Volume 8 | Spring 2018
by Diane Van Hook
It was an early Thursday morning, a clear September day and autumn was nipping at summer’s heels, even down in Missouri. Our Physical Training session progressed as usual, as did our time in the dining facility. I was in a good position in line for breakfast, so I didn’t need to shove food in my mouth and chug down my juice. For the rest of the morning we cleaned our gear for our third and final Field Training Exercise, which would last about a week, testing our endurance and knowledge acquired during training. Gear like our gas masks had to be taken apart, cleaned, and laid out to dry before it could reassembled and packed away into rucksacks.
After lunch, we had a fitting for our dress uniforms in preparation for graduation three weeks away, meaning we needed to vacate the sports bras that we had been living in for the last seven weeks. From there we were sent off to change out of our dress uniforms and do supply runs in prep for our FTX. Baby wipe baths were a godsend in the field.
While I was in the bathroom changing I suddenly panicked, an instinct that I dared not ignore. I completed the fastest change of my life and bolted back to my room where I faced a soldier’s basic training nightmare: an unsecured wall locker. To this day, I would swear up and down that I had locked it. But it didn’t matter: it had been discovered. I had lucked out in an unlucky situation. Most drill sergeants would have scattered my belongings far and wide around the room with malicious glee and violent aplomb. This particular drill, who brought to mind Al Roker, if slightly more soft-spoken, was gently hanging my uniforms on my roommate’s bunks. I could only stand there frozen, helpless to interfere or begin to reassemble my locker.
One could take this as a metaphor for me rebuilding my life, but I’d pushed anything outside of Fort Lost in the Woods to the back my brain until later. It wouldn’t help. Not after yesterday.
I’d been called out of my lane in urban combat training by my First Sergeant, and told to hand off my weapon. This was my first red flag. The second: I had a call at HQ, with no information what is was about. Third: For the first time since in-processing, I wasn’t under the direct watch of my Drill Sergeants. My oldest sister had contacted the Red Cross, knowing the protocol for contacting a training service member from her brief stint in the Navy. The fact that this sister was the one calling was the final big indicator that something was wrong. I didn’t see or talk to her often, but the other two siblings wouldn’t have known the procedure to get a hold of me. I expected my dad to be the one to get a hold of me for an emergency and the fact that it wasn’t him made me question why.
He had passed away Monday, found by friends of the family. He was 67. I think the CO expected me to cry, and I didn’t disappoint. We made arrangements for me to go on emergency leave, and I returned to my company. The drill sergeants obviously knew the news I’d gotten. They assumed I’d want to go through exercises later, but I’d arrived in time to rejoin my original group. I retrieved my weapon, and soldiered on, until I went on leave the next day.
After the drill sergeant finished scattering the contents of my locker, I had a brief time to put my things back in place before I was brought to the storage room to retrieve my duffel bag that held the civilian clothes I’d worn to basic training. A cab had been called to take me to the Greyhound bus station to catch my ride to the airport.
Such was my rush that I was unable to grab the dress uniform shoes that I was supposed to wear for the funeral. I’d pick up some dressy shoes from Walmart to wear to the funeral on Monday. I’ll never know if my dad meant to wear one of his suits to my Basic Training graduation, or if he’d try to squeeze back into his old Army uniform.
I had mixed feelings about my dad.
On the one hand, he was my protector, my provider. He kept me clothed and fed, and attended most of my school functions. His name was etched into the Veterans of Foreign Wars memorial monument in our town square, on the side dedicated to Vietnam veterans, years before he’d passed. He was well known in the community, and thought of as a hero to some. His influence was a contributing factor to me enlisting in the Army. I’d joked with my roommates that I’d come in to the service pre-trained because of him. At the funeral, I wept in the arms of my other my sister and her best friend, whom she’d brought for moral support.
On the other hand, I’d been plotting with my siblings and immediate relatives to avoid spending Christmas with him, trying to think up a plausible lie for me not making it home for Christmas. The next time I was willing to step foot in the same house as my dad, I wanted a carried concealed license and the handgun to go with it. My brother was in the beginning stages of reconciling his relationship with dad. I at least wanted a weapon between us before I felt safe enough to voice my disagreements with all the vitriol he’d spewed over the years. I wanted to dress him down for his faults and his lack of empathy. I wanted to shout at him for the almost decade of Red Phase I’d endured.
I’d never get the chance to fix my long attempts at avoidance, or make him understand how his critical words over the years had hollowed me out. Nor would I get an apology for what I was sure was his intention to “toughen me up.”
To this day, I’m not sure if my weeping at his service was for the loss of his presence or the relief of his absence.
If my departure for emergency leave was hectic, my return was even more so. I arrived back Tuesday night, and was housed with one of the neighboring companies until the morning, when I could be delivered out to my company in the field along with breakfast from the dining facility. When I got out there, a dilemma arose: I didn’t have any gear. The only thing I was able to retrieve from my room was the filter to my gas mask, and the carrying case that would remain strapped to my thigh for the rest of the exercise. The rest had been put somewhere by my roommates, as I had left it out to dry before it could be reassembled and placed in my locker.
When I got back to the field, my squad was going through one of the exercise lanes that were set up for skills evaluations. I informed one of the drill sergeants of my MIA gear, and asked what I should do if there was a gas attack. I was essentially told to “get friendly with” my filter. My squad returned, and I found out that my stuff had been stored and secured in the spare unoccupied wall locker in our room. That was little help to me at the moment.
After dinner, we gathered for a training lecture about general performance of the day, and strengths and weaknesses to be addressed. Abruptly, the call of “Gas, gas, gas!” was sounded as CS gas grenades were tossed around us.
Everyone else scrambled to put on their masks. I only had my filter. I braced it to my mouth, pinched my nose with my pinkies, closed my eyes, and waited for the all-clear signal.
About 30 seconds after the gas deployment, I heard one of the drill sergeants say, “Oh shit! Where’s Van Hook?” I flapped my arm like a lost duckling trying to signal to its mother, while continuing to suck as much precious non-tear gas filled air without compromising my seal around the filter nozzle and minimizing lip exposure.
Two things occurred while I was essentially blinded. The surrounding soldiers, having heard the verbal inquiry from the drill sergeant, and being able to see, pointed me out amidst the crowd of digital camo. And then the drill sergeant took a picture of me on his cell-phone.