This is part four in my “Going to War” series. Previous parts are noted here:
Past Two: Going to War: Interlude July 4th 2007
Nelson and I staged our gear as we waited for the buses to arrive to take us to Fort Jackson South Carolina where we were to receive our training for the deployment. As we talked other sailors arrived and gear was stacked in rows of sea bags just off of the sidewalk. Nelson’s parents, brother and sister were on hand to see him off. His brother is a First Class Petty Officer and his dad a former Vietnam era Marine Recon NCO who made several deployments “in the shit” as many Vietnam vets call tours in that combat zone. They were really nice folks. Over the years I had heard much about them. They are close to each other and all are supportive of Nelson.
Nelson is a career amateur boxer; kick boxer, martial artist and more recently MMA fighter. He is active in children’s martial arts instruction and has been on Team USA and fought internationally. During his Afghanistan deployment before he and I hooked up again he helped coach the fledgling Afghan National Boxing Team. His last major title was just this year when he won the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic. The guy has more titles than you can imagine, his title belt collect could fill a room. However, he was raised by a boxer, his dad. His dad taught him and coached him growing up and helped Nelson win multiple New York State Golden Gloves titles. His dad is a congenial man and who was very friendly, speaking English with a heavy Puerto Rican accent. Nelson’s mom speaks some English. Nelson tells a great story of the only time he was knocked out in a fight. This happened at the Fort Apache Gym in the Bronx after Nelson had gone picking on his little sister when Nellie was about seventeen. Nelson’s dad found out, told him to put on his gloves and get in the ring. Nelson proceeded to talk trash to his dad as he got ready to fight and the first round got quite a few hits in on his dad. In between rounds according to Nelson’s account he told his dad to quit, that he was too old to be in the same ring with him. Nelson said that his dad simply commented “I was just letting you taste the water.” The second round began and Nelson was hit by a combination from his dad, which he says “rung his bell” and made him “see stars.” He remembers trying to get up and not being able to while his dad was talking trash to him. I cannot do the story justice but meeting Nelson’s family was a joy.
So we waited while the other sailors gathered, some individually and some with family. Some stood alone as couples while others mingled with each other. For most this was a new way to see their sailor deploy. No pier side goodbyes, no banners, no manning the rails by the crew as the ship was nudged away from the pier by tugs. When you have a “normal” deployment of a ship or something like a Marine battalion it is a big deal. Media is there, sometimes there are speeches, but most of all there is the understanding that we are all in this together. The families say goodbye to their Sailors, Marines or Soldiers who are going to war together and leaving some kind of familiar support system for the families. This is not so when you deploy individually. We may have been going off to train together, but few would stay together on the deployment. Normally as a chaplain you are a known quantity to the people that you go to war with. I was going to war with Nelson but we would not remain with any sailors who were going through this process with us. I know that was the case for others who would serve in isolated posts, often without any other Navy personnel, mostly working with the Army in support roles, and specialized roles such as the Electronic Warfare Officers detailed to work on defeating IEDs and roadside bombs. As others said their goodbyes and hugged each other I thought of Judy and knew that she was going to be down for some time but I felt that for once that she had an adequate support network.
I looked at our gear as opposed to the others. Our gear was in different deployment bags, ours were large and rectangular and more of a coyote or sand color while most everyone else had traditional green sea bags, or what are known in the Army as “duffle bags.” We had all of our personal protective equipment or the EOD/Special Warfare type while others would receive some variation of Army issue at Fort Jackson. There are pros and cons to such a arrangement. The pro is that we had great gear certainly some of the best in theater. The con was that we had to lug the great gear everywhere we went going to and coming back from war. This would get old, but the benefits do outweigh the advantages when you are actually in a combat zone.
