Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Turning the Screws

In the military we have a different form of punishment than the civilian world. It's not the demonized beating of another soldier while they sleep with bars of soap shoved down a sock (although I know similar accounts that have happened by individuals acting on their own). But unlike most jobs who would just fire you on the spot for screwing up the military takes the approach of rehabilitating punishment. Not the 'Million Little Pieces' type rehab but 'corrective training' as some NCO's term it. Although the majority of this is delivered orally.

Now in the civilian world if you got in trouble at work usually what happens is some person from Human Resources would ask you to their office, go over some long convoluted document, review it with you and have you sign it. Essentially if your action didn't warrant an immediate firing you would be put on probation for a set term and your performance reviewed. The military does have this form of administrative discipline however it is usually a paperwork hassle for most NCOs and honestly most soldiers are just either too young, inexperienced, or immature in their career for such drastic measures. This is where the bulk majority of actions that need remedying fall within. Low level screw-ups that aren't acceptable but at the same time is a waste of time to process (i.e. you were told to make your bed properly and you didn't, or you forgot a piece of non-essential equipment behind during an exercise).

Thus enters what we like to call a "jacking", the process of being "jacked" or "jacked up". The allusion is to that of a broken vehicle that doesn't perform properly and gets taken to the mechanic where it is jacked up on hydraulics, fixed, and sent on its way. Hence when small corrective measures are required in a military training environment the use of jackings are rife.

The most common administration of this is through a verbal beat down of both your ego and your choice in actions that premeditating the initiation of the jacking. For the most part you just take it and 'soldier on' as best you can. Although I've seen a heard both guys and girls breakdown from getting given a jacking. The worst ones in my experience are when they make you actually participate in your own berating. Like answering questions about your own ineptness and shortcomings or your very presence in whatever situation caused the jacking.

In my own experience I never received a jacking that made me cry. However, I have been brought to the brink of them and all my focus was on maintaining my composure. It was because during a routine inspection the Sergeant in charge of me opened my gas mask holder that was supposed to be pristine and a big clump of dried leaves fell out onto our nicely swept, mopped, and waxed floor. That was a bad day. This isn't to say that was my last one. I've already written about my habit of bad showings for uniform inspections and have received a lot more since then. But like a virgin getting their cherry popped it gets easier as time goes on. By the end of my tenure with the military I would brush off the words within 10 minutes of receiving it. Not exactly the effect my superiors wanted but by then I had enough of a rep that any indiscretions were over looked and impromptu jackings were just considered 'maintenace' for regular troops.

It just becomes part of regular military life and you take your beatings. There is no harassment councilor you can complain too (well technically there is, but you'll never be looked at seriously again as a soldier). As time goes on the most severe jacking becomes a funny story in the military and guys can be often heard swapping stories. So to the outsider looking in it seems barbaric but to everyone in 'the game' it's just part of the rules.

But before I go let me tell you that from an instructors point of view the administration of a jacking takes a lot more skill and poise than it looks. So much so that most carry a reputation for how well or to what degree they can administer jackings. A make of a good jacker is being able to calibrate the degree of the the abuse they can administer dependent on the soldier recieving it. I mean the idea is to make you think about how you screwed up. Not make you want to kill yourself. It's all about correcting an action which is the line between rehabilitation and punishment.

It's an art really. Like painting with a brush dipped in tears.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Digging In

Still waiting for course...

It was a cold December morning and the alarm was ringing at about 4:30am and I was fighting the urge servrely not to press the snooze button. I threw off my itchy fire proof blanket from my bed and turned to the side trying not to touch the oh so cold tiled floor. I then went about quietly getting dressed for the morning trying my best not to wake up my roommates. I finally got my winter jacket and winter pants together and stepped out into the barracks hallway.

As I walked down the hall in my boots you could hear the tell tale 'clomp' 'clomp' of an echo in an absolutely desolate place. Everyone was back from the bars and were passed out from booze or exhausted from sweaty stinky barrack room sex. No, this morning was just quiet and I went and disturbed it by knocking quietly on a variety of rooms from a hand written list I was given.

Now 4:30 am is an ungodly time to be waking up. I know, I am by no means a morning person (I write all these articles between 1am - 3am usually) and I'm pretty much a bear in the morning. So coming being the first thing guys see in the morning I'm not too popular. Also, I gotta make sure these guys actually get dressed and are ready to go out with me for our task.

Why? Because some guys try to pull stuff over on you by acting like they don't hear too good, some blame sleepiness and say they were too "Sleep fucked" to remember me telling them to get ready, and some are just lazy and I hope I forget. That's what the list is for. So I don't forget.

You see, by this point I was put in charge of the snow clearing duty for the engineering school. Lucky me. Which means I got to be in charge of 6-8 guys to help shovel out the snow around it. Sounds easy in theory, except it's Canada and our winters aren't pretty. Especially in small town New Brunswick.

So I got this 'team' together and we all march across the gigantic parade square in the middle of the base in knee-high snow. The only other movement we see in the morning is the guys driving the big bulldozers (MSE OPS) and maybe some MPs looking for something to keep themselves busy. But here we were our little team of Engineer-wannabes trudging through the snow.

