Layers: A Desert Storm Veteran and 911


Washington Monument at sunset
I wrote this a year after the jet crashed into the Pentagon. I’m still amazed I could write about it then, because I don’t think I could do it now.

On September 11, 2001, the world changed forever when four planes crashed, including one that struck the Pentagon in Washington, DC.  Linda Maye Adams describes the events of the day in Washington DC from a Desert Storm veteran’s perspective.  This story moves chronologically through what happened and how it impacted the people who lived in that area, capturing the emotion of an unforgettable day.

Available from your favorite booksellers.

Desert Storm to September 11, 2001


When we came home from Desert Storm, everyone was already saying, “We’re going back,” because we hadn’t finished what had been started.  And, of course, we know that’s exactly what happened because of 911.

I was in Washington, DC on that day, working at the same place I am now.  I was in the National Guard at the time, and I was short-timer and looking forward to getting out in December.  At that point, I was done with the military.  People were saying, “But you have twelve years in.  Why don’t you stay the extra eight and retire?”  It was something you had to be there to understand.  I’d gotten to the point where I just couldn’t take it any more.  I would end up hating it, and I hated what the military was doing to my writing.  It was not the best of environments for being creative.

When the first planes hit in New York, we didn’t really know what was happening.  Initially, I think people thought it was an accident, but once news started getting out, we were evacuated into the basement of our building in case were attacked.

Eventually, we were kicked loose, and I had to head North, into DC.  It was a 14 mile drive and took four hours.  Traffic inched along, and unlike normal DC traffic, everyone was mannerly.   I sat in that traffic, sick to my stomach, as I watched police escort convoys of cars down the shoulders.  So many rescue workers headed in that direction.

My car started to overheat, pumping out pink smoke — the fan had gone out.  I finally got over to an exit and got off, moving away from the traffic, to get the engine cooled down. I stopped in a restaurant to wait things out, and I was beyond being stunned or in denial.  How can you react to the enormity of what had happened?

I finaly got home, and over the next few weeks as the Pentagon burned, I could walk out to the sidewalk and see the black smoke in the air.  And I still had to go to work the next day.  My then boss, a retired Army colonel, wanted us to get back on the horse.  But, for me, dealing with the fan that needed to be replaced, was almost more than I could handle.  It was get by the day, minute by minute.

The first weekend, my then cowriter and I got together to write because it was important to do something normal, even if the rest of the world wasn’t.

It took about two weeks for everyone in the area to start recovering.  About two weeks after, it was like the sun came and people started emerging from hiding.

I went to my first drill after, which might have been in late September or early October.  I don’t remember any more.  I was scared because I had only a few months left, and I knew the military was going to deploy.  If the President started calling soldiers up, I would be put on stop loss and deploy, and I didn’t want to go.  I’d had one war, and that had been enough.

The route back from drill duty took me past the Pentagon.  That part of the freeway had been previously closed, but once the fire was under control, it had been reopened.  I remember this guy in front of me jamming on his brakes and pulling over to the side, and then hopping out so he could take pictures like it was tourist scenery.  The Pentagon had this big black bite taken out of the side of the building, and it was difficult to even look at.

Time slowed down to an agonizing pace as I watched the news, waiting for the call up to start.  My last day in the military was December 25, 2001, and they started deploying soldiers soon after.

Jobs before I enlisted in the army


One of the things being in the National Guard reminded me of was how hard it is to get a good-paying job when you’re in your early 20s. There were a lot of soldiers who worked at McDonald’s, or someplace similar. While I never worked at Mickey D’s, I had my share of those types of jobs:

Stuffing newspapers

This was really one of my first jobs. When you get the Sunday newspaper, it has all these sections in it like the Arts or Style section and the coupon package. That’s what we put in the newspaper, which was the Los Angeles Times. We lined it all the sections up on a counter, right to left, and picked up each section, and put it in the last section. Then we stacked the newspaper counter to ceiling. My fingers always turned black from the ink coming off the newspaper, and the concrete room always smelled like paper dust, dry and of the ink.

The worst days where when the Sunday paper had free samples, like a spaghetti sauce mix. It made for very lopsided newspapers, and we had to watch the stacks carefully, or they’d fall on us.

Opening envelopes

This was for one of those places where you slap all these stickers on and send in the paperwork to enter a contest. What they really want is you to buy the magazines. We were supposed to open the envelopes and see if there was any checks. No checks and it went into the trash. I lasted a day at that, deemed too slow. I just couldn’t motivate myself with the dishonesty of the whole thing.

