Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I don't know why I bothered to switch, but I did?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Life in the Staff Tent

Do you ever just take a pause and try to figure out what it is exactly that you're doing?

I spent about 3 hours just clicking through Wikipedia today, and that's when I realized, somethings gone wrong.

And for real, don't get me wrong, all those exciting things you see in movies and recruiting ads and commercials, about jumping out of planes and driving around in tanks and sailing the high seas, well, sure, someone is doing that somewhere. It's just the odds of you doing that at any particular time? Not good.

But I guess I shouldn't complain - I spent all summer like a pack mule sweating through some twisted daily cross country endurance circuit training from hell, carrying radios, machine guns, ammunition of all kinds, spraying bug spray until my watch melted, expending thousands of live rounds, double tapping, dashing, hitting the dirt, crawling to a position of observation, crawling to a position of fire, getting up, bounding, repeating for hours. So sooner or later, I was going to end up killing time in an office, putting off writing my very first set of personal development reviews for my very first subordinates.

And this really should be interesting. Because it was interesting to teach my first course, to have real subordinates, to come up with a real plan and watch it unfold; to react on the fly to changes and incidents - to teach, to evaluate, to fail soldiers off a course, to congratulate others on a job well done. OH, and to employ a worrying and unprecedented number of fire extinguishers. Thank you, thank you.

Yes, I am grateful for the opportunity that I had, especially to teach a leadership course - partly from the experience of running a very officer-intensive course, but also from being so far out of my league, a lowly second lieutenant teaching corporals with up to 3 tours in Afghanistan - "Listen boys, I don't know what you think, but I was playing a video game the other day and..." Yeah. Avoiding that was a challenge to say the least, but I think I pulled it off, well, really, that depends on who you ask. Point to improve - administration and staff work, yikes. It's a good thing I have strong field soldiering and interpersonal skills, because my paperwork is crap.

The whole picture seems to change though, from the staff tent, versus the hootch. The field used to be something I dreaded, then it became a challenge, because I wasn't just trying to survive but pass leadership and practical evaluations. Eventually, I came to love the field, to thrive in the difficulty and excitement. But, that all goes down the shitters when you've got a generator, a heater, and everyone's playing Guitar Hero in the corner.

What this all comes back to is, this is my first time facing the actual reality of the military. Because there isn't always going to be a course, or training, or a war to get prepared for. There's a reason that administration is a principle of war; this shit has to get done no matter what, because it matters. Everyone involved in the training system is making a valuable contribution to their country, it's just, it's so damn boring. But I won't always, in fact, I will rarely be doing the exciting field stuff, from now on. I've got a few more months back in Gagetown next year, running and gunning in the LAVs, and after that, paperwork and admin will be the majority of my routine.

This is going to require a major life change.

Because being an exhausted, worn, transient scoundrel of a soldier doesn't really fly when you're really working 8-4. And being a workaholic is great on a platoon attack or defending a FOB, but it's not so fulfilling when you're updating personnel records. I had 4 days off in a row this week and I nearly shot myself out of boredom. And that's a dangerous joke to make in this profession.

I think I finally figured it out, why people have kids - to have a reason to want to go home every day, to make going to work and coming home every day important, other than staying up all night in your underwear and not sleeping and reading Hemmingway novels over and over.

Of course, thinking of settling down just makes me think about Ontario which makes me think of Ottawa which makes me think of ex-girlfriends which just makes me nostalgic and homesick in general.

7 more weeks in Manitoba, then hopefully, never again. 7 weeks and the day I head home is the 2 year anniversary of when I started on this path, having no idea what I was getting in to.

And of course, nothing is ever as simple as you make it. There's reasons to stay here, so there's reasons I'll be pretty torn up when I leave. But if I'm an expert at anything now, it's keeping my head up, watching my arcs, and marching forwards.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Memory - July 08

The morning sunrise crests the tree line to the east and creeps slowly across the 200 feet of barren land, across the concertina wire, stacked 3 rows high between fence pickets driven firmly into the thick, dry ground. The night was cold, even colder inside the thick cinderblock walls of the platoon house, as the wind whipped viciously through open windows on the upper floors, keeping mosquitoes at bay, but freezing our sweat-laden clothes. The first rays of sun slowly climb the base of the window, effortlessly mount the lower frame, and shine brightly onto my face. Groggy from my 2 hours sleep, I reach for my helmet, balancing it just right over my face, not so much comfortable, but bearable. Inside the helmet, my world is reduced to 4 inches, and I stare at the leather and lace harness, trying to dream with my eyes open, thinking of being anywhere but here; thinking of the same sun, cresting a different window, almost two years earlier to the day.

