Nothing could have prepared me for this one, but I braced myself and pushed on with the rest of them. We quickly stretched our rubbery gas masks down over our heads. I ignored my throbbing pulse, which was a for sure warning sign of the danger I’d face up ahead. I could barely breathe and was already beginning to choke.
I quickly placed my hand over my mouthpiece gently and I blew into it. I then inhaled as much as I possibly could and I felt the suction of my snug mask nuzzling my face. I could only hope that my mask would protect me.
We marched forward into the dark and gloomy chamber, one after the other. The inside of my stomach felt like I was standing at the tippy top of a giant roller coaster as we moved along in our single file line. We entered the confinement slowly.
“Hurry up and move down!”
Her mask barely muffled her loud voice.
“Up against the goddamn wall!”
I heard him shout from behind me.
Inside, I could see a flickering orange light as I ambled forward along the dark wall. I immediately became overheated and that made me panic. The temperature inside the gas chamber felt like a sauna. It felt like my skin was on fire underneath my vest. I couldn’t breathe, but I had to keep moving along in silence. I knew there had to have been oxygen somewhere in the chamber in order for a fire to be flickering, but I couldn’t seem to inhale any of it. Even though I’d tried sealing my gas mask just the way I’d been taught, I knew it wasn’t sealed because I wanted to cough up a lung. I was choking on my own saliva while everyone else appeared to be breathing just fine. I moved my hands to my thyroid and tried to clear my throat, but that only made it worse.
I realized he was peering at me. He could see me suffering. So I pulled my hand down, turned my head forward and continued shuffling down the line like everyone else. I tried placing my palm over my mouthpiece again and I managed to muster up a gag before my lungs gave out. He kept his eye on me and I tried to keep my cool.
Somebody help me, I thought. They’re trying to kill me! My upper body remained stiff as I moved my legs along the pebbled dirt. I came to a halt at my buddy Chapman’s side. They’d packed us in here tight, like sardines in a can. My heart began to pound slightly harder as I stood still dripping sweat. The metal trashcan that held a steady flame reminded me of eternity. Everyone around me appeared like aliens in their black masks.
I faced forward and stood in line, just waiting to get out. My eyes dripped tears as I observed my battle buddy. She was a soft female like me, yet she was much friendlier than me. Her eyes were full of tears too and that made me feel a little better. She’d been the most supportive of me since I’d been in training. I figured it wasn’t our fault we didn’t know how to seal our gas masks properly. It was their lack of thoroughly training us. I wasn’t alone.
As my mind drifted, I thought about the price that some of us would have to pay for our freedom. Then my mind recollected clips from a historical documentary I’d once saw. I remembered watching horrifying clips of nearly 100 men and women, stripped completely naked and placed inside a gas chamber. Oh God! What if I become a prisoner of war? I asked myself. Don’t imagine it. As I stood in the chamber waiting for the instructors to let us out, I had to ask myself how I’d ended up in this predicament in the first place.
It all began my very first semester at Hampton University as an undergraduate student. I was a psych major, who actually enjoyed the coursework. Psychology was interesting to me. I maintained over twelve credit hours and I held a job. I had no choice in the matter. I needed an income to pay for things such as flights back home, car insurance, gas, and other discretionary expenses. I worked part-time as a sales associate at the local mall. Yet, my sales position provided me with only minimum wages. Financial aid and student loans provided me with on-campus housing and facilities.
However, after I got off work, the cafeteria was usually closed. I hated living on campus. I wanted my own apartment and a kitchen to cook my own meals whenever I felt like it. Either way, I barely had time to eat. My life began to function around my job, classes and school schedule.
One morning, I marched myself down to the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) building on the far end of campus nearer to the lake. As I walked through the uneven fluorescent hallway, I glanced around at all the trophies and honorary placards against the old rickety building walls. Every last one of the office doors held an embroidered bronze title that provided the rank, last name, and position of each U.S. Army official in the building.
I moseyed on down to the office of (SFC) Sergeant First Class Blu. The door remained slightly opened, but I still extended my arm to knock on the frosted glass square. I couldn’t believe I was actually going through with this. I peered inside the office and I noticed a woman dressed in a freshly creased army green uniform. The golden-haired, slender woman turned around in her grand leather chair to acknowledge me outside her door.
