not have been happy if he discovered it Tuesday morning.

After that move, I couldn’t find anything for ages because of Army expectations versus moving expectations.

Unpacking is messy. The Army expected us to be inspection ready immediately.

Yup. Those two things didn’t work together. But somehow, it made sense to the military.

Beds, Military Style

When you live in the barracks, you’re kind of stuck with what you have. I’ve heard the military has tried to improve things, but there is a tendency to think of soldiers as children.

The beds, for example.

We were assigned beds that were originally in life bunk beds. We’d probably be still using them as bunk beds but there was a urban legend that an accident had caused Fort Lewis to outlaw them. According to the legend, over a four day weekend, a top bunk had crashed down on the bottom one, killing both the soldiers. No one found out until Tuesday morning.

But the bed was a twin bed, for an adult. In hind sight, that’s a tough fit for any adult. It’s more of something you give to kids. I’d always wake up and find an arm or a leg hanging off the bed, or smashed up against the wall, probably because of the sense there wasn’t really enough room.

I can’t imagine how some of the guys managed! We had some really big guys.

What about the sheets?

The bed clothes were furnished by the army — two cheap, thin, flat  sheets; two wool blankets; and a pillow.

Once a week, we stripped the bed to air out the mattress. Someone came around and picked up the sheets and replaced them with a pile of fresh ones. Sometimes they would be clean but stained.

We did have to use what the military issued us. However, we could add to it, so some of the women would add bedspreads. I got one of those mink blankets from a local flea market. It wasn’t real mink, but soft and thick. You’ve probably seen them hanging in stores and roadside stands. They usually have big pictures of animals on them like a buck. Mine was light purple, with a tiger.

I usually slept on top of the military blankets so I wouldn’t mess up the bed, and under the mink blanket. It was hard getting it made to where people were happy.

Is it true the bed had to be tight enough to bounce a quarter off of?

During an inspection, yes, but I never passed that. I simply couldn’t get it that tight. I’m not sure if it was just me, or if there was a point where I felt like it wasn’t worth the effort. Probably a little of both!

there’s Organizing my way and the army’s way

A to Z Challenge Badge
A to Z Challenge Participant

For several years after I got out of the army, I thought was terribly disorganized.  I was messy and tended to pile things.  In fact, if you look at any site on organizing, these are both often touted as a sign of disorganization.  “File it, don’t pile,” they will say, often accompanied by a stern lecture and disbelief that anything can be found.

It’s hard because people will look at messiness and think that you’re disorganized and not productive. It’s also true that I’ve seen people who are messy and disorganized like the person with stacks of paper three feet high covering the entire desk and the floor. That was enough to make me queasy!

But in the army, they took the organizing to new levels. Some of it is because of what the army’s mission is: War. There are things that you have to do in order because that might cause an accident, or worse. Maintaining discipline helps with the chaos that war turns into.

But it was worse for the barracks soldier. If you had a spouse or kids, or both, you lived off post in your own home. Once you left work, you could organize whatever way you wanted. The barracks soldier had to keep her room ready for inspection at all times, and some parts had to be a certain way. We had silly rules like you couldn’t put a magazine on a table top, or if you had a pack of cigarettes (not that I smoked), it couldn’t be out. Everything had to be put away, always.

I need to see stuff as part of how I do things. Like I’m working on this A to Z post, and I have a pile on which there’s a calendar so I can see what day to post it. I also have a story I need to critique and that’s in the pile, too. If I put the story in a drawer in a file cabinet to be neat, I’ll forgot entirely because filing means it’s done and I don’t need to touch it again for a long time. Out of sight is really out of mind.

In the barracks, we had this three drawer chest that was probably about the size of a nightstand.  It was serviceable but ugly (curiously, I could not find a picture of it online.  Maybe that’s a clue on the ugliness!).  But I did find a picture of what it is was supposed to look inside.  We had a diagram of how it was supposed to look and it had to follow that at all times.  I ended up have a set of all this stuff for that chest, and then a separate set of stuff that I actually used because it was so hard to get it exactly to inspection standards.  That made it terrible for the limited storage because I was having to buy two of everything.  Though I did get sneaky.  I discovered that if the drawer looked neat on the top, with all the clothes nicely folded, they didn’t look to see if there was chaos underneath.

Oh, yes, I was a bad soldier.

On the work side, since I was in an office, my squad leader was always getting on me about how my desk looked, and I kept thinking, “But how am I supposed to work?” I also had this one sergeant who would follow behind me and rearrange supplies because he wasn’t happy with how they looked. Oooh-kaaaay …

Looking back on it now, I often like I couldn’t be me, really, anywhere. This was such an issue that when I was able to finally move into an apartment, I went almost entirely in the opposite direction and exploded with messiness. I ended up having to bring it back more to the center and understand how I needed to organize.

So it was quite a shock after I got out of the army and a coworker told me she envied my organization skills. Organized? Me? When I’m so messy? So it’s been an evolving experience away from what the army taught me to what really does work for me.

Next up will be “the Practicality of the army uniform” so tune in, same military channel, same military time tomorrow.

The GI Party — No, it’s not what you just thought

I bet you had an immediate image of a soldiers out there partying things up.  The term G.I. party comes from World War II.  Then it was an intensive cleanup of the barracks on Friday evening (!) for an inspection on Saturday morning.  Ours was done during the week, and we didn’t have a choice in participating.

What would happen is the first sergeant, who was the senior enlisted in the company, would do random inspections of the barracks.  If he was unhappy with a section, then the platoon sergeant would be notified, and next thing the soldiers knew, it was time for a G.I. Party.  With the female section, it was a little different because there were only about seven of us.  No platoon sergeant was in charge of our area because we were a mix of platoons.