We get to the school and find our plastic shovels and get to it clearing the entrances. Now its not really much of a story, snow clearing in all. I mean everyone does it in the winter. But if you're like me, you just clear out enough of your driveway to get to your car and back out. I mean you're not running a used car dealership so why fuss about the non-important snow? That's where we differed. We had to clear ALL the snow around the building. 30 foot entrance paths, monuments in front of the school, the CO's parking spot, all the smoke pits, the gigantic entrance path, and any little side paths leading to the road. Not to mention after this was done we had to clear the ice underneath it all if it rained prior to the storm. Then add salt. Also, account for that it's also snowing the entire time so you have to redo some work by the time you finish everything.

So doing all this usually took about 6 hours out in the cold. But on the positive side, I was the boss and I consider myself a very relaxed guy to work for. The guys I worked with (once you got them out of bed) were great and did little complaining. And the odd replacement guy who did complain to the rest of the crew usually got thrown in a snow bank by the rest of us and we threw snow of him. Complaints didn't come up much after that. But the school was warm and open so we could warm up whenever we needed it. Smoke breaks when ever we wanted. And we always arranged a coffee/hot chocolate run each morning cause the work went faster when you were happier.

The bonus of doing this job besides being the boss was that once we finished everything we usually got to go home for the day. Now when I say usually I mean that if we finished too early we would be sent back to the classroom and wait like everyone one else. And while we were immune to doing jobs for the rest of the day, it just made waiting worse being soaked and tired. So it was always an art when I had to report in we were finished. I found the 'sweet spot' to be around 1pm just after lunch when it's officially afternoon and everyone was happy with a full belly of food. The hour for lunch wasn't hard on anyone either. So we got to go home to the barracks and like most people I usually just went to sleep.

Just another day on PAT. And if I didn't go to sleep from partying at night, I went to sleep praying it wouldn't snow.

Like a Temp Agency with Guns

By this point in my "career" I was in about 6 months. After my basic training course and soldier-type course (SQ for the Army readers) I had grown used to the routine of the PAT platoon. Show up in the morning, shaved and in uniform. We had the odd inspection of our barracks the odd day but this was just to keep sure that we cleared out all the beer bottles us guys accumulated throughout the week. The cleaning lady who took care of the basic stuff in our barracks that we weren't cleaning literally made about $50 - $60 a week in recycling all our empties. But mostly it was to ensure the hygeine of the place was up to snuff and that no plague would run through the base. Laugh all you want, but there was always the odd weeks were the base had loads of case of what we titled "shack hack" because of living so close with so many other people.

By this time I had established my own core group of friends but because we were all in the same platoon it wasn't odd to at the end of the day "link up" with a new group of guys who you were comfortable with because they were in your platoon and go party with them. There wasn't really the same social cliches as high school because there wasn't really enough women to fight over or try to empress on an Army base full of hero wannabes.

So back to the inspections. These were the days were you basically just straightend up your room, swept, and mopped the floor, and made all your things just look tidy. No crazy "everyone the same" environment from courses we had taken. Just keep your stuff in order and the layers of dust to a minimum or out of reach of where the Warrant Officer would inspect. I had a good rep by this time so my inspections were always quick and relaxed. However even with this low level bar of success some people still managed to mess that up.

Like the guys who hid the girl from the night before in the bathroom so he could get a quickie before work started. Or the guys who insisted on hoarding rotten food in their lockers (why? I dunno). And of course the guys who just reeked of booze who could barely stand. I mean we were all usually in some recovery state from the night before but some guys were sprinting in 10 minutes prior unshaven reeking of bar-trash perfume just whipping their clothes off to get a uniform on before inspection. Some people...

I mean looking at it, it was the easiest job in the world at that time. Put on a uniform, show up on time, keep things tidy and go to the classroom for the day where you could have as many smoke breaks as you wanted. By this time we convinced the Warrant Officer to let us watch movies throughout the day on the projector screen in the classroom. This cut down on guys skipping work after role call and generally keep people quiet. It was usually some war movie that pumped everyone up, but after a month you get tired on the same films. And it was always a fight picking a film like when you and a couple friends try to order a pizza and try to agree on toppings (it always ends in just pepperoni).

I had done a bunch more taskings by then. Nothing memorable really, moving office furniture, cleaning vans and cars for the brigade, shredding old paperwork, setting up tents, cleaning dirty shovels and equipment, setting up a concert for a "Support the Troops Concert" we weren't invited too, hanging Christmas decorations at messes, and other random "Joe-jobs" around the base.

There was one highlight though. Some guys and I were tasked out to clear out a house of a soldier who had committed suicide (not in the house though, thankfully) but we had to pack and carry out all this persons valuables and possessions to send back to their family. Kinda depressing packing up this persons life in little cardboard boxes like emotional time-bombs for their family. I did find out through the Major in charge of the operation that the person suffered from mental problems leading up to the suicide (never found out how though). It only took a day and it was like the person never lived there.

So this was my day to day working along in PAT platoon waiting for my course. By this time the course I had been supposed to go on had been pushed back for unknown reasons for two months. So until then I just had to work away my days doing these odd jobs and watching lots of movies. It seemed my hands had fallen into some idle time...

To be continued....

p.s. Non of the pictures used are of me or anyone I know. I grab them off Google Image. Although I'll have some cool videos coming if I can find that damn camera connector cable.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Dinners

In the military everything is formalized, tracked, and done via procedure. This is not limited to the way we eat our formal meals. I mean at lunchtime and breakfast whatever we just show up, shove food in our face, and be on our way for whatever we've been tasked out to do. But when it comes to a Mess dinner, especially at Christmas things get interesting.