Receptionist

I temped at this one company where the owner jokingly told me that my motor scooter had been run over by a truck. It only went downhill from there. I spent the afternoon answering calls from creditors who wanted payment for past due bills. Needless to say, when I returned to the temp agency, I told them about this, since they might have trouble getting paid.

Cataloging Motown Music

Motown records was bought by MCA, and they needed people to inventory their immense music library. We had stacks of boxes containing enormous reels. A sticker on the reel identified what was on the reel, so my job was to type the reel number and the songs on an inventory list.

Bartender

This was in a pizza restaurant, and one of the jobs I was at the longest.  I just served beer (Budweiser and Coors) and wine (Burgundy, Rose, and Chablis).  The hours were all over the place; you might be working lunch shift today and closing at 1:00 a.m. the following day. Every day, the general manager posted shortages of cash on the wall in the washing area, and the employees were regularly accused of theft. They even went so far as to spend $500 for lie detector tests to find out who was taking the money. They couldn’t find who was taking the money. One day, the owner came in and counted the money at closing, then locked it up. The next day, he showed up after the general manager counted the money. The till was short again, though it hadn’t been the night before. The general manager was the one stealing the money, not only from the registers, but from the change machine. He’d stolen something like $65,000 and was going to pay it back $100 a week, though I doubt if the owner ever got all the money back.

File Clerk

This was my last job before I enlisted in the army. I worked at a temp agency that also owned a second business the floor below selling doll house miniatures. When I wasn’t filing, I inventoried tiny plates, chairs, and tables. I remember they had an artist who did these little paintings on the plates, like the designer ones you see advertised sometimes. Every Christmas, I also ended up wrapping gifts that were sent to the companies we did business with — eel skin wallets (baby soft), executive pens, and that kind of thing.

After that job ended, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Los Angeles aerospace industry took a big hit that rippled out to other businesses. It was even harder to find a job, and that’s how I ended up looking at the army as an option.

Just a minute–i’m a ghost soldier?


A to Z Challenge Badge
A to Z Challenge Participant

I’m trying to stay within the alphabet requirements here, and parts of this story are all tangled up because they all happened at the same time. So make sure you tune in K as well for the last part of story.

I’d just gotten a Red Cross message that said my mother was dying. A driver in a military truck came by our company and picked me up, and the war dropped away behind me as we drove the airport. I think it was in Riyadh, but I wasn’t processing much. This wasn’t supposed to happen!

Before I left, my mother had discovered breast cancer. She’d had the lump removed and then the rounds of chemo. She had been doing okay when I left and it looked like there weren’t any more problems. What had happened?

But she’d been in California, and I’d been stationed in Washington State, and then off to Saudi Arabia. My parents had kept quite a bit from me because I wasn’t actually present.

The Army flew me out of the country on a cargo jet, complete with the cargo netting seats. I shared the compartment with a giant jet engine being flown back. There wasn’t anyone else on the plane with me except that engine and the pilots.

I ended up in one of the Carolinas, and there I ran into the military bureaucracy. The ticket to Los Angeles cost $20 more than flying to the duty station in Washington State. Same coastline. So I would have to fly to Washington State and then buy another ticket to get down to Los Angeles?

Red Cross Message. Mother dying. What part of that do you not understand?

I said I’d pay for the extra $20. Nope. I finally ended up paying for the entire plane fare.

And it was a good thing I did, because I barely got there in time before my mother died. The cancer had gone into her lungs, and it was very fast.

The Army didn’t really tell me what to do after my emergency leave ended. I thought I was going back to Saudi Arabia, but they ended up sending me back to Fort Lewis. The war was over, so the Army didn’t want people coming back in-country.

Turned out it was a lucky thing because I didn’t get paid.

Remember those mobilization orders I got from the Reserves? I’d become what’s called a ghost soldier. This is a term I saw in the Washington Post when I was in the National Guard. What happens is that commanders of units have to keep up a certain percentage of readiness. If they can’t, they can get into trouble, and it can affect future career prospects. So sometimes they will lie.

When I was in the National Guard, we had soldiers who decided they didn’t like the military and stopped showing up for drill. They were AWOL, but the unit would keep them on the books as present to keep the numbers within the required margins. We did have some problems during Desert Storm because commanders had so lied about their readiness that their units actually could not deploy.

Evidently, the Army Reserve had not removed me from their rolls. Either it was the above issue, or sloppy paperwork keeping, which was also possible. So I was in the Army, and the Reserves had me on their bad list because I’d missed deployment by being deployed.

Yup. Military logic. Tune for the last part of this story tomorrow.

Next up will be “Keeping up with the services: Reserves, Army, Oh My!” so tune in, same military channel, same military time tomorrow.

5 military things about me


Linda Adams in desert camo uniform against a backdrop of other soldiers

1.  I was in the Army Reserve, the Army, and the Army National Guard.

Those are three different services.  I started out with the Reserve because it helped me make the decision and decided to enlist in the regular Army after Basic Training.  The National Guard was a big mistake, and I was glad to be finished with it.

2. I was the least likely soldier to be in the military.

I have “Adams Feet,” or flat feet.  The whole family on my father’s side has them.  In my case, I have high arches and they drop.  It makes me a terrible runner, and I can’t march well either.  They debated about me, then decided to let me in.  The debate happened again during Basic Training, and then again at my first duty station.  No one ever told me I had flat feet!

3. I went to war.

It was Desert Storm, when the thought of women deploying was strange and new and different.  The photo above was taken when President Bush visited us for Thanksgiving.

4. I was enlisted.

With the way everyone talks about the military in movies and film, you would think that everyone is an officer.  They make up only a small percentage of the military.  Enlisted are the bulk of the service.  Because I had a degree from a community college, I came in as a Private First Class (still a private) and left the military as a Specialist.  I’m afraid I didn’t aspire much to come up in the ranks!

5. My Basic Training was at Fort Dix, NJ.

I went during the summer.  Hot, really humid.  Imagine a heavy cotton jacket soaked with sweat, and that was what it was like for us.  Most alarming though were the signs posted on the words warning us about ticks.  Yikes!

More military stuff to see:

Seriously, are meals in the military as bad as MASH portrayed them?


A female food service specialist serves food across the counter to another soldier
Photo courtesy of U.S. Army

This time of the year is always about the food.   We go over to family’s house and load up on turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and my favorite, pumpkin pie, and repeat again at Christmas.  The food’s always delicious.   But what about the military?  When I was growing up, I watched MASH and saw Hawkeye Pierce inciting a strike because the food was so bad.  Was it really that bad?

The field is a challenging environment even for the most experienced of cooks.  The Next Iron Chef recently aired where the chiefs all had to cook on a beach.  They had limited resources, which not only included the types of food available, but the equipment, and environment.    These were extremely experienced chefs, and they struggled with the environment at times.  Now imagine someone inexperienced in the harsh environment of the desert, where food spoils quickly and they’re using portable stoves.

We left Dhahran after about six weeks, leaving our catered food behind.   Our cooks had to prepare the meals for our battalion.  The battalion had two active duty units, one National Guard, and one Reserve.  The latter two met once a month and trained two weeks a year, so not much experience cooking in the field.

In a logic only the army could have, the battalion pared the two experienced units on one shift and the two inexperienced ones on the other.  The result was two meals that were great, and two meals that were … well, bad seems kind.  How the heck can you botch up  hamburgers and hot dogs?!

Then there was the chili mac, which was the most common army meal.  Tim Dugan, an army cook, notes:

Sometimes we get to change it up, but as a whole, we are required to follow the recipe card exactly.  As a result, when you eat at an Army quality dining facility, you get the same product.  Cooks want to “flex” and make the product a little different, taste a little better, or have a little more flavor.  However, a good shift leader, first cook or DFAC [Dining Facility Manager] manager will keep his or her eye out, and will prevent that from happening.  Non-cooks should know that the Army sets these standard recipe cards to limit cost, control nutrition and prevent allergens.

As a result the soldiers will add hot sauce.  So we’re having chili mac in the mess tent.  We sit down, and there’s this guy across from us pouring on the hot sauce.  He eats a spoonful of it and then takes off his hat and slams into the table.

Oh, dear.  Seems someone got a little too creative with the seasoning …

Yup.  Military meals can have their moments of serious badness.

Linda Adams – Solider, Storyteller

Cover for A Princes, A Boatman, and A Lizard, showing a silhouette of a princess holding a lizard in the palm of her hand.Yay!  My short story “Six Bullets” is now available from Starcatcher Publishing in the the anthology A Princess, A Boatman, and A Lizard.  The story is about a princess who enlists in the military and then must battle her way up a river with only six bullets.