Military


The Veterans Writing Project picked up my story “Beer Here” for their publication, O-Dark-Thirty.

Procession from the Kreuzberg monastery up to the crosses on the mountain.   Picture courtesy of Wikpedia.

Procession from the Kreuzberg monastery up to the crosses on the mountain. Picture courtesy of Wikpedia.

Beer Here

Barb Hoskins, a Cold War-era CI investigator runs into a platoon-mate from Basic who is on her way back to the Land of the Round Doorknob. They go out for a last-minute fling at a monastery, famed for its beer, and wind up with more action than they bargained for.

The story is one of a series that will be part of a book, Culture Shock.

Yesterday evening was a sad time. It’s difficult to feel particularly useful while sitting in an unremarkable place, and with no talent that is productive during a tragedy. It’s hard to even express a public feeling of sorrow when whether you do or not has little immediate effect.

Still, not expressing sorrow feels callous, and Paris does have meaning for me.  I lived in Europe, off and on, for over twenty years. My first memories are of England (which isn’t Paris, but is close enough for a Chunnel day trip from Brussels), and my husband’s final assignment with the U.S. Army was at Daumerie Kaserne by Chièvres, Belgium (still not Paris, but again, close enough for day trips with the kids).  A friend lives in Paris. Although I’ve never lived in Paris, I’ve strolled there, avoided rivers of traffic, ridden le Métro, sipped hot chocolate (I’m not a coffee drinker), done the tourist routine, and eaten prix fixe meals. The attack happened someplace that was, for me, working on becoming an everyday place.

One of my favorite pictures isn’t of an instantly recognizable landmark. The one I like is a sign for a picnic area.  It still makes me laugh.

Roadside sign in France designating a picnic area.

Roadside sign in France designating a picnic area.

Despite the feeling of immediacy concerning the shootings, explosions, and dread execution of concert-goers, I’m also saddened by the attack in Beirut. By the downing of the Russian plane. By the refugees fleeing these bastards who’ll kill anyone, anywhere, and use anyone to do it. I’m sickened by the deaths of innocent people who are near the combatants of our self-appointed enemy who choose to hide in hospitals, and our myopia in attacking such a place. It’s all so desperately tragic and all I can do is say I’m heartsick.

The only cold encouragement is remembering that London wasn’t beaten by the Irish Republican Army bombings in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. London was changed — and I can’t see an unattended bag without thinking about it — but it’s still there. Paris will still be there, too.

I hope the terror abates soon.

In a Facebook group for women veterans, I recently saw a recommendation for a book on American women veterans of the Vietnam war: Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Storiescollected by Donna A. Lowery (Sergeant Major [Ret.] ).

Right now, I’m working on short stories for a book whose main character is a woman who is a Cold War era soldier. Instead of being assigned to Vietnam, she is stationed in West Germany, which is where I lived for eighteen years. I served in the Army during the Vietnam era, but my time was short and my experience limited.

Although my main character didn’t serve in Vietnam, she will know women who did. My stories are genre fiction, suspense/mysteries, and are meant to be entertaining. I’m not trying to write definitive histories.

Despite having the aim of writing entertainingly, I do want the stories to be as accurate in their details as I can make them. Because my active duty experience was limited, I wanted to read the viewpoints of other women so I could develop characters with individual voices and outlooks. Fidelity to time and to the broader experience of women in the Army is also important to me. Accuracy was the main reason I bought the Women Vietnam Veterans.

What I didn’t expect was to know anyone mentioned.

Boy was I wrong.

After I opened the shipping box and while I was flipping through the 700+ pages, I stopped and exclaimed to my husband.

There on the page was a photo I recognized. The picture was of an NCO assigned to the WAC Detachment at Aberdeen Proving Ground at the same time as my husband and I had both served there. The sergeant is listed as having worked at Kirk Army Hospital at Aberdeen, but neither I (in Personnel) nor my husband (a calibration student) were acquainted with her. In our after-duty-hours lives, though, picking up mail and so forth, I had passed her many times walking along the WAC Detachment’s company street. Maybe it was the unit patch worn on her right shoulder, designating an assignment to a combat area, that made her so memorable.

My memory jogged, I wondered if the book listed another woman whom I knew had volunteered for duty in Vietnam. I checked the index, and there she was.

Thinking I’d maxed out the coincidences, but curious in a hopeful way, I scanned the index. Altogether, I found nine names I knew. Nine. One of them was the name of my Basic Training company commander. Another name was of an office supervisor, my NCOIC in the permanent party personnel section at Aberdeen. A third worked in the student section of the Personnel complex.