“Come on in!” she announced.
I maneuvered myself into the office and walked over to her desk.
“Good Morning! Are you Sergeant First Class Blu? I’m interested in joining the military.” I greeted her.
“Well, good morning to you too.” She replied.
She rose to her feet and extended her hand.
“I’m Carolina Blu.” She introduced.
“Sweet name! I’m Brenda McCoy. It’s nice to finally meet you!”
I shook her hand and felt her loose grip and soft touch. She’s military? Her gentle hands were just as small as mine. Her skin displayed a caramel complexion and her oval face complemented her slim figure.
“Everyone’s been telling me to come by and see you if I want to join the service. They all said you’re the one to go to because you’ll get me in.” I replied, as I stood over her desk.
She smiled at me and then she glared down at the stack of papers, nearly six inches high on her desk. She then peered back up at me with an undefined expression.
“Have a seat,” she finally told me.
She slid the stack aside on her desk as I took a seat in the big, cushy leather chair across from her. She was definitely not the recruiter I was expecting to meet. I assumed she would be stern and militant, but I guess I was wrong. She didn’t even introduce herself as a sergeant.
As we began to converse, the first thing I acknowledged was her upright demeanor.
“Soo, young lady!” she continued in her motherly tone.
I sat up straight and then I leaned forward in my seat.
“What made you decide you wanted to join the army?” she asked.
“Why army?” she emphasized, with a shrug of her shoulders and a raised eyebrow.
“Well, I don’t know. I’m not really sure how to put it into words.” I replied.
“Are you sure you don’t know? You seem so . . . determined.”
I hadn’t thought about what I’d tell the recruiter if they asked me that question and I realized right then that I should’ve already known the answer. I didn’t know what would make this recruiter believe I could actually be a soldier in the U.S. Army at a time of war, but I had to come up with something.
“I just wanna do something different with my life,” I explained.
“I see that the military gettin’ paid. I mean, I would join any of the branches, really. I just need something else going for myself. I’m not convinced that school is the only way to gain knowledge. I mean, I been going to school all my life. I want to know what I could potentially get out of the service. I see y’all have opportunities for people. Soo . . . where do I sign?” I asked her.
She gazed at me curiously for a moment, like she was trying to get a feel for who I was. I gave her a straight face to let her know I was serious. The truth of the matter was that I didn’t know anything about the military and I wasn’t planning on learning about it by asking questions. My main focus wasn’t even the military. I only wanted to make changes in my life. I needed to transform myself into an experienced adult rather than remain an imaginative child. I figured I could pull myself through the military in order to fund my college education and somehow I’d find the time to complete the classes.
The armed forces were everywhere on the southeastern tip of Virginia. I noticed that the minute I arrived. Military installations surrounded Virginia Beach and the Chesapeake Bay while cadet police roamed the streets and maintained civilization. The Norfolk naval base fostered sailors who lived, partied and made pre-deployment babies. The traditional ole American spirit thrived. Everyone I knew in the service was able to make a nice living and they were respectfully employed during our nation’s economic recession. Yet, I was just beginning to learn how to be independent.
My mother expected me to graduate from college, land a promising career and make good money. However, I couldn’t see it. I didn’t have faith in the idea that college would grant me the knowledge of survival in the world. It just wasn’t books and classes.
Since I was in a new place, I had the opportunity to break away from what everyone else wanted me to do with my life and find out what this world had to offer me. I was certain that I knew who I was, but I wasn’t sure about anything else. I had to find my place outside of school. Although I had a little sales job at the mall, I wasn’t interested in making that a career. That wasn’t at all a new experience.
The military, on the other hand, was new to me. Becoming a service member would ensure that I was trained in a profession. It would provide me with the financial support I needed and ensure I lived a healthy lifestyle. Everyone seemed to respect the service members. So, I figured I would just wing it. When I saw Sergeant Blu’s baffled expression transform into a smile, I knew right then she’d recruit me.
