Military Accident = More than Fifteen Minutes of Fame


There’s an old saying that everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame. In Washington, DC I imagine that happens if your car stalls out in rush hour and every news station reports on “stalled car blocking the middle lane.” But we had one soldier who got far more than fifteen minutes of it, all over the 6:00 news.

We drove 915 trucks, which are very similar to tractor trailors, except green. The trailer part is a flatbed, so pretty much anything can be put on it. Add sideboards and a tarp and you can carry pallets of mail as we did during Desert Storm. A forklift can add a shipping container, or load poles. Lots of things can go on it.

We also had two main roads that we could take. But had two bridges. The design was strange because the bridges were together, and the road dipped under the first bridge, and then came up. If the drivers had a trailer, they were not supposed to go on that road, becauase there wasn’t enough clearance.

One of the drivers was carrying two 20 foot shipping containers on the trailer. They contained medical supplies. He forgot about the second bridge and went under it with the trailer. Hit it hard enough to knock off one shipping container and damage the other. Medical supplies were scattered all over the street, and the news crews came out to take pictures. Accident! Military truck! Terrible! Shocking!

We had a second accident, which occurred a few years later. The news footage showed the truck—no trailer—sitting on the freeway divider at an angle. They’d flown a helicopter over it. The mutliple car accident had occured in front of the military truck, and the driver went on the embankment to avoid hitting the disabled cars and also to get out of way. But if you listened to the media, it was “Army driver causes accident.”

Sometimes what seems like the truth isn’t.

Drinking water out in the field


Whenever we went out to the field for training, our squad leaders had to bring “potable water.” Potable water is what you can drink and fill your canteens with. The field on Fort Lewis was always way out in the middle of nowhere, so we always had to bring out water and food. There wasn’t anything like water in the MREs, though at the time, they had powdered sweet drinks that could be added to water.

The first way was our own personal canteens. We carried one quart canteen on our equipment belt, and that was supposed to be full before we went to the field. In Desert Storm, we had two 2 quart canteens—it was wearing water balloons stuck to our hips. I hated drinking out of my one quart canteen. They were always used when we got them from central issuing, and the previous owner of mine had added the MRE powdered drink to the water. The taste had leached into the plastic, so when the water warmed up over the day, the water would have this vague flavor of cool aid. Yuck!

Our platoons also brought out water in five gallon containers. Amazingly, it’s for sale on Amazon! This is exactly what they looked like. My squad would fill up some and put them in the back of a CUCV, which was a vehicle we used after the jeep and prior to the hummers. It looks kind of like the suburban, except camouflaged in dull green colors.

When the container was full up, it was a two person job to fill a canteen. One tipped the container while the other held the mouth of the canteen to the mouth of the containers. Water usually managed to spill. The sergeants would also take one and turn it upside down so the spigot was on the bottom, then set it on a table by the latrines so we could wash our hands. During Desert Storm, a lot of times this was one of those ubiquitous bottled waters that were everywhere.

The last way we brought out water was at company level—a lyster bag was set up. I tried using the term in something, but no one knew what the heck one was. It looks like a canvas punching bag dangling from a frame, or a tree branch. It holds 36 gallons of water and was always sweating with ice cold water. A picture is here.

The sergeants were always making sure we drank water. One of the women hated water and just drank coffee. She refused to drink water when we were in Desert Storm and ended up getting it in her record that she had been told she needed to drink water. She did end up dehydrated and on an IV at one point because she didn’t get enough liquids. Even just in a normal field activity, you can sweat off a lot of water, so it was always important to have more water nearby.

Eating out in the Field


The military is really big about training. But then, the entire mission of the military is war, and the only thing soldiers can do is train until and if a war happens. The purpose is to know everything by rote so when the big scary stuff happens, the soldier doesn’t have to think about what to do because she already knows.

We’d go to training on Fort Lewis once a week. Training wasn’t like what’s in the corporate world, where you go sit in a classroom while the instructor races through PowerPoint slides. We went out to the field, which was the woods. We would have liked the classroom, since Fort Lewis could be cold and rainy, but we rarely did anything indoors. Fort Lewis has a huge expanse of woods—beautiful fir trees that look like telephone poles and smell like pine. Lush green everywhere.

Any time we requested one of the training areas, we got our training schedule back with a list of who we needed to coordinate with. There was a lot of competition for some training areas, and sometimes there was just a company nearby. We’d have to take paperwork around to all these different companies so they could sign off on it. If they didn’t, we’d have to find another place. I ended going to 1st Special Forces and 75th Rangers to get signatures. No women, so I stood out!

The main reason for the coordinations was because some of the companies used artillery to train, and we did not want to be on the business end of that.

Anyway, we’d scheduled training at the Military Operations On Urban Terrain place, or MOUT, as it was known. You can see some pictures of a MOUT site here. It had basic buildings, so we could practice war in a city environment. This particular training site was always popular, and we were sharing it with another company. We were at one end, and they were at the other.

