Stories From Those Who Serves (3)

In case you’re new to the blog, I started a series of interviews with soldiers after writing a YA novel about a girl who goes through ROTC in high school and joins the Navy. In my research, I found so many fascinating stories, that I wanted to begin sharing them. Or maybe more accurately, I wanted to share these people.

Louis has not served in just one branch of the service. No. He’s served in two. If your impression of him–after that swift intro–is that he’s a hulking badass , you’re mistaken. I’ll give you the badass part, but he’s like the nicest and gentlest guy in the whole town. Sidenote: he’s also married to Amythyst. Here are his answers to my questions.

Jody: Please tell us what branch you were in and why you chose it. Why the military?

Louis: I was a Fine Arts major, and while a very good artist I did not see a stable future in it (my instructors were living hand to mouth). At the time I was also living with my oldest brother, a Salvation Army officer and my guardian. He had sacrificed a great deal to take guardianship of me and my sister when we were only 12 and 11. I couldn’t bear the idea of being a burden on him much longer and knew I needed a jump start (or firm kick in the pants) to get my adulthood in gear. The Air Force seemed like a great fit. They were more corporate in function than the other branches (besides the Navy), and I had the academic acumen to do well in any job they could offer. When my term of service was up with the Air Force I was a civilian for a year and then tried the Army. 9/11 got my jock strap all wadded up in a bunch and I wanted to contribute. I did Army reserves for 2 years before I realized the military mentality wasn’t for me (at least not as an enlisted member). While there are many officers deserving of respect because of proven leadership, deep experience, and intuition, you were also at the mercy of others who…well even with their degree and military training, would not recognize sound advice from junior enlisted.

Jody: So you were enlisted in both branches. Explain your jobs.

Louis: In both the Air Force and Army I was engaged in and frequently retrained in all aspects of systems support, information security, and counter intelligence measures as applies to systems security. In the Air Force, a major portion of the job was dedicated to the secure retrieval, storage, and relay of imagery analyst reports via the Computer Aided Tactical Information System (CATIS) and then the Information Exploitation Support System (IESS). These reports came in via the automated defense intelligence network (AUTODIN) and consisted of textual interpretations of processed U-2 spy plane reconnaissance imagery.

In the Army I functioned as an information security systems operations analyst. Our major focus was the successful deployment and defense of Army multi-tiered networked systems. We had several exercises with other UNITs throughout the continental United States in which we would set up virtual networks as securely as we could, link them to each other, and then a third party would be hired to electronically infiltrate. Patting myself on the shoulder here, but countermeasure I came up with and deployed made our unit The UNIT To Beat, as we never became compromised and always knew exactly who was trying to infiltrate, when, and what vectors they were trying to use to get it. This was corroborated as we would have to compile and send in after action reports (AARs) at the end of each day. They would review the reports and doc points for missed attacks and false positives. Ne never missed an attack or falsely reported one.

Jody: Plus you got say words like recon and and counterintelligence. When and how long were/are you active?

Louis: I was in the Air Force for four years activce duty (1994-1998) and four years inactive ready reserve (IRR) (1998-2000). I was in the Army for two years active reserve (2001-2003). Oh, and I switched to the Army because a good friend of mine did reserve duty at Camp Parks which was near to work, and I was interested in working with him and learning about a different facet of the US military machine.

Jody: What was the hardest part of boot camp? The best part?

Louis: I only had to attend Air Force basic training (not the Army’s). The Air Force’s basic training, was mentally taxing. Sure we had PT and that would wash people out, but if you ate right and just stuck with it you could get through it. The hardest part was the anal retentive things you would have to do: polish your boots so that you could brush your teeth in them, fold your duffel bag perfectly rectangular and perfectly flat (do you know how hard it is to make a military duffel bag fold into a perfect and flat rectangle?), fold your socks just so (again perfectly rectangular and flat), fold your underwear just so, your t-shirts, etc. And display this all in their assigned spaces in your wall unit. Exactly in their assigned spaces and stacked perfectly vertically. You would sit with hours with tweezers picking unauthorized items (UIs) from your underwear, socks, battle dress uniforms (BDUs), and dress blues. These UIs were usually peaces of lint, stray threads and the like. Your wall unit insisted of a tall vertical space (it was a locker) for you to hang your clothing. Above that was a shelf for toiletries and your perfectly rectangular and flat duffel bag. Below this space was a padlocked drawer for your t-shirts, underwear, socks, and other things (and remember they all had their assigned exact space in there). You could only access this draw by using your assigned key. This drawer was waaaaay down at the floor. Your key was attached to a chain that only went down to just below your pectorals. You were not allowed to remove this key from it’s chain or the chain from your neck. You had to be a contortionist to get down there with your key to unlock the drawer. You could not leave the drawer unlocked.
You had to march everywhere. Even if you were going somewhere by yourself you had to march (facing maneuvers and all). If you were caught not marching you’d get a 341 pulled. Air Force form 341 was used to record behavior and actions requiring disciplinary measure against you. You were allowed to carry three per day. They too had to be folded just so, and dog eared just so and stored in this specific pocket just so, so that you could always reach for, grab and present the form just so while standing at attention and staring straight ahead and not fumble all over yourself to find it. If you ever didn’t have a form, this meant it was your fourth time getting in trouble that day, and you had to immediately report to your first sergeant (march there) to explain why you shouldn’t be drummed right out of  his Air Force. I was an element leader, and the only one who kept that job throughout basic. When you see a flight marching each column is an element. The person at the head of that column is the element leader. That person is responsible not only for himself but also for the actions and well being of all the members of his element. When ever any of them got a 341 pulled, the element leader also got a 341 pulled. I got a lot of 341s pulled, but I never had to report to the first sergeant. Why? I kept a pad of 341s in my cargo pocket.