Even more surprising, three of the names I recognized were my barracks-mates at Aberdeen. One woman I shared a cubicle wall with. A second shared a cubicle wall with the woman across from me (and asked me to turn down my record player when I was playing The Doors). The woman across from me was the third.

I was certain, though, that my First Sergeant had also worn a combat patch on the right shoulder of her uniform, so I dug out a group photo of the WAC Detachment and checked the names on the photo against the book’s index. I added three to the count, and one, indeed, was our First Sergeant.

02 WAC Det

I’m looking forward to reading the accounts of all the women who served from the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force.

I’m still surprised that, out of the approximately 1200 military women assigned to units in Vietnam, I knew twelve. Even more amazing (to me) is that about 1/10th of the women in the Aberdeen Proving Ground WAC Detachment from 1969 served in Vietnam.

Old fashioned calling cards

On an email list, a recent topic was business cards, with a diversion into Victorian calling cards. Since the list’s purpose is discussion between authors, and since some of them write historical books, Victorian calling cards is a logical topic.

 

Stuffy women and diplomatic realities

During the discussion, someone mentioned the calling cards of the wives of foreign service officers with the U.S. State Department. That led to a comment about how military wives traditionally called on each other and left calling cards.

That practice must have been only among officers as I don’t remember my mom ever having calling cards (Dad was career Army/Air Force enlisted with a short stint during WWII as a warrant officer), and I know I didn’t have cards (my husband was career Army, also enlisted).

The development of the ritual of calling on other wives may have been due, in part, to older social patterns that hadn’t yet disappeared. I remember my dad saying that when he joined the Army, enlisted men had to live in the barracks, married or not. In the 1930s, the Army still had horse cavalry, even though we now think of the cavalry as only something in the wild, wild West.

1939  Dad on Warwhoop at the Presidio of Monterey.

1939 Dad on Warwhoop at the Presidio of Monterey.

Another possibility is that the social events provided the women with a purpose other than staying home with the kids. Women did work, but in a transient environment, employment can be a tricky business.

Even when I was a kid in the 1950s, some of the moms in the States worked outside the home. Among my civilian relatives my godmother was a nurse and instructor in a teaching hospital. Other aunts who were the wives of farmers stayed very busy with the work of chickens, eggs, gardens, and being the support staff for field workers during harvests.

The problem for wives of military servicemembers was, and is, a restriction on job availability.

I imagine State Department wives had the same difficulty as overseas military wives in not being able to find jobs on the local economy because of language fluency challenges in jobs other than entry-level, local work permits, tax complications, etc. Entry-level jobs may have also been prohibited for wives because of the dissonance of attending State Department functions in a higher social capacity than any low status job could provide. A grocer’s clerk wouldn’t have been seen as a suitable person for shaking the hands of an ambassador.

On overseas military installations, status of forces agreements and treaties required the US to provide X-number of jobs to local nationals as payback to the host nation for allowing the troops to be in the country. Quid pro quo.

For a long time, military family member jobs were of low priority. Even after jobs-for-family-members came to the forefront, any job had to be unsuccessfully offered to local nationals before being advertised to military family members. That was the existing diplomatic environment and it wasn’t about to be negotiated away when the families-in-country were temporary and local workers were permanent.

Recruitment for higher-paying American technical jobs took place in the States among career Civil Service employees and those employees were transferred in and out just like their military colleagues. No wives need apply because they were never in the running.

Teachers in schools for military kids was one area where local hiring did favor family member spouses because of the English-language fluency requirement.

In the States if the wives followed their husbands on assignment after assignment (not everyone did) they would be starting out fresh in new markets every few years. Even if the wives were career Civil Service employees, the location to which the service member was transferred needed to have a job available in the wife’s career field and at her grade-level. One of my jobs was as a GS-02 school playground monitor.  $5.00 an hour. The other playground monitor, and the lunch-room monitor, were the wives of officers.

More than one career Civil Service employee has shown up at the civilian personnel office for her new home, with her job status being in the holding pattern of LWOP — leave without pay. The employees were often under the impression that career-status made them shoo-ins for employment only to find out that the installation not only had no open jobs but the one job for which they were qualified had just been filled. If they still submitted an application, the job would often open up a couple years later, just as they were getting ready to leave for their husbands’ new assignment.

