A soldier’s soldier: The invisible casualty
By Dell Franklin
Editor’s note: The following story concludes a previous Cabby’s Corner in which Dell Franklin met a career soldier, one who belived in what he was doing, and who had recently returned from the war in Iraq.
Out at the airport in the late afternoon, a familiar, smiling person approached my cab — the Airborne sergeant I’d picked up a couple months earlier. After a tour in Iraq he’d visited his family at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky (home of the 101st Airborne and was to be stationed at Camp San Luis where he was to train reservists for their tours in Iraq. He did not want to come here (a dream gig for a regular Army soldier), but wished to return to his post on the Syrian border with his troops. He’d already done a hitch in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, as well as one in Somalia as an 18-year-old.
That afternoon, sitting in the front seat, his glazed, raw eyes testimony to the distant, 1000-mile stare, he addressed me nonstop all the way out to Camp SLO in a dry, twangy, detached monotone — his eyes seeming to be elsewhere — while his monologue was on automatic pilot. He told me what he’d seen (a lot of villagers whose respect was gained only by show of force), and what we needed (more troops), and what they’d found (munitions from France and Russia), and what he thought (we could win this thing if we were given the time and the politicians stayed out of it). By the time we reached the gate, a bond had been formed, possibly because I’d related to him that I’d served a three-year hitch in the Army in the ‘60s.
Now he was back, dressed the same (Army boots, camouflage pants, Army T-shirt, buzz cut) sans duffel bag. The 1000-mile stare was gone, and we shook hands as he sat down in the front seat.
“So how’s it going with the reservists?” I asked him.
“Man, do I got a story for you,” he said, more relaxed this time, a chunky man, 17 years in the service.
“What about YOU, sarge? How are YOU doing? Getting used to the area? I told you this was God’s country.”
“Well, there’s not much here for me, tell you the truth. It’s nice country, and the people are nice, but I can’t get used to it … it’s not very military oriented. My wife wouldn’t come out here, and she’s leaving me. I was just back on a weekend pass, tryna get her back, but she won’t come. She wants to stay near the reservation at Campbell. She’s an Army wife, a country gal, doesn’t want nothing to do with this place. She’s afraid of this place … she feels more comfortable among the Army wives and the friends she made back there. Now, pal, you wanna hear a good story — about the Mickey Mouse bullshit I been goin’ through since they sent me out here?”
I told him I did as we dawdled through town in the rush hour traffic. This guy reminded me so much of the NCOs I’d known in the Army — guys who’d seen action in Korea and even WWII. They were tough on you, but also mother-hennish, as if you were their responsibility, and you had confidence in them, knew they’d lead you in the right direction if things got hairy; they relieved you of that fearful, isolated feeling you got while in “this man’s” professional Army when you knew you were just trying to get your hitch out of the way and survive the ordeal in one piece.
Guys like the one beside me were professionals, and it was never about politics with them, but instead the guy beside you, and the guys beside the guy beside you.
“Well, pal, I’ve had a helluva time trying to shape up these troopers. They are not like regular Army troops, and it is nothing against them, it is just that they are not trained well enough or toughened up enough to go over there and put up with the bullshit that’s waiting for them. I will not pass a guy on to his next station if he’s not ready for country.
“So I had a little problem with the people who wanted me to pass these guys up to their staging area at Ft. Hood, in Texas. I put my foot down. I met with the sergeant major, and he told me I had to let them go. I said I couldn’t do that. We went round and round, but I wouldn’t budge. So they sent me to the general. He told me to send them on, but I told him I couldn’t do that. So he and the sergeant major, they didn’t like that. I explained why I couldn’t send these boys over. We went round and round. I wouldn’t budge. Finally, the sergeant major asks me what I want to do. I tell him the kind of shape I want these guys to be in before I’ll send them over. So he says he’ll give me 28 days to get them ready, and that’s all he’ll give me, and it’s my ballgame, my training methods, and I said, okay, I’ll do it. They were pretty fair about that.
