Military Stories #06

It was a week before I suddenly got my stripes back. They were tossed to me while was in the latrine polishing our garbage can. No ceremony, no statement, not even a word.

I had spent the entire week with three or four cans of Brasso metal polish and the galvanized garbage can that the drill sergeant sometimes used as an alarm clock, Out of consideration, my former assistant had left me alone after I did minimum general duties around the barracks. I could see that he plenty to do, so I polished the garbage can, over and over. It turns out that galvanized steel can be polished enough to look like silver. We may have had the only silver garbage can in the army.

Getting back into leadership duties was pretty simple, I filled out duty rosters, made pre-inspections, and generally woke them up everyday. Avila was my only failure. Avila would not wake up to any screaming or nudging that I could muster. Finally I had enough, Avila had the top bunk, so I just lifted his mattress up and he tumbled to the floor. Sometimes he actually landed on his feet. The only down side became clear late one night. It was probably three o’clock in the morning and Avila was on butt patrol for an hour. I woke with Avila whispering to me at about four inches from my ear. “Diestler, I think it is only fair to warn you. Someday in the far distant future I’m going to hunt you down and cut you for every wake-up that you gave me. Years from now you should watch the dark corners, because I will be there!” Then he disappeared. I took him for his word, and I would not be surprised to see him again.

The training that we were going through started to make clear connections to life saving situations should we face combat. Weapons cleaning focused on speed and accuracy. Most of us could field strip our rifles within minutes. The daily weapon inspection may have been tedious, but necessary. Drill Sergeant Fagan loved formal weapon inspections. It went something like this…we were all standing at attention with our rifles at the shoulder. As the drill sergeant marched in front of us we prepared, if he was to stop, to move our rifles to the “present arms” position, this was basically holding the rifle vertically, one hand on the fore stock and one hand near the pistol grip. The drill sergeant spun on his heals, “Shouted “Present Arms” to the individual, then like lightning he would snake an arm out, grab the rifle and jerk it from your hands. In most cases he would drag you off of your mark because you had held on too long.

I saw this first hand with my platoon leader Carl. The drill sergeant also flung him to the ground while grabbing his rifle. After declaring it filthy, Carl was doing fifty push ups in the mud next to me. Then the drill sergeant did a smart right turn and approached me. I determined that the second I felt his touch on my rifle, that I would drop my arms to the attention stance, with my thumbs flush along the seams of my pants. The drill sergeant made his move, but I was a little faster. Unfortunately he hadn’t quite got a grip on the weapon. I think his plan was to slap it out of my possession. Instead, it was not cartwheeling several times to my right. Barrel in the mud, stock in the mud, barrel in the mud, stock in the mud. No one said a word or moved an inch. Finally, the drill sergeant told me to retrieve my weapon. This time he firmly grabbed it, my arms dropped, and then he proceeded to open the bolt to inspect the cleaning of the barrel. He said, “Excellent”, then moved to the next soldier.

At the end of inspection, I looked at my weapon. The truth was that I hadn’t cleaned it it several days. I was too busy making sure that the rest of my men had clean weapon. So I looked down the barrel of my M-16. It was totally clogged with mud so nothing could be seen. I had to remove about a five inch mud plug before I could start my weapon cleaning that night.

The center aisle gleamed, the foot lockers were completely identical, and the laundry bags had exactly the same knot. and position on our beds. We were getting pretty good at this, but today Drill Sergeant had yet another pet peeve. He didn’t like our straps hanging loose. There were several straps on our rucksacks that had to be adjusted, then the reminder simply hung down, ready to be loosened. The drill sergeant said fix it. Several squad leaders tried various rubber bands or knots. Nothing looked very neat. Then I tried rolling the excess into little canvas buns, tucked into the buckles at the end. The drill sergeant loved the idea, so everyone now had to learn how to roll the straps before marching. The problem was that I was doing most of the rolling. It was a never ending useless job.

We had been there long enough that some odd conditions no longer seemed odd, there were just normal. About half the platoon limped, not only from stiff boots and blisters, but also from something called Achilles tendonitis. The backs of the upper part of the boots were touching the Achilles’ tendon, causing it irritation and much pain. There was no cure, we just limped along until we got used to it. Most of us were passing an obnoxious chest cold back and forth. 75% of my men had a fever in the morning but going to the medic was out of the question. First, they did nothing but bed rest, and if you got best rest you missed training and you would have to stay longer in order to repeat it. No one wanted this experience to extend another second let alone a week. So, we were blowing our noses and limping like bow legged Cowboys. Not a pretty sight.

One of the more radical changes was concerning the latrine. When we first got to the barracks we when on a small tour. Everyone, I mean everyone noted the latrine. There were plenty of individual sinks, maybe enough for half the men, so we all had to take turns shaving in the morning. The urinals were two stainless units along one wall, not separate units, but large enough for eight men to stand shoulder to shoulder. The showers were at the end, on three walls with a couple of drains in the middle. Pretty much it looked like a typical high gym bathroom. Except for the commodes. There were about twelve commodes parked side by side, no partitions. Just naked commodes open to the general room. I remained in the latrine and I watched each soldier’s eyes widen just a little as they took it all in.

During my rotation of being in charge of the latrine I never saw anyone using the commodes for the first weeks. I know they were used, but it must have been very quickly and under the cover of night. And now things were different. People were sitting and chatting in the morning, soldiers were shaving and showering as well. I suppose it was great training for the day when, slit trenches and other basic toiletry practices would be required.