With so few jobs available for so many family members, it’s no surprise that the women developed a social structure in which to function. Installations have only a limited number of jobs especially since the local civilian population is stable. A civilian employee has to die, retire, or move someplace else in order to create a vacancy. For many of the women, volunteering with Scouts, family support organizations, Gray Ladies (Red Cross), chapel activities, and schools took the place of paid work.

Kindley AFB, Bermuda, 1965: Me and my mom with our pre-clip-art, completely homemade poster for Girl Scouts.  No idea why we have snow-capped mountains in the picture. Nostalgia?

Kindley AFB, Bermuda, 1965: Me and my mom with our pre-clip-art, completely homemade poster for Girl Scouts.
No idea why we have snow-capped mountains in the picture. Nostalgia?

With the rise of the Internet and various business opportunities, some wives of military members can have jobs that they can take with them. Tupperware and Avon provided portable jobs in the past. Etsy and eBay — not to mention telecommuting — might be the most common now.

The new calling cards

Social events with rituals such as calling cards probably provided a sanity-saver for women who had to create temporary homes for their families time after time. The formality of coffees, teas, and calling cards mirrored that of the military’s rank structure.

Those ancient Victorians, who are now seen as ridiculously stuffy with their silver tea services, their linen tablecloths, and their china tea sets, did leave a card legacy for their successors. Some of today’s military wives — and the increasingly less-unusual military husbands — do have cards. They have their own business cards.

For the most part, I spare this blog any political outbursts.  The uproar in Texas over the Jade Helm military exercise for 2015 changed that.

As any reader of this blog may have gathered, I’m “military,” although I haven’t served on active duty since the late-1960s. Despite the span of time since then, my “people” are “the military.” I was born in an Air Force hospital to a former WAC and my dad didn’t retire from the Air Force until two years before I joined the Army myself, which was about four years before my brother joined the Navy, and about six years before my sister joined the Air Force. For us, “the military” was the family business.

I served on active duty and married another soldier whose career with the Army didn’t end until 1999. I knew about civilian activities, of course, but the important stuff (pay, housing, kids’ schools, where I bought food, most of my friends) was all “military.” When I was 50, I was living at my 50th change of address, a coincidence which is oddly satisfying.

Because of this background, when someone starts making charges about the danger of “the military,” I perk up. It’s like when someone from a rival school badmouths a teacher you don’t even like.  You can crab and complain about Coach Hatchetface, but you don’t like it when a rival does.

Usually my bristling about uninformed complaints about “the military” fades, but when the charges are about how “the military” is going to start rounding up civilians and locking them in WalMarts (seriously?!?) — and a governor says he’ll send state troops to keep an eye on the federal ones — then the smack-talking is out of control.

Yes, crap happens concerning “the military.” Statistically, it can’t help but happen, especially in such a large organization. Sometimes, the reports about crap happening are accurate and the crap gets fixed (so we hope). Sometimes the reports have kernels of truth surrounded by embellishment and the incident goes back and forth for a while. This time, concerning the Jade Helm exercise, the reports are off-the-rails nuts from people who seem to be actually believing their own propaganda and not just posturing politically.

Yes, I’ve read rational explanations about why some of the people who will be near the exercises are concerned:

  • worry about property damage or poor fire safety precautions
  • worry about noise
  • worry about gates being left open (presumably near livestock)

Those are normal, reasonable concerns. They’re the same ones that West German farmers and landowners had (click on PDF URL; see top of document-page 2) concerning Reforger (REturn of FORces to GERmany — and watch out for Fogarty blasting from that site), an annual joint military exercise in Europe during the Cold War that was sometimes referred to as Autumn Forge.

But the wild-eyed fears about Jade Helm aren’t about reasonable concerns. The fears around Jade Helm are about some kind of invasion of Texas by the same servicemembers that we’ve spent the last decade or so applauding and telling how much we appreciate their service. Everyone goes dewey-eyed over servicemembers walking through airports, but, apparently, God forbid those same servicemembers stop and hang around for a while.

Another training situation besides Reforger used to involve “Trigon Circle.” Catchy name, no?

Trigon Circle was the name for the aggressor-force during war games used for training. The unit of currency used as a prop was called the “fralmato.” Really. This 50 fralmato ‘bill’ is our sole souvenir of my husband’s Trigon Circle days.

Fifty fralmatos. The  really poor-quality photocopy picture on the reverse was of "Comrade Marya."

Fifty fralmatos. The really poor-quality photocopy picture on the reverse was of “Comrade Marya.”