But we heard about it at final formation when the first sergeant declared our area “Fubar,” which means (fowled) up beyond all recognition.  No one told us what was wrong, so launched into massive cleanup for several hours.  We didn’t do it with toothbrushes or anything weird like that — it was all floor stripper, wax, bleach, pine oil, green scrubbing pads, mops, and brooms.  We had to do both our rooms and the common areas, which were the hallways and the latrine.

The G.I. Party included bleaching the bathroom floor because that kept the grout from discoloring.  I also liked bleach because you knew when you walked in the door that it had been cleaned, and with luck, maybe an inspection for the area was bypassed.  Sinks, toilets, and showers were cleaned.

For the hallway, we stripped the wax off the floor, cleaned it, and then waxed it again.  After that, we buffed the floor with our buffer (which we sometimes had to hide, since the males stole it on occasion).  The buffer isn’t like the ones you see in the office — those are easy to handle.  With the ones the army had, it was like a bucking bronco.  Very hard to control.  Sometimes it seemed like it had a mind of its own and would smash from wall to wall.

The floors in the rooms were also stripped, cleaned, waxed, and buffed.  We wiped off the top of the wall lockers, window sills, and anything else we could find.  The barracks gleamed.  There’s really nothing like a freshly polished floor.

Next day: Fubar again.  Another G.I. Party.  What else can we clean?  It seemed to be something in the common area, but what?  We renew our efforts and make everything shinier and cleaner.

Next day: Fubar again.  Another G.I. Party.  Now we’re begging our sergeants to tell us what he’s finding so we can get it taken care of and no one will tell us.  No one wants to be responsible for the female area..

Next day: Fubar again, and now the first sergeant is threatening to put all our belongings out in the parking lot.  I’m envisioning my TV set sitting out, either waiting for a Washington state rainstorm or a thief to steal it.

One of the women drags in her squad leader, and he reluctantly tells us the problem.


On the hallway light fixtures.

You have to be kidding.  It had been there years.

We got an exacto knife and scraped it off.  First sergeant was happy.


Life as a Single Soldier

Since I’m going to be teaching a class on Forward Motion called “Basic Training on Military Culture” starting November 5 (tomorrow!), I thought it would be appropriate to have a military theme for this month.  So drag off the combat boots and join us for a spell to learn about the military.

If a soldier comes into the military single/unmarried, the army puts them into the barracks.  They don’t have a choice about it and will stay into the barracks until they get married.  While I’ve never lived in a college dorm, I believe the best description of barracks life is probably close to dorm life.  You have a bunch of teenagers living together, though also with a mix of older soldiers.  All enlisted — the officers were never in the barracks.

What did the rooms look like?

The rooms came in two sizes.  One was like a large bedroom, and that was for two soldiers.  A larger room was for three soldiers.  We each got a wall locker, a small 3-drawer chest (the size of a nightstand), and a twin bed — really a bunk bed.   The bed had two drawers underneath for additional storage.  We also had a refrigerator and a desk.  Yeah, it wasn’t much space.

Particularly from the old-timer soldiers, there was an attitude that the single soldiers didn’t need much of anything.   I particularly saw this during the numerous moves we had to do.  Everyone kept thinking that all we had was a duffel bag, so we were often told to move in one day and expected to be military perfect instantly.  I had books.  I had a computer.  It was never simple.  I often had to throw everything in a box to make the move happen and could never unpack.  The worst move was when we were told to move across post in the middle of a hurricane!

Extra furniture beyond what the army provided also drove the old timers crazy.  We had a soldier senior enough to have a room by herself, and she had a sofa in it.  One of the sergeants wanted her to get rid of it — believe it or not — because other soldiers couldn’t have a sofa.  Her response was that it wasn’t her fault if they couldn’t afford one.

What were the facilities like?

We had one washing machine and one dryer.  If you didn’t stick around in the room and guard your laundry, someone would come in, take your clothes out of the dryer, and put theirs in.

For bathrooms, I was in two different barracks.  The first had shower stalls with tile, which seemed like a luxury compared to the World War II barracks we later stayed in.  We were lucky we had toilet stalls.  The showers were in bays of three, with the kind of tile that’s never going to look clean no matter how much you bleach it.  I didn’t take a bath for six years, except for occasional visits to hotels when I was on leave.

Below is a photo of the type of World War II building I stayed in from TPB, Esq.  Inside the buildings were signs that warned, “Maximum weight per square foot is 100 pounds.”  Think about that for a while.

Ft. Lewis No. 8

Screen reader: Photo shows an old World War 2-story building.  The buildings were intended to be temporary and they look temporary.  The walls are wood siding painted white.  Three sixteen pane windows are on the top floor and one on the bottom floor, along with two four pane windows.  The photographer identifies this building as condemned, so the paint is flaking off.

What were the rules of living in the barracks?

There were also rules associated with barracks life.  When I left Fort Lewis, they were working on changing some of them, because there were clearly rules that were just plain dumb:

  1. No hard liquor, but you could have a 6-pack of beer.  I didn’t get this one because you can get drunk off both.
  2. You couldn’t have anything out on the desk.  At all.  So if you had a magazine that you were reading, you had to put it in a drawer.  You couldn’t leave on the desk, no matter how neat it was.  I couldn’t even save soda cans to recycle because that was leaving trash out!
  3. Door checks.  At night, the staff duty officer would come through the female barracks and try the doors to see if they were locked.  Imagine lying in bed asleep and being awakened by someone unknown turning your doorknob.  Then, maybe I’ve been writing fiction, too long!

The worst thing about barracks life was really the music.  There were always several people who had to play their music at full volume, as if they were daring someone to complain about their music.  Sometimes two would get into music dueling wars and turn the volume up to try drown each other out.