This is another installment of my To Iraq and Back series.
My CRV with Judy in it pulled away and Nelson and I went about our business. We 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 soon the gear of over 100 sailors was stacked in rows of sea bags just off of the sidewalk.
Nelson’s parents, brother and sister had come to see him off. His brother is a Navy First Class Petty Officer. 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 previous deployment to Afghanistan he helped coach the fledgling Afghan National Boxing Team. A couple of months before this deployment he won the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic.
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. Many times media is there, sometimes there are speeches, but most of all there is the understanding that we are all in this together. We are going in as a unit.
In such times families say goodbye to their Sailors, Marines or Soldiers who are going to war together. When you deploy as a unit there is familiar support system for the families we leave behind. This is not so when you deploy individually. Those leaving on this day were very much strangers. We would train together, but few would stay together on the deployment.
If you are a ship or unit chaplain and deploy with your people there is a relationship. Generally you know each other, in this case we were strangers. I was going to war with Nelson but we would not remain with any sailors we were with today when we got to Iraq. This was also the case for others who would serve in isolated posts, mostly working with the Army in support roles. Some would serve in 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 was right about her being down for a while but this deployment would be harder on her than others and the support network proved woefully inadequate. So much for assumptions.
I looked at our gear as opposed to the others. Our gear was in large and rectangular bags of coyote or sand color. Most everyone else had traditional green sea bags, or what are known in the Army as “duffle bags.” We already had our personal protective equipment of the EOD/Special Warfare type while others would receive 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 this we loaded our gear on the buses that would take us to Fort Jackson. These were the first of many buses we would ride and the first of many roll calls and gear load outs in the coming months.
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 they don’t know and some are afraid of chaplains because of experiences that they have had in civilian churches.
Many of the sailors had ever darkened the door of a church and many of those that have been in church have been burned in relationships with pastors or religious people. I have found that many times, even those with a vibrant faith are hesitant to approach a chaplain that they do not know. Some are afraid that the chaplain might try to convert them be judgmental about of the manner in which they live their lives. So as a chaplain I try to be cognizant of this 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 ride 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. Part of course is a generational thing. I grew up and came of age the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. The majority of these sailors from the 90’s and 2000’s.
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 take inspiration from King Leonditis of Sparta. Since we were going into a place where 50-100 Americans a month were being killed and hundreds more wounded 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 Carolina League. Our journey reminded me of the bus rides in the movie Bull Durham. 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 sailors went to the McDonalds 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. We were met at the DFAC by a civilian. I can’t remember his name but this guy was most congenial and he put the RED in “Redneck.” He joked 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 such nearly every meal would be entertaining.
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 from NMPS San Diego were due in later. I introduced myself to a number of the officers near me and engaged in some rather surface pleasantries. When lights out was called lay down on the same type of Army bunk 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.
Much was still on my mind when I laid down and my mind was still thinking about the trip to base with Judy and the final kiss goodbye. I was troubled by it and how I had handed things. Despite that I fell asleep fairly quickly. It had been a long day and coupled with the lack of sleep and stress of the previous couple of days I was tired.