And the morning sunrise crests the old machine shop that backs onto my apartment, the 2nd floor of an old house in Little Italy. The bed runs the length of the same wall, so the sun shines from the foot to the head of the bed, so that by the time the sun hits my eyes every morning, my whole body has been claimed by the new day. But it’s too early, a good 7 months before I take to waking up before the sun. I wake early because for once, I’m not alone.

Today, the stink of the sweat-caked helmet liner drives me to accept the eventuality of the morning. It would have been easier to stay asleep if I had unpacked my blanket, but I hadn’t expected to be able to sleep as long as I did. I’m lying on a narrow air mattress, boots unlaced but still on my feet, a frag vest firmly velcroed around my chest. I strip off the vest and reluctantly take off my dry t-shirt underneath, fold it neatly and return it to the waterproof bag inside my rucksack, replacing it with yesterday’s shirt, still damp from a day of long work in the hot sun, and a late patrol all night long. Looking around, I see soldiers still sleeping, scattered against walls all over the interior of the house, dressed in a dozen different ways, some curled up peacefully under ranger blankets, others sprawled out in full fighting order, not so much asleep as just, off. Closest to me is a loaded rifle, a few feet away my machine gun is set up on a pile of rucksacks, just peeking above the reinforced window, the tired soldier behind it watching the road to the small settlement to our north, eating some sliced fruit out of a foil bag with disinterest, waiting for his shift to end.

And two years ago I’m all but naked in rich blue sheets, one luxury among an otherwise frugal student lifestyle. And next to me, there is a goddess in matching black bra and underwear. And she’s young, beautiful young, only 19, and I have just recently reached the wise, old age of 22. And of course, the whole time, I feel like I’m the mature one, that I’m her guide to the exciting world of adulthood; but of course, short of being a slightly better cook, and having made more bad decisions in that 3 extra years than she could ever hope for, like most girls her age, she is far more mature than I. In fact, she is on the cusp of womanhood, that age when she will stop falling for the bullshit antics of young men like me. Because I’m the last mistake she will make, as a girl, before she catches on. But she doesn’t know this at the time, and I do, but I’m trying not to realize it. Because I don’t want a beautiful woman who wants me, no, I want adventure, and success, and really, attention, and popularity, and to feel wanted. I am vain and restless, and I am vain and restless because my pride has been wounded, and I’m really not much these days than a self-destruction complex with a decent jaw-line and a bit of charm.

In the present, I’m waiting for a ration to cook, the boiling water rattling my canteen cup, perched precariously on my precious pocket stove. I’m field-stripping my weapon, oiling up so that it’s ready for whatever might happen that day. I’m having a baby-wipe shower, debating if I have to urinate badly enough to justify getting fully kitted up, in helmet and frag vest and load bearing vest and weapon, just to head out behind the house to the platoon pits. And then I’m getting orders, to bomb up on ammunition and water, to get ready for a patrol.

Two years ago, I’m kissing her, Nicole, gently while she sleeps. Because we didn’t sleep together, but it’s the first time we’ve slept next to each other, and everything is still sexy in that sweet, innocent way before you’re used to each others’ bodies, when your heart still beats with the excitement of grazing the soft skin at the rise of a woman’s breast with your lips, when she still holds her breathe with equal parts fear and excitement as an unfamiliar set of arms wraps themselves firmly around her shoulders when you kiss, holding her close. She’s skinny, not malnourished, but naturally slight, and tall. She looks Eastern European, like a wheat farmer’s precious daughter. She wakes up and I tell her I have to go to work, and she knows this, but she asked to stay over instead of going home late at night on the bus. And we kiss for longer than I can afford, even having woken up early, but I don’t care. I tell her that I have to have a shower, and that’d I’d invite her, but I know she’s too much of a lady to say yes, smirking, but honestly believing it. And she smiles back, with playful eyes, and asks me if I’m sure.

