An old Army buddy of mine recently posted the following joke on Facebook:
WHY I JOINED THE AIR FORCE
DoD was conducting an "All Service" briefing and the leader posed this question:
"What would you do if you found a scorpion in your tent?"
A Sailor said, "I'd step on it."
A Soldier said, "I'd squash it with my boot."
A Marine said, "I'd catch it, break the stinger off, and eat it."
An Airman said, "I'd call the concierge desk and find out why there was a tent in my room."
Truer words were never spoken.
It dawned on me earlier today that this year - 2016 - marks 30 years since I first joined the military. In early 1986 I reported to Phoenix, AZ, for induction into the US Army, where I raised my hand and I repeated the following oath:
"I, Robert McMurray, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."
Little did I know the adventure upon which I was embarking, and what a profound difference the next eight years would have on my life.
During my tenure in the Army, I was sent to a a lot of places where I did a lot of interesting things; there are a bunch of stories which I can talk about, and there are some circumstances which I will never be able to discuss. I had some amazing experiences, along with a handful of terrifying incidents, and there are a few decisions that I made about which I will continue to question whether I did the right thing for the rest of my life.
I spent months away from my wife and children in faraway places - quite often in deplorable conditions - and all for a paycheck which was less than I would have earned if I had stayed home and got a job flipping burgers for a living.
On the other hand, I was anorexic when I joined the Army, and in that respect the military may have saved my life. I weighed less than 114 pounds when I reported for Basic Training, and yet I still thought that I was hideously overweight. By way of contrast, I weighed 135 pounds when I graduated Basic Training eight weeks later, and I had learned how to be thankful for eating three meals a day.
Most of my time in the military consisted of serving at three different duty stations: the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA, for a year; the 511th Military Intelligence Company in Fulda, Germany, for 3½ years, and the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade in Fort Huachuca, AZ, for 3 years. (My remaining six months of service was spent in Basic Training and a variety of other undisclosed locations.)
Despite the passing of several decades, I am still friends with several of the people with whom I served, and I have done my best to regale my comrades-in-arms in other blogs on this website with some of the stories which I had taken the time to write down during our service together. We were privileged to be first-hand witnesses to some amazing times in history; from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.
That being said, moving on to each duty station was always a strange experience. Like everyone else before me, I was always the "newbie" when I arrived; I was surrounded by people who had been stationed there longer, all of whom had months or years of shared experiences, and they all knew how everything worked. By the end of my first year, I was no longer the new guy, and I would find myself teaching the newly-arriving recruits all the same important details which I had learned during my initial months. By the end of each tenure, I was an "old timer," despite the fact that I was only 25 years old when I left Fulda, and only 28 years old when I left Fort Huachuca.
I would love to say that I endured all of my military experiences with a positive attitude, but that would be far too dishonest. Those who knew me "way back when" can certainly attest to the fact that my attitudes about the Army often fluctuated, and usually in a negative direction. (That general attitude is reflected in several of my stories on this website.) Eventually I realized that I was not like some of my brothers-in-arms who could survive 20 years in uniform in order to earn their retirement, so I chose to exit the military after two four-year tours of service.
By the end of my time in the Army, I had graduated with honors from every school which I had attended, earned a college degree, received a bunch of awards and decorations, and served exactly 3,700 days. Nevertheless, it was time for me to go.
I have never regretted my time in the service, although I must admit that I have no desire to repeat most of my experiences. (Rappelling from a helicopter might be fun, though.) Just the same, I am incredibly thankful for the guys with whom I served; it was an honor and a privilege to work with them.
During my tenure in Germany, the Army had decided that soldiers on guard duty would no longer be issued live rounds. Apparently this decision was based on a large number of suicides which seemed to occur when soldiers were left alone all night pulling a miserable duty shift in a miserable part of the world. However, what this meant for me personally was that every night that I pulled guard duty at Sickles Army Airfield, I was supposed to guard an entire flightline of very expensive Army aircraft with no way to defend either them or myself. (Remember that "Military Intelligence" is an oxymoron.)