The best part of boot camp was seeing a flock of rainbows (what they called us when we were new, all wore our comparatively colorful and varied civies (civilian clothes), and couldn’t march in unison or without bobbing to save our lives) transform into a military machine. “DCID” was the order of the day (Dress, Cover, Interval, Distance). We were constantly being reminded “Get your dress!” which would mean: without turning your head to look, line up perfectly with the airman on your left. “Get your cover!” when not referring to your BDU cap (never call it a hat, or even a cap, you call that thing “cover”), meant that you were to line yourself up such that all you saw was the back of the head of the person in front of you. If you saw his cheek you were to the side. “Get your distance” meant that you were to be neither too close to or too far from the person in front of you. Distance was determined by the people all the way to the left in the flight (I was front left) as all the others could more or less worry about “dress” to keep that distance from the person in front of them. Distance was generally an arms length. You should be able to sweep your hand forward and just graze the BDUs of the person in front of you. “Get your interval!” meant that you were bunching up with each other. Interval was determined by the people in the front row (the element leaders) and could be judged by placing your left hand on your hip and sticking your elbow out to the side. It should just graze the arm of the person to your left. If the people behind you kept their “cover” they shouldn’t have to worry too much about interval. Often to keep it short they would just bark, “Get your DCID!” to cover all bases. After a few weeks you’d have it down. You could tell as the many many individual and weak footsteps merged into one powerful, thunderous, single stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp. That stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp, became a source of pride and of comfort to me. I knew we were a well honed machine, working together, my element had my back and I would not lead them into undue harm. I could almost sleep-march to the comfort that stomp, stomp, stomp, brought to me. As long as I did my job right, and they followed me, we would get their beautifully. They learned quickly to trust that leadership at least symbolically, when the command “to the reaaar… MARCH!” came. With to the rear march (which was actually seal barked like all other commands so that it sounded some like “ooah eaaarr UUAH!”) we would “half-step, pivot, half-step, step” and then follow those who don’t traditionally lead, those in the back of the flight. Then the formation would fall apart as those follower-now leaders would immediately lose their DCID and we would begin to bump elbows in an attempt to keep our cover (head behind the person in front of us). Another “ooah eaaaarrr…. UUAH!” and we “half-step, pivot, half-step, step” one more time and now we element leaders had the reigns again and all would come back into order. It was a great feeling of pride to be counted on like that (and in other ways) while also a great realization of responsibility. The exclamation point on that responsibility came when an airmen who was not even in my element said that he would follow me into battle and even die for me if I had commanded it. I never felt so humbled before.

Jody: That was a beautiful description of your pride. Do you have any funny stories from your military experience that you can share?

Louis: Hazing is never ending, and even the “squared away” new guys would fall victim to it. When I got to my first (and only) Air Force duty station, the 9th IS (intelligence squadron) at Beale AFB, CA, I was shortly contacted by a Colonel Sanders. It was in the form of a sticky note on my desk with a simple, “Colonel Sanders called,” and his phone number. I looked at it and thought, “That’s an odd name for a colonel, but I guess it happens.” I ignored it as I had other things to do at the time. Besides, I didn’t have any business that I knew of with a Colonel Sanders, and he didn’t work in our squadron. About a half an hour later there was a new note with his number, “Colonel Sanders called. He wants you to call him back now!” Again, I thought, that’s ODD, but okay, I’ll call the number. Besides the first clue, (the conveniently odd name of colonel Sanders), my second clue should have been the outside number. From base to base if you call anyone, it’s usually going to be a DSN number (defense services network I think). It is a recognizable prefix that links defense telecommunications networks. This number for “Colonel Sanders” was not a DSN number, but I figured, “maybe he’s home right now; a lot of officers live off base.” So I called and a young man answered in a pubescent breaking voice, “Hello KFC, how may I help you?” Now, thinking that this was an important call, I wondered, wow, could it get any odder; Colonel Sanders works in a shop called KFC? (all shops have acronymns, ours was “INXS” for example, and I can’t remember why we chose that but could only think someone was a fan of the band that this sounded like). The kind gentleman on the phone said, “Uh…. what?” To which I replied, “I got a call from Colonel Sanders, two as a matter of fact. He said it was important, may I speak with him?” “….Uh, he’s not here right now.” “Really? When will he be back, I don’t know what he wants from me but I can try again later.” “Uh… he’s away on vacation.” “Really? That’s weird. Okay sir, well thank you, uhm… I guess I’ll wait for him to call me again.” “Uh…. okay.” <click> So I hung up the phone and looked confusedly about the room wondering, why the heck would Colonel Sanders call me and then go away on vacation? What do I do now? Then I made eye contact with a few of my seniors who by then were red-faced, crying, and doubling over themselves on the floor. …That’s when I got it. It didn’t end after that, not for a long time: a note, “General Mills called”, another note “Captain Crunch wants an update.” Sigh…

