Saturday, November 22, 2008

Adapt and Overcome

Sharon Allen is the author of the Powder essays "New Definition of Dirt," "Iraqi Entomology," "Lost in Translation" and "Combat Musician." Her writing has appeared in Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and their Families. The following is excerpted from her nonfiction manuscript, 100 Things I Learned in Iraq.

The National Guard was a big shock to me. I just signed and shipped to Basic, having never been to a drill weekend. I knew nothing about the military. Didn’t even know how to stand at attention when I was sworn in.

I was the first one in my class to get into trouble, too. By smiling. I always got into trouble for smiling. I couldn’t help it, drill sergeants say some funny shit. When they got on the bus, it was like I was transported ringside for a WWF match. "Welcome to my world; welcome to Hell!"

The worst part of basic was the mental shit they’d do to you. Whenever one particular fuck-up fucked up, I was designated to be smoked for him. "Smoking" someone is when a drill sergeant comes up with a plethora of incredibly painful things for a soldier to do. A lot of them look easy, too. Try hugging a tree. Go ahead, try it. You have to wrap your arms and legs around the tree and keep from touching the ground. The angrier they were, the bigger the tree.

One time the drill sergeant found a letter I wrote my mom in which I referred to him by his last name, which we were not allowed to do. I also mentioned he was PMSing. At the next formation, he handed me an M60. Then he said, "Over your head." No problem. "Lap formation." Slight problem.

An M60’s pretty damn heavy. Especially over your head, lapping formation. I couldn’t actually run with it over my head, anyway. I’d put it on my shoulders and run, and then put it over my head and walk. Knowing that I hadn’t really done anything wrong (while other people had, and hadn’t been given anything to carry over their heads) and knowing that there really wasn’t much more they could do to me, I started pressing the M60. And smiling as I sung cadence at the top of my lungs.

So, the M60 was assigned as a personal battle-buddy. I had to sleep with it, shower with it, bring it everywhere. I named it "Sam" and cuddled up with it every night. Caused some bruises, but that’s OK.

They took it away from me four days later. They later told me I was getting too much respect from the other soldiers.

I wasn’t a total smartass. The only reason I got away with anything was that I busted my ass, and I always completed everything. I wasn’t a fuck-up, and they didn’t try to "break" me. They just pushed me to be my best. To this day, I don’t have to worry if my car breaks down seven miles from an exit. I know I can road march 15 miles, and with full battle rattle.

I learned a lot in basic training. The most important thing you learn is that you can do a hell of a lot more than you think you can.

And, of course, to "adapt and overcome." We had a handbook that was a part of our uniform, (an "inspectable item"), called a "smart book." Had to have it with us at all times. One time the DS told us to pull out our smart books and noticed that mine was a little thin.

"Private Allen, where are chapters one through four?”

"Drill Sergeant, I have chapters one through four memorized verbatim."

"Private Allen, where are chapters one through four?"

"Drill Sergeant, there was no toilet paper in the latrines."

"Private Allen, where are chapters one through four?"

"Drill Sergeant, I wiped my ass with chapters one through four."

Adapt and overcome.

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