Actually, I didn't even have an unloaded M16 as some guards had in other areas of the world; apparently some of the locals had discovered that the guards were carrying unloaded M16s and attempted to steal one by overpowering some poor guy on guard duty. After that incident had occurred, no one carried an M16 on guard duty anymore. This meant that the only two things with me which resembled weapons were a cheap, wooden Billy Club and my three-battery Maglite.
However, that was not the case when the 511th deployed to the border; whenever we were within the 1K zone, we always had our M16s, with three live rounds in one of the guard weapons and a sealed case of rounds hidden in reserve. Depending on the deployment site, the guy on radio watch would have the three live rounds in a magazine of his M16, and the roving perimeter guard would carry an unloaded M16. (Once again, this was to serve the dual purpose of cutting down on suicides and preventing a loaded weapon from being stolen.) The three live rounds were supposed to be enough to fire warning shots if a potentially-threatening situation ever presented itself, and the sealed box of rounds was kept in reserve for the unlikely event that full hostilities erupted.
That being said, in all my time at the border, even though one of the guards had three live rounds in a magazine, there was only one occasion when someone ever felt the need to load them.
During one of our deployments near OP Alpha, SPC Terry was on radio watch and I was the roving guard when a group of three nosy civilians bypassed our "You Will Be Shot" signs and started poking around the perimeter of our site. Everything was surrounded by a triple-ring of concertina wire so they could not get close to any of the equipment, but still - we didn't want anyone nosing around our location.
I think it was SGT Bullard who tried to warn them away in German, but they weren't leaving. After a few, tense minutes of arguing back and forth with the civilians, SPC Terry had had enough and started to walk over to our position. And as he did, he pulled back on the charging handle of his M16, and when he released it we all heard the audibly familiar and oddly reassuring sound of a 5.56 round as it slid into the chamber. There was no mistaking what that sound meant; that M16 was now ready for business - all SPC Terry needed to do was to rotate his M16's safety knob to "Fire" and point the weapon.
And yet these civilians still would not leave, so CW2 Klebo ordered one of us to "Hit one of the civilians hard enough to knock him on his ___." I don't recall if it was SGT Bullard or someone else from our group who complied with the order, but someone other than me used his M16 to execute a textbook "Butt-Stroke to the Chest" maneuver and the guy went flying backwards, after which the injured imbecile unleashed a tirade of German expletives as the three civilians quickly hobbled back to their car and angrily drove away.
To this day, I still think that these clueless civilians had it coming; they had walked past several signs which made it clear that entry into the area was forbidden and the use of deadly force was authorized, plus we had someone who was fluent in German explain several times to them that they needed to leave. Despite all of our efforts, we eventually needed to make our point in a more forceful manner; and if the situation had continued to escalate, it was good to know that someone with live rounds was standing only a few feet away.
During my time in the Army I knew some people with very interesting names for their chosen profession, and here are just a few of my favorite examples.
When I was at DLI our unit had someone named SGT Kill. Considering the fact that the Army's unofficial job description is to "kill people and blow things up," her name was amazingly apropos.
At Fort Devens I knew a German Linguist named SPC Lauscher, whose last name means "eavesdropper" in German; it's like he was born for the job.
There was also a SGT Major at one of my units. He was actually a Sergeant by rank, and his last name just happened to be "Major," so for obvious reasons his name sounded downright powerful, didn't it? I never followed up to see how long he stayed in the Army, because his name could have been a lot more fun as he went through the ranks: Staff Sergeant Major, First Sergeant Major, Sergeant Major Major, Command Sergeant Major Major, etc.
But the following true story is the best:
When I reported to Fort Huachuca, I had already been in the Army over 4 years, so I had seen lots of instances of practical jokes played on new arrivals at each duty station. For example, a lot of pranksters employ "supply lists for newbies" to poke fun at their victims. (Everyone remembers new recruits asking for "Squelch Grease," "Chemlight Batteries," and "Grid Squares," right?) However, on one occasion when I actually needed something specific for one of our trucks, one of my coworkers said, "Go see Private Parts in the Supply Room." I laughed and replied, "Look, I didn't enlist yesterday; who really works in supply?" My colleague quickly responded, "No really - that's his name."