At lunch, the cooks brought food in the back of a CUCV. It’s food straight from the mess hall. They cook it and fill metal insulated containers to keep it hot, then serve it to us. So we get hot food on paper plates and plasticware. We’re tired from the morning’s training and still have the afternoon to go, so we go off and find spots to eat.

And then suddenly our eyes and throats are burning. No! It’s not the food!

The other company used CS gas (otherwise known as tear gas). The wind was blowing it all in our direction.

One soldier sat there and continued to eat—no one was going to interrupt him!—while the rest of us tried to find a better place. Did kind of ruin the meal for us anyway.

Pizza debuting in the MRE in 2017


Pizza’s the mainstay of the military. When I was stationed at Fort Lewis, Domino’s set up shop just off post, in Tillicum. Tillicum was a run down strip of restaurants, a few cheapie car dealerships, and that kind of thing.

Domino’s would send their drivers over on Friday or Saturday night with boxes of cheese pizzas, and they would walk to through the barracks: “Pizza for five bucks!” Sometimes it would be free. But, of course, taped the box was a set of coupons and the phone number so you would buy more pizzas.

In 2017, pizza will debuting in the Meals Ready to Eat (MRE): http://taskandpurpose.com/the-pizza-mre-is-finally-coming/

Soldiers always have a love-hate relationship with the MRE. An MRE is a “field ration”–a pouch of that you can stuff into your cargo pocket and eat out in the field. It doesn’t need to be cooked and it provided a hefty dose of calories (abut 1,200 a meal).

It also hasn’t always been good. Before Desert Storm, it seemed like no one thought much about making something soldiers liked. We had twelve meals to a box, and some of them were pretty awful. The frankfurters were known as the “four fingers of death,” and Omelet with Ham and Escalloped Potatoes had me scratching my head and wondering “What were people thinking?”

Desert Storm forced the military to rethink the MREs. I don’t think they thought originally much beyond soldiers having the meals for a week when a company went to the field. In Desert Storm, all of us had an MRE for lunch every day. But there were also places where we had it three meals a day. When I was at Log Base Alpha, the food at the mess hall was so bad that MREs were better. :>

We also were pretty creative with it. There was always a box of unwanted items like cheese or fruit, so we could mix what we wanted it. I always added cheese to everything if I could. I even was able to get hold of some nacho cheese potato chip dip and added that. One of the guys found some MRE bread, so some previously awful pork patty and beef patty hockey pucks became pretty decent sandwiches once rehydrated and heated.

After Desert Storm, the military started revising the MREs. They replaced all of them, and over time have added vegetarian meals and even ethnic ones. You can see here http://www.mreinfo.com/mres/mre-improvements/ some of the changes over time. Scroll to the bottom to see the changes to the ones I had.

Everyone always fought over the Spaghetti with Meatballs. If the pizza one is good, everyone will fight over that.

Since we are talking pizza, what’s your favorite? Mine is Mac and cheese. Yum!

And if you haven’t seen it, I posted some Frequently Asked Questions about my military service, which includes the medals and ribbons.

 

The first sergeant, the private, and the potato


One of the events my company always had every year was organization day. Like the office Christmas party, except it was on the weekend and we were directed to attend. For this one, the new first sergeant, a woman, decided that a work detail was going to make potato salad in the mess hall. Since I was in a platoon of sergeants, I got the detail.

I was a mixture of worried and annoyed. Worried because I didn’t know how to cook that well. I didn’t exactly grow up in a cooking environment, and there are a few family horror stories (see my Thursday post for one). When I ate in the mess hall in basic training, I was shocked at how good food could taste.

And I was annoyed because the work detail was on the day of the mandatory party. I had to get up before dawn on the day when I usually got to sleep a little later. Grumble, gumble.
Half-asleep, I showed up at the mess hall, more zombie than human being. The mess hall was way too bright, even if the walls were dingy.

“First Sergeant,” I told her, “I don’t know how to cook.”

“Of course you do,” she said. I could hear it in her voice: Silly! All women know how to cook.

But I was stuck. The Army’s primary goal was ‘accomplish the mission.’ When we are told to do something, no one wants to hear why you couldn’t do it. They just wanted to know it was done.

“You’re all going to peel the potatoes,” the first sergeant said.

Oh, okay. I could do this. Just give me a potato peeler.

No potato peeler. The mess hall did not have any!

“Use this.” The first sergeant handed out chef’s knives with eight inch blades.

It was a big freaking knife! I’d never even seen one that large before. How I was going to peel potatos with it? So I studied the russet potato on the cutting board.

Ah ha! I had a solution. I turned the potato sideways and sliced off the end. Then I turned it again and cut off the side, and I kept turning it and cutting off where I saw potato skin. Soon I had this rectangular-shaped potato, and glue-like starchiness all over my hands, the blade, and the knife handle.

It was a slow process. Everyone else had piles of peeled potatoes while I was working on my second. By the time I finished it, the first sergeant saw how I was peeling and was quite horrified. Now she believed me.

The bad part? Two other people brought potato salad to the party, and no one touched the first sergeant’s version.