First off, it's not a casual event. We all get dressed up in our official uniforms called DEUs in Canada (DEU's = Distinctive Environment Uniform) or CFs as another name (Canadian Forces [uniform]). Which are the pretty dark green tunics and dress pants you'll see us wearing in parades or at funerals. I even wore mine to my grandfathers funeral as I was given permission.

Above all else you have to keep your uniform emaculate because before you go anywheres or do anything you get inspected by at least 3-4 people. Usually your section second-in-charge (2IC), section commander, troop warrant, and finally your regiment/school Sergeant Major. Each one is actually easier than the last because all the yelling and berating is done at the bottom of the pyramid. I was NEVER a good soldier when it came to this and was always told how my tunic looked liked a "wrinkled old chip bag" in broken english when I was in my regiment. I also got lots of extra duties. That's why I hated dressing up in uniform. I can remember one time where I showed up late (gigantic no-no), hid in the back till inspection was done, then blended in with the crowd where my friends told me I had a gigantic salt stain on my pants I hadn't noticed. I then spent the rest of the day purposely angling myself whenever talking to superiors with the offending leg in the back so they wouldn't see/notice like I was an illusionist of something. No one ever did notice though.

So all done up and given the ok from our bosses my first mess dinner we went to the base cafeteria where the first thing we did when entering the building is take off our berets (always take off your hat in a military mess) and begin the long process of shaking all our bossess hands. Now this doesn't seem like much but at a military school, everyone is pretty much your boss. So starting with the commanding officer and sergeant major all the way down to the guy who drives the trucks we shook hands before we got handed our two free beer to start the dinner. So in retrospect this was the conversation we had "Ok so before you start eating first shake hands with fifty people who shook fifty other peoples hands. Oh yeah, we also hid beggars change in the meal." You usually had to end the process in the bathroom cleaning your hands if you didn't want a staph infection.

So we sit down, the brass talks about how it's a good year blah blah blah. You toast the Queen because we're all technically "subjects" of here still. In order to defend her if a dragon strikes the castle I guess. Then we get served a fine turkey meal from our bosses. Why? Because it's the one day a year the bossess show respect for the people who work for them. Not that they don't through the year, but it's more of a literal action of appreciation. This is one tradition that is very lost on the civilian world. Then around the end we do more traditions like the youngest guy gets the top brasses Tunic and is technically the CO for the day and the oldest member in attendance becomes the Sergeant-Major. Any proclaimations made are carried out within reason and everyone in attendance usually cheers/jeers for the next day off. This was the case in my first dinner. I also happened to know the kid/CO from the PAT platoon and scorned him to let the lot of us have a smoke-break because we're not allowed to get up unless given permission.

More games are played like singing Christmas carols and trivia, then the party is officially left to go about the rest of their business which is usually to party at the drinking mess or go downtown. By this time I had been in PAT two months and choosed the latter. I remember walking back to my barracks where a 24 pack of budwieser awaited me and after that I ended up going downtown and getting so drunk I pissed my pants. Luckily I had changed out of uniform prior to going out.

C'est la vie en la militaire!

p.s. If you google Mess Dinners you'll see guys in bright red uniforms, this is called 'mess dress' and while not required when you get up in rank you can by the deer-skinned red uniform at an extra cost. As privates we didn't have the extra cash to afford them.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Holidays

Hey y'all, no update today. But I have an article on Christmas Mess Dinners in the works. Stay tuned and have a safe happy holidays to whatever made-up Deity you close your eyes to!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Boom tsk Boom tsk Boom tsk

So we called a taxi and went downtown together. Now let me tell you what a bar is generally like around Army bases not near a big city that can support a large audience/demographic of civilians. When it comes to cities that thrive off of the money the military pumps into their small towns this is what you usually get:

1. Don't worry about good music - Looking for that hot club that plays all the latest remixes of your favorite techno song? Keep looking, you are pretty much guaranteed to only here top 40 singles played all night and repeated within the 4 hour time span that the bar is actually full of people. In Gagetown, the closest bars to actually meet females and not fellow army grunts is Fredricton, NB that has a university that stocks the bars with flighty college girls looking to "experiment'. Hence they are generally young and naive to certain trends in music. The music snobs stay home, what's left are the hyper dunces who frequent the bar.
The DJ is furniture at these bars. I've talked with the DJs at both main clubs outside the base and they've both been there 10+ years. not because they are good, but because they take requests and play the typical music drunk kids like.

2. There will be no Deals on drinks - Why? Because there is no competition. Everyone in town goes to the same bars every weekend so you have a guaranteed audience. In business terms there is no difference in clientele no matter what the change. You can only lose business by taking risk here. Therefore drinks will always cost the same because there is no incentive to entice customers.

3. Women do not love a man in a uniform - The biggest myth in the military. Now I'm not saying they hate military guys, but never has my service gotten me laid or anyone I know. The most attractive thing about a military male is the fact he has a steady paycheck. I've seen many men fall into relationships because of this. It usually ends in heart break and/or a costly divorce. Too long have the guys who came before you ruined the reputation for the ones that would come after.

The local university literally tells people in their orientation week to stay away from the military guys.
4. Unbalanced ratio - With an Army base there will always be more men than woman because the combat arms has a higher percentage of young males. The service support trades do bring up the percentage, but those girls surely have boyfriends already in the military because they get hit on everyday. Thus, by the end of the night there is always of large percentage of disappointed males. And this leads to...