 

The Circle Trigonists (Aggressors)

These Field Manuals offer the aspiring alt-hist writer a treasure trove of information on a totalitarian state’s military circa 1947-1959, with detailed descriptions of tables of organization, ranks, medals, divisional histories, and doctrine.

All this was to support the U.S. Army’s Aggressor Force (aka Manouver Enemy) which was an asymmetrical opponent training program that ran from November 1946 to 1978, when the Circle Trigonists were retired in favor of an openly Soviet-Style OPFOR known as the Krasnovians.

One of the most memorable Trigonist operations was Operation LONGHORN in March/April 1952, when Lampasas County, Texas was used to stage a huge mock battle between the Aggressor Forces played by the 82nd Airborne and liberating US Forces played by units from nearby Fort Hood.

[see page for other links, plus photographs of the exercise from Life magazine]

 Hell, as far as “the military” loving field training exercises goes, I remember at Ellsworth AFB when I was five that the entire housing area was evacuated as a drill. After the alert sirens went off, the dads stayed at their duty stations while the moms loaded all us kids into cars and drove into the Black Hills where we stayed all day. We now know that this would have been completely irrelevant to any survival of a nuclear attack, but in the mid-1950s it was considered a strategy. That drill was a mess — can you imagine an entire housing area worth of babies and kids loose in the woods without anything constructive to do and only some outhouses and a few picnic tables? Those poor moms.

The evacuation drill was never repeated.

In the spirit of people learning from their mistakes, I hope this nutsy-cuckoo reaction to Jade Helm is never repeated, either.

The upshot of this blog post is that military exercises are nothing new.  My dad recounted stories of his cavalry troop riding their horses around the hills around Monterey, California and Fort Ord, probably the last of the horse cavalry in the late-1930s.

 

1939  Dad on Warwhoop at the Presidio of Monterey.

1939 Dad on Warwhoop at the Presidio of Monterey.

 

These exercises are what the taxpayers pay “the military” to do when “the military” isn’t actively fighting. It’s not all peeling potatoes and painting rocks. The work done during these exercises is how skills stay sharp. It’s how new techniques are integrated into what servicemembers already know. It’s how new equipment is tested.

If you want to read a thorough, if profane, explanation by someone who speaks in the voice of my people of why the nonsense-hyperventilation about Jade Helm is irresponsible pot-stirring,  hop over to Stonekettle Station. I can’t improve on Mr. Wright’s rant.

Today’s blog-topic came up because I saw a query on an email list for tips on leash-training a cat. Our family has had many cats, but only some of them have been leash-trained.

The first cat we walked on a leash, Screech, seemed happy enough to do so because it got her out of the car during the rest stops we took while driving over Christmas vacation from the east coast to Missouri and back. My husband and I were young, and lucky, and didn’t realize that most cats would rather lie immobile, perhaps until forever, rather than walk while wearing a harness. Screech didn’t object either to the harness or to being walked while we stopped at a rest area along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Screech was a trooper.

My husband and Screech, taking in the Pennsylvania Turnpike in December.

My husband and Screech, taking in the Pennsylvania Turnpike in December.

The second cat we had that we leash-trained, Pippin, took to it as if he’d been born to walk on a leash. It helped that Pippin loved traveling in the car and he associated the leash with going on car rides. Again, we lucked out.

 

Me and Pippin near the border between West and East Germany.

Me and Pippin near the border between West and East Germany.

 

[The above photo will look odd to military personnel who were stationed in Germany before 1989.  Part of my husband’s job at the time, though, was to keep an eye on changes along the border while not looking like a soldier.  Odd, but that was the way it was. With Pippin, he definitely didn’t look like an American soldier.]

Pippin’s ‘sister,’ Merrie, apparently took her cue from her older ‘brother’ and tolerated the harness-and-leash setup. (yes, that’s a Lord of the Rings theme going on there with the cat names) The leash-training was probably easy because Merrie was a tiny kitten when she joined the household. Harness-wearing was something she grew up with.

Pippin meeting Merrie

Pippin meeting Merrie

After the death of Pippin (the old guy made it to 19) Dinah joined the household. Dinah was a stinker, an adorable stinker, but a stinker nonetheless. Like Merrie, Dinah was introduced to harness-wearing when she was a kitten. Both Merrie (18) and Dinah (just missed 20) have joined Pippin.

Our daughters at a motel in South Dakota.  Merrie is behaving herself, as she usually did, but Dinah is being a rascal and trying to get down.

Our daughters at a motel in South Dakota. Merrie is behaving herself, as she usually did, but Dinah is being a rascal and trying to get down.