Finally an officer came out and began calling role and giving us our signed “official” orders. After we were accounted for we were told to load our gear on the buses that would take us to Fort Jackson. I think there were four or five of these chartered tour buses which as it turned out would be the first of many tour buses, roll calls and gear loads in the coming months, especially as we entered and exited theater. Nelson and I got on the same bus which was not full and took seats near the front. I got a seat alone because I was the senior officer on the bus and a chaplain to boot. This was not because I asked for it or hogged the seat. It is actually fairly typical in such a setting where young enlisted guys don’t want to sit next to an officer and some are afraid of chaplains because of experiences that they have had in civilian churches. Some of the young folks have never darkened the door of a church and many of those that have been in church have been burned in relationships with pastors or really over the top religious people. I have found in my career that until they get to know a Chaplain a lot of them will be very careful in how they approach a chaplain, even those with a vibrant faith. Some are afraid that the chaplain might try to convert them or disapprove of the manner in which they live their lives. So as a chaplain I need to be cognizant of this fact and be friendly and caring without scaring them away. Of course I did build relationships with a quite a number of these sailors during the next few weeks but on this bus I was still an unknown quantity to them. Sitting alone however was good for me since I general despise bus travel regardless of the company I keep. For some reason my height works against me, I can never get my feet comfortably on the ground on these new tour buses and I have a terrible time getting comfortable. Since bus travel takes forever to get anywhere the discomfort is palpable. Now I did a three month tour on buses in 1979 while touring as a spotlight tech for the Continental Singers and Orchestra across the US and in Europe. Somehow the old Greyhound buses were more comfortable than the new tour buses. Maybe I’m just nostalgic but they somehow fit people like me better than the fancy new buses.
When you travel by bus with a bunch of sailors, the majority of whom are at least 20 years younger than you, the experience can be entertaining to say the least. Part of course is a generational thing. I am from the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. These guys and gals are from the 90’s and 2000’s. Music is different, culture is different, and the internet, cell phones, i-phones and Blackberries have revolutionized communications and life. The trip was a chance for me to observe a lot about these sailors just by watching. Some had their portable i-pods and MP-3 players going, others spent time talking on cell phones, a few read or talked among themselves, but the sailors near me gravitated to the DVD movie which was 300 the comic book style account of the Spartan’s defense of Thermopylae against the Persians. As the Spartans made their stand I could see the young sailors who were going to war taking inspiration from King Leonditis of Sparta. Since we were going into a place where 50-100 Americans a month were being killed and many others wounded and maimed I could understand the need for inspiration along with entertainment.
The bus ride itself was a lot like what I imagine that Minor League teams take in the Carolinas like in the movie Bull Durham, the coaches and older players mixed in with a lot of young guys. The older guys staying pretty quiet and to themselves and the young guys having fun, playing games and joking around with each other, We made a couple of stops, one at some little Interstate town with a fair amount of gas stations and a few fast food places. About half the folks went to the McDonalds where we pulled in while the rest ran down the street to the Burger King and Taco Bell. Once everyone had their fill the buses pulled back out onto the interstate. When we finally got near Columbia the buses got of the Interstate highway and onto some small two lane state highway. We drove down this road about twenty to thirty minutes and pulled into what appeared to be a tiny out of the way base. I wondered where the hell we were. Fort Jackson is a fairly large training base where thousands of recruits are trained every year. Where we were certainly was not the Fort Jackson that I had imagined.
Instead of the main post we were at the South Carolina National Guard training facility called Camp McCready. It is here that the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command has a training center set up with the Army to train sailors in basic combat tasks.
Our welcome that first night was simple. We formed up, checked in, got our linens for our standard issue military beds and were marched to dinner at the chow hall or in the Army vernacular the DFAC by our newest and bestest buddies, our Army Drill Sergeants. In the chow hall or DFAC we were met by a civilian running the line. I can’t remember his name but this guy was really nice and put the RED in “Redneck.” He made jokes with everyone that came through the line, asked where people were from and what they did. When he found out that I was a chaplain he began to ask me for a joke every meal thereafter. As Nelson and I sat down for chow with a couple of other sailors we looked at each other. He said: “Boss I don’t think some of these guys know what is coming.” I said “I think that your right partner, hopefully they adjust and do well.” The other sailors, both more senior petty officers nodded in agreement.
Going back to the barracks I met some of the other officers enjoying their first night at Camp McCready. More sailors to fill out the class were due later coming in from San Diego. I introduced myself to a number of the officers near me and when lights out was called lay down on the same type of bed that I had first encountered some twenty five years before at Camp Roberts California and Fort Lewis Washington. I swear the sheets, blankets and pillowcases were of the same vintage. Despite that I fell asleep fairly quickly.