5. Increased fights - What else is going to happen when you have a large amount of males fighting for a small amount of females? Now these aren't regular guys, these are a lot of in shape males who feed on aggression and competition. So, at the end of the night the testosterone always spills over into the parking lots and it becomes a fierce dash at 'Last chance for Romance'. Every weekend the police were out in full force to 'encourage people' to come home.

This is what every small town attached to a military base I've been to is like.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Back at the Shacks

I finished up my workout after that shortly, showered, and changed. I was off for the rest of the day. Something bothered me though. It was how and what Matt said to me back at the gym about everyone else on PAT. I made my way into the barracks (aka shacks) and went to my room, taking a split second to pray that I wouldn't open the door to a roomate jerking off or other weird events that plague Army barracks. Luckily, no one was there and I threw my stuff in a locker and started looking around the hallways to see what others were up to.

It was pretty common for people to leave their doors open in the hallways. It was always like this starting from training. Usually you had to sort stuff out fast and the familiarity that builds among soldiers is much higher than in the civilian world. So as I walked by saying the odd hello and catching up with guys I chatted to earlier in the day I noticed an abundance of guys either passed out sleeping, or getting an early jump on going downtown that night with an open 24 pack at the base of their bunks.

Quite odd really to me at the time coming from such strict training in basic. Here guys were flaunting rules and regulations abound. I eventually went back to my room and eventually supper at our messhall.

After supper I was left with an abundance of time to do. I moped around the hallway some more as guys were coming back from dinner. Trying to findout how people starved off boredom on Base Gagetown. I got a variety of answer. Most of them involved watching movies which army guys are notorious for when they find themselves in my situation. I've never seen so many people with so many DVDs or hard drives full of movies. The number one enemy in the military is idle time with idle hands.

I eventually ended up hanging out with James the guy from the office. We drank a couple of beers together and exchanged the usual 'origin stories' about why we got in the military, etc. Then others started to come by and someone mention aloud to no one in particular. 'Wanna go to Zee's?' The question was met with a lot of argreement leaving me to wonder what the fuss was about.
"It's a bar man. The club you go to pickup around here." He said casually.
"Oh. Oh my. Guess that'd be cool" I responded.

So plans were made. The engineers were going downtown.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Junkies Sweat

As Derek the Master Corporal went up the stairs Dash and I gave a silent look at each other where we both asked to no one. "What the fuck is going on?" So with little guidance we waded into the piles of neglect. We started with the basics and got rid of the trash and wrappings that were no longer needed. Little was said of value as we just went to work cleaning out the random areas of stuff. Eventually the room started taking on a semblance of order as we up righted fallen shelving units and made use of the new three dimensional space to work with.

Now when I say this was a room of junk I may have overstated the severity of the items. Now it was a mess but it wasn't junk. Aside from the cheap ornaments the stuff was actually interesting. Old trophies from military competitions long past, photos from mess dinners, stainless steel pots and pans, countless utensils and even some silverware thrown in the mix. The army buys the best because it truly does travel on its stomach. Like every problem with the military the root cause is generally piss poor planning and management. So for the day we pretended to be explorers seeing who could find the oddest or amazing find in the piles.
 Typical Contents of a Canadian Ration Pack or Individual Meal Pack (I.M.P.)
A side note of sorts. It's a truly misheld belief that Army food is terrible. I never ate so well up to that point in my life. Well at least the cooked stuff, the food we get in our rations is so-so, but I bet you never ate sirloin steak or chicken casserole with rice (my favorite) on your last camping trip. And usually the bad taste is caused from not having enough time to prepare it because your schedule is too packed doing missions. A "treat" in the Army is having a ration pack fresh off the LAV (Light armoured vehicle) heating unit in some places.

We finished up around late afternoon. And notified Derek.
"Wow guys. Just wow!" He said. "I never seen this place look so good. And it's all organized. This is great. Thank you so much. I'm definately going to send a letter of thanks to your boss."
A letter of thanks is an official thumbs up on a letter. It says thanks for the support and singles out work done by people. Officers hardly read it and it goes in your permanent record. You might thinks it's a waste of time, but during your "reviews" for promotions, etc. it jogs your bosses memory and becomes really useful. The problem is no one ever writes them and motivated young troops usually get shafted (this is me speaking generally and not bitterly).
"Yes Master....umm...Derek!" We said almost in unison.

We even got a meal from the cooks in the officers mess before we left. There was only one problem though. Military decorum wouldn't allow us to eat on those comfy couches we saw earlier. So our meal was a little less enjoyable and a bit more rushed as we ate amongst the officers in "their" mess hall. We finished our meals, said our good byes and made our way back to the PAT classroom to go back into the rotation after a job well done.

Back in the classroom we came back to a room full of guys watching the wall mounted issued clock out of the corner of their eye. Not used to such behaviour I asked Dashed what it was about.
"Oh, it's when we go do P.T." P.T. is short for Physical Training. Think of your high school gym class only tougher and you have three or four guys teaching it who are actually in shape and care if you are failing.
"Oh really, what do you guys usually do?" I asked curiously as previous images of "death-runs" from basic training filled the forefront of my mind.
"Not much. We go to the base gym and do whatever we want for an hour. Sometimes we play ball hockey or soccer." He replied.
"Wow, cool. Sounds fun." I responded. This was a very rarely spoken phrase when the topic of P.T. came up, unless you were a masochist or in the Air Force.

ROOM!