And that was a moment that standing on the edge of an earthen berm, gazing into a shanty village made from old abandoned sea containers, checking my radio and weapon, suddenly struck me. Because they were one and the same, these moments, what you might call critical decision points. Moments where the things you think you want, and the things you think you believe in, suddenly present themselves as real, physical dilemmas – when, essentially, you have to throw your chips into the pot, or just get out of the game.

And I knew that I was going over that berm, because the decision that started this all carries a hefty obligation. But two years ago, I had to make a choice, about how far I was willing to go, about what I was willing to represent about my intentions. And I stared at this beautiful, intelligent, witty, ambitious girl, who for some insane reason seemed to want nothing in the world more than myself, and instead I chose self-destruction. Or I should say, adventure, or duty, or opportunity, or whatever I was telling myself on that given day. And I shrugged it off with a laugh, and showered alone, and got ready for work, and turned down what would have happened between us, fantastic though it would have been, because I know how much it would have meant to both of us.

And would she have been worth it? Not to have embarked on this ‘life of adventure’? Of course, a thousand times over. I told her later, on the phone (and I thought I was so brave that I even did it on the phone) that it wasn’t what I wanted, but I couldn’t explain, even if I really did want her.

And would I have done it all differently, in retrospect? Not a chance.

Because it’s addictive, this life of excitement, even when it’s usually really a life of challenge, and suffering, and boredom, and never-ending change. Because it’s a different life, at least, and because I’m young, we’re all still young. And when you’re young you can handle having a temporary life, you can accept that every beautiful, good thing that you have is only yours for maybe a few months, maybe a few weeks, at best. Because you can still mourn what you will inevitably lose while moving forward and experiencing new things, until you’ve had too much, and the joy of the unknown is overcome by the crushing nostalgia of so many possibilities lost, so many opportunities squandered.

And for real, I’m getting close. But still, I’m addicted, to this lifestyle, to living more places in 2 years than most people will in their entire lives, to the attitude and personality it allows me to claim; to being the prodigal son, the long lost friend, the wise counsel, the experienced expert, the success, the career man, the charming stranger, the mysterious traveller, and the hopeless romantic.

And Nicole is but one of a handful of the most beautiful, and radiant, and truly fantastic women that can be found in this country, that I had the pleasure of having, however briefly in my life, during the turbulent period between deciding to join the army and where I sit today. Women to whom I am both deeply grateful and sorry; sorry that I could never resolve my desire for the unknown in favour of their worthy company, but grateful for the memories of all the truly good possibilities in this world, and the enduring reminder that soon, much sooner than later, it will be ok to give up this restless life.

And today, boots on the ground, sweating under layers of protective equipment, and litres of water, and the weight of hundreds of rounds of ammunition, sweltering in the hot afternoon sun, I am happy to be here, for now.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Summer Leave - Part Two/Mistakes

Two weeks ago I knew exactly what to say, and of course, I didn’t, and now I’m at a loss. Things have been busy. I survived vacation. Things happened, certainly, but some things aren’t helped by discussion. And then I drove back east, back to the base. And I have to say, it felt like going home. Not because of the cold steel bunk bed, the big fluorescent light, or the stink of sweat, boot polish, and weapon oil, but because everyone I really know anymore was there. And everyone is still lonely, but it’s comforting, to be back with the guys who you’ve been living and working with, some of them, for years.

So we all sat around and joked and poked fun at each other’s new clothes, or haircuts, or purchases over leave. Then we talked about what we did on vacation. And then we talked about girls, because, for real, at this point that is what everyone bases their vacation around. And, like every time we go on leave, the end result is a mix of tragedy and success. There are the guys who rekindled things with an ex, and those who gained a new one. Some plans worked out, some failed. Some guys were the beneficiaries of chance, a bit of fun, here and there. And some of us ended up somewhere in the middle, and were left with a big question, about what we wanted, and where we were going to go, and what we were prepared to give up, or gain, in our lives.

