26 July 2011

The Footlocker Time Machine

You don't get through more than 20 years in uniform without a little baggage.

Recently, during a much-needed, kid-free staycation here in the Midwestern tropics, Household-6 challenged me to reduce a couple of duffels-full of personal Army surplus into the confines of one military-size footlocker.

Technically, soldiers are issued everything they need: uniforms and boots, excavation tools and canteens, rucksacks and cold-weather ponchos. In past lives, I've been responsible for as much as $2,500 of such personal gear and equipment. When you transfer units, or leave uniformed service, much of this gear gets turned back into your supply sergeant, but there are exceptions. Anything that touches your skin, for example--T-shirts, long underwear, boots, to name a few--is kept by the soldier. As are some items that are obsolete and no longer listed in the U.S. Army inventory. Bottom line: Uncle Sam isn't going to re-issue anybody else your ratty brown boxer shorts or D.D.T.-infused sweaters.

There are also those extra items that soldiers accumulate over the course of repeated annual inventories. If a soldier can't produce a given item during one of those "show-down" inspections, they're financially responsible for its replacement. Personally, I now own a handful of easy-to-lose, 5-foot-long green nylon cargo straps, which are used for cinching and securing stuff. Come inspection day, they were always somewhere other than my wall locker. At a couple of dollars each, I purchased a number of them over time.

After a deployment, Uncle Sam occasionally lets soldiers keep a theater-specific set of uniforms. When the Infantry unit to which I was assigned returned from the Middle East in 2004, for example, we each kept one set of Desert Combat Uniforms (D.C.U.) and tan boots to wear in our homecoming ceremony. Returning to Iowa, Nebraska, and other states this month, the soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division are wearing their only-in-Afghanistan mountain combat boots and "MultiCam" uniforms.

Following my recent Midsummer Night's Cleaning, I now own a footlocker-sized time capsule that contains one set each of the "chocolate ship" Desert Battle Dress Uniform (D.B.D.U.)--worn by my U.S. Air Force father's from Operation Desert Shield--as well as my own woodland-green Battle Dress Uniform (B.D.U.), "coffee-stain" Desert Camouflage Uniform (D.C.U.), and "digicam" Army Combat Uniform (A.C.U.), plus various boonie hats and patrol caps, boots and berets.

I'm still a little undecided, however, on what to do with some of my non-uniform military paraphernalia. The "Defender of Freedom" stuff that was handed out by the National Guard like sour candy after my 2003-04 peacekeeping deployment, for example, always left me with a bad taste. I was peacekeeping in an allied but authoritarian country, not "defending freedom" for anybody, whether at home or abroad.

Such schlock and less-than-awesomeness is unnecessary, in my humble opinion. Not everybody needs to get a medal, and we don't need to create clunky unofficial awards for doing one's job. Still, the closet historian in me argues that it's necessary to keep some of the bad and the ugly clutter, along with the good. Future generations will want to know how each of us was a special snowflake.

I've also got a bag of National Guard retirement swag that someone from my unit's rear-detachment left on my desk in the middle of the night. Nothing says "thank you for your service" like finding that someone has slipped you a genuine anodized aluminum mini-L.E.D. flashlight gift set under cover of darkness.

It's the thought that counts. Right?

I am also in possession of a couple of tri-folded flags, which generally tend to give me both the Heebies and the Jeebies. I tend to regard such items as being more appropriate to military funerals, rather than to retirements and recognitions. Just issue me another commemorative coffee mug, thank you, and I'll be fine. No need to evoke the words "on behalf of a grateful nation." I was just doing my job. Besides, I'm not dead yet.

This forced march down memory lane did deliver one unexpected find: An old talisman from my first days of Army leadership training, back in 1991. It was a Doonesbury comic strip dated Dec. 29, 1990. (You can also order a framed print of the comic here.) Back in the day, I had clipped it out of a newspaper, and waterproofed it with lamination. I carried it everywhere, whether in my briefcase or backpack. The joke's set-up has to do with a Vietnam-era combat veteran telling stories to his fellow soldiers then deployed to Desert Shield. The newbie lieutenant tells the sergeant to carry on. "Should inspire the men," he says.

After the butterbar leaves the barracks, the vet returns to his story-telling. A young troop starts him off by asking, "Really, you shot your own officers?"

For years, I carried that cartoon as a reminder not to get too full of myself as an Army leader. Sometimes, I even managed to follow the implied advice. The "not pridefully setting yourself up to get shot at" part, I mean.

Later on in my Army career, I rediscovered the need for humility. In fact, I'd like to think that was the kernel around which the whole Charlie Sherpa ethic developed: Keep your head and mind your tongue, don't worry about rank, identify solutions and celebrate others, work for the organization rather than yourself.

And, most of all, to paraphrase Wheaton's Law: Don't be a dork.

After that, I didn't go as far in the Army as I might have otherwise, but I ended up in a happier place for it. Given my comic-carrying past, the fact that Red Bull Rising blog is occasionally featured on "The Sandbox" portion of the Doonesbury website has been both a thrill and a full-circle affirmation.

In this month of Red Bull homecomings, I know I'm not the only one packing it up and away, trying to figure out what to share of my Afghanistan experience with friends and family, and what to keep to and for myself. Deployment doesn't end with a homecoming ceremony. Returning citizen-soldiers need not only to re-connect with family, friends, and jobs, but also with news, culture, and society. Along the way, they'll no doubt wrestle with what the deployment meant to them, their families, and their communities. Often times, they'll encounter big questions camouflaged as something seemingly mundane. Like when friends and family ask whether they'll ever deploy again, for example. That's a box of conversational trip-flares, if ever there was one.

Maybe they'll find their post-deployment answers as early as next week, or more slowly during the months to come. Maybe they'll only discover them years from now, like a box of G.I. trinkets and treasures, or long-remembered clipping of yellowed newsprint.

Remember: Homecoming is a journey, not a destination. Pack as light as you can.

1 comment:

  1. So good topic really i like any post talking about Ancient Egypt but i want to say thing to u Ancient Egypt not that only ... you can see in Ancient Egypt Ancient Egyptian Pyramids and more , you shall search in Google and Wikipedia about that .... thanks a gain ,,,


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.