We all shoot up in our chairs. Some guys almost jumping out of theirs as the sharp disturbance to their slumber jump started their brain. The Warrant walked in gave the relax command and spoke:
"Ok, P.T. at the gym. Role call at 3:30. If one of you fu**s off. You're getting charged." He spoke matter of factly. "Getting Charged" means being punished via the military administratively, legally, or corporally. It's basically the backbone of military discipline.

As quick as it happend it was over. We went back to our rooms on base (those of us who lived on base) and changed into gym clothes (a.k.a. "PT-strip") and made our way to the gym where we all met in the front foyer and role call was done by the clerk James. The scammers had their medical excuses ready and handy and were exempted from participating or at a pace that made you wonder why the changed their clothes at all. At the end we were free to do our own P.T. and I went off all did some cardio machine work for a half hour. After a quick water break I saw one of my four roommates Matt and asked him off hand what was going on etc and if any sports were going on I could join in.
"Pffft. There would have to be people here for that to happen. Probably max ten guys still left including us" He said dismissively.
"What do you mean?" I asked puzzled.
"Look around man, how many people do you still see here?" He said.
I took another look, and while I had been on PAT only a short while I had agood enough memory to at least remember some faces. There really wasn't any bulk of the platoon I had seen earlier in the day.
"But...but...the Warrant said." I muttered.
"Yup, and look what that did." He said as he went back to workout some more.

Never had the concept of disobeying an order outright ever crossed my mind. Sure I had day dream fantasy of championing a wronged superior in some far off "Casualties of War" type fantasy. But never in real life had I seen any reason to not do what I was told. Liberal education be damned. I knew that "book talk" didn't cut it and the concept of "If I just explained" was well not in some senior soldiers mental phrase book.

What did they send me too?

To be continued...

Friday, December 17, 2010

Volunteer or Voluntold?

So the hours passed by. Just sitting there watching the paint dry and listening to the random conversations going on around me. It was the usual banter you'll hear from any group of young Army guys. The girls the met in the city on the weekend or days of leave, the girls who were waiting for them, the things they want to do to girls they haven't met, and ways of acquiring more female access. So, in retrospect pretty much the same thing any group of guys do when they're deprived of the fairer sex.

For most of the recruits the army was just an extension of high school. They either barely passed or had dropped out and signed up. Academia wasn't for everyone and the only difference for the guys who dropped out was they didn't have parents they wanted to appease. Now this isn't to say that these were slack jaw yokels straight out of the woods. Most of them knew for a long time school wasn't for them and that another class in required ocean biology wasn't going to transfer well into the high school graduate job market. I've yet to hear a carpenter or plumber discuss the migration patterns of the bottle nose dolphin and those guys make good bank A lot of them were just guys looking to fulfill their boyhood fantasy, a couple guys off the farms in Northern Ontario, and some guys who just wanted a change or get away from something in their life. Nobody really asked questions about your previous life, you were judged by how you worked and the reputation that you had or preceded you.

"ROOM!"

The Warrant walked in carrying a piece of paper with James his clerk at his flank.

"Relax, relax. OK listen up. We got a tasking here for the kitchen. Any takers?" This of course was said hypothetically.

The room was quiet. I looked around and made eye-contact with a few others doing the same thing. So I did what I thought was expected of me and raised my hand.
"OK you. What's your name?" He said in my direction. Man, we'd just met the same day and he'd forgotten my name already?
"Uh...Private Tango...." an awkward moment of silence. Shit! I thought immediately to my training "Private Tango, WARRANT!" It's often overlooked the importance of how you address someone. Especially when they're your boss.
"That's better" he quickly snapped.
"Great" I thought. Making friends already.
"Private Dash, You're going too. Here's the email laying out all the info you need as well as the P.O.C. (Point of Contact)." He handed it to James who handed it to us as we made our way to the front of the class. But just as he was walking towards the door he snapped right around 180 degrees and faced the rest of the platoon.
"And the next FU**ING time I ask for volunteers! I better see a sea of FU**ING hands in the air like a god-damn AC/DC Concert!"
He then stormed out back to the administrative office. Leaving us to ponder about our own motivation and willingness to succeed. But for a minority the guys this point was lost all their was a faint murmur in the back wondering "Who's AC/DC?".

Dash and I marched our way out of the building in file one behind the other all the way to the parking lot, but more importantly out of sight of anyone who could see us stop marching. We sauntered over to his van as I didn't have any transportation of my own and we made our way to the Officers Mess (which is a fancy name for kitchen/bar in military speak). He parked on the side and prior to us reporting to the P.O.C. I asked if I could "pop a smoke?" which is military slang for have a cigarette (popping smoke also refers to setting off a smoke canister/"bomb").

He had no objections as we arrived well prior to our designated time for our tasking so could spare the  request. So we made our way to the local "smoke hut", removed our berets as having them on subjects us to the ever argued and debated "Should I or shouldn't I salute?" brain trauma that most new recruits subject themselves too. Also, we were beside a hive for junior officers looking for some ego padding.  Now smoke breaks are quite common in the military, even more-so in a "holding platoon" as PAT platoon was officially classified. However, having your workplace centrally located in a military school that requires saluting, marching, and a fair distance march to the designated smoke area tries even the experienced soldiers temperance.

Dash and I talked and traded the usual banter learning where we were from, why we got in, and where did we hope to go once our training was complete. I found he was a local guy growing up in the Maritimes taking some college but needing a steady job to provided for his wife and kids. I  told my own story, editing the schooling part of my life as I'd encountered the some apprehension because of it prior to arriving in Gagetown. But Dash seemed like an alright guy just looking out for his family. I relished the final draws on my cigarette, extinguished it, and we made our way into the officer's mess.

