Land of Confusion

When I was 13, my uncle was in the Air Force, stationed in Germany, and I was lucky enough to tag along with my grandparents and be able to visit him for a month.  I didn’t appreciate Germany nearly as much as I would have if I had gone as an adult, but I did enjoy myself.  I remember loving the cobblestone roads, and knowing, even then, that they had way more character than our paved roads.  Of course, the cobblestone roads are narrow, which made driving difficult, but they were pretty.

One time, my grandfather was cooking something, and they sent me to the store for mayonnaise.  It was no big deal because almost everyone speaks at least some English (and I didn’t speak a word of German).  When I went to the store, I couldn’t find the mayo anywhere, so I asked someone.

The word doesn’t translate, and I eventually figured out that they don’t have mayonnaise in Germany, or at least they didn’t back then.  I remember going to the store and feeling like it was a big adventure, but then being so frustrated when I couldn’t seem to make myself understood.  That was my first taste of what it felt like not to speak the language, and it was a humbling experience.

Prompt brought to you by the Daily Post.

My Military Experience

First off, I want to thank all the current and former troops in the US Military.  I thought I appreciated our men and women who serve, and I suppose I did, in a watered down kind of way.  I didn’t really get it.  I know now that I get it even less than I thought I did.  So now I’m finally starting to understand, at least a little bit, what our folks in the military go through.

From 9 a.m. on Monday through 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, I got an immersive experience in military culture.  We only got a small taste of what it’s like, but by our 4:30 a.m. wake up call on Tuesday morning, I was very ready to go home.  I missed my shower and my bed. I missed free time and food (they’re not set up for vegetarians… not that I expected them to be).

The military immersion experience was on the National Guard Base, and we had both Army and Air Force personnel talking to us and helping us learn.  We did some marching and got yelled at by the Sergeant and Master Sergeant.  I’m not very good at coming to attention or marching in time.

Interspersed throughout our getting into formation and learning some basic commands, we saw videos of military action and were able to ask questions of people who were actually there.  For some reason, it never occurred to me that the men and women of our military are under stress 24/7.  It’s not just the fighting; it’s the threat of fighting.  We watched a video where a really big truck pushed through city traffic in Iraq.  They explained that the truck never comes to a stop because it could become a target.  When they couldn’t push through traffic, they drove on the other side of the road.  During the 3 minute video, nothing bad happened, but I felt by heart pounding and found myself scanning the street, watching for what might happen.

They learn to live with it; they have to or they won’t survive, at least not whole.  But learning to live with that comes with a price.  When they come home, what we think of familiar, is no longer familiar.  One officer stated that when his wife picked him up at their airport and drove him home, it was a scary experience that she was driving at 55 miles per hour because he had been used to sailing along at 5 miles per hour in one of the convoy trucks.

The soldiers described coming home and wanting to be the same, but not able to be.  They said that they were more short tempered.  Loud noises would startle them or irritate them.  Conversation with civilians became difficult, and they found themselves drinking too much in order to numb some of that hyperawareness they had to live with for months or years, that was no longer necessary here in the states.

Even for the military personnel who have never been overseas, life is stressful.  For the 31 hours on base, I didn’t have more time to myself than it took to shower.  We worked until it was time to sleep, then we put the cots together, showered, and slept.  I didn’t sleep well.  I was in a room full of other women, snoring, tossing, turning, making nighttime noises.  I was informed that on the men’s side, one of them sounded like he needed a C-pap machine.

Yet the Master Sergeant told me that after awhile, you get so tired that you get used to it.  Those nighttime noises become normal.  Personal time is for polishing and folding in order to pass inspection.  They have Skype to talk to family, but those precious moments with nothing that has to be done is for reading and writing letters, because that’s what matters most to our military personnel.

They only yelled at us when we were in formation, and even then, they stopped occasionally to explain why they were yelling, why it was important for soldiers to learn to move as a group, think as a group, act as a group.  When we sat down to eat or in group discussion, they were a warm, friendly group who answered even the toughest questions with grace and candor.

Would I do it again?  Hell no.  But would I recommend it to any human service professional who wants to learn about military culture?  Yes.  My muscles are sore today, and at the time I was doing it, I was complaining internally about the push ups and the marching.  While I was doing it yesterday and the day before, I didn’t see the value.  Looking back with a meal in my stomach and a good night’s sleep, I see the value and how they crammed a lot of learning into a day and a half.

I hope that I never forget to thank a veteran or active duty military member ever again.

This is going to be a multi-part feature, so look for more on this tomorrow, and probably over the next couple of weeks as I reflect.