Feeling that I had been duped but still needing repair parts for my vehicle, I headed to supply, where I actually met with a guy named Private Parts. I'm not sure who had the bright idea of assigning a guy with that name to the supply room; that was either a cruel practical joke or a job that he was destined to do. In either case, I took one look at him and said, "Dude, the drill sergeants at Basic Training must have unleashed hell on you." He winced slightly and replied, "You don't know the half of it..."
I saw the following sketch from Monty Python, and it reminded me of a story which I will relate in a moment. But first, take a quick look at the video:
Here's the story: several years ago, (more years than I would care to admit), I was sent to a remote British outpost somewhere in Europe to work with the Royal Air Force (RAF) for a few weeks. Although I was working with the RAF, the post was actually shared between the British Army and the RAF, so I saw plenty of people from both services during my tenure there.
The work that we were doing was somewhat secretive, so there were several security checkpoints through which everyone was required to pass in order to get to the building where work was done. This usually meant a lot of time standing in front of locked gates, looking up into a camera, saying your name into an intercom, and then waiting for some disembodied security guard to push a button to let you through to the next checkpoint.
One morning I was waiting at one of the gates when a Sergeant Major from the British Army stepped up beside me, and I swear he looked just like Michael Palin in the video that I shared - complete with dress uniform cap and a riding crop tucked under his arm.
I'm not quite sure how things work in the British military, but in the U.S. Army we were taught to render the "Greeting of the Day" to our superiors, so I stifled my urge to laugh as I snapped to a more formal position, and then I exclaimed, "Good Morning, Sergeant Major!" He made no reply, and his eyes barely flickered in my direction; somehow his expression managed to register no emotion or formal acknowledgement whatsoever.
But as the two of us continued our vigil outside the locked gate, his countenance slowly began to change. It was barely perceptible, but gradually the corners of his mouth began to turn downward, while at the same time his arm began to flex and the riding crop began to bow under the mounting tension. My silent companion was like spring which was steadily wound tighter and tighter, and sooner or later I knew that spring was going to break.
Eventually the buzzer sounded and the gate opened, after which the two of us parted ways as we headed off into our separate sections of the building. In a few minutes I was regaling my RAF colleagues with the tale of my awkward experience with the Sergeant Major, and there was plenty of laughter all around. But that being said, I was quietly certain that my RAF comrades-in-arms were surreptitiously rejoicing over the fact that they were not serving in that Army Sergeant Major's chain of command.
Here are a pair of photos of my dad and brothers with me, and there is a difference of 25 years in between the two images. I stumbled across the second image as I was going through some old photos, and it was taken in 2011 at my daughter's wedding. The first image I have posted on Facebook before, and that photo was taken in 1987. It's kind of amazing to see what the passage of time does...
I don't know what the deal is with those other guys who all appear to have aged, but I haven't changed a bit.
Here's a 4th of July story for you from our days in the 511th...
Anyone who remembers Steve Meyers will recall that he had no fear - although sometimes he had no common sense, either. Steve backpacked across Europe with no cash as a teenager, wandered off in Turkey without knowing the language or telling anyone where he was going, and managed to pull off a two-week vacation using his MAC flight privileges to visit Athens, Jerusalem, and Cairo and still made it back in time for duty. Steve was an amazing guy who simply went where no one else would think to go.
But what some of you who joined the 511th after the Fall Of The Wall may not know is that our unit used to work with members of the British RAF before they rotated back to the UK. We deployed to the border with them several times, and a few of us were sent to work with the RAF somewhere further north (in locations about which we cannot speak). ;-)
Anyway, during one of those deployments along the border, we were having coffee with a few of the Brits, when Steve turned to them out-of-the-blue and asked, "So, how do you guys feel about when you lost the Revolutionary War? Are you guys still upset about that?"
For a flash of a second you probably could have heard a pin drop all the way across the border, then one of the Brits - without looking up from his coffee - replied in his best British accent, "Lost? I think not. We simply left it to you. Have you been home lately? Ah, what a piece-o-crap."
This comment was followed by a well-deserved round of laughter, and all was well in the world. :-D
Happy 4th of July everyone!
Even though the following article was written a couple of years ago, it has been making the rounds lately: The Lovely Little Town That Would Have Been Absolutely Screwed by World War III. It's a great article, and I highly recommend reading it. However, here's a spoiler alert: they're talking about Fulda, Germany.
The topic of that article should come as no surprise to anyone who served in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR); the Fulda Gap had been used as a thoroughfare for invading armies between East and West Europe for centuries. This point was vividly brought to my attention when I was in-processing after I arrived in Fulda in January of 1988.
Part of my in-processing was a briefing with Colonel Thomas E. White, who was the 52nd Regimental Commander from 1986 to 1988. During his briefing Col. White made the following ominous statement:
"If the balloon goes up, we expect 90% of the 11th ACR to be dead within the first 30 minutes of battle. This is simple a fact of life. Get used to that idea; it will make things easier."
Col. White followed up that dire prediction with the following observation:
"Fulda has the highest divorce rate of any post in the military. If your marriage survives your tour here, it will survive anything."
In retrospect, Col. White wasn't the cheeriest guy.
But that being said, I soon learned just how true his second statement was; during my first year in Fulda, I was deployed to one place or other for 40 of the 52 weeks. (Most of that time was on the East German border in places I cannot mention.)
At the time, we knew that the Russians had tactical nukes stationed just across the border, and since it was our job to figure out what the Russians were doing, we coined the following unofficial motto:
"The 511th MI Company: First to Know, First to Glow."
Thankfully, the balloon never went up, and less than two years after I arrived in Fulda everything had changed dramatically: the borders between the East and West were opened, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and Soviet Communism met its inevitable demise. If you had told me during my first few days in Fulda that all of those earth-shattering events would occur during my tenure at the 511th, I would have thought you were nuts. Just the same, it has been almost 30 years since I arrived in Fulda, and I'm still thankful that the doomsday prophets didn't get their way.
I arrived in Fulda, Germany, in January of 1988, which was in the middle of a German winter. In case you ever wondered just how cold that can be, please take my word for it – German temperatures plummet during the winter months. I had barely completed in-processing for the 11th ACR and picked up my TA-50 from Regimental Supply when the 511th was deployed to Wildflecken for a few weeks. I had some experience with snow camping as a Boy Scout when I was younger, but this was my first experience sharing an 8-man squad tent far out in the German woods for weeks on end. As soon as that deployment had ended, we were deployed to Meissner for a couple of weeks, and then I was deployed somewhere else along the border for a couple of weeks, etc. (By the end of 1988, I had been deployed for 40 of the 52 weeks.)
But I noticed one interesting thing about each of my winter deployments: one squad member always seemed to get up before everyone else every morning to face the cold alone, and he made the coffee for the rest of the squad. Everyone loved that guy, and I decided that I wanted to be that guy. It wasn't because I wanted to be liked by everyone; it was because this guy's act of daily self-sacrifice brought a brief moment of joy to an otherwise miserable moment in everyone's lives.
I don't think that anyone ever asked the original "Coffee Guy" to take on the dubious honor of climbing out of a warm [sic] sleeping bag and venturing out into the snow to brew a strong pot of joe for his fellow comrades-in-arms; I'm sure he simply thought that everyone else would like to wake up to the wonderful aroma of caffeine gently wafting through the tent. By the time I had arrived in Fulda, the self-appointed role of coffee steward had been assumed by SGT "Heave" Mauer. (Note: Everyone in our unit had a nickname; mine was "Fred" because of Fred MacMurray, and you can probably guess where Heave got his.)
Heave was a good guy, and he usually hung out with an assorted collection of ne'er-do-wells (Skip, Duncan, Sleazer, Punky, etc.) They had all been in Fulda long before I was assigned to the company, which made me "The Newbie" during the first six months or so of my tenure there. Despite my branded status as a new guy, Heave was always nice to me – he taught me a lot about how the 511th worked, how to organize a deployment, how to keep your vehicle combat loaded at all times, and how he got his nickname.
It was fairly early on when I noticed that Heave was making the coffee every morning, which I attributed to his "nice guy" disposition. But as the months wore on, I realized that a little bit of effort on his part made a big difference for squad morale. I know that it sounds like a line from a bad coffee commercial, but there is something about waking up with a warm cup of coffee that helps start your day with a better attitude.
Heave was "Old School" about his coffee making; he used an ancient, WWII-era portable Army stove – the Aladdin M-42 – and a beat-up percolator to brew his demitasse. Heave's style showed an extra level of dedication; his particular method was a long process which required patience and persistence. As the winter months gave way to spring and summer, I slowly lost my newbie status, and somewhere along the way I started to join Heave during his morning java routine. I'm not what you call a "Morning Person," so getting up when the world was still dark was a bit of a sacrifice for me. But I thought that Heave's efforts were a noble cause, and if he could do it every day, perhaps he could use some company.
Heave continued to use his old-fashioned brewing methods, but I'm not so antiquated – I started to drag my Mr. Coffee machine with us when we deployed to the border, and I'd plug that into the generators that we used for the radios. I could make more coffee in less time, but nevertheless – my approach to coffee-making was cause for repeated scorn from Heave. He would ask me where was my devotion to tradition, and I would be forced to admit that I had none – I simply wanted some caffeine to start my day.
I formed an emotional attachment to coffee during the winter months, because it was the only thing warm that I would have all day. We were usually deployed somewhere along the East German border, and we generally ate MREs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, we were frequently forced to eat those cold, so coffee was almost always my only source of heat for the day. I would fill my metal canteen cup with java, then I would wrap my fingers around the cup and let the warmth seep into my body while I inhaled the wonderful fragrance that is adored by coffee lovers everywhere. I would eventually drink my cup of coffee, of course, but I would do so with a sense that everything was going to be okay.
I think that it was sometime around the end of my first year in Germany when Heave's time in the Army was up, and he headed back to the United States. But I kept the tradition going after his departure – and I continued to get up every morning and make the coffee for everyone else as we headed into another German winter. I may not have used Heave's methods, but I don't think that mattered to anyone else. No one criticized my technique; everyone was simply happy to have coffee.
My morning ritual consisted of crawling out of my sleeping bag at zero-dark-thirty, getting dressed in subzero temperatures, heading out into the pre-dawn blackness, firing up the generator, and brewing the first pot of the day. I'll be honest – no one else was up at that hour, so I usually filled my personal thermos with the initial fruits of my labor, and by the time I finished brewing the second pot of coffee, some of the remaining squad members would start to drift out of the tent. By my third year in Germany, I had amended my morning routine slightly: I purchased a pair of propane heaters, so I would get up in the morning, light the heaters to take the initial chill out of the air for everyone else, and then I would head outside to make the coffee.
I had a lot of amusing experiences greeting the day before everyone else; here are just a couple examples:
- I vividly recall one wintry dawn at the Schlossberg when I was trying to fill the coffee pot with water; I started to pour water from a five-gallon jug, and I had barely poured an inch of water into the carafe when the water froze in motion and clogged the mouth of the five-gallon jug. I grabbed another five-gallon jug and had a similar experience. Three jugs later and I had five useless water jugs with barely a few inches of water in the pot. I held up the carafe, and as I watched – the few inches of water froze before my eyes. I remember thinking to myself, "What in the world am I doing here?"
- On a different frosty morning at our Wanfried site, I was drinking my first cup of the day as Duncan came stumbling out of the tent. He sauntered over through the snow and commented, "You know, it doesn't matter how old you get – whenever you wake up and see snow on the ground, just for a moment you think to yourself, 'Hey, maybe there's no school today…'"
It has been almost 25 years since the events of these assorted memories took place, but I still love a good cup of joe. I no longer have to drag myself out of bed in the hours before dawn and shuffle through snow to brew my coffee for the day, but the emotional attachment is still there. It's not about the caffeine anymore since I gave that up several years ago; there's just something about holding a warm cup of coffee in the morning that still makes me think that everything is going to be okay.
Every few years during my time in the Army, some new regulation would get created by the Pentagon with the hopes of curbing profanity in the military. This was, of course, a ridiculous idea, since four-letter words are as ubiquitous in the armed forces as boots and bayonets.
Nevertheless, as each new regulation was put in place, our company commander would read off the details of the new directive at a company formation. As he finished describing what could and couldn't be said in the future, some random GI from the formation would always respond vociferously with, "F---ing A, sir!"
This immediately put things in perspective; the Pentagon could issue their silly, little missives from their isolated world (which had nothing to do with the real day-to-day life in the Army), while the soldiers who actually lived and worked and breathed the military would carry on like always – cussing and cursing when necessary.