Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Once upon a time.... pt. 1

Back at Summer Camp - South a couple of months ago, I had occasion to speak with a number of Chaplains who were on the ground at the time. It seems as though some of the problems which led to my having really, really, really annoyed a two-star General there back a couple of years ago now, have returned.

At the time of the annoyance, I'd been sent to Summer Camp - South to provide religious support to a unit from my State that was mobilized and on its way Down Range. In the ten weeks they'd been there at Summer Camp - South, Soldiers had only been able to make it to one Catholic Mass. (Easter had occurred within the time frame I'm talking about.)

Moreover, few others were going to religious service, as well.

It seems as though those who were running the training at Summer Camp - South were telling Soldiers, "You're welcome to go to services, but just remember this: While you're away, your buddies will be training, and when you return THEY WILL REPEAT THAT SAME TRAINING WITH YOU."

(How do you spell 'unconstitutional'?)

On top of lots of other things that were amiss (I won't even mention the fact that for two of the five days I was there, I could not find a single sheet of toilet tissue in any of the portable toilets at the FOB (forward operating base) the Soldiers had been sent to....), the "suggestion" that Soldiers not exercise their Constitutionally-guaranteed right to practice religion according to their conscience seemed too much for those guys.

Soldiers in that unit were massively demoralized, and I was beset by individuals (most of whom I'd never met before) asking me to "tell someone when you get home, PLEASE."

It was highly disconcerting. Especially upsetting to me was seeing the Soldiers I had known from my own unit who volunteered to go on that deployment appearing so listless and disspirited.

So there I was one evening in the DFAC -- one of the only three air-conditioned structures on the FOB there in the hot, humid Deep South -- standing around having dinner. (As another example of "we train as we fight," the people running the training at Summer Camp - South had set up the DFAC at the FOB in such a way that all the tabletops were at chest height -- with no chairs or stools. This meant, then, that Soldiers had to eat all of their meals standing up. They were out at that FOB for weeks at a time... Do the math to calculate their morale.)

I'd sidled up to two NCOs having dinner, neither of whom I'd met before. After asking if I could join them, I asked them how they'd rate their morale, and that of their fellow Infantrymen. The junior of the two (a Staff Sergeant) replied, in a heavy voice, "Well, Sir, when we got here it was about eight out of ten. Now it's zero. They've pile-drived it out of us."

The other NCO, a Sergeant First Class (as was SFC McG when he and I were Down Range), said to me, "Sir, I'll have sixteen good years of Active Service at the end of this deployment. That's four years out from Active Duty retirement. My enlistment is up shortly after I get back, and I'm not going to re-enlist. This mobilization has completely soured me on the military."

I was completely taken aback.

Shortly after this brief interchange, I noticed a Soldier walk into the DFAC who had two stars on his chest. I had no idea who he was, but I figured that there aren't all that many Major Generals out there, so he was probably somebody.

I had been promising Soldiers that I'd "tell somebody," figuring that I'd report what I'd seen and heard and experienced at Summer Camp - South to Chaplains back in California. But here was an opportunity to put my money where my mouth was.

When I was in school I was pretty good at math, and found myself performing a little mental calculus rapidly in my head.

I said to myself, "Self? What's the worst they can do to me? Take away my retirement? (I'm too old to get it.) Not promote me? (I have a big mouth; I'm not going to get promoted.) Send me to Iraq?" (How prescient, eh?)

My Dad was in Field Artillery, and I'd been hanging around with Tankers (of the M1A1 Abrams tank variety), so I figured I could probably acquire a target and send a round down range. The guy looked as though he wasn't there to eat (probably a good choice, considering), so I threw caution to the wind and engaged him in a conversation as he passed by our table.

I have a somewhat interesting story, I'm told, and the General was quickly intrigued and we had a pleasant conversation.

Until I let him have it.

Boy, did he get annoyed! (There are other, more descriptive words, but they're probably not very polite or appropriate to this medium.) He tried to tell me that Infantry aren't happy unless they're complaining (true, up to a point, but my Tankers were not Infantry). He parried and I countered. I had a response to each of his points, and he became even more annoyed.

I knew I was in real trouble when he asked for, and wrote down, my first name. That's when I noticed that he had already written down my last name.


I found out later that he was a *very* important person in terms of the unit conducting the training at Summer Camp - South. Clearly he was such an important person, no one had wanted to tell him the truth of what was going on there.

He left in a huff, and I waited for the boom to fall, which it eventually did.

More on that later.

(By the way, in the realm of "we train as we fight," never once in my movement around the MND-Baghdad battlespace for eleven months (more than thirty posts of varying sizes) did I encounter a DFAC in which military personnel had to stand at tables to eat their meals....)

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

No comments:

Powered By Ringsurf