It was my little secret. I hadn’t told anyone I was joining the service and after several weeks of anticipation, I was ready to push forward. Sergeant Blu did her best to guide me with pointers on what to expect from the initial training. I felt like I had enough knowledge to pass an ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) exam and I was ready to get on with it. If I didn’t know everything that was on the test, I doubted that I was going to learn it in a month. I already had my first semester of coursework to complete. So, I didn’t even bother studying for it. Instead, I let all of my professors know I had a set date to enlist in the military. Since the semester was so close to an end, every last one of my professors cooperatively accommodated me with an accelerated curriculum. I wasn’t surprised that my professors were lenient about adjusting my workload. The university provided ROTC programs for both the navy and the army. The armed forces were everywhere in the Tidewater community of Virginia. Military installations surrounded Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
When we arrived at MEPS (Military Enlistment Processing Station) I sat in the waiting area where all the recruiters dropped off their new recruits. After spending some time alone with the other prospective service members I began to feel unsure of myself. Mostly, all of them were either a part of a military family or they were knowledgeable of the military culture. So, I remained silent and continued listening to their conversations. They all introduced themselves and asked each other which branch of service they wanted to join, as if that were the most prominent question. They took pride in saying they would serve in the army, the navy or the Marine Corps. They spoke about their efforts in trying to become eligible for the service. Some of them had to lose weight, some had to improve their run time and others had to get a medical clearance. There were also some who just had to wait until they were old enough to join. They shared an admiration for their friends and family members who served in the Operation for Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Many of them knew the names and addresses of camps and FOBs where they’d sent handwritten letters and holiday cards. I could hear the new recruits talking about their goals of becoming NCOs, drill sergeants, air assault troopers and airborne rangers. I listened to them use terms like: tanker, M-16, and unarmed combat. They only reminded me of what I already knew. I didn’t know anything about the military, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from joining.
Soon enough, we were relocated into a classroom setting. We were each distributed a pencil, scrap paper, and a test. The ASVAB consisted of multiple-choice questions in the areas of general science, mathematics, electronics, mechanics, word knowledge and so forth. The timeframe for the test was broken up into two, one and a half hour periods. Therefore, we were allotted three hours in all to finish the test.
We all anticipated our test results as we sat in the waiting area again. I felt confident after I’d taken the test. I’d never heard of anyone previously failing the ASVAB test, so I didn’t worry. A few of us at a time spoke privately with our recruiters. As each of them returned to the waiting area, I listened to them talking about their results. I heard them boasting about their high scores and complaining that the exam wasn’t complex enough. I thought the exam was fairly comprehensive and hearing them talking like that caused me to doubt myself. Yet, I figured most of them were probably lying to be perceived as intelligent.
Just moments later, Sergeant Blu retrieved me from the waiting room and we crossed into the corridor. She slipped a sheet of paper out of a large manila envelope and she held it where I could see it. There were various numbers aligned next to coded words. I examined the paper not knowing how to read my results. She held it between us and pointed to numbers in certain boxes as she explained. She then congratulated me.
It took a few hours before I finally linked back up with my recruiter again. My recruiter and I settled down at the desk of a contracted civilian administrator. He spoke to us as he sat in front of his computer clicking away at the buttons on his keyboard. He revealed to us that I was being awarded human resources as an occupation specialty upon enlistment into the armed services. My ‘package’ also came with an enlistment bonus of six thousand dollars. Sergeant Blu became excited as she insisted to me that I’d scored fairly well in certain areas. I didn’t care much about my score or the money, but I was happy about the profession that I could potentially build into a career. For me, the human resource specialist occupation was doable. I signed the contract to join the army at MEPS just a couple of days before I turned nineteen years old.
“You did what!” my mother shouted through the phone.
I eased my cell away from my ear as I stood on the steps of DuBois Hall.
“They only want you to fight in this war! The military could be the death of you! Didn’t you even take the time to think about it?” Joye asked me.
I silently listened while internally screaming.
“You’re not cut out for it, baby girl!”
“Thanks a lot, ma,” I said, sarcastically.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“I don’t know. I gotta call you later.” I said, disappointedly.
Yet, I couldn’t hang up on my mother and disrespect her. She made me listen to her sigh of exhaustion, the same one that she’d always given me whenever I worried her.
“Bye, Bren.” Joye finally replied, before hanging up the phone.
