This is the way my civilian world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
There was no formal "Red Bull" alert message this time around, rippling through the herd by telephone. Instead, the message was relayed by Archer, who had just happened to be copied on an e-mail my new boss had attempted to send to me, forgetting or not knowing or not caring that my military e-mail account was broken. I hope that's not an omen.
"Hey, Sherpa, you might want to give Lt. Col. Xavier a call ... He's trying to get ahold of you."
So, today is the first day of another tour of active-duty. My orders, when they finally catch up with me, will be a patchwork of funding sources and time periods: a couple of weeks of Annual Training money, a couple more of school money, then finally a couple of months of "Active Duty for Operational Support (ADOS)." The acronym is pronounced "ay-dahs."
The unit is months away from Mobilization-Day--what we call "M-day," a parallel concept, I suppose, to what our grandfathers called "D-day." M-days can always change, shifting to the left or right on the calendar. And they have been known to suddenly disappear altogether. But I'm not betting on it, and I've asked my family to stop betting on it, too.
The Red Bull is a big herd, after all, and once roused, is as hard to stop as any bureaucracy. We have little doubt that we'll be put to use, sometime soon, and somewhere in the world. Right now, according to what's already been put out to the public, that place is Afghanistan.
Back in 1997, when I was assigned to a different unit than what I am now, there had been more-than-rumors about a possible deployment to Bosnia back. That was the same year that Household-6 and I were planning to get married. That wasn't a true Red Bull message, but it was our first deployment "scare"--although "scare" isn't exactly the right word for the mess of conflicted feelings you get in your gut when you get the call.
First, there's the immediate urge to drop everything, pick up your rifle, and run to the sound of the guns. The U.S. National Guard predates all other U.S. Armed Forces for a reason: We trace our lineage back through the Minutemen and Minutewomen (Yes, there were some) of the American Revolution, and the necessity of quick, effective local military response is bred into us. One of the things I love about the National Guard is that you get to help your neighbors. I have had the honor of being called to state duty many times in the past two decades, responding to blizzards, floods, and tornados. "The other guys and gals only have 'God and Country,'" I like to say. "We've got 'God, Country, and Community.'"
Then, there's the idea that doing our military jobs is what we signed up for, what we train for. This is why we spend time away from friends and family "one weekend a month, and two weeks a year." (Admittedly, this phrase is so out of date and reality that soldiers just roll their eyes at it. Recently, drill weekends have sometimes grown to 4-day-long affairs. There's even a much-photocopied-and-passed-around-the-armories cartoon from a few years back, in which one National Guard Joe says to another, 'One weekend a month, my a--!") I guess what I'm saying is: You don't train for years to be a tank driver, and aspire only to filling sandbags or running generators during 100-year floods. You train as a soldier, and some part of you looks forwarding to finally doing your job.
I should note here that the American taxpayer invests tens of thousands of dollars on the training of just one soldier, then spends even more thousands for his or her individual equipment. It will cost a million U.S. dollars per soldier to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, one media report says. We just want to give the taxpayer a good return on their investments, not only of dollars, but of faith. We are "your tax dollar at work."
My first "Red Bull" message (by the way, I've changed the traditional semi-secret code slightly here, for reasons that can wait for a future post) was in 2003. Another buddy of mine just happened to be working in the Iowa National Guard personnel office, and gave me a call. "Hey, Sherpa, there's only two of you left in state of Iowa, and they can't find the other one. You want to volunteer, or to be volunteered?" I got the official Red Bull message later that day:
"Sherpa, this is a 'Red Bull' message. You have been called to active duty for the purposes of ... You are to report at This Place and This Time ..." And so on.
On that first message, I packed my bags on Friday, and was told to wait until Monday for further instructions. The call never came. Over the drill weekend, the unit that had needed me reshuffled its organizational structure, and suddenly needed one less Sherpa.
After that, however, the writing was pretty much on the wall. The very next unit moving out to Anywhere Else that needed someone with a Sherpa's skills would be giving me a call. I was the very last buffalo.
So, shortly thereafter, I got my second Red Bull message. And that's how I found myself transferred with a couple days' notice and wearing the Red Bull shoulder patch for the very first time. I deployed on a short, less-than-12-month mission in 2003, to a desert country that you've probably heard about but wouldn't guess in a hundred years. I'll write about that some other time, too. I've got to maintain some suspense or mystery, you know ...
Since I got back, I've been trying to juggle the joys of self-employment with a few temporary full-time National Guard tours. All in all, I've logged about 21 months of active duty since 2004 working various jobs in the Iowa National Guard. Strangely, I've developed something of a unique skill in that time, something that blends my civilian expertise and my soldier skills. I'll be darned, however, if the Army hasn't recently come up with an official job title for what I do. There's even a field manual, albeit one that's considered half-baked "emerging doctrine."
For the past couple of years, I haven't really known what to do with the Army, and the Army really hasn't known what to do with me.