Joining the Army in 1979 was simply a way to earn money for college, see the world, and get the companionship I craved. And I got it. I got communal dining. I got a bunk bed in a room with sixteen women. This is where I learned I had inherited my father's tendency to talk in his sleep.
Mornings were the worst. A mass of agitated, half-conscious women, we stumbled into our uniforms and raced through our morning chores in the harsh fluorescent lights. There was always a crush of women, but all I needed was a cup of water, an empty cup for spitting, and my toothbrush. A quick comb before pinning up my hair, a scrub with a bottled astringent, and I was ready.
Next was the bed. Although I never did see a sergeant flip a quarter on a bunk, the corners of our green scratchy blankets were supposed to create a forty-five-degree angle. I decided it would be easier if I simply did not disturb my bed for the remaining ten weeks. I could accomplish this by always sleeping on top of the covers. The weight of my body would tease out the blankets and sheets every night, but in the morning, I could give a quick pull.
My attempts to fit into this new social system were soon tested. I was standing in line for weapons issue when he first approached.
"Anderson, you're a weirdo!" barked Sergeant Blake. His solid, thick frame swelled the pressed olive-drab uniform. The crown of his Smokey-the-Bear hat loomed above fierce, dark features.
I sensed no malice. And I didn't blame him for picking on me. With my hair tied up, my black military-issue glasses, my long neck, gawky height, pale skin and wrinkled green uniform, I was not a dashing example of esprit de corps.
"No, Drill Sergeant. I am not a weirdo," I answered.
And that seemed to satisfy him. He did not make me drop and give him ten pushups.
The next time Sergeant Blake yelled at me, I was standing in another line in the early-morning darkness. I gave my response, "No, Drill Sergeant. I am not a weirdo," quicker and with more confidence. He nodded and walked away.
But the next time, I yelled like a marine, "NO, DRILL SERGEANT! I AM NOT!" His eyes widened. I didn't see him very much after that, not until our whole company was sent to the live-grenade range.
This was a very special area. Even though we had been allowed to use real bullets at the M-16 range without one-on-one supervision, when it came to shrapnel exploding in all directions, the Army was a little more careful. Each soldier had to wear a flak vest and a safety helmet and stand in front of the command tower until he or she got the go-ahead. Once the command was sounded, we each ran down to a similarly attired sergeant posted in front of a cement wall over which the grenade was to be thrown. My sergeant was Sergeant Blake.
He handed me the live grenade. He looked worried. Maybe he thought I harbored hostility because he had picked on me. With genuine concern in his voice, he said, "It's okay, Private. Don't be nervous."
And I looked into his kind, dark eyes, and I said, "I'm not nervous, Drill Sergeant. I'm not afraid to die."
His dark skin paled.
"I'm just kidding!" I laughed, and then I threw the darned thing.
I did not have the best upper body strength. That was why I should have joined the Air Force. Sergeant Blake noticed this, too, because he knocked me to the ground. He joined me down there, our noses full of dirt. Fortunately, the grenade, which had made it to the top of the wall, eventually rolled over to the other side, dropped, and exploded.
Despite my lack of upper-body strength, I was not a complete failure in this military context. When using technological forms of destruction at my disposal, I excelled. The discharge from my light anti-tank weapon made a direct hit in the cab of a distant tank, and the supervising sergeant sucked in his breath. Since he was a renowned opponent of gender-integrated troops, I considered his involuntary reaction a high compliment. Then there was the "Damn!" that burst from another sergeant as the bullets from my M-16 knocked down silhouettes popping up at the 300-meter line. "I want you in my foxhole," he said. I chose to take that as a compliment and did not sue for sexual harassment. It was intentional and accurate destruction that garnered the respect of my superiors.
I eventually became confident that I was going to graduate from basic training, and there were only forty-five months to go. This thought did not cheer me as much as it should have. I started to look with envy on the other girls who had decided they'd made a mistake by enlisting and would not be victims of their success, like the girl who had refused to touch her weapon so they would have to let her out on an incompatibility discharge, or the girl who tried to swallow a bottle of aspirin. These women had not been afraid to make nuisances of themselves, and for that they were going home.
My budding depression deepened after I twisted the ligaments in my ankles on the obstacle course. My ankles were not swollen or discolored and therefore not wounded to military eyes, but I was in constant pain as I marched in my black army boots. To march at all, I dragged myself forward. I used my arms, swinging them forward in fascist salutes to propel myself. This gave Sergeant Blake an opportunity for a new epithet. Instead of calling me "weirdo," he started calling me "Hitler."
Then I started to cry. There were no sobs or hiccups. No heaving gasps for air. It was an unemotional, silent flushing of tears that started during my morning chore, and I could not stop it. No one else noticed in the rush. No one noticed in the formation outside in the dark or during the march to the mess hall. No one noticed as I stood facing a soldier's green back under the garish light waiting for my reconstituted scrambled eggs. Only when a sergeant crossed my path and glanced at my face, awash with moisture, did the bark come.
"What's wrong with you, Private?"
"I don't know, Drill Sergeant. I guess I don't feel well."
"Why didn't you go on sick call?"
"I thought it would stop."
"Get out of here!"
