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Violent Class: A day in the life

To offset the more serious post, I thought I'd throw in something a bit more narrative and fun. These stories are true, but composite. It didn't all happen the same day, not with all the people mentioned, and not in the same units and places. That said:

It's midnight on a Tuesday. I'm pleasantly drunk in a VFW, arguing politics with Doc and Malo. They're the only people in the unit who would rather do that than chase girls and fight the locals. Doc short, confident, prematurely bald and ugly as a gnome. Hilarious dude, a Napoleon of dick jokes. Malo black and huge, his big dumb face concealing a keen intellect and a first rate education. He speaks the Queen's English with a slight african accent and an aristocratic tone. Me rail-skinny, argumentative and mean. We're a strange looking group, but our military IDs buy us a quiet corner where we close it down, then start collecting our other guys. Pasco and Healy have struck out at the bars, and Po is hiding behind a gas station near the highway. He got in a fight and the cops are looking for him. We pick him up on our way out of Victorville. It's almost two hours back to base, and morning formation is at 0430. Our team leaders will kill us if we're not there by 0415, so we have barely enough time to get back.

I get about an hour of sleep on the ride. Malo drives, he's a bad muslim but doesn't drink. The gate guard wakes me up with his flashlight, checking the long line of cars snaking into the base in the dark early morning. We awkwardly change into our PT uniforms, lots of butts in faces if you want to imagine six drunk dudes getting changed in a moving Chevy Tahoe. Lots of commentary and propositioning. Ahh, the infantry. Gayest pack of straight dudes in the world.

Parked, we stagger out into the company area where the NCOs are already forming us up. We jog to our spot in the formation, our little group splitting. Doc to Headquarters, Malo to first squad, Pasco and Healy to Second and Po and I to Third. New guy, B team, Third squad, Third platoon (Dirty Third!). I'm at the end of the line, farthest from the NCOs. Po is one slot from the squad leader. I look down the line, and I see we weren't the only ones out on the town. The whole squad is swaying forward and back, everyone trying hard not to look as hammered as they are. The First Sergeant is walking out, but I can hear Sgt. Mac's vicious hiss: “I can smell you motherfuckers”.

We're all technically drunk on duty, a court martial offense. We're relying on the informal rule, which is that if we can gut out the morning PT, they won't breathalyze us. There's a thought to sharpen your mind on a cold desert morning. Fall out, and you'll be in the brig by lunch. And first Sar is looking pissed. He's not going to make it easy for us. Yup, he's leading PT personally, and we're running. Fuck my life.

At least I'm a strong runner. No weight to slow me down. I can run this company into the ground drunk or sober. If I'm in the brig, I won't be alone. I wonder if that would warm the guys up to me?

Three miles outside of base, I have a new problem. Somehow, I've hit the perfect level of intoxication, and am feeling no pain on this run. I do need to shit though, and that greasy bar food is not going to wait for this run to end. I spot my chance as we pass over a large culvert where the road crosses a wadi. I dive off the side, slide down the embankment. I can hear my team leader's startled yell behind me, but I'm already down to the culvert. It's dark, I crawl in and paint the walls brown.

No TP, no vegetation, and with this run, I'll probably need my socks. I rip the bottom off my PT shirt to wipe myself with, leaving me with a very fetching crop-top. The unit is hundreds of yards ahead now. I start making up the time, closing the distance. I come upon Healy who has fallen out and is struggling. He looks at me in surprise, “I thought you fell out?”. I grin as I come along side him, pointing to my midriff. “Needed a shit”. He laughs and quickens his pace a bit. We catch up the unit just before it's light enough for people to see us. Hernandez, my TL, is relieved, but I'll still probably catch some smoke later. There's much giggling, whistling and shit talk about my new fashion statement. For now, we're five miles from base, and we still have to run back. Six miles. Seven. Jesus, is first Sar gonna run us twenty miles? At seven and a half we turn back. Fifteen miles and I am flying. A third of the unit drops out, but they're all the family guys who weren't at the bars last night. The rest of us have to finish.

We form back up on the company area. First sergeant stares us down for a long minute before he releases us. I don't know if that's good or bad. From there, it's a sprint back to the barracks, quick shower, uniform of the day, then off to the chow hall, packed this time of the morning. I wolf down two quite good omelets, four very bad biscuits, and something they passed off as sausage gravy. Got fifty bucks says no pigs were harmed in the making of that product.

Back to formation, where we are sent to “PMCS the vehicles”, standard infantry code for “we don't have shit for you to do today, so check the oil on the lieutenant's vehicle for the eighth time this month”. But there are benefits. A pair of boots sticking out from under a vehicle won't raise suspicion, so I get a nice nap on the cool concrete as the outside temperature spikes. Supposed to hit a hundred and ten today, but it's barely hundred in the shade! Fuck Fort Irwin.

Hernandez kicks me awake, and gives me a perfunctory smoke session for dropping out of formation and damaging government property (my PT shirt). His heart's not in it, he doesn't care, but he has to be able to tell Mac that he did it so Mac can tell his boss, and so I do ten minutes of pushups. If that's all the worse I come out of this, it will be a fucking miracle. “Good job on the run” he says “go to lunch”. He can't come down on me too hard for drinking, I buy him beer. He's still only twenty.

For lunch I go back to my room and catch another nap. My roommate isn't there, but I can see the ants crawling under his bedroom door. Filthy fucker. How does he keep getting away with it? I get my room inspected weekly, Lacava has never been inspected. And he's supposedly in a strict company. I've put in for a different barracks room three times already, but they say nothing is available. This motherfucker has pizza stuck to the ceiling, rotting food and dirty clothes everywhere, his room stinks. You can smell it from the sidewalk. I should probably just kick his ass until he puts in for a transfer, but he's the only guy around smaller than me. Not a good look. And I'm new, no leverage, no real friends, no idea of the lay of the land. Might have to ruminate on that one.

Back to the motor pool. We're a light unit, so our platoon only has one vehicle. The PMCS took fifteen minutes back in the morning, but if we go back to the company, they'll find something even dumber for us to do. There's fifteen guys laying around, playing spades, napping, bullshitting. It's a great afternoon. The glories of the previous night are dissected in detail, lies are told, bullshit is called. I come in for a good bit of comedy about my shit-shirt that morning. I play it off, call them fags for getting all excited at a man's belly button. My timing is off, the jokes are flat. But soon enough it's someone else, Pasco getting grilled about that totally hot chick who supposedly blew him in the bathroom that no one else can remember seeing.

1600 the other units are leaving the motor pool, but Hernandez keeps us there. Our formation will be late today, he says, and he wants to see if we can steal some gear from other units' trucks. We find an unlocked victor two lines behind ours from some other unit and strip it bare. Seat cushions, pioneer gear, a donkey dick (long funnel) etc. We'll outfit our PL's vehicle and trade the surplus to other trucks, maybe even the guys we stole it all from. There's only one thief in the Army, the rest of us are just getting our shit back the saying goes....

Formation finally happens around seven, after several more hours of sitting around not doing shit. Infantry in garrison rarely have much to do. Our general work cycle is two weeks in the field doing training, then two short weeks in garrison punctuated by a three-day and a four-day weekend. Then back out to the field, ranges, gunnery etc. Once we get out of the field and get all our gear cleaned and turned in, it's bullshit details and “PMCS” to try to keep all those joes busy. For our part, we learn to stretch every job out as long as possible, because they're only going to find something else when you're done. The stories about hand-painting the gravel are true. When everything conceivable has been cleaned, mopped, polished and checked it's time to get creative.

The infantryman considers garrison to be basically one big weekend, which is why we've been drinking every night. This is not our job, this is the bullshit period before our job. There's nothing important to do, so we try to stay out of the way and enjoy ourselves as much as possible. We'll be sleeping in the dirt again soon enough. There will be no bars, no girls, not even the indifferent but at least hot chow hall slop. I'm gonna miss those omelets.

I get pulled aside at formation, everyone else goes home. Hernandez, Mac and I have to report to the First Sergeant. Just for scale, I'm a boot PFC, Hernandez is my team leader, my daily boss. His boss is Mac, the squad leader. Mac is the Hand of God, and the First Sergeant is his bosses' boss. Literally the Almighty Himself. I do not want to be here, this will not be good. I'm worried about jail, but it turns out someone has finally complained about my roommate. Which means they complained about me. Mac and Hernandez get interrogated about how often they inspect my room. Because Lacava isn't their soldier, they can't touch him, so they say nothing about that part. They do hedge a bit because I've built a recording studio in my closet. I checked the regs and it's technically legal, but first Sar needs a reason to be angry and that's it. He's getting complaints that his soldiers have dirty rooms, so someone is gonna suffer and that someone is apparently me.

The three of them march me over to the barracks and wait outside while I pull every scrap out of my room and lay it out on the sidewalk. Bed, cabinet, clothes, everything. It takes hours. I have to disassemble the bed and cabinet, reassemble them outside, clean the room. The boys are headed back out, they're clowning me, asking if I want to pop down to San Bernardino for a quick one. I give them both fingers and keep working. The cleaning is easy because my room was already clean. My only consolation is Lacava doing the same thing a few yards away. His NCOs ain't saying shit. Now that we're all here, it's pretty obvious who has the problem, and who is just a weirdo. I re-disassemble the furniture, and move back into my own barracks room. It's midnight by the time I finish, twenty-four hours in the life of an infantryman.

Mac and Hernandez have had to sit there and watch me all night. They didn't get to go home, have dinner, see their families. They'll be pissed about that, but hopefully they understand.

In the morning, I'm going to kick Lacava's ass.

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In the morning, I'm going to kick Lacava's ass.

I always wondered, given that this seems to be one of the go-to solutions in the armed forces: how do you avoid doing lasting damage and getting into even more trouble? Is there a code of honour on what kind of ass-kicking you're allowed to give?

If you'll indulge a clueless nerd, could you give me a step-by-step guide? What's your opening move here and how do you proceed?

Maybe I'll write it up fully someday, but frankly it's pathetic and embarrassing for me. That kid weren't a fighter, just a shitbag. He was in the wrong profession and he got out soon afterward. I still feel a bit bad about it, but that's tempered by the fact that he was such an incredibly useless dirt merchant. I've no doubt he saw me as a horrible bully, and in some sense I was. But I also let him off as easily as I felt I could given the circumstance. Think less MMA, more "big brother has had enough of your shit". At least from my perspective.

how do you avoid doing lasting damage and getting into even more trouble?

Not relevant in this case, but in general by going "to the woodline", i.e. out of sight, out of mind, not on a concrete surface. There's no official code or rules about the fighting that goes on, but there are practical considerations. Punching someone in the face will result in visible injuries and most likely broken fingers for the hitter. Most fights go to the ground, lots of wrestling and short body shots. Weapons are out, so are most intentionally maiming techniques like eye gouging, but the rest is sort of up to the participants. The biggest rule is that the fight decides whatever it is you're pissed about. You don't get to come back next week because you didn't like the result. If it's worth fighting about, it's worth letting the fight decide.

Ooff, I never would've thought it possible but you're actually making me kind of nostalgic for the bricks life. (ETA: 'Barracks life' for the uninitiated)

Should probably add a trigger warning or something ;-)

I intended to say something in the previous post but might as well say it here. I've considered writing something similar on occasion but procrastinated and/or chickened out each time so hat-tip to you for putting the work in.

God, wasn't it hilarious and terrible?

I'll tell you what I told myself when I left Ft Irwin.

"If you ever get nostalgic for this shit, don't forget how much it sucked".

"If you ever get nostalgic for this shit, don't forget how much it sucked".

Oh you're absolutely right, in fact this sentiment ties into something else that I've also been meaning to write about at length but keep chickening out of/procrastinating on. There was a time when I was one of those guys that everyone wanted on patrol but didn't want to eat with. My being a Navy medic attached to Marine Unit the specific dynamics may have been a bit different, but end result is that I was that guy, and I also made a conscious choice to walk away and put the violent life behind me.

Now I look at some of my friends, friends who I deployed with and with whom I am still close who are playing out all the stereotypes of the "fucked up vet" and can't help but suspect that a large part of the problem is that that they never made the choice to return to civilization. It's like a fucked up doppleganger of Uncle Rico who peaked senior year of High School. "You don't know what it was like man" "Fuck you man, I was in the vehicle right behind yours, Basra was 15 years ago, now shut up and give your wife and Kids some attention."

Excellent post.

...Reading through this story, what stands out to me is that no one and nothing in this entire story is operating "by the book". At no point is anyone following the formal rules to achieve their desired outcome. At no point does anyone appeal to the formal rules for protection or to resolve a conflict, and the general vibe your story gives off is that trying to actually run things by the letter would likely result in immediate disaster. Is that a fair assessment?

If accurate, that seems like a notable insight, especially for the systematically-inclined who expect the world to be rational, orderly, and proceed according to procedure.

I would say that the culture of the military is far more influential and potent than the official structure of the military. And culture can be very context-dependent. Every unit is a bit different. Some things are nearly universal, some are very particular. In many ways, the culture of the military is there to make the book work.

For instance, the military is very strict on drinking in "the book". But if those rules were followed to the letter, we'd have six mormons and a muslim in the Infantry, and it's hard to staff an army that way. So the time and circumstance of the enforcement becomes crucial. These eventually settle around some widely known area, the same way everyone knows you can do five over the speed limit. After a while, "everyone knows" you can turn up to PT still drunk, suffer through the PT and be off scot-free. It is the function of the NCOs to take these insane pronouncements from Congress and the officers, and find a way to make the paperwork say it got done, while we get on with the business of fighting a war. If we let the command structure have its way, we wouldn't have a military inside a week.

At no point is anyone following the formal rules

Not strictly true, but largely so. I do mention filing to try to get a different roommate (unsuccessfully), and the complaint that got me in trouble was through the formal channels. Formal channels generate formal responses, and paperwork. The severity of my punishment in that story is largely because the complaint came officially, and from another unit. First Sar can't lose face like that, so an example must be made, even if it's stupid. If the complaint had come from within the unit, he'd have probably sent someone to look at my room, seen it was kosher and depending on what sort of terms he was on with Lacava's First Sergeant either quietly informed him or put him on blast with the whole base to make him look bad.

The custom here is a bit strange, but makes sense when you think of radical responsibility. The First Sergeant is responsible for all his men. He's not losing a night with his family because watching some jackass joe empty his barracks room is fun. He's doing it because he has to. Officially, anyone of any rank can correct anyone below them. Unofficially, no one fucks with anyone else's joes. If you have a problem with Private Snuffy, you go find his team leader, squad leader etc. But this in turn involves professional embarrassment, if someone else catches your guys fucking up. It both implies you aren't doing your job training them, and also aren't supervising them properly. The punishments are always worse if someone else complains to your boss than if the boss just catches you himself.

Once we get out of the field and get all our gear cleaned and turned in, it's bullshit details and “PMCS” to try to keep all those joes busy.

The stories about hand-painting the gravel are true.

There's only one thief in the Army, the rest of us are just getting our shit back the saying goes....

It's quite interesting how armies so different as ours are so similar at this level. "Get your shovels and dig a ditch from this here fence all the way to midday meal", painting the grass green and the snow white, "there's no 'someone stole it' in the army, there's only 'I don't take proper care of my kit'"...

Can you add a list of what the acronyms stand for?

Others I saw:

VFW = Vetrans of Foreign Wars an organization that provides services to veterans of foreign wars.
PT = Physical training (morning exercise).
PFC = Private first class, an enlisted rank. Each branch has their own name for the various ranks so they're collectively referred to by number PFC is E-3 the lowest of the 4 ranks where most of the enlisted people sit E3-E6. People spend very little time in E-1 and E-2 and pyramid narros considerably at E-7 and even more at E-8 (aka First Sargent or Almighty Himself in the story).


TP = Toilet Paper >.>

edit: Yes, but I'm off to work.

The worst one is PMCS which is Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services. It's just a list of things you check on any mechanical device owned by the military, fill out a form and file it with the mechanics. Oil, coolant, gas etc etc.

The Navy equivalent of PMCS is 3M (Maintenance Material Management), and I'm told it's far worse than PMCS.

As one of the 95% of people who received combat pay without getting anywhere near people who wanted to shoot me, let me say thank you for writing this whole series. I'll add a few thoughts upthread when I get a chance, but I'm grateful for the chance.

You said something about being able to write not having done you any good in your last post, but I don't see it. You're a couple ex-wives who are smarter than you away from being Hemingway

You're a couple ex-wives who are smarter than you away from being Hemingway

A high compliment, consider it seconded