The sky above was clear, but my mind became cloudy. I took a seat on the red brick platform near the bushes almost in tears. Of course, my mother wouldn’t support my decision to join the military. I’m her youngest daughter and I was supposed to be the smart one. My face grew hot with anger and I held my breath as if that would stop my tears from falling. Despite my efforts to stop crying, the floodgates burst open and I began to wail.
I sat there, discouraged. How am I supposed to survive? I wanted to graduate from college, but I couldn’t afford it. There was nothing my family could do to help me out. They couldn’t afford it either. My family wasn’t the only family who felt the economic decline of the nation. The mass population was experiencing the effects of the recession too. I didn’t really want to join the military, but I was running out of options. I didn’t know how I would stay afloat. I sat there and pondered over the hasty decision I’d already made.
I glanced over toward the front entrance of the dorms where I heard my name called. It was my friend Zonnique who came walking over toward me.
“How ar-re yah now?” she greeted.
Zonnique lived next door to my roommate and me. She had very rich dark skin and long blond dreadlocks that dangled at her backside. She was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica and she’d recently become a U.S. citizen. She’d grown up in Queens, New York and she took pride in her Jamaican American heritage.
“Oh, I’m fine.”
“Yah don’t look it. Guah, tell meh wut tis goin’ on?” Zonnique questioned.
She stood on the concrete stairs and dusted off her expensive basketball shoes as I sat on the brick platform, trying not to appear stressed out.
“I’m good.” I lied.
She peered at me with her head slightly tilted to the side. She gave me the expression that meant, she knew better than that.
“Yeah, well . . .” I began to explain.
“I’m about to join the service.”
“Ar-re yah now? Tis great! Wut branch?” she asked.
“The army,” I said.
“Yeah, mon! Proud of yah! We still at war, guah!”
“My mom just reminded me of that.”
“Yah cohome back in one piece, ya ’ere me now?”
“My recruiter says I might not even have to go over.”
Zonnique glared at me as if she didn’t know whether she wanted to scold me or laugh at me.
“Bren,” she said, looking at me sternly.
“Yah go over!”
“Well . . . ” I began, not sure of what to say.
“Listen ta meh now, dey need dem boots on ground.” She insisted.
“What you know about the military?” I asked.
“Meh pah an meh unkal served tis country an dey earn der rights!” she declared.
I let out a deep sigh as I listened to her.
“Cohome to eat someting wit’ meh?” she asked.
I slightly shook my head up and down in agreement and I quickly rose from the platform.
“Yeah, well? I guess I’ll be going over.” I said, shrugging my shoulders as we trotted leisurely down the stairs.
“Zee, I just need to survive. You feel me? I’m just trying to stay afloat while I’m so far away from my family.” I explained.
“Yah doin’ good. Meh roommate es makin’ ’er money dat ought to be illegal,” Zonnique told me.
She paused for a brief moment, glaring at me with a straight face.
“Strippin’!” she revealed.
“Takin’ off hah clothes foah money, yeah! ‘Tis sad! Meh know, es er’ recession out ’ere, but women got-ta be more valuable den dat. A’least you don’t do dose tings.”
“I know, right?” I agreed.
“Ders got ta be a bet-der way!” she added.
The start of in processing wasn’t difficult. In the pitch-dark morning at four am, I awoke to the sound of the alarm on my cell phone. Once up, I turned on the light at the nightstand and got out of bed feeling nauseous. Despite the way I felt, I quickly slipped into the same clothes I’d worn the previous day.
Outside, we gathered around and took turns shoveling our belongings under the blue and white tour bus. The bus driver was an old guy who sat in his proper place at the wheel and appeared exceedingly pale. I acknowledged him the very second he opened the flapping tour bus doors. He was an overweight, hunchback man with long white nostrils hairs that stood out on his face. I moved past him without the slightest hello or good morning. I moved straight to the back of the bus out of habit and also because the heater was located back there. Without my jacket, that was the best way for me to remain warm during the ride.
I snagged a window seat one row up from the very back of the bus. A short Spanish looking guy first said hello to me and he then asked if he could sit beside me. I told him that it was fine and he took a seat. Once everyone loaded onto the bus the driver skirted off down the street in a hurry.
