As a young soldier, living overseas, I learned to check my surroundings. Always. Both physical surroundings and “other than physical” surroundings. In order to protect myself and survive I had to learn the layout of the barracks, the route to the chow hall, where my bunk was and where the C.Q. desk was located immediately. Those were my immediate physical surroundings. My “other than physical” surroundings included my chain of command, where I fit into the chain of command, what my duties and responsibilities were and who was a “friendly” versus who was a “non friendly”.
The layout of the barracks was extremely important. Going onto the wrong floor or using the wrong latrine was the equivalent of going into the wrong neighborhood as a civilian. No soldier, regardless of rank or background, is accepted into a platoon or squad without proving themselves first. I knew I had a long road of establishing trust ahead of me so I memorized where my room was and my assigned latrine as soon as I was given that information by my new squad leader: Sgt. Walker.
Before I could lay my bag on my bunk, use the latrine or ask any question at all, Sgt. Walker escorted me to the barber shop. Regardless of the fact my uniform was pressed and my boots being shined, he addressed me as “Opus”. Opus, roughly translated into civilian language, means “dumb ass”. My hair, due to looser Army regulations in Europe, was long enough on top to gel back into a slick wet look. Sgt. Walker was not impressed. Not until I received my “high and tight” haircut did he address me by name, which to him was Specialist (my rank).
The chow hall was conveniently attached to our barracks. It was 150 paces, or 134 meters, from my bunk. My squad leader, Sgt. Walker, was a “tabbed” Army Ranger who wore jump wings and a C.M.B. (Combat Medic Badge) on his chest. He spent years in 3rd Batallion, 75th Infantry Regiment (Ranger) and was dismissed from “battalion” due to a D.U.I.. I was learning about Sgt. Walker as he escorted me through a tour of our barracks and Aid Station. He explained how every time I went some where I was to report to him how far each location was from the previous location. I was to do this through a pace count. He showed me in a calm, matter of fact way, how to get my pace count on the parade field behind our barracks. I didn’t argue or ask why. He told me what he expected and I did as he asked. To me his uniform demanded respect. I didn’t expect any in return. It was a simple way to do business.
He introduced me to our battalion P.A. (Physicians Assistant), a Lieutenant who also was a badged Ranger. He introduced me to some “pussies” in the aid station who were there for “sick call” and didn’t have to do P.T.. He introduced me to our platoon Sgt., who was too busy to make eye contact with me, then released me to morning chow. He expected me back, standing in front of him at 0900 when everyone would be done with running. I had “thirty mikes”. Thirty minutes.
I sat alone. I ate fast, as did we all, made eye contact with no one and walked with a purpose to meet Sgt. Walker. I got the impression Sgt. Walker didn’t like to wait. He stood about 5 and a half feet tall, but he personified the image of a tough human being. He was solid in frame. His muscles, although covered by his uniform, bulged through the fabric. His jaw was square and had the appearance that it would take a two by four to physically hurt him. Where ever we went, regardless of their rank, Sgt. Walker had respect given to him by other soldiers that was as thick and noticeable as fog. It just hung in the air.
One thing I noticed from the corner of my eyes, as I tried to move purposefully through the chow hall, was every soldier in the chow hall was eyeballing me. They were staring at my combat patch. It was different then theirs. Combat patches, worn on the right shoulder, told a story. They didn’t recognize mine. I, however, recognized theirs: they all served with the 197th Infantry Brigade during Operation Desert Shield/Storm. The unit got disbanded after the war and became the new 3rd Brigade of the 24th Infantry Division.
Theses soldiers had been in ” the shit” together, knew each other like the back of their hands, moved and worked as a well oiled machine and were highly decorated. I was the outsider.
I swallowed hard and marched to my “rally point” to meet Sgt. Walker. He seemed, in this moment, to be the only person I knew in the whole world.
I was still carrying my duffle bag.
*** A badged Ranger is a soldier who volunteered and passed the elite Army special operations Ranger school. They wear the Ranger tab, or patch, permanently above their unit patch on their left shoulder for the duration of their career.