And then I went back to work, and day one, I had a decision to make. Because for once, things were in my hands, and of course, they only let you make the really tough calls. So I thought about it, and I made a decision, and by Wednesday night I had my orders and hit the road. And 3500km, and a lot of gas, and one accident, and a lot of bad music, and some sleazy motels, I made it out West. And that night my decision got tested, and it didn’t go well, but it wasn’t decisive either.

And yes, it feels good to be doing an actual job in the Army, finally. It feels strange, actually, to be treated with a degree of respect, and to be given a task and not to be told how to do it, or even be checked up on. And that’s not to say that indicates trust, or an assumption of confidence, it’s just how things go in the military – there is always more work than personnel, and superiors just have to trust that their troops will get the work done. And I’m getting it done, even though its 2 rank grades and about 5 years of experience over my head, and for real, I’m not getting any support working around that problem. But working at least gives me something to do, and I will turn out a good product at the end, if only because it’s the only thing that I have to keep me from realizing where I’ve ended up.

I’m farther than I’ve ever been from home, from my family, my friends. And I’m used to that, of course, but now I’m out here without the guys, my peers, the people who I don’t even have anything to say to anymore but whose company I relied on for many months of hell.

And here’s the kicker.

It’s my own fault.

Because there were really 3 choices, originally, and at any of them I was guaranteed to be with a group of my friends. But I was chasing something, something that felt right, at the time. And it was, really, but then I flinched, and doubted everything, if only for one short week. So when they offered me that choice, at the last second, was I sure I wanted to come out here on my own, or did I want to go to one of the other options, with my friends. And I thought about it, and decided, no, it’s worth it, it’s worth giving up the comfort and security of the guys, and I took the risk.

And about, maybe 2 days into getting out here, I started to realize I had made a big mistake.

And it wasn’t coming out here. Because for my career, this could really be a good go. The attitude and the atmosphere work for me, sure, I miss the city, of course, but that’s always the big sacrifice of the job. The mistake, the mistake was flinching, even if I thought it was inconsequential, even if I thought I could make up for it.

Well, maybe I can’t.

So I’m sitting out here, in the middle of nowhere really, alone, all long weekend long, just thinking about how it’s an extra day until I can go to work again, until I can have something to do, something to make time move forward that much faster. And there are prairie sunsets and strong winds and lots of roads to run, but it’s not enough. And the standard of living isn’t even bad, there are even couches and TV and cable, but it’s not enough. I have enough books to keep me occupied until a year from now, let alone Christmas, but even they can’t stop me from anxiously walking circles around my quarters. Even by army standards, this is lonely.

The take home point here, it’s really more of a punch line, if anything. It’s the cycle, the cycle of everything, hope, anxiousness, doubt, failure. Repeat. Because, for sure, the shortest distance between happiness and possibility, and smiling to yourself like an idiot, thinking about something, really, really fantastic that is finally within your grasp, is the flinch – that brief moment where you question, where you look that gift horse in the mouth, and, crash, you’ve got nothing. There is always a punishment, a price to pay for your lack of faith. And I’m not saying I’m in for an eternity of hellfire, or doom, or divine punishment, certainly not.

I’ve just got another 120 days in Shilo, Manitoba to pay.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Summer Leave - Part One

Somewhere around 29,000 feet, above sea level of course, I wrote a bunch of notes in a well worn notebook, sandwiched between a metrep and a grid loc for an overhead firing heavy machine gun, somewhere, sometime. Of course now they are too cryptic to understand, like signpost arrows nailed to a fence picket lying broken in the mud.

This is why they always tell us, be careful with your relative indications, you have to use absolutes. And it's true, because my left and your left are probably different directions, and I don't want you to get lost, or shoot something you weren't supposed to shoot, or pass me curry when I needed cumin. But really, absolute or relative, all my spatial references are shot, let alone any crude map model I had managed to construct of where the hell my life was going. Writing notes about things you want to write while sitting tired, hungry, and reflective in a tiny airplane next to some guy way too into men's Olympic swimming, after reading 121 pages of Henry Miller is clearly a bad idea, in fact, I think it's specifically counter-indicated in the owner's manual for Life, productive, human. Along with a lot of other things, like, spending your vacation in Manitoba.