Jody:  Oh, Louis. Louis. Louis. Louis. Let’s move on…Have you experienced combat?

Louis: No. Thank god. Combat for a 3C0X1 (communications computer systems operator) in the Air Force simply meant, “Here’s a 9 mil’. Wait in this mobility van in the desert and keep our systems talking to each other, pray that a SKUD missile doesn’t blow you up while you wait in this windowless mobility VAN. If someone unauthorized enters, pray that your 9 mil’ works well against an AK-47. Oh, and your life expectancy should we go to war is 3 days. That’s how long we expect it will take the enemy to locate, target, and destroy you if we don’t get you moved again first. Good luck.”

Jody: Indeed. How many places has/did the military send you and which has been your favorite?

Louis: I have only been to Lackland AFB, in Texas (for basic training), Keesler AFB Mississippi (for technical training), Beale (for my duty assignment), Davis Montham in AZ (for communications readiness exercises), and Ft. Lewis WA (with the Army for technical training). Of these I liked the food in Keesler best (it’s where they trained the Air Force cooks, and they trained them to be good cooks–even though when they were finally assigned to their duty stations that had to cook bland concoctions from queue cards), AZ for the scenery, and Seattle (Ft. Lewis), for the greenery.

Jody: How has serving in the military changed you the most?

Louis: It gave me Amythst, and she gave me a reason to be my best.

Jody: That is the sweetest answer ever. My readers just fell in love with you. Is there anything else you want us to know about military life or service?

Louis: A lot of people think the military is hard and scary. It isn’t. Sure there is a vetting program, but if you do exactly as you are told when you are told you will pass muster. After that there are some rules you have to remember (which after basic training will not be hard to remember at all), and it’s pretty much a corporate experience. In the Army, even if you pick a technical career field, it is drilled into you that you are always a soldier. You could be flying a keyboard one day and digging a ditch the second. They emphasize this with recurrent common tasks training (CTTs). As I never had such training in the Air Force it was a new and very interesting experience to learn things like: how to find and remove land mines, dig a fighting position, field march, land navigation, etc. However, when that was covered, it was pretty much back to a corporate americy type affair of computer systems, offices, projects, etc. I’ve seen “squared away” individuals (people with their sh-t together) who had full careers and you couldn’t imagine doing anything else but the military, and I’ve seen “ate up” individuals (people who don’t have their sh-t together), still get by on the bare minimums. As long as you do as your told, the experience is what you make of it. However, if you do choose to join the military immediately set your sites on Warrant Officer or Commissioned Officer. As an enlisted member chances are that the view from the bottom of the ladder up is full of a–holes, while the view from the top of the ladder down is full of smiling faces. I would do the military again given the opportunity. However, I would want to go in as a Major. When I left the Army it was with a plan to get my degree and go back in as a commissioned officer. I have my degree now, but maturity has caught up with me and I don’t feel compelled to rush back in (if at all). I am proud of my 10+ years of service however, and wouldn’t trade it (even the irritating parts) for the world.

Thank you so much for this interview, Louis. And thank you for serving our country.

Published by jody sparks

Jody Sparks Mugele spent her first career in marketing writing and leading teams of writers and editors. After her son came out as transgender in 2015, she dedicated herself to advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. For two years, she led the Indianapolis regional chapter of PFLAG, a nationally renowned LGBTQ+ advocacy group. She has given many conference talks about parenting trans kids, healthcare in the trans community, and suicidality among LGBTQ+ youth. And with GenderNexus, an Indianapolis-based advocacy organization, she created programming and led support groups to work with parents to help their children through all aspects of gender transition. She recently moved to Northeast Georgia where she is excited to develop opportunities to continue to strongly and proudly advocate for LGBTQ+ members of our society. She also LOVES kitschy Christmas crafting!

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