Adorn with plaques, trophies, and mounted s(known as the "Snake Pit" among junior officers) complete with pool table on the far end of the mess.

We quickly asked a civilian bar tender who had no stake in our offset presence there where we could find the Master Corporal we were to report to. She directed us to the back kitchen where we waited as she found him. He quickly made his way to us as we gave him a formal "Master Corporal!" in acknowledgement.
"Hey guys, here come with me" He escorted us down a flight of stairs to what seemed like a gigantic storage room.
"OK, first off. Knock off that Master Corporal shit when you're around here. Up in front of the brass the rules are in effect, but down here just call me Derek."
"Ok...uh...Derek" We both managed to stammer out. Our minds exploding at the colloquialness of the previous exchange.
"Pretty much I need you two guys to organize this room for us." He said with a grin on his face.
We then took a second look. This place looked like an outtake from the show "Hoarders" there was so much stuff packed in here with pots, pans, old Christmas and Halloween decorations, Random gym equipment, and a plethora of other old odd ends strewn about scattered everywhere. We had our work cut out for us.



To be continued...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Grains of Sand

I looked around this classroom stuffed with young men varying in ages between 17 and 25. I was 23 myself and stuck in the middle of a nexus in time with no purpose of direction.

Imagine you wake up in a white room with no doors or windows, you don't know how you got there or what conditions are to be fulfilled to gain your freedom. How do you feel? What's your next move?

Reread and answer the above question to yourself before my next sentence. Carl Jung the famous psychologist posed this question long ago to patients as a means to gage the important question in everyone's life: What is death to you. Not to be confused with the act of dying but rather the state of death. For a devote religious person you'd expect an answer of calm or peace and answers from an atheist ranging from "nothing" to "panic".

But my situation wasn't dramatic as this. I was surrounded by people in the same situation as me. As I would come to find out this would be a reoccurring theme throughout my military career. So it was up to me to learn from those who had know this environment better than me and I went straight to learning the social pecking order that evolves in any large group of people lacking purpose or guidance. After probing those with an open ear around me I got the breakdown of the platoon. There was roughly fourty people at any given time, add into that people who were tasked out around the base either doing temp jobs that regular soldiers had no time or patience for and tasks that were full time like working at a canteen or office doing menial paperwork. In the military's eyes this was a productive use of soldiers to accustom them to general military life and procedures as they weren't trained to a level of actually being skilled in an particular area. For a rough idea of what jobs we did go to Craigslists jobs under the general labour category.

As for the social structure it brokedown like so:
1. The FNG's (Fu**ing New Guys) - I fell into this groups. Guys right off of their basic course waiting for their trades course to give them a skill to use at their prospective unit upon completion of their training. This was the bulk of the platoon. Guys just waiting for their shot at greatness.
2. The Broken - People who had been injured on a previous course to the degree where they couldn't continue their training. Even with whatever medical aid they recieved (i.e. crutches, casts, pain killers). I should note that this wasn't university where you could go to class and roll your wheelchair in the back of the class and still take note. We had to do things like cross fields in all our battle gear with weapons or build large bridges by hoisting large panels by hand over our heads (these things could weigh up to 400 lbs).
3. The Failures - Persons who had for whatever reason not passed their previous training and were thrown back into the rotation for the next course. These people took priority for the next course. Generally dispised by FNGs as they were seen as taking a spot of someone "who would pass". These types always had an excuse ready as to why they didn't make it the first go around. "My staff hated me", "I wasn't allowed a make-up test", and "They failed me just because ______".
4. The Frenchies - A group bounded by isolation. They had no choice but to hang out together. As far as I could tell they spoke no english at all and didn't interact with with the rest of the platoon outside of necessity. Usually they were sent to Quebec to fill random positiions but those were few and the left overs were kept at our base.
5. The Scammers - Actually a subset of the broken but placed seperately because of intent. These were the people who for whatever medical reason were not allowed to go on course. Generally this started as a simple injury which disallowed them from being elegable for training. However, this became a constant as their name was picked time and again to go on course yet their "condition" would be aggravated and they'd be passed onto the next cycle. I found some people had been there for over a year with extreme cases being two or three. I knew one guy who weighed at LEAST 350 pounds, drank every night to excess, and then complained how he couldn't go on course because of his knees/back. Cause and effect seemed to escape the rational logic with these few souls.


So imagine your typical rag-tag group of soldiers from any military comedy you might have seen. Have a chuckle, then realize your life will literally depend on these people in the future. Now how funny is it?

The praxis of the general military population is to treat a group by the lowest of its members. Now this can be viewed as playing to the lowest common denominator. But it's been my experience that teamwork in built from the ground up and you build a house from the foundation and not the roof. However, I can confidently say that PATs were spit upon (figuratively) because of the worst among us. It was an uphill struggle being a PAT soldier and it didn't help that the people there before you were soiling the ground with an odour of ammonia. Things were going to get dirty.