That metrep was wrong, by the way. It rained so hard we debated building an ark, then realized that we were hard pressed to find a female anything at the time, which would have made pairing off a bit of a short-straw kind of issue.

On the way out to Manitoba, courtesy of a lengthy airport delay, I re-read Starship Troopers - the old sci-fi book, not the bad sci-fi movie where you get to see pretty much everyone's tits but Denise Richards. For a Navy man, Heinlein has some pretty useful insights into Army life. Mostly in his claim, and I'm paraphrasing here because the book is easily on the other side of the room, that women are the only reason men ever go to war. That is to say, that when anyone says they're fighting to protect society, yeah, they mean women. And when anyone says that they have to make a stand for humanity, for sure, they're talking about the soft, pretty, good smelling humans.

And really, I don't know what the hell I'm doing, but at least I figure, this Army racket should make me look good to the ladies. And it does, every time I'm on vacation and someone is looking for a quick cheer-up rebound.

And yeah, that's life and it's as funny as it is sad, and I'm as a complacent as I am a victim and this isn't whining or complaining it's just illuminating a fact that isn't so obvious to those of you who still manage to lead something resembling a normal life. Of course it's not like I have anything better to do. If men are fighting to protect women, and I buy that the male vision of society, the community, the body politic, the Republic, the Leviathan, is entirely sex and reproduction centered, I'm wondering where myself and many of my peers fit into it. We haven't even been fighting, other than not to fail out of the training program for a profession where we'll have to fight just to get a platoon to take overseas to fight, and even 3 levels removed from any fighting, most of us wouldn't even remember what to do with a woman anymore, except for maybe an incredulous 11 seconds or so; sex that lasts just long enough to remember that A: you miss sex, and B: it really has been a long time since you had any.

Where this is all going, is that if I'm really pursuing my dreams of leading brave Canadian soldiers into violent, brutal combat against the enemies of freedom as a means to an end nestled between milky thighs and smooth, soft legs, this may explain just what the hell I was doing in Manitoba.

So I went and I visited the base, where at last indication I'm to be posted as a course officer to oversee the training of young infantry privates, and where I've got aspirations of seeking a permanent posting with a battalion. And it was small, and flat, but not without its charms, and built in roommates, among other inter-personal arrangements.

And of course, I'm looking gift-horses in the mouth. And it's not because I'm paranoid, or an asshole, but because I've been burned enough times that its getting embarrassing. Not to mention annoying. I'm real good at being a stoic (read: douche bag) loner; you want sure you're trading up to a good thing if you're going to abandon a sweet gig like this.

And it's that feeling between feeling like you're missing something, and knowing that everyone is laughing at you but not being able to figure out that joke. That feeling that you know something is up, and you know you should figure out what it is, but you don't have the heart to pry the answer out of the liar.

But really, it's that feeling when you're almost happy, and you know that whatever is you don't know is going to ruin that, and maybe you'd rather end up the ruined fool so at least, for now, you could be almost happy and just almost believe it yourself, almost.

And you almost have to respect the liar - and I use liar here in the Camusian sense - that it is not just a lie to tell someone something that is not true, but also not to tell someone something that they should know - because it takes a special kind of courage, to dance around a lie like that, to pretend that it's not there, even when you know that just in avoiding it you are tracing an outline of the lie - in trying to ignore it you are sketching its limits and shape with painful accuracy, to anyone who wants to know the answer.

But then again it takes a special kind of courage to be lied to, to know there is a lie, and yet to move forward anyways, to play the fool, to take each step further when you can see the liar dancing, can start to guess at the the true nature of the lie, like some reluctantly clairvoyant Wheel of Fortune contestant, who knows just what phrase the letters will spell out, but it desperate to live their full 15 minutes of fame under the camera lights.

And like so many things, this isn't what I meant to write, it isn't what I thought I would write, and it isn't want I want to be written. But it's what happened. And I've watched myself, so many times, just accept what got written, that really, I'm just afraid that when it really matters, when it really should be exactly what I meant, I won't tear it up and try again.

