HURRY UP AND KUWAIT
photo by Buck Sargent
The waiting is the hardest part.
-Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Exactly three years ago this week I left my Texas home for the Infantry Training Brigade in Fort Benning, Georgia. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
A retired Navy Seal whose physical conditioning class I had endured to prepare myself for basic training warned me that the hardest obstacle I would face in the military would be the “hurry up and wait” mentality. Naturally, I asked him what he meant by this.
“It’s just like it sounds,” he told me. ‘Hurry up and get your ass over here…there…anywhere! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go! Okay, now that you've jumped through your ass, sit here and wait for three hours.’"
I grimaced as he laughed. “Yep, that’s hurry up ‘n wait in a nutshell.”
It wasn’t long before I realized his words would encapsulate not only my initial exposure to, but my entire experience with Army life.
Every soldier who arrives for basic at Ft. Benning must first process through the 30th Adjutant General (Reception) Battalion, commonly referred to simply as 30th AG. It is here that terms like “hurry up and wait” were undoubtedly invented.
The Army alludes to the reception battalion as “a two to three day process by which incoming soldiers receive their basic issue, receive their shots and immunizations, and update their records.” In reality, it is a virtual military purgatory--subjecting one to endless waiting, boredom, and completely random acts of spontaneous yelling. It is a soldier’s first direct taste of imposed military discipline; and after the months of civilian handholding by the sly and deceitfully congenial recruiters, it is an eye-opening experience to say the least.
The waiting is indeed the hardest part. It is unrelenting: waiting in formations; waiting in line for chow; waiting in line for shots, clothing, paperwork; waiting in line to wait in line. It never stops. Imagine hell as one long continuous line at the post office during the holidays and you‘re halfway there.
Once you do finally make it “downrange” to basic training, the initially three weeks are ominously referred to as “total control.” It is exactly as it sounds. Everything a basic trainee does is strictly monitored or regulated by the drill sergeant cadre. When you wake up. When you go to sleep. When you eat. What you eat. How fast you eat. Where you stand. How you stand. What you say. When you say it. How you say it.
We were expected to take everything we’d learned throughout our lives up to that point—all our knowledge, all our habits, our routines and rituals, likes and dislikes, all our accumulated wisdom—and flush it right down the toilet. The idea was that our friends and family spent roughly twenty years screwing us up, which the Army now had approximately 14 weeks to correct.
About midway through basic the drill sergeants seem to recognize your frustration with the rigid structure of the Army experience. They assure you that what you’re going through is the worst the Army will ever get, that daily life in a regular unit will be much better. Once upon a time this may have been true -- perhaps in the peacetime Army. The Army post-September 11 -- an Army at war --that was another thing entirely.
And nothing brings back the repressed memories of total control quicker than the initial weeks of a long overseas deployment.
The tiny oil emirate of Kuwait is an unbelievably wealthy nation of 2.5 million to Iraq’s southern border that the American military liberated from Saddam’s marauding armies in the first Gulf War. Today it has become to the Iraq War what Long Binh was to Vietnam: a way station and inprocessing center for all soldiers bound for the combat zone “up north.” It is chock full of military and civilian personnel with little to do and a myriad of rules and regulations that make even less sense. But as always, the waiting is still the worst aspect.
Camps like this are referred to as “Candylands” in the infantry vernacular. High ranking and barely working people with little overriding motivation to patrol IED routes or clear buildings during high-value-target raids--“pogues” to the rest of us--have no qualms here getting on your case about the most minor of infractions.
A sign prominently displayed before the entrance to the chow hall lists nearly two dozen uniform code violations, ranging from the obvious (no headgear worn indoors), to the irritating (no sunglasses hung around the neck), to the simply bizarre (no exposed abdomens?).
The facilities are decent for an outpost in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert, yet with thousands of soldiers shuffling through on a regular basis, the ability to utilize such facilities is severely hampered. Sure, you can call home or buy new socks at the civilian run P/X, but only if you don’t mind standing in line for an hour and a half and paying more per minute of phone usage here than per gallon of gas back home.
And there’s always the inescapable Kuwaiti sun; 140+ degree temperatures tend to put a damper on available extracurricular activities. With all the generators on the various Kuwaiti camps running around the clock, it’s likely we’ve accelerated the greenhouse effect here 200 fold in the fifteen years since the last Gulf War. The nights are considerably cooler (if one considers 85 degrees “cool“), although the tent a/c is left running 24/7 to combat your daily sun stroke with nightly hypothermia.
If the heat doesn’t get you, the pervasive sand and dust undoubtedly will. It’s not so much sand as it is silt -- getting into every crevice imaginable and even some not so imaginable. The gritty air quality, coupled with having been recently cramped inside an airplane full of recycled oxygen amongst 150 other soldiers for 35 consecutive hours leads to a miserable condition infamously known as the Kuwaiti Crud. If you haven’t suffered through it yet, your fellow citizens of Tent City will ensure that you will.
The training opportunities thus far have been sparse, but comical. An Irish sergeant from the Brit Army briefed our unit on IEDs--still the number one killer of coalition troops in theater--as well as various checkpoint protocols:
“The insurgents, they’re sayin’ they blow themselves up fer seventy virgins, aye? Well we in the British Army have a policy to deal with this problem: We send them straight to Allah and keep the virgins for ourselves!”
“The British use this hand signal [closed fist] ‘Stop!’ to control traffic at checkpoints. The Iraqis, they use a similar one, [open hand] ‘Oogaf!’ And then there’s you Americans: [points weapon] ‘Freeze motherfucker!’”
A southern fried corporal EOD technician (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) from Alabama then played a video he called the “Eye Opener,” consisting mainly of a highlight reel of military convoys getting blown all to hell by IEDs, perversely set to the Everclear tune “Wonderful.” Military humor--you’ve gotta love it.
When the time finally comes to pack up and head north across the border, going “downrange” will automatically assume more weight and significance than ever before, though it will produce no less anxiety coupled with the excitement of embarking on the journey we’ve mentally prepared ourselves for over the last few months. Our infantry drill sergeants did everything they could to train us for this moment; for the time when our country would summon us to war, ready or not.
It’s not impossible to believe that “hurry up and wait” is part of a grand strategy devised by the Army to convince soldiers from day one that where they’re headed couldn’t possibly be as horrible as where they currently are. They make your life miserable on purpose so you’ll be itching to head downrange ASAP, wherever that may happen to be and whoever may happen to be waiting there for you.
This reverse psychology may work on cherry trainees, but experienced soldiers know better. In recent days, another convoy of troops headed for Baghdad was savagely ambushed just inside the Iraqi border, producing two more American KIAs and half a dozen additional wounded.
It’s been said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.
Given the choice, we’ll gladly stick with farce.
COPYRIGHT 2005 BUCK SARGENT