Dinah, probably scheming.

Dinah, probably scheming.

Dinah’s ‘siblings,’ Foofie and Pudding, were adult strays when they came to us. They didn’t appreciate harnesses.

Foofy, our white cat, after rolling in the dirt. That's what outdoor cats do.

Foofy, our white cat, after rolling in the dirt. That’s what outdoor cats do.

 

Pudding, the junk yard thug.

Pudding, the junk yard thug.

The current crop of cat-friends–mama Minka with her youngsters Rusty, and Audrey–don’t wear leashes, probably because we aren’t traveling with them. Our previous cats all joined the family during my husband’s military career and traveled with us in the United States as well as in Europe. Now that we’re a retiree family, no one is going to show up at the house with cardboard boxes and pack away everything to take all of it somewhere else, so the cats have no need to travel. They occasionally mosey out into the back yard, but that’s about it for their vacationing. One of our daughters is a veterinarian so even their health care (so far) comes to them.

Minka

Minka

Rusty

Rusty

Audrey

Audrey

I wish I had some useful tips about leash-training cats rather than just pictures, but other than starting them off with the harness as kittens, I think a lot has to do with the cat’s temperament. That and luck. Lots and lots of luck.

Bye, Baby Bunting, daddy’s gone a hunting.
To get a little rabbit skin, to wrap his Baby Bunting in.

This lullaby, surprisingly, has many elements of a current nine-day-wonder, the controversy around the picture of little Landon Clevenger suspended in the flag of the United States by his sailor father. The lullaby has the baby, the daddy, daddy’s “hunting” (his military job), the container for the baby, and wrapping up the baby.

One not-so-obvious element, at least not to modern ears, is the bunting. In the lullaby, it is a wrap for a baby. In patriotic parlance, it is the red, white, and blue material used decoratively. The entire controversy could have been avoided had the baby been suspended in bunting.

But that didn’t happen.

What did happen was that, apparently, the person behind a now-removed Facebook page commented negatively on the photo and that drew in many defenders.

To sum up many of the complaints about the complaint:

Yes, a federal law governs the use of the flag. Chapter 1 of Title 4 of the United States Code.  The law is not merely guidelines.

Yes, there are many violations of that code, but, to quote Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes, “The law is on the books, but it would take all their resources to enforce it.”  This is why we’ve wound up with stars and stripes bikinis, flag napkins, flag clothing, and flag anything else. This particular law depends on a populace that respects this law enough not to violate it.

Yes, the sailor has rendered service to the country. Despite that, if I informed my Drill and Ceremonies instructor in Army Basic Training that I was able to use the flag of the United States for my own purposes because I’d enlisted — freedom of speech — I can just hear her asking me who I thought I was. Then I’d have been on my hands and knees for a day, scraping up floor wax with a razor blade (a more useful activity than pushups).  A Navy-version of flag etiquette is provided at Navy for Moms .com  Flag etiquette, sailors and women

Yes, the Supreme Court has ruled that disrespect of the flag of the United States is protected speech. But even that ruling was not unanimous.

Writing for the dissent, Justice Stevens argued that the flag’s unique status as a symbol of national unity outweighed ‘symbolic speech’ concerns, and thus, the government could lawfully prohibit flag burning.

Yes, the photograph contains much symbolism.

a. From birth Americans are wrapped in (whatever imagery you apply to the flag)
b. Fathers are strong protectors of babies.
c. Military men are hot dads (those strong protectors).
d. Family pride
e. That military service members are protecting the country for future generations.
f. Hope for future generations.
g. The child’s involuntary sacrifice of a parent being away from home.

The symbolism acknowledged, I read the dissent by Justice Stevens as meaning that the flag belongs to all of us, not to each of us. As people who respect the meaning of the flag, if we want to set a good example, following the law would be a good place to start.

Yes, protesters exercising their First Amendment rights have used the flag disrespectfully for their own purposes: To quote a commenter from somewhere on the Internet: “If we have the freedom to burn it, we have the freedom to wrap our babies in it.”  Is the worst example of free-speech usage of the flag — burning it in protest — the example we ought to use? Is this what we strive for?

A “troll” commenter made the example of the inappropriateness of the image: “It would look cuter with a cat.”

If substituting another object for the baby, would the image still be appropriate? This freedom-hating-Pharisee who is an Obama-loving keyboard-warrior (I think those were all the slurs I attracted elsewhere) doesn’t think so.

I don’t think the Old Guard would agree, either.

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