When I was in the Army we were called up to be deployed to somewhere. This was one of those situations where there were no warnings, no media reports of any kind, just suddenly we were moving. I took the first telephone call in our battalion. I was the runner that night, which means as a lowly private I had to stay up all night and wait by the phone that never rang unless someone was in jail for DUI or there was a death in someone’s family. Or if we were put on alert so we could go play soldier out in the woods somewhere on Fort Stewart. The Army was a very boring place.
But then the phone rang. I answered it and the guy on the other end of the line seemed more than a little freaked out. He told me to call him back on the call back line, which was standard fare, but this was different. His tone of voice suggested to me that we were going to play soldier in the woods. We were going to play soldier somewhere else this time.
“This is for real, isn’t it sir?” I asked him and there was a heartbeat of silence on the other end of the landline.
“Yes it is private, you move.” And I knew suddenly that being in the Army meant a little more than it had a minute ago.
I actually had to find the sergeant that was supposed to call everyone and wake them up, but there were very few places he could be. He was over at one of the companies drinking coffee with another bored sergeant and they both looked at me like I was crazy. An alert? Are you sure? We aren’t supposed to have one.
“Did you get a call back?” one of them asked and when I told him I did then wheels started turning. Okay, maybe this is a surprise alert. But I could tell that in less than a minute they had started to believe it might be real, too.
I ran through the barracks pounding on doors and waking people up while the sergeant called people who lived off base, and called those people who were supposed to be there first and fastest. My roommate was the company armorer. I went into our room and woke him up and our other roommate, who also had to move fast because he was a medic.
“It’s real, Bob.” I told him. “I think this one is real.”
“No fucking way.” He said but he was on his feet and moving. Suddenly, there was an air of tension as if this had surprised us all. Bob was the person who was going to hand out M-16s and bayonets, and live ammunition.
Men in uniform began to pour out of buildings everywhere and then I knew something was happening. Usually it was just our unit but now there was a lot of traffic on the roads, in the air, and as went back to battalion HQ a chair flew through the air and crashed into the wall in front of me.
“God fucking dammit!” The Sergeant Major screamed. “Where in the fucking hell are my goddam people?”
I knew it was real then. I knew he had gotten a call from someone or called someone, or knew something. This was the one man in uniform I knew who I was actively terrified of in a way that only those in service can understand. This was a man who always wore a .45 on his hip and he never spoke to anyone below the rank of God without cussing at them.
“Private Firesmith where are my goddam people?” He screamed and I told him I had no idea. I had called the people on the list, and those people were supposed to come in and call other people, but there were people on the list I knew weren’t in our unit anymore. Other numbers just didn’t work. The Sergeant Major listened to me and began to nod.
“Private, you go to the armory, and you get your fucking rifle and thirty rounds of ammo. Then you go fucking find Sargent Cleveland and you bring him here to me and if he doesn’t want to come you put a round in him do-you-understand-me-get-your-goddam-ass-moving!”
And move I did.
I went to the armory and Bob looked at me like I had just barfed up a frog. You want your M-16 and ammo? Sergeant Major wants me to go find Sergeant Cleveland and bring him back. Sergeant Major? Shit! Fuck! Here, hold on, and suddenly I was armed.
Sergeant Cleveland was headed for company HQ when I found him. I still remember the look in his eyes when I said, “The Sergeant Major has sent me to find you and you are to come with me to the battalion HQ right now.”
Cleveland was a man dismissive of lowly privates but what was this?
“Why are you carrying your M-16, Firesmith?” Sergeant Cleveland asked and then suddenly he realized who had sent me and why.
“You are to come with me, Sergeant.” I said and at that point had he refused I have no idea what I would have done.
“Okay” he said and he led the way.
We walked into battalion HQ and the Sergeant Major was waiting.
“Goddam you, you incompetent bastard, where are my fucking people, where are my fucking people?” The Sergeant Major screamed and he threw a three ring binder at Cleveland’s face with such force it cut his left cheek. The Sergeant Major’s hand was on his .45 and he pinned Sergeant Cleveland to the wall with his voice. Then the .45 came out and the battalion sergeant took a step forward but looked at me. Time stood still, even over the shouting. Sergeant Cleveland was pinned to the wall, the Sergeant Major was standing there with a .45 in his hand, and I was the only other person in the room who was armed. Was I going to stand there and let the Sergeant Major shoot Sergeant Cleveland? Was I going to stop the battalion sergeant if he tried to intervene? The Sergeant Major, holstered his .45., grabbed Cleveland and tore the insignia off his collar. “You get the fuck off my goddam post, private,” he told Cleveland. Sergeant Major then looked at me and said, “Go get some chow. It’s going to be a long day.”
Later that day Bob was handing out live rounds and rifles. He gave me an extra clip and nodded at me. I was already packing thirty rounds. Would I need them?
Still later we drove to the airfield where a C-140 sat with its nose pulled back as to facilitate loading of our gear. We sat in the sun and waited and waited and waited. No one knew anything at all. We picked up a civilian radio station and learned the United States was invading an island named Grenada. It was real. We were at war. Finally, someone came by and gave us a briefing that we would be landing and taking over the airfield there. Get loaded.
I looked around and there were no heroes. There were no Rambo’s or John Wayne’s. There was this collection of guys I drank with and played racquet ball with and we were not anything like the guys you see on television and in movies. I was scared. We all chewed gum or smoked or sat in silence. I wondered if there was some guy out there on this island I had never heard of who might get shot, by me, before the sun went down. I wondered if I was going to see any of these guys dead.
Bob came up to me and we made a Death Pact; no one would run. Anyone running would be shot by the rest of us. One by one, we all made this Death Pact with one another. Promise me you won’t let me fail you, is what we were saying. I think we meant it.
Ten minutes later someone came up and told us to go back to the base at Fort Stewart. We would not be needed. We drove back and turned in our rifles and our live rounds. We went back to the barracks and pretended to be disappointed we were in battle at that very moment. I was still scared.
Twelve men deserted that day. All were charged and all were released from the Army, very quietly. Sergeant Cleveland left service a month later as a private. The Sergeant Major made sure he was seen by everyone. We were different after that. We suddenly realized that we were wearing a uniform for a reason. We understood what the veterans in our unit had been telling us; you can go to war at any time.
At some point in every war veteran’s life the story continues to the point the planes or boats do get loaded, and by sundown someone is dead. I cannot imagine how terrifying that is. I cannot imagine how scary it is to finally have to shoot or be shot, kill or be killed, live or die, watch others you know die, be wounded horribly, or to have someone captured and disappear.
Millions of American service members have lived the nightmare of combat. Some of them never made it home again.
Make sure you remember that fact today.