Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Foreign languages - part 1

The very first weekend I was out in the field with the National Guard Battalion that became my home once I was commissioned (this was in March; I wasn't commissioned until October; I didn't get into the Guard until the end of December -- it's a long and sordid story) I felt quite a bit as though it were Hallowe'en, despite it being springtime. I'd never before run around looking like G.I. Joe, and there I was surrounded by Soldiers who really *were* G.I. Joe.

Talk about feeling 'out of my comfort zone'!

That weekend was the first time in more than 30 years I'd slept in a multi-person tent (there were 40 of us in rather close quarters). Correction: that was the first time I'd spent the night in a multi-person tent since I was in the Boy Scouts.

I did not sleep.

At all.

What with the snoring, and the alarms going off every two hours for guard shift changes, and the generator truck outside revving up like a jet engine every so often, and the simple terror attendant upon being in the midst of a completely different language and culture and history and traditions, and the bitter cold against which the sleeping bag I'd been provided was no match, I just shivered in the dark until it was time to get up at 0430 that next morning.

There was a quarter inch of ice on the roof of the tent as I made my way to the latrine / shower building, about half a kilometer away, that first morning wearing a uniform.

It turns out that those BDUs (the woodland camouflage Battle Dress Uniform no longer authorized for wear now) actually belonged to the BC (Battalion Commander), and he'd taken the trouble to remove his name tape, rank, and branch insignia before bringing them for me to wear for the weekend, after which he just told me to keep them.

I wore those same BDUs when I was commissioned six months later, so my Dad could pin the one set of Captain bars he could find from his time as a Field Artillery Officer in the Army Reserve on my lapel during the ceremony. He was pretty jazzed about that! Mom pinned the Chaplain insignia on the other lapel.

But I digress.

That first weekend in the field, much to my surprise, the Soldiers -- none of whom I'd ever met before, not even the BC -- all treated me not only as if I were already a Chaplain, they seemed instantly to consider me *their* Chaplain. It felt odd, yet oddly fitting.

Everyone was going through weapons familiarization that weekend, and the BC wanted me to go out to the ranges to be with the Soldiers as they were firing weapons I'd never heard of before. I had lots of offers, and even some cajoling, to participate, but I'd decided beforehand that since Chaplains are non-combatants, I should probably act like one if I was acting like one.

(I did not fire any of those weapons then. I still have not fired a weapon since joining the Army....)

Saturday afternoon, though, rather than being at some range or other, I was told by the BC that he wanted me to come to the planning meeting which would map out the training schedule for the next year. "You can give Chaplain input," he said to me.

Abject terror.

People describe having dreams in which they're doing something important, only to discover they're naked while doing so. There I was, living the nightmare of having to do something important, and though being fully clothed, feeling completely naked.

It didn't help that once the meeting got going, I needed a simultaneous translator, whom they'd forgotten to bring along or something. The acronyms were flying fast and furious, and I soon had absolutely no clue whatsoever about the subject matter under consideration. At one point, one of the Majors simply started laughing because she realized that she'd been speaking for several minutes and had used very few real words during all that time, there were so many acronyms.

I suspect the look on my face must have been priceless, because I was more clueless than usual, which is saying something!

They apologized to me for all the jargon, and then the BC said, "OK Chappy, now it's time for your input."


Almost three years later, I'm here Down Range, and I realize I've begun sounding (and writing emails) just like those folks sounded that weekend. My sentences are often composed of at least as many acronyms as real words, and I'm saying "Hooah" a lot. ("Hooah" apparently means everything except the word, "No," in Army parlance.)

I love languages, and hope to continue learning more of them. This, however, is a foreign language I'd never imagined acquiring.

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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