First Sergeant – 0; Private – 0; Potato – 1.

Daily Life in the Military: Weekends


Contrary to what you hear on TV and in books, we did not need a pass go leave the post for the weekend. Once we were off Friday, we were hopefully off for the weekend.

That wasn’t always true for me, unfortunately. Sometimes the other platoons would pull their person from CQ duty on Saturday, and this guy’s not complaining. He’s out of the 24-hour duty, works a couple of hours, and then he’s off. But the line platoons would say “We don’t have any more people. Get someone from Headquarters Platoon.” Since I was the only one in the barracks from my platoon, I learned very quickly not to answer knocks to my door or to get out of the barracks.

I would often go to the library (it wasn’t like any of the soldiers were going to find me there!). Fort Lewis had a pretty decent library, though the hours were always getting cut. The library always had this book out that listed all the banned books, so I could pick up one of those if I want.

I also could go to the community center. It had chairs for hanging around, TVs, and phones in private rooms that we could call out on for a certain amount of money. In those days, we didn’t have cell phones and there weren’t any phones in the barracks, so this was what was available to us.

Fort Lewis also had an auto shop of sorts where soldiers could go work on their cars. There were also some movie theaters as well.

Eating

Food on the weekend was tough for the barracks soldiers. The dining facilities didn’t get much headcount then, mainly because the soldiers were trying to get away from being sucked up in additional duty. The result was that our Group decided to have the mess halls open on a rotating basis. There were two problems with it. Sometimes the Mess Halls were pretty far away, which was a problem if you didn’t have a car. Fort Lewis did have a shuttle of sorts, but it was so unreliable because a lot of the times the drivers would pull off somewhere and go to sleep.

The second problem was that no one seemed to care enough to tell us what Mess Hall was actually open. A lot of time I’d have to go hunting around and hit two or three buildings, so Burger King on main post became a much better option.

The food also tended to not be very good. One four-day weekend I ate in the Mess Hall all four days. They served the same food for the four days. Not the same menu item–we got the dried out leftovers.

For a little while, a couple of us got smart and headed over to the McChord Air Force Base Mess Hall, which was like eating in a restaurant. The food was better, and the place had nice tables and carpet. But then the Air Force got wise and put their mess hall off limits to Army unless we were up there for appointments, which we would have to show proof of.

So the post Burger King became a staple for many soldiers.

Then there was Domino’s. We had one right off the post, so they got a lot of orders on the weekend. To help generate more orders, they send over one of the drivers with a bunch of boxes of cheap pizza with coupons taped to the top of the box to get you buy more. The driver would come through the barracks with their boxes, hollering, “Pizza!”

Shopping

Most of my shopping ended up being on the weekends. Because I lived in the barracks, I didn’t have to buy groceries at the Commissary. I sometimes thought about buying Diet Coke there, but the hours were very strange. It wasn’t like a normal store, where the hours are the same every day and maybe some variance on the weekends. They were different every single day.

And crowded. It looked like the lines at Costco, except there was one long one filtering into all the cashiers. No “10 items of less” for someone like me with a few twelve packs. I’m sure it had great prices, but the time wasn’t worth spending for me. I bought my sodas at a Target and just watched for sales.

Sometimes I’d go up to the Post Exchange, which we called the PX. The building was new to Fort Lewis, having just opened about the time I arrived. In terms of what they sold, it was kind of like a Target. It had clothes, and magazines, and just a lot of different stuff.

But not cheap. In many cases, if I waited for sales off post, I could do a lot better.

Clothing Sales was also sometimes a weekend stop off. That’s where we bought new uniforms. The Army gave us an initial issued uniform, but after that, we received a clothing allowance on the anniversary of our first enlistment, and used that to buy uniforms and boots that wore out.

It was a store made for men, so all the uniforms were just folded up on shelves like the way you buy men’s clothing. You had to know your size; there wasn’t any place to try things on.

Calls Home

This was in the days before cell phones. I’m sure every soldier now has a cell phone. Then, we didn’t have a phone in the barracks. There was a phone in the main company area, but that was for company use. You couldn’t go down there and use it to call home. A lot of guys had their girlfriends call it though and leave messages. If you got the messages or not depended on who manned the phone that day. Sometimes I’d come out in the evening and find one of the guys practically melting over the phone, talking to his girlfriend.

Mostly though, we made our outgoing phone calls on the payphone outside the barracks. We bought time on AT&T calling cards, and the code could be punched in to dial home. The only problem with all of this is that no one could really call us. We always had to initiate the calls.

Laundry

Doing the laundry was like apartment laundry. We had two washing machines and dryers, but no coin charge. First come, first serve. You had to sit and watch your laundry in the women’s barracks. Sometimes some of the other women would come back and pull your wet clothes out and stick theirs in.

Nights

Nights over the weekend were often bad because some of the soldiers like to play their music really loud. Usually they were also the ones who would take great offense if you asked them to turn it down, so all I could do was suffer in silence.

Of course, it always seemed like the weekend was too short, and then it was back to work!

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!