To be continued...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Odd Jobs and Odd Fellows

"No Warrant. I want to be here. I'm happy doing this" I was convinced of my soon to be greatness, my time to shine. I wasn't a Private Pile, and I wasn't going to drop out for the easy path. I was here to stay.
"All right." said the seasoned veteran as he went back to administer the on goings of the troop. But before he left he laid out the ground rules.
"Look. I don't give a fu** what you do in your off time. But I expect you to show up here on time and in uniform everyday. And when I have a task to be done I expect you to volunteer. Got it?" He said this not in the abrupt dismissive manner I was taught in throughout basic training but rather in a tone that conveyed an seasoned experience of dealing with juveniles apt to disregard responsibilities.
"Of course Warrant" I mean how could someone not follow an order as easy as that? Show up in uniform and the designated time and place. Simple enough.
"Good" He walked back to the PAT administrative office where all our tasked were farmed out of. It was run by himself and two other junior officers awaiting their courses, along with James the guy with the DJ shirt I met my first night on the base. He was apparently their clerk and errand guy for odd paperwork assignments.

Now that I was introduced to the platoon structure and finalized all my tedious administrative clearances I had to sign in around the base I was ready to join my fellow recruits in daily military life. I was told that we were to report every day to a classroom in the Military Engineering School. Cool, easy enough I suppose. But since we had spent so much time clearing in, we were allowed to just go back to our barracks after it all and we wouldn't be needed for the day.

The next day I arrived at the school after a quick breakfast at the mess hall. It was the same breakfast I've seen countless times prior. Why? Because there is only one breakfast in the military (at least for army bases) and that's your standard issue scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, beans, and an oddly cooked tomato substance. Of course on the side you can get your standard grain cereals and fruit as well. Now I'm not saying it's not a good meal. But even Brad Pitt got sick of having sex with Jennifer Aniston after five years. Here I was sick of the breakfast after only three months.

I went to the Engineer School in the proper amount of time. They made any candidate who wasn't qualified march through the halls whenever you entered the building. To show who was a student and enforce military discipline. Easy enough, yet the classroom I was to report to was on the otherside of the building and going around to the back entrance wasn't really an option as you had to cross a field of grass to do so. Now to the laymen this sounds simple enough, but to a military person the is on par to streaking naked across the same field. Via doctrine it's to enforce the old military adage of "stick to the hard pat" especially important to engineers who deal exclusively with mines and other things that hide-and-go-boom. But in reality it's an opportunity for senior staff to jump all over a young recruit for violating an unwritten rule of decorum and throw around an ever atrophying sense of purpose while tucked away in an office.

Eventually I made it to our assigned classroom. With polished boots and a cleanly pressed uniform I expected the usual morning inspection or something akin to it. Yet all I found was a classroom half filled with guys sitting at their desks either chatting with the person beside them or fiddling with their cellphone texting girlfriends and playing games. Quite the odd site for someone fresh out of boot camp. Eventually I found myself a spot to sit and struck up a conversation with the closest person unoccupied by some trivial matter.
"Hey man, what's going on here?" I said puzzled.
"Oh you know, just another day waiting for role call" He said in an non-enthused manner.
"Really? So what's the drill?" I asked curious.
He then explained to me how everyday we had two role calls. One in the morning and one in the afternoon right after lunch. This was to keep track of both how many people they had available and deter anyone from taking 'unscheduled' time off. It was preformed by the Warrant who had talked with me earlier.
Just then the same Warrant barged into the room. Someone in the back of the room yelled 'ROOM!' a standard command we'd all been trained since the beginning to follow. Basically you stiffen up in your chair, avert your eyes to the front of the room, and just shut up. You don't have to do anything except hold that position until you're told to relax. Sometimes you get tested and people get lax at start to slouch after a minute. Giving your instructor the small window he/she wanted to catapult into a directed tirade about following orders. But today wasn't special and the Warrant quickly ran through the list off names confirming the presence of individuals and noting the absence of others for excused reasons. Once finished, he left the room.

I turned to my previous companion in conversation and posed the question: "So what do we do now?"
"Just killing time man, just killing time" as he laid back in his chair and closed his eyes.

To be continued...

"Et tu, Brute?" Part 2

Resting against a window in the back of the bus I could hardly make out what was trees and what was houses. I saw the odd faded light here and there as we traveled through Northern New Brunswick on our way to CFB Gagetown. Eventually I was shaken awake by my fellow hopefuls and I heard it "There it is!". A low murmur vibrated throughout the bus. We had arrived at our destination. The bus swerved left as we pulled onto the base. It was an open base so there wasn't the usual security guard or armed soldier at the front. "This isn't like the movies at all" I thought to myself as we past large open fields and manicured lawns on the way to our barracks.
The bus pulled up to this large white building with four columns resembling something you'd see on the Parthenon or a Supreme Court. But something was odd when the bus stopped. The driver opened the doors and said "Here you are." Confusion rang throughout the bus. What next? Like lost ducklings without our ever present mother we waddled off the bus as our bags of clothes and belongings shot out its other end like a diarrhea of canvas. Then the bus departed in the night leaving the lot of us even more confused. A silence hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity.

"I guess we go in" someone finally mustered the individuality to find some meaning in this purgatory of the training system. So cautiously we walked up a set of stairs between the white columns. We went through a series of heavy metal doors into an empty foyer flanked by two sets of stairs leading to seemingly the second floor of the building. "You guys new?" It must have been painfully obvious with our shaved heads, dress uniforms, bags in hand, and an invisible sign across our foreheads that shouted 'New Guy'. The voice came from this skinny set guy in jeans and a DJ T-shirt that said "I Don't do Requests" I eventually found out whose name was James. James, I came to find out was hurt during his training and was serving out his time in administrative limbo while the military's medical system argued about what to do with him. But in the interim he was placed in charge of all the guys and girls slated for their occupation training.