“Well, I put these boys through hell. I can be a pretty tough drill instructor if I wanna be. I’ve done that before, between wars. I been getting Airborne Rangers ready for combat for years. And I got pretty rough with these boys. A lot of reservists are getting killed over there because they don't know what the hell they’re doing. A guy who knows what the hell he’s doing can get killed over there randomly, if his number’s up, but a guy who’s unprepared is gonna have a better chance of eating it just by fucking up, believe me. So I got pretty damn rough with these boys. They’d never experienced anything like it in the Guard, and that’s nothing against the Guard, but an Airborne Ranger unit ain’t the Guard.
“I wouldn’t let those boys sleep much. I stayed right up with them, didn’t sleep much at all for 28 days. I can get pretty irritable and mean when I don’t get enough sleep. But I got those boys into pretty damn good shape. I was pretty proud of ‘em in the end, and they were thankful I worked their asses off. They got strong, and tough.
They’re gone now, headed for Iraq.” He paused. “So now, the sergeant major, and the general, they like what I’m doing. They liked it so much they let me work out my own program, because they know it’ll make these boys more prepared. They got me doing more. They’re seeing the light.”
“Maybe the best thing happened to those kids was having a crack troop who’s been there toughening ‘em up.”
He nodded. “You can get ‘em ready the best way you know how, and do all you can, but it’s a different ballgame once you’re there. What I taught ‘em, it’ll help, but nothing prepares you for what they’re gonna see.”
We neared the gate. “So how are YOU doin’, man? You adjusting to the area? Having any fun away from the brawl?”
He shrugged, still facing me. As he talked, his expression and tone of voice never changed. “It’s strange, not having my wife and kids here. I’m gonna be here a while. She’s not gonna come. It’s been tough on her, tough on the kids. I’ve gone three different times. It’s just the way the Army is, and she knows that. Maybe if I can get back there, I don’t know. We can’t get together unless I’m back there. She’s used to the area. She’s got family and friends around her … a support group.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what about YOU and HER?”
We stopped at the gate. “Well, I’m working on that, man. I’m working on it. I was back there, working on it. I’m gonna keep goin’ back until I get it straightened out, if I can. I’ll hope for the best.”
“You look a lot better than the last time I saw you. Good luck, sarge. I’ll hope for the best for you, too.”
We shook hands. He got out before I could give him my card. I wanted to talk to him some more. I wanted him to have somebody to confide in who wasn’t Army, but who’d been in the Army. I wanted to buy the guy a beer in town and then maybe he’d be able to pour out what was really on his mind — deep down. A sergeant, a lifer, a leader, he’s not in the habit of spilling things out to fellow GIs. That's not the Army way. You never show weakness. Never. For your troops.
A month later, I was sitting in my cab at the airport, doing my crossword in the late afternoon, and I heard somebody yell at me. It was the sergeant. Boots. Jeans. Polo shirt. No luggage. Chunky belly hard. No swagger. Big smile. He stood by my window and we shook hands.
“Just saw you here and wanted to stop by and say hello, he said. “How you doin’?”
“Fine. How YOU doin’? You need a ride?”
“Naw. I’m driving an Army issue truck. Just got back from Kentucky.”
“Get your wife back?”
“Naw. But I’m tryin’. Tryin’ and hopin’.”
“How’re things at the base?”
He grinned. “They’re seein’ the light.” The grin went away. “I’m tryna get out of here, though. Might as well go back to Iraq, where I can do some good.”
I quickly handed him my card. “Look, sarge, you ever need somebody to talk to that’s not in the Army, but been in the Army, wanna have a beer, you call me, man, and it’s on me. You need a friend out here, I’ll be that friend.”
He took the card. “Thanks, pal. I appreciate that.”
We shook hands. I never saw or heard from him again. At night, I always watch the public television news with Jim Lehrer. At the end of the newscast, a couple times a week, they show photos of troops who’ve died in this war. There’s always sorrow in seeing those faces, but a certain amount of relief when it ain’t the sarge.
I just hope that what is left of him is in one piece.§
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com
Read more of his "Cabby's Corner" series: