Nothing could have prepared me for this, but I braced myself and pushed on with the rest of them. We quickly stretched rubbery masks over our faces. I ignored my throbbing pulse, which was a for-sure warning sign of the danger I’d face up ahead. I could barely breathe and was already beginning to choke.
I quickly placed my hand over my mouthpiece and blew into it. I then inhaled as much as I possibly could. I felt the suction of my snug mask nuzzling my face. I could only hope that it would protect me.
We marched forward, one after another, into a dark and gloomy chamber. The inside of my stomach felt like I was standing at the tippy top of a giant roller coaster as we moved along in our single-file line. We entered the confinement slowly.
“Hurry up and move down!” our instructor said.
Drake’s mask barely muffled her loud voice.
“Up against the goddamn wall!” our other instructor shouted frantically from behind me.
Inside, I could see a flickering orange light as I ambled forward along the dark wall. I was immediately overheated. The inside of the gas chamber felt like a sauna. My skin was on fire underneath my vest. I couldn’t breathe, but had to keep moving along in silence. I knew there was oxygen somewhere in the chamber because of the flickering fire, but I couldn’t seem to inhale any of it. Even though I’d tried to seal my gas mask as I’d been taught, I knew it wasn’t enough. I was coughing up a lung. I choked on my own saliva while everyone else seemed to be breathing just fine. I moved my hands to my thyroid and tried to clear my throat, but that only made it worse.
The blue-eyed one, who was in charge, peered at me. I pulled my hand down, turned my head forward, and continued shuffling down the line like everyone else. I tried placing my palm over my mouthpiece again and managed to muster up a gag before my lungs gave out. His blue eyes stayed on me as I tried to keep my cool.
Somebody help me, I thought. They’re trying to kill me! My upper body remained stiff as I moved my legs along the pebbled dirt. I inched to a halt near my buddy Chapman’s side. We were all packed snuggly in the chamber. My heart began to pound slightly harder as I stood still; sweat was dripping underneath my mask and vest. The metal trashcan that held the steady flame reminded me of eternity. I felt like I’d died and gone to hell, it was so scary in the chamber.
Everyone around me looked like aliens in their black masks. I faced forward and stood in line, just waiting to get out. My eyes dripped tears underneath my mask, but I still managed to observe my battle buddy., Chapman. She was a soft female like me, but much friendlier. Her eyes were full of tears, too, and that made me feel a little better. She’d been my biggest supporter since I’d been in training. I figured it wasn’t our fault that we didn’t know how to seal our gas masks properly; it was their lack of thorough training. I wasn’t alone.
As my mind drifted, I thought about the price that some of us would pay for our freedom. My mind recalled clips from a historical documentary I’d seen: horrifying footage of nearly a hundred men and women, stripped completely naked and made to march into a gas chamber. Oh God! What if I become a prisoner of war? I asked myself. Don’t imagine it! As I stood in the chamber waiting for the instructors to let us out, I had to ask myself how I’d ended up in this predicament in the first place.
It was my very first semester at Hampton University as an undergraduate student. I was a psych major. Psychology was interesting. I maintained over twelve credit hours and I loved it, yet I had to give my time to a regular job as well. I needed my income for flights back home, car insurance, gas, and other discretionary expenses. I worked part-time as a sales associate at the local mall, which only paid minimum wage. Financial aid and student loans provided me with on-campus housing, a food plan, and facilities, thankfully, but when I got off work, the cafeteria was usually closed.
I hated living on campus. I wanted my own apartment and a kitchen to cook my own meals whenever I felt like it. I barely had time to eat. My life began to function around my job, classes, and school schedule.
One morning, I marched myself down to the ROTC building on the far end of campus nearest the lake. As I walked through the uneven hallway lit by florescent overhead lights, I glanced around at all the trophies and honorary placards posed against the old rickety building walls. Every last one of the office doors held an embroidered bronze title that provided the rank, last name, and position of each U.S. Army official in the building.
I moseyed on down to the office of Sergeant First Class (SFC) Blu. The door was slightly open, but still I extended my arm to knock on the frosted glass square. I couldn’t believe I was going through with this. I peered inside the office and saw a slender woman dressed in a freshly creased army green uniform. Her golden hair bounced as she turned around in her grand leather chair to acknowledge me.
“Come on in!” she announced.
I maneuvered myself into the office and walked over to her desk.
“Good morning!” I greeted her. “Are you Sergeant First Class Blu? I’m interested in joining the military.”
“Well, good morning to you, too,” she replied, rising to her feet and extending her hand. “I’m Carolina Blu.”
“Sweet name! I’m Brenda McCoy. It’s nice to finally meet you!”
I shook her hand. She had a loose grip and soft touch. She’s military? Her gentle hands were small as mine. Her caramel complexion and oval face complimented her slim figure.
“Everyone’s been telling me to come by and see you if I want to join the service. They all said you’re the one to go to because you’ll get me in,” I said, standing over her desk.
She smiled at me and then glared down at the stack of papers piled nearly six inches high on her desk before peering back up at me with a strange expression. “Have a seat,” she finally told me.
She slid the stack of papers aside as I sat in the big, cushy leather chair across from her. She was not the recruiter I had expected. I assumed she would be stern and militant, but I was wrong. She didn’t even introduce herself as a sergeant.
As we began to converse, the first thing I acknowledged was her upright demeanor.
“So, young lady,” she continued in a motherly tone. I sat up straight and then leaned forward in my seat. “What made you decide you wanted to join the army? Why the army?” She shrugged her shoulders and raised an eyebrow.
“Well, I don’t know. I’m not really sure how to put it into words,” I said.
“Are you sure you don’t know? You seem so…. determined.”
I hadn’t thought about what I’d tell a recruiter if one happened to ask me that question. I realized right then that I should’ve prepared an answer. I didn’t know how to make this recruiter believe I could be a soldier in the U.S. Army, but I had to come up with something.
“I just wanna do something different with my life,” I said. “I see the military gettin’ paid. I mean, I would join any of the branches, really. I just need something else going for myself. I’m not convinced that school is the only way to gain knowledge. I mean, I’ve been going to school all my life. I want to know what I could potentially get out of the service. I see y’all have opportunities for people. So…where do I sign?” I gave her an eager, inquisitive look.
She gazed at me curiously for a moment, like she was trying to get a feel for who I was. I gave her a straight face to let her know I was serious. The truth of the matter was that I didn’t know anything about the military, and I wasn’t planning on learning about it by asking questions. My main focus wasn’t even the military. I only wanted to make changes in my life. I needed to transform myself into an experienced adult rather than remain an imaginative child. I figured I could pull myself through the military in order to fund my college education and then I’d find the time to complete the classes.
From the moment I arrived on the southeastern tip of Virginia, I noticed the presence of the armed forces. Military installations surrounded Virginia Beach and the Chesapeake Bay while cadet police roamed and maintained the streets. The Norfolk naval base fostered sailors who lived, partied, and made pre-deployment babies. The traditional ol’ American spirit thrived. Everyone I knew in the service was able to make a nice living respectfully employed during our nation’s economic recession.
I was just beginning to learn how to be independent.
My mother expected me to graduate from college, land a promising career, and make good money, but I couldn’t see it. I didn’t have faith in the idea that college would grant me the knowledge I needed to survive in the world. It wasn’t all about books and classes.
Since I was in a new place, I had the opportunity to break away from what everyone else wanted me to do with my life and find out what this world had to offer me. I was certain that I knew who I was, but I wasn’t sure about anything else. I had to find my place outside of school. I had my little sales job, but I wasn’t interested in making that a career. It wasn’t a new experience.
The military, on the other hand, was new to me. Becoming a service member meant I’d become a professional. It would provide me with the financial support I needed and help me live a healthy lifestyle. Everyone seemed to respect the service members. I figured I’d just wing it. When I saw Sergeant Blu’s baffled expression transform into a smile, I knew right then she’d recruit me.
It was my little secret. I hadn’t told anyone I was joining the service, and after several weeks of anticipation, I was ready to push forward. Sergeant Blu did her best to guide me with pointers on what to expect from the initial training. I felt like I had enough knowledge to pass an ASVAB exam and I was ready to get on with it. If I didn’t already know everything that was on the test, I doubted that I was going to learn it in a month. I already had my first semester of coursework to complete, so I didn’t even bother studying for it. Instead, I let all of my professors know I had a set date to enlist in the military. Since the semester was so close to an end, every last one of them cooperatively accommodated me with an accelerated curriculum. I wasn’t surprised that my professors were lenient about adjusting my workload. The university provided ROTC programs for both the Navy and the Army. The armed forces were everywhere in the Tidewater community.
When we arrived at MEPS, I sat in the waiting area where all the recruiters dropped off their new recruits. After spending some time alone with the other prospective service members, I began to feel unsure of myself. Almost all of them were either a part of a military family or they knew a lot about military culture. I remained silent and continued listening to their conversations. They all introduced themselves and asked each other which branch of service they wanted to join, as if that were the most prominent question. They took pride in saying they would serve in the Army, the Navy, or the Marine Corps. They spoke about their efforts in trying to become eligible for the service. Some of them had to lose weight, some had to improve their run time, and others had to get a medical clearance. A few just had to wait until they were old enough to join. They shared an admiration for their friends and family members who served in the Operation for Iraqi Freedom. Many of them knew the names and addresses of camps and FOBs where they’d sent handwritten letters and holiday cards. I could hear the new recruits talking about their goals of becoming NCOs, drill sergeants, air assault troopers, and airborne rangers. I listened to them use terms like tanker, M-16, and unarmed combat. I knew nothing about the military, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from joining.
Soon enough, we were relocated into a classroom setting. We each received a pencil, scrap paper, and a test. The ASVAB consisted of multiple-choice questions in the areas of general science, mathematics, electronics, mechanics, word knowledge, and so forth. The timeframe for the test was broken up into two one-and-a-half-hour periods, so we were allotted three hours in all to finish the test.
When I finished the test, I felt confident. I’d never heard of anyone failing the ASVAB, so I didn’t worry. A couple of us at a time spoke privately with our recruiters. As each recruit returned to the waiting area, I listened to them talking about their results. I heard them boasting about their high scores and complaining that the exam wasn’t complex enough. I thought the exam was fairly comprehensive, so hearing them talking like that made me doubt myself. I told myself that most of them were probably lying to be perceived as intelligent.
Just moments later, Sergeant Blu retrieved me from the waiting room and we crossed into the corridor. She slipped a sheet of paper out of a large manila envelope and held it where I could see it. There were various numbers aligned next to coded words. I examined the paper, unsure of how to read my results. She started pointing to numbers in different boxes as she explained. She then congratulated me.
It took a few hours before I finally linked back up with SFC Blu again. We settled down at the desk of a contracted civilian administrator. He spoke to us as he sat in front of his computer, clicking away at the buttons on his keyboard. He told us that I was being awarded human resources as an occupation specialty upon enlistment into the armed services. My “package” also came with an enlistment bonus of six thousand dollars. Sergeant Blu excitedly told me that I’d scored fairly well in certain areas. I didn’t care much about my score or the money, but I was happy about the profession that I could potentially build into a career. For me, the human resource specialist occupation was doable. I signed the contract to join the army at MEPS just days before I turned nineteen years old.
When I finally told my mom, she wasn’t exactly happy.
“You did what!” she shouted through the phone.
I eased my phone away from my ear as I stood on the steps of DuBois Hall.
“They only want you to fight in this war! The military could be the death of you, baby girl! Didn’t you even take the time to think about it?”
I silently listened, but I was internally screaming.
“Thanks a lot, Ma,” I finally said.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“I don’t know. I gotta call you later.” I was disappointed, but I couldn’t hang up on my mother and disrespect her. She made me listen to her final sigh of exhaustion, the same one that she’d always given me whenever I worried her.
“Bye, Bren.” She hung up the phone.
The sky above was clear, but my mind became cloudy. I took a seat on the red brick platform near the bushes outside of my school dormitory. I was almost in tears. Of course, my mother wouldn’t support my decision to join the military. I’m her youngest daughter and I was supposed to be the smart one. My face grew hot with anger and I held my breath, as if that would stop my tears from falling. Despite my efforts, the floodgates burst open and I began to wail.
I sat there, discouraged. How was I supposed to survive? I wanted to graduate from college, but I couldn’t afford it. There was nothing my family could do to help me out. They couldn’t afford it either. My family wasn’t the only family who felt the economic decline of the nation. The mass population was experiencing the effects of the recession, too. I didn’t really want to join the military, but I was running out of options. I didn’t know how I would stay afloat. I sat there and pondered over the hasty decision I’d already made.
I glanced over toward the front entrance of the dorms where I heard my name called. It was my neighbor and friend, Zonnique, walking over toward me.
“How ar-a yuh now?” she greeted.
Zonnique’s rich dark skin glowed in the sunlight and her long blond dreadlocks dangled at her backside. She was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, and she’d recently become a U.S. citizen. She’d grown up in Queens, New York, and she took pride in her Jamaican-American heritage.
“Oh, I’m fine.”
“Yuh no look it, sista! Tell mi wat tis gwaan?” Zonnique questioned.
She stood on the concrete stairs and dusted off her expensive basketball shoes as I sat on the brick platform, trying not to appear stressed out.
“I’m good,” I lied.
She peered at me with her head slightly tilted to the side. She gave me the expression that meant she knew better than that.
“Yeah, well…” I began to explain. “I’m about to join the service.”
“Ar-a yuh now? Tis great! Wut branch?” she asked.
“The army,” I said.
“Ya, mon! Proud of yuh! We still at war!”
I nodded sheepishly. “My mom just reminded me of that.”
“Yuh, gwaan cohame back in one piece, yuh ’ere me now?” She gave me a sharp look, one eyebrow cocked.
“My recruiter says I might not even have to go over.”
Zonnique glared at me as if she didn’t know whether she wanted to scold me or laugh at me. “Bren,” she said, looking at me sternly. “Yuh go over!”
“Well…” I began, not sure of what to say.
“Listen ta meh now, dey need dem boots on ground,” She insisted.
“What you know about the military?” I asked.
“Meh pah an meh unkal served ah country an’ dey earn der rights!” she declared.
I let out a deep sigh as I listened to her.
“Gawann to eat someting wit’ meh now?” she asked.
I slightly shook my head up and down in agreement and quickly rose from the platform.
“Yeah, well? I guess I’ll be going over,” I said, shrugging my shoulders as we trotted leisurely down the stairs. “Zee, I just need to survive. You feel me? I’m just trying to stay afloat while I’m so far away from my family.”
“Yuh doin’ good. Meh roommate es makin’ ’er money dat ought to be illegal,” Zonnique told me. She paused for a brief moment, glaring at me with a straight face. “Strippin’!” she revealed. “Takin’ off hah clothes foah money, yeah! ‘Tis sad! Meh know, es er’ recession out ’ere, but women got-ta be more valuable den dat. A’least you don’t do dose tings.”
“I know, right?” I agreed.
“Ders got ta be a bet-der way!” she added.
The start of inprocessing wasn’t difficult. In the pitch-dark morning at four a.m., I awoke to the sound of the alarm on my cell phone. I turned on the light at the nightstand and got out of bed, feeling nauseated. Despite the way I felt, I quickly slipped into the same clothes I’d worn the previous day.
Outside, we gathered around and took turns shoveling our belongings under a blue-and-white tour bus. The bus driver was an old pale guy who sat in his proper place at the wheel. I glared at him the very second he opened the flapping tour bus doors. He was an overweight, hunchback man with long white nostril hairs that stood out on his face. I moved past him without the slightest hello or good morning. I continued toward the back of the bus; it was partially out of habit but also because the heater was located back there. Without my jacket, that was the best way for me to remain warm during the ride.
I snagged a window seat one row up from the very back of the bus. A short Spanish-looking guy first said hello and then asked if he could sit beside me. I told him that it was fine, and he took a seat. Once everyone loaded onto the bus, the driver took off down the street in a hurry. I got comfortable and dozed off against the window.
The bus jerked to a halt. I awoke and began to stare outside the window. We’d arrived in the middle of what appeared to be nowhere. There was almost nothing in sight but a plain brick building with an orange shining light projecting from it. I could see figures in the distance moving toward our bus.
“Get the hell off my bus!” the driver suddenly shouted at the top of his lungs.
We all began moving quickly. The driver continued shouting over and over as we all tried to make our way through the narrow walkway off the bus. He hollered and shouted until we began moving even faster. We moved in an orderly fashion, without bumping into each other, as if we’d practiced it already. The driver screamed the same phrase over and over until the very last of us marched off the bus. Luckily, we had it together.
The minute I stepped past the open partition of the tour bus, the heat hit me. It was so humid outside that I felt like I was slightly suffocating. The smell was rather stale and musty. The sergeants had already opened the storage compartment underneath the bus and pushed all of our belongings into the dirt. We had a few seconds to grab our suitcases and personal items. The sergeants explained nothing to us. They only commanded us into a single file line facing the building. Like ants, we gathered into an organized segment right outside the door.
The yellow fluorescent lights were extremely bright on the inside of the building. The further I inched into the doorway, the more I could see the recruits, sitting on the floor in grey fatigues. I overheard the sergeants commanding us to throw out any contraband: lighters, cigarettes, alcohol, and any sharp objects we may have possessed.
I finally noticed the toilet-less stalls to my right. I figured that’s where we’d take off all our clothes, including our underwear, and put on the gray fatigues they provided us. There were only four stalls, so one recruit shuffled in after the other one came out.
I arrived at the front of the line. A black-haired woman soldier referred to me as “you.” She looked to be some type of Hispanic. Mixed ethnicities and cultures were everywhere here. I couldn’t pinpoint her racial identity exactly. She couldn’t have been older than twenty-eight. I studied the stern expression she held on her fresh face.
“Get over here!” she yelled, pointing down in front of her.
Before I could get close enough, she threw a stack of clothes at my chest. I wasn’t ready so it dropped to the floor. Two of the women soldiers quickly began yelling at me to retrieve my apparel from the floor. I sluggishly maneuvered to pick up the sweatsuit. The black-haired Hispanic soldier moved toward me and shouted, “Hurry up!” in my ear. After picking up the sweatsuit, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to make the wrong move, so I waited for a command before making another move.
Finally, the Hispanic-looking one stepped back and scribbled something on her clipboard. I watched as the other sergeants yelled at the recruits to dump their belongings on the floor.
The soldier in front of me just glared as if I’d done something wrong. I stood there unmoving for nearly two minutes. Finally, a guy came hurrying out of one of the stalls. The woman soldier shouted for me to get inside the stall. I grabbed my suitcase to wheel it along with me.
“Pick it up and carry it!” shouted one of the male sergeants.
I scooped up my suitcase and smothered it against my chest with my packaged fatigues. The soldiers provided us three minutes to strip down and redress. After doing so, I exited the stall with my other clothes in hand.
I was forced into a corner and told to dump out everything from my suitcase. The other recruits who’d just exited the stalls were doing the same as me: picking through our backpacks, duffle bags, suitcases, and fanny packs.
The soldiers paced back and forth watching us pick through our stuff. They kicked around our personal belongings if they rolled in their path; if they didn’t kick them, they deliberately stomped them. After that, they carried on about their business like they did nothing wrong at all.
We had to turn in our cell phones. They were to be placed in an envelope and mailed back home. We watched as our valuables were enveloped, sealed, and confiscated. We were to sign away our belongings on a sheet of paper. The form served as some kind of documented agreement that was never explained to us.
Soon after, the sergeants yelled at us to get back on the bus. Once we were all filed on again, the same driver continued transporting us for nearly two hours through unfamiliar territory.
We eventually came to a stop. The bus driver yelled for us to get the hell off his bus again. I rushed off the bus for the second time carrying two featherweight duffle bags, one in front of me and one on my back.
Bugs and pollen flew around in the wind. Only a few clouds lay up above us. Ample pine and palmetto trees surrounded the base, so the fresh scent of greenery lingered about in the air. As the chaotic atmosphere moved out of control, I took the time to take in another deep breath. That was my very first introduction to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina.
Note from the author:
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