And it's worth noting, that Camus. that chain-smoking old French stoic (read: asshole) bastard didn't have the heart to tear up all the crap he wrote, but he knew better than to publish it. Sadly he did not know better than to avoid running his car into that tree head first, and leaving his entire life's work at the hands of his survivors to publish. Even the best of planning will always be subject to the cruelty of chance...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Filling Sandbags

Filling sandbags isn't really an art. Yes, there are better ways and worse ways to go about it, and people will extol the virtues of one method or the other, but really, it's just an exercise in time and man power. Except that for some reason you should always turn them inside out, because they are stronger that way, and that you should make sure whoever is tying them up isn't an idiot. Usually in the army there is a table, or a grid, or a matrix, or a rule of thumb that would tell you how long it would take to fill x number of sandbags. But there isn't. There is a matrix about work/rest schedules for those filling sandbags, dependent on the weather, and there is a table outlining how many sandbags are needed for various tasks, or to protect against specific threats, but nothing on time.

This is probably because sandbags are a pretty loosely defined concept. You think it would be simple; take a bag, fill it with sand. Nope. Most commonly, you end up with a dirt bag, or a rock bag, or an ice bag, or a bag filled with ammo you'd rather hide then deal with, or casings you'd also rather hide than drag back up to an admit point, or old ration packages, or bits of beef jerky wrappers, or whatever you have in your pockets that you'd no longer like to carry. Only once did anyone ever hand me a sandbag and point me over to a mound of sand. And frankly, it was a dream.

The other problem with sandbags is that the efficiency of their preparation is highly dependent on the motivation and attitude of the troops. Their morale, to put it simply. And this is usually directly proportional to how tired of being fucked around they are, and how meaninglessly stupid they believe the task to be. If the enemy is advancing in your direction, and you're looking at facing them sticking out of a shitty little hole in the ground you only half managed to dig out, then yes, you're going to dig. Then again, if it's for some shitty exercise that isn't half believable and a complete waste of time and resources and even one of your cocky asshole corporals could have planned better, then frankly, it's going to take some time to get those sandbags filled. Let alone dragged over to the truck, then loaded, then dragged off, then positioned. Then repositioned. Again, and, again, and again. There is a set of sandbags out there that I not only filled, but loaded onto trucks, moved, and repositioned 6 separate times. And this was before we learned those two critical rules, the ones about turning them inside out, and not letting an idiot do the tying.

And whenever you find yourself digging sandbags, it's always in the same kit, the same tools, the same one guy holding the bag and another shoveling, rotating every say 5, or 10, or 15 bags - depending on how many need to get filled, and what you're filling them with. But you're always somewhere new. Not to put too fine a point on it, but usually it's only the shitty things in life that follow you around. The rest is just backdrop, like cities and towns along the highway passing through in your car windows. Or is it the other way around? Do misery and happiness come from the places you find yourself, not the activities that occupy your life?

I guess where I'm trying to go with this is that I've been up to this shit way too long. This morning I woke up rolled into the corner of the spare bedroom at a place I'm house sitting, tucked into my sleeping bag, sleep crusted in my eyes, with no idea where I was; vaguely thirsty, extremely dislocated, increasingly anger, and badly in need of a toliet, not to mention, completely missing my underwear.

It's been around 20 months of this now. of living nowhere, of having no place. I'm the guy who spends more on hotels a year than anything other than student loans, who begs you to house sit while you're gone, who snaps up that offer to stash his spare things in your basement, and who secretly wants to ask you how much to rent that spare bedroom at your place. Because what I have, is a tiny bunk in a small room with 3 other bunks, and 2 tiny closets and a little desk that I'm not allowed to put anything on but 1 civvie book and 1 military book and nothing inside because the Sergeant Major loves to randomly inspect the quarters. I have to make phone calls from inside my car, which is also my closet, and if I was out looking for women, believe me, it would be your place.