The bus jerked to a halt. I awoke and looked outside the window. We’d arrived in the middle of what appeared to be nowhere. There was absolutely nothing in sight, but a plain brick building with an orange shining light projecting from it. Yet, I could see figures in the distance moving toward our bus.
“Get the hell off my bus!!” the driver suddenly shouted at the top of his lungs.
We all began moving quickly. The driver continued shouting over and over as we all tried to make our way off the bus by the narrow walkway. He hollered and hollered until we began moving even faster. We moved in an orderly fashion, without bumping into each other, as if we’d practiced it already. The driver continued shouting the same phrase, over and over until the very last of us marched off the bus. Luckily, we had it together.
The minute I stepped past the open partition of the tour bus, the heat hit me. It was so humid outside that I felt like I was slightly suffocating. The smell wasn’t fresh, but rather stale and musty. The sergeants had already opened the storage compartment underneath the bus and pushed out all of our belongings into the dirt. We had a few seconds to grab our suitcases and personal items. The sergeants explained nothing to us. They only commanded us into a single file line facing the building. Like ants, we gathered into an organized segment right outside the door.
The yellow fluorescent lights were extremely bright on the inside of the building. The further I inched into the doorway, the more I could see us recruits sitting on the floor in grey fatigues. I overheard the sergeant’s command us to throw out any contraband. This was any items such as lighters, cigarettes, alcohol, and any sharp objects we possessed.
I could finally see the toiletless stalls to my right. I knew that’s where we’d take off all our clothes, including our underwear, and redress into the gray fatigues they provided us. There were only four stalls. So, it was one recruit in after the other one came out.
Once I arrived at the front of the line a black haired woman soldier referred to me as ‘you’. She looked to be some type of Hispanic. However, mixed ethnicity and cultures populated us. Therefore, I couldn’t pinpoint her. I just knew how she appeared to me. She couldn’t have been older than twenty-eight, yet she held a stern expression on her fresh face.
“Get over here!” she yelled at me, pointing down in front of her.
Before I could get close enough, she threw a stack of clothes at my chest and I forgot to catch it. I wasn’t ready. Two of the women soldiers quickly began yelling at me to retrieve it from the floor. I sluggishly maneuvered to pick up the sweat suit and the black haired Hispanic looking soldier progressed toward me and shouted, ‘hurry up!’ in my ear. After picking up the sweat suit I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to make the wrong move, so I waited for a command before making another move.
Finally, she stepped back, grabbed another bundle of clothes and scribbled something on her clipboard. I watched as the other soldiers yelled at the recruits who’d just come out the stalls. They were to dump their belongings on the floor.
The Hispanic looking one only glared at me as if I’d done something wrong. I stood there without moving for nearly two minutes. Then a guy came hurrying out of one of the stalls. The woman soldier shouted for me to get inside the stall. I grabbed my suitcase to wheel it along with me.
“Pick it up and carry it!” shouted one of the male sergeants.
I scooped up my suitcase and smothered it against my chest with my packaged fatigues. The soldiers provided us three minutes to strip down and redress. After stripping down and re-clothing, I exited the stall with my other clothes in hand.
I was forced into a corner and told to dump out everything from my suitcase. The other recruits who’d just exited the stalls were doing the same as me, picking through our backpacks, duffle bags, suitcases and fanny packs.
The soldiers paced back and forth watching us pick through our stuff. They kicked around our personal belongings if it rolled in their path and if they didn’t kick it, then they deliberately stomped it. Then they carried on about their business like they did nothing wrong.
We had to turn in our cell phones. They were to be placed in an envelope and mailed back home. We watched as our valuables were enveloped, sealed and confiscated. We were to sign away our belongings on a sheet of paper. The form served as some kind of documented agreement that was never explained to us.
Soon after, they yelled at us to get back on the same bus and once we were all filed on again the driver transported us for nearly two hours through unfamiliar territory.
Once we came to a stop the bus driver yelled for us to get the hell off his bus again. I rushed off the same bus for the second time carrying two featherweight duffle bags, one in front of me and one on my back.
Bugs and pollen flew around in the wind and only a few clouds lay up above us. Ample pine and palmetto trees surrounded the base while the fresh sent of greenery lingered about in the air. As the chaotic atmosphere moved out of control, I took the time to take in another deep breath. That was my very first introduction to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina.