Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Wait

For anyone who thinks the military is glamorous, I can set you straight. The best way I’ve heard it described is “long periods of boredom punctuated by intense moments of terror and panic”. I think this makes the job of a soldier all the more commendable. Soldiers don’t complain about having to fight, they complain about all the waiting in-between. (I’ve never heard a soldier say, “I’m really getting tired of shooting at terrorists.“) Along with all the waiting come things to keep you busy like, sweeping floors, filling sand bags, mopping floors, cleaning weapons, waxing floors, vehicle maintenance, and formations. Lots and lots of formations. For those of you who don’t know, a formation is when they get everyone together and we stand in these neat little lines called squads, which are part of a platoon, which form the company. The Army likes to have formations for everything. Generally there is a formation first thing to make sure everyone is there, one to release people for lunch, one to make sure everyone came back from lunch, and one at the end of the day to release everyone (and make sure everyone is still there). That would be the absolute minimum in a perfect world, but in the Army it seems like there is a formation every time something changes. “It’s raining outside. Let’s call a formation to let the soldiers who are standing outside know so they don't get wet. Wouldn't want Joe to slip and fall out there so let's give them a safety briefing too.” Yes, these things actually happen.
I’ve actually been told this before, “Hey, go call a formation and let the troops know that we will be having a formation in about fifteen minutes.” Needless to say, they get a little crazy with the formations. The opposite can happen as well. At a chemical weapons depot we had dug into the ground to carve out some protection from the elements and a possible terrorist attack. We lived, ate, and slept in that miserable hole in the ground for two weeks before we got a safety briefing. They warned us not to disturb or come in contact with the soil in that area. It was contaminated with mustard agent that had spilled and leaked into the soil. The hole quietly disappeared the next day. We had to have blood tests every few weeks or so to monitor our exposure.
Anyway, as I was saying about those periods of boredom. They can be, and often are, made worse by not knowing where you are going ,when, or for how long. A typical phrase you hear quite often is “Stand by to stand by.” I just got back from Visalia where I drove to after getting a call that said “Grab all your gear, get to the Armory ASAP, and be ready to head out somewhere for an undetermined amount of time.” We spent two days thinking we were headed to an international airport to provide extra security after recent terrorist plots were uncovered. I’m still on alert, but at least I’m home now. This is about the fifth or sixth time I’ve been called like that. The first time was after 9/11 and I was gone for a year. Three times I've been headed for Iraq and once for Bosnia only to stand down at the last minute. The last time I got the call, I went to New Orleans for 45 days. It never gets any easier on my wife or our boys. They can’t understand why I never know if, when, or how long I’ll be gone. The missions usually aren’t glamorous and they involve high levels of readiness and the ability to do whatever needs to be done. I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes soldiers sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice (God took one of my soldiers while he was in Iraq. Please visit the link,
  • The Bunker
  • for his story.), but more often they make a lot of smaller sacrifices along the way and so do their families. So the next time you thank a soldier, don’t just thank them for what they willingly did, thank them for what they’re willing to do.

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