I hate to sound like I'm whining, but grown men, grown men with university degrees, grown men who are constantly told they are leaders and role models and all sorts of completely untrue cliched platitudes, should not be bunkmates. Nor should they be marching around like recruits on basic training, from their own graduation parades as platoon commanders, no less. The system is set up like some unbalanced, abusive mother - it places the training of future leaders in the hands of their own future subordinates, who do not stop beating them in punishment for this arrangement untiil the last second before the roles are officially reversed. And I'm sure all of a sudden it will be snapping to attention and neat salutes and yes sir, but the damage is already done. The men who are supposed to be my future sources of experience and advice, in exchange for steady leadership and support, are in fact my tormentors and enemies. I will be expected to attentively care to their personal administration and professional development, despite the years they spent mocking the personal complications and dislocations of myself and my peers. These are men who changed a graduation parade with 2 days notice, and sneered at all the candidates whose families had now wasted hundreds if not thousands of dollars on travel and plans to come and see what should have been one of the proudest days of their careers. Men who laugh at the prospect of candidates spending 3 years total living like dogs in a kennel, making up new locker inspection templates that assure there is no room for anything personal, who can barely contain their giggling when asking knowing questions, like demanding to know why we brought so much personal kit to a course, when they know full well its been years and years since any of us really lived anywhere.

I'm a 24 year old university graduate who owns one pair of pants, who has slept in a sleeping bag for 8 months, and who has earned the right to command troops in battle, but not to walk like a human being from point a to point b.

And the thing with sandbags is that you have to be careful about how much you put into them. Because at the time, they seem tough, and you can just dump and dump into them absentmindedly, because you aren't even really paying attention. But there's a limit, and if if well tied, they will burst apart. And as heavy as sand is, stupidity, pointless meanspirited treatment, and utter disregrard for others way a hell of a lot more.

And the stupidest, stupidest thing of all, is myself.

Because I wanted this, I didn't just volunteer for it - I chased it down. I changed my life to fit with the path that was needed, and I hunted it down until I made it, and I became decent at what I do, and I took all the ideology and ethics and ethos and doctrine and inanity to heart and truly believed in it all, and now I just wish I was somewhere else.

And I could still do it. I could still get out. But all of a sudden I don't just not want to wake up in the shacks, or some hotel, or some borrowed space - all of a sudden there is a place I would like to wake up. And the only way that makes any sense is to stay in the army, and to follow it off to the least likely place I ever expected to go.

And when I asked the guys, the clever guys, who already quit, what they said when they put them before the man and demanded to ask why. And they said they called them cowards. And of course I said bullshit, they just hated to see a youngster that much smarter than any of them.

Monday, June 30, 2008

6 weeks in the field.

I went to bed last Saturday around 4 am after a night out with the guys, I woke up around noon on Sunday and ran some last minute errands. I didn't go to sleep again until Friday, at 2am. And I wonder why I can't sleep anymore. Canada Day long weekend 2008, Halifax, CFB Halifax to be more precise. The Navy knows how to roll, they rebuilt their entire officers quarters as a hotel and a large percentage of my course is currently shacked up here, partying like hell to shake off the last 6 weeks of bullshit.

We're done our hard field time and not a minute too soon. This week was when people started to crack. You could feel it coming, from day one. A tour might be 6 months and a war might be years, but nothing is longer than a course, because every day of your life on course is an attempt by the staff to break you down. And to this end, the defensive is about the best tool you could ever hope for to beat whatever is left out of a group of soldiers.

You recce a position, site your trenches, move the troops, occupy the position, then you dig in. Carry your shovel and your pick on your back, and dig like hell until you're standing in the ground, you're head sticking out looking down towards the kill zone where your enemy will eventually appear, right in the trap you're rushing to set. Except, not on course. On course, you dig in, and before you have a chance to even finish, let alone change your socks, or drink some water, or eat, you're attacked and you withdraw, under contact, and run, and march, and find a new position and start it all over again. And at night, you don't sleep, you dig. And if you eat, you're hammering down a cold rat pack while your fire team partner watches the arcs of your trench, and you listen painfully to each slow scrape of the rat pack as your buddy gets every last scrap of that useless 240 calories that the army swears you can live on x 3 a day.

But what the defensive teaches you is the bare minimum of what you require to live. You live out of your rucksack, like we always do, but you're carrying it everywhere and often. In the dismounted role, who knows if you're going to have transport to get you out, especially in a withdrawl under contact. So we prepare to carry, and run with, and hit the ground with, and conduct fire and movement with our rucks on our back. Between your fighting order - your weapon, your frag and tac vest, your gas mask, 48 hours of rations, 2x first line ammo and 3 litres of water, any extra weight is just going to cause trouble. Anything you pack has to be essential, like, down to nothing but socks and extra food.