Now, what the recruiter doesn't tell you when you sign up is that not all of your training is done back-to-back or in a sequential manner. This is due to a variety of issues. Logistical, administrative, staffing, budgetary, and the amount of people they need to train. What that results in is the situation I found myself in. The Personal Awaiting Training platoon or 'PATs' as we were disaffectionately know among more seasoned soldiers. So as I came to find out my training wasn't to begin for another two months. Until that time I was to be housed in a small room with four other men as we waited our turn to prove ourselves. That night I unpacked all my clothes and equipment into the nearest vacant locker, stripped down and went to sleep on the standard creaky spring military mattress complete with itchy fireproof blanket and single striped pillow. The next day I'd start my position as a private recruit with the engineering school, but until then I laid in the darkest corner of the barracks trying to fall asleep while fervently trying to ignore my roommates incognito masturbation (a common act in common shared rooms). The first nights are always the hardest.

"You know you can still back out? Change trades if you want." These were the words of the Warrant Officer placed in charged of the PATs as he read over my file.
"s.s.s.s.sorry?" I managed to stammer out as my back was ram-rod straight in the attention position.
"You have a degree. Why not go officer?" He asked.
This was a common question I was asked throughout my career as a non-commissioned member. And still I look back at my reasoning and laugh. At the time I was convinced that the best stories, the best experiences, and the most fun were had by those in the thick of things. Sure you've heard of famous generals and that ever present movie moment where a young lieutenant leads his men into the thick of battle. But I saw how the way war is fought has changed. With the advent of technology all of the "academics" spent their time in front of a computer or in a command post listening to radios and writing reports. That was no place for me. I was to be dusty old sergeant who sheppard his weary troops into action and deliver that motivating speech that allowed them to hold back and runoff the ever-descending enemy on that lone position. No, I wasn't the type who wanted to be kowtowed to because of rank. I was among those with nothing and I expected nothing for what I had.

"They're the bottom of the barrel and they know it. Maybe that's why they call themselves grunts, cause a grunt can take it, can take anything." - Chris Taylor as played by Charlie Sheen in "Platoon"


To be continued...

"Et tu, Brute?" Part 1

"It will be great for your career. You'll learn French and move faster up the ranks than anyone else by knowing two languages". These were the words of my training Sergeant on my final days after completing my Combat Engineer course in Gagetown, New Brunswick, Canada. My final days after spending one year waiting and training for my chosen profession of arms with the Canadian military. Here I was on the cusp of my new life as a professional soldier, the few and the tempered from rigorous months and hours of training. My new life laid before me and I was about to embark on a voyage to that mysterious land of the French.

Stepping back a moment, let me tell you about my life up until this point. Born in a relatively major east coast city in Canada I grew up like most kids, never really popular but never really picked on. Forever the wallflower and the guy who you knew but never really knew. Went to school but never really studied, I was smart enough to pass most classes without trying. Eventually I went to University where again with not effort maintained the median mark. I was the tip of the curve in all my classes. That's why after 4 years and one year of a victory lap I came to a fork in the road for change. Too long I had hit the snooze button on life and now I had to wake up. Burdend with student debt and no immediate prospects for a fresh out of school Liberal arts major I turned to the military for a career. Ironically enough I found this is why most people join up. Not to pay off school but rather to save up for it. So right off the start I had things backwards.

Speeding ahead a few months I had sworn in and gotten shipped out for basic training. Not much to comment here. The instructors in charge of this had been doing their job long enough to have seen it all. Crushing egos and modeling men and women to their whim under the threat of expulsion or worse, military prison. Formation marching, drilling, and loads of yelling were the daily usual and the ever present striving and seeking of a single standards for all my fellow candidates. It's funny how if you place a perfectly sane individual in such a regulated and formal environment that within four or five weeks they will degenerate to raving lunatics with such statements as "WHICH WAY DOES THE TOOTHPASTE FACE!!!!!" or coming to blows over an argument of who has more motivation/drive. But like all things it came to an end. What was most the most stress inducing situation is now a faded memory. I can hardly remember half of those people who I was so close too at one time.

Having graduated from my basic course there was the usual hoorah where you party with your fellow coursemates as you stressed over the coming months of further training towards your future profession. Around me their was guys and girls going of to become sailors, airmen, clerks, medics, and cooks. I was of a different category: the combat arms. We were the guys (85%+ males) who watched way too many war movies and played way too many video games growing up. We weren't there to just be cannon fodder or have some stable job because we knocked up our high school girlfriend. No, we were there for varying reasons. Medals and heroics were on our minds for the majority of us. We wanted the fame that came with being a warrior, an alpha. But there were the others who were their for more sadistic reasons. Guys who wanted the legal right to kill another person, persons with a high attraction to weapons, and guys who just thought firing the big guns would be "cool". I must admit there is an inordinate level of ignorance that drives the potential combat soldier. The majority of this just comes from the inexperience and naivety of youth, but there is that small component that I belonged who joined for more altruistic reasons. Some guys knew others who had died already serving in Afghanistan, others felt for those they didn't know who had passed on yet done it under the auspices of for their fellow Canadians. Either way these types of people I gravitated towards more because it reinforced and parlayed my own insecurities of why I joined.

My next stop was to be the Canadian Forces School if Military Engineering, there my skills would be sharpened and be formed into a Combat Arms soldier. I was both scared and excited and as I was soon to find out I was well justified in having both.

To be continued...
*All names forthwith and hence have been omitted and/or changed to protect identities.