I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a long one but one that is definitely worth telling.
Because while most Americans are enjoying barbecue, beer and a day off, I’ll be remembering.
Let me start by giving you a little background.
While I was in the Army, I served 24 months as a drill instructor. While this is considered an honor, some of us took to heart what our true purpose was.
I was the female DI over Alpha 35. I had only 7 female privates on my last cycle. (it didn’t matter what their actual rank would be upon graduation, they were each called private because they were equally useless!). Because our field hadn’t been opened to females long, there weren’t many so I also served as a DI for the males. In total, one cycle had 387 privates on average.
This was in the winter of 2001 in Missouri.
I was ready to be done with my rotation. Ready to go back home to my kids and my partner. I was just tired!
As with any other cycle, there were those that stuck out. Some because they were destined to be exceptional soldiers, others because they were world class fuck ups.
At this time in my life my last name was Gutheridge. Like a lot of gay soldiers, the easiest way for me to hide was to marry. So I did.
There was one private who could not say my last name to save his life. “No SGT Gootrudge!!”
He came to basic from Brooklyn, NY. He was a cocky, out of shape, pudgy little bastard. His name was Alex Grillo. 17 years old and he thought he was the shit.
He couldn’t keep himself squared away no matter how hard he tried.
This kid fucked up so much that I swear I saw his ass up in the air from having to do push ups more than I saw his face!
As time went by, he started to get it. He got better at PT. He learned to shoot. He learned to recognize rank. He trimmed down and actually started to look and sound like a soldier.
I had taken a fat, undisciplined boy and turned him into a combat engineer!
Another private that sticks out is Marcus Seabert. 32 years old from some tiny town in Nebraska.
He stuck with me because this guy was older than I was. Barely at the cut off age, he was an average soldier.
It took a while to get it through his head that his age didn’t mean shit to anyone, but once he figured that out, he did fine.
He too graduated a slim, disciplined combat engineer ready for battle!!
Then there was Stanley Brûlée. (Yes. That was his name). He was 22 from Wisconsin. And… He was a little person. He barely met the height requirements but he was accepted.
This guy turned out to be the best damn soldier we had! He could run faster, do more push-ups, shoot better and march farther than anyone.
Graduation day came. Out of 380 privates, 367 graduated.
Some were “recycled” to other units to get a second chance to get it, some were injured to the point of requiring a discharge and others just quit.
On that chilly day in April I watched as my privates celebrated the beginning of a 2 week leave before having to report to their duty station.
86% were being assigned to the 4th infantry division at Ft Hood, TX. My duty station. Only I was in 1st Cavalry.
Ft. Hood is the only Army base with 2 fully mobilized, fully mechanized combat units. 1st Cav and 4th ID. Because of that, the post does a rotation system.
At this time, 4th ID was the deployable unit. In the event war was to break out, they’d go first.
I’m back at Ft. Hood. Living my life being a good little soldier.
Anytime I’d bump into a private that was in my basic unit, I’d remind them that, “you are a direct reflection of me!! My boys don’t fuck up!!”
One morning I lay in bed. I had put in for my discharge and was on leave. I’d already accepted a position with TxDOT and life was good. Until the phone rang.
“Do I need to go get the kids from school?? Has HQ called you in yet?!?!” My partner was frantically spewing information that I couldn’t understand.
I’d decided to be lazy that day. Sleep late. Hell, it was after 11:00 am.
Finally, she shouted, “turn on the damn tv!!”
As I grabbed the remote, the image on the screen was the second plane hitting the Trade Center.
In that brief moment I knew what every soldier in uniform knew… We are going to war!!
I hung up the phone. Called my unit and was told the post was on lock down but to remain ready to mobilize.
Fast forward to November of 2001. I’m at Ft. Sill, OK. My discharge has been suspended and I’m standing in a line getting a shot for this or that. “This is for anthrax. That’s for pneumonia. These are the basic boosters. Now go report for your vision assessment!”
I was being prepped to go to Afghanistan.
My kids were at my moms and didn’t know what was happening. They thought it was just a routine “Army thing” I had to do.
Their dad was traveling for work so they got to stay with grandma!!
After a week of pre deployment prep, I was told that I was not going to be sent because I was the primary, sole caregiver of two children. I was sent home to await my final discharge that was now 5 months over due.
As time went by we were sending more and more soldiers over. Now, we were also in Iraq. We were hyper aware here at home. We were at war.
Regardless of what you thought we were fighting for, as a soldier, all that mattered to me was that we were fighting.
I was working full time at TxDOT. I was still in the Army on leave. A month turned into a year. A year into two. Finally, in August of 2013, I went to my mailbox and found a large envelope from the Department of Defense.
“Shit!! I’m going!!”
By now, 1st Cav was in Iraq.
Instead of my “marching orders”, I opened it to find my DD214. I had so unceremoniously been discharges from the Army that I hadn’t even been told.
I felt a sense of relief and anger at the same time. I had been tasked with training soldiers for this very thing and now I wasn’t good enough to go?!?! (No. It wasn’t rational)
One night I got a call. It was a former DI that served with me.
“We lost another”
I’d gotten used to hearing these words. It never got easier and I’d spend the next day crying and blaming myself.
I had one job. One! Teach these soldiers how to come home!! And I was being reminded that I’d failed.
On Christmas Day, 2005, I did an internet search. I found a list of the confirmed dead. On that list was PFC Grillo. SPC Seabert. SPC Brûlée.
There was also
In all 63 of “my boys” didn’t make it home.
I live with that every day. I’m here while they will never experience another birthday, Christmas, or even Memorial Day.
So, while you eat your barbecue and enjoy your day off, I’ll be remembering the boys whose names are on a big black wall in Washington D.C.