So this is where you learn the importance of hold out kit. Snivel kit is slang for all the extra bits of junk you carry with you to make your life a little nicer - fleece jackets, guicci rain gear, hell, a pillow. Hold out kit on the other hand is that last little savior of equipment or clothing that you will not bring out until you are truly fucked. I was once saved from hypothermia but one last old t-shirt I found jammed in the bottom of my ruck, grabbed and put on a few minutes after I had stopped shivering and a few minutes before I was really in some trouble.

And on the defensive, for most people, is the bivy bag. The weather is an unpredictable and dangerous beast. We had a day so hot that at 11pm my friend went down on a patrol vomiting with heat exhaustion and I had to drag him out 300m through thick brush to the road in complete darkness. And that same night by 2am we were shivering uncontrollably in our trenches saved only the clear skies above. But you don't always get so lucky. We abandoned our position on Thursday at 4 in the morning and set out on a 13km withdrawal with full platoon weapons and equipment. By the time we reached our new position everyone to the man was soaked with sweat - so we spent all afternoon and evening withdrawing and reoccupying the same ground until night set in and around 1 am we had finally finished our trenches and prepared to finally get some rest, our last night in the field, after 6 weeks.

And that's when the rain started.

It played out in our trench the same way it must have in every other - no one wants to admit that they are slowly going hypothermic, so they accuse their trench partner. Mine started nagging quickly that he could hear my teeth chattering and that I should do something quick. So we relented and abandoned proper battle discipline, pulled out out bivy bags, and crawled in fully kitted up. A bivy bag is a waterproof - hopefully - sack that you usually keep your sleeping bag in to keep dry, but in a pinch will make an emergency one man tent against the elements.

And around 3am is when I realized that the bivy bag is not completely waterproof.

And around 3pm that afternoon, when I was still shivering and barely awake, I found out that one of my best friends had failed off the course.

I knew he had been pulled to the hospital for twisting his knee in a tank rut, but didn't realize that doing so he lost his chance to re-test his practical and was by default out.

And there is nothing harder than being exhausted but elated for having finally finished the worst, and turning to your friend who was there for all but one day of all the hell and bullshit, and wanting to be excited with him and hop in your car and hit the road to Halifax for the long weekend, but having nothing at all to say to a guy who was always there for you but now is struggling to keep his career from slipping through his fingers.

So he gave up his reservation and his spot in the car, and when I get back he won't be there. The army moves people out pretty quickly to teach us a lesson, that the only people who exist are those still on course, still on tour, still on the mission - still alive. Because people will die and we will lose troops and we can't sit around and dwell on the losses because we lose people in order to accomplish missions, and if we don't carry on then they died for nothing. Which is great, in war, but bad when you already miss your buddy and have to add him to the list of good, good friends who were unlucky, or unhealthy, or just plain incompetent - who are now very gone, and unlikely to ever look up their old life or the old friends their status within it used to grant.

And walking back to the naval barracks, after bailing from the bar early because the guys were hammered and I just didn't feel like dancing anymore, I thumb my NDI 20, my military ID in my pocket, making sure everything is in line to cross through the guard shack. The guard demands and I present and he inspects it and reads my status and tells me, "sir, have a good night." and I can't help but think who am I fooling as an officer in the military, maybe a year away from commanding my country's soldiers in combat in a foreign country, sulking around in a random city feeling bad for friends and missing women and wishing I had someone to share the comfy bed in my room with. I want to be hard, I want to be one of those guys who can take any punch without missing a beat, and I'm not soft by any means, I can survive anything you can throw at me - I just don't want to feel bad anymore about things I can't control.

I guess really, I want to be able to visit random cities without needing to wander around alone in the fog, and to be able to sleep in big comfy beds without lying staring at the walls until 4am, and I want to have friends who won't be posted out or recoursed or med-catted, and to be able to just think about what needs to be done, without having to feel anything, and really, I don't want to have to write anything anymore.