When I was sitting in the quiet, empty waiting room at the clinic, the fresh sheen dried. No wave replaced it. Maybe it was just the moments of peace that had calmed me. Or maybe it was the thought that I would be taken care of. The medic took my temperature, checked my ankles, wrote out a prescription allowing me to wear tennis shoes instead of boots, and sent me back to join my company. And I felt almost cheerful, having been on my own, having traversed new streets on the base. But the next morning, the tears started again. It wasn't until I got verifiably sick with a temperature of over a hundred that I was sent to the hospital. Being off my feet helped my ankles to heal, and the tears stopped.
Before graduation, I asked my platoon sergeant for an incompatibility discharge.
"No. I can't start the paperwork on that," he said. "It's too close to graduation.
About eighteen months later, helicopter bellies loomed like swollen monsters in the dark night. Weighted down with my heavy helmet, my rifle, and my shrapnel-proof vest, I lumbered up to one, its window too high for me to peer through. That summer I was twenty-one, and it was the first time I felt complete alienation. Certainly, life had not been a perfect fit, but at that base in Germany, where one of my jobs was to roam the grounds for four hours before retiring to the guards' quarters, I knew with complete certainty I did not belong.
I had gone into the Army with the assertion that I would be trained in a foreign language. I spent a year at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, learning Czech, even graduating with honors. But I had not known that once at my permanent site, listening to actual field tapes of Czech soldiers would be classified, and that the most interesting language resource I'd have would be a Teach Yourself Czech book I'd brought. I had not known that when I wasn't in the motor pool scraping rust off something and then splashing green paint onto it, my squad would hole up in the team room with the door locked, listening for approaching footfalls. Then someone would rush to turn out the lights, and we would all hold our breaths until the company sergeant had passed. With the lights back on, we'd return to what we'd been doing—eating C-ration peanut butter and jelly, gossiping about members of other squads, or puzzling through a Czech paragraph on panda bears. I had not known that in a peacetime army, my training would be wasted, that I would watch my fragile fluency dry up and blow away.
After months of losing my language facility, the moment was ripe for my big mission. A shoulder nudge woke me in the early morning. I got out of bed, put on my gear, went down the hall for my weapon, and joined my partner, a sergeant trained in Russian.
The executive officer of the company showed up in his Volvo and drove us through the dark to the helicopter pad. The sergeant and I strapped ourselves in behind the two pilots. Even through my protective headset, I could hear the helicopter blades whip the air. We lifted up and flew low above the rooftops of German villages in the lightening sky. When we landed in a meadow, it was still dark enough to see gleaming headlights. We were taken to a building, fed and given a support squad of men armed with small machine guns. Then we were taken out to a clearing on the Czechoslovakian-German border. The armed men melted into the forest, where they would wait silently, a defensive force to save Sergeant Nash and myself should an attempt be made to snatch us across the border, which consisted of a barbed-wire fence. On the other side were a green field, an empty wooden guard tower, and a masticating cow.
Sergeant Nash set up the field radio. I listened, trying to decipher the messages from the few soldiers we were able to pick up. I could distinguish their call names, but that was about all.
Beside the fact that my training had consisted of basic grammatical structures and words like "tank," "lieutenant," and "land mine," I was eventually taught Czech by a Slovak stage actress, who got high scores from her students by drilling them with sentences that later appeared on the tests. Had she trained us just well enough to get high marks, but not well enough to function properly? Was this a form of the passive resistance I would later learn the Czechs and Slovaks were so famous for, what had allowed them to maintain their cultural identity under centuries of foreign oppression?
Or was it simply that listening to this language was the least developed of my faculties? I could read complex structures, but I could not hear them. Perhaps I was too programmed by the subject-verb-object order in an English sentence. In a Slavic language, a direct object could start a sentence and a verb could end it. Whatever the cause, I could not understand the non-military language broadcasted.
We had been sent to this area because an unusually large number of trains had been seen moving toward the gap in the mountains between Czechoslovakia and Germany. Sergeant Nash surmised that those trains were not transporting military equipment as was feared, but farming equipment. Combines. We returned to the base. When Sergeant Nash told me I did not need to go to the debriefing, I thankfully returned to my bed.
Shortly after I had arrived in Germany, I met a twenty-five-year-old man from New York. He was a dark-haired, short, stocky sergeant from my platoon. His job was to run an encoded teletype machine. Our relationship was companionable, affectionate, holding hands in the TV. lounge, going to the movies on Friday nights, and meeting in his room upstairs. But we often squabbled. My feelings were easily hurt. I learned to harden myself with false nonchalance, eliciting from him a petulant, "You act like you don't care what I think!" I responded by telling him that was the way feminists were supposed to act, and tried to explain my theories of inter-gender communication in long abstract letters.
For the most part, I used spermicidal foam. But there was one time our passion got away from us. Was it an accident or a subconscious plan? Had I played Russian roulette with my womb or could I have simply been lazy? At any rate, the urine test came back positive. Pregnant, I could now get out of the Army with impunity. I told Tom about the test. He'd been married and divorced. He had no children. He said he would marry me if I wanted, but it was up to me. The day after my plane landed in Los Angeles, I visited a clinic and had an abortion.
Title graphic: "Devastation in Pink" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011.