“Um…Excuse me?” the Captain walks up and asks.
He’s going to look at my rank. That’s always the first place the highers check so they can gauge their actions. The military is the last known caste system in the United States. And I am the unclean.
“Specialist.” He found it. And now his resolve is strengthened. No longer unsure of his status in this exchange, he gains confidence at clearly being my superior. “Can you tell me what room the Foreign Affairs class is located in?”
I check the class roster on my desk. He tries to lean over to get a peek at my list. The desk has a barrier to keep his command eyes and command stench from wafting into my area.
I find his class on the list. “Room 314 Alpha.” I add more instruction. There is nothing more annoying than being bothered again two minutes later by an embarrassed officer asking for further guidance. “Take the elevator—" I point to it. You can never be too sure with these yahoos “—go to the third floor.”
Already he’s giving me the uh-huh with the blank stare. Bad sign. People come to my desk always ready to ask questions but never prepared to receive answers.
“Take a left. It will be fourteen doors down. Can’t miss it.”
The Captain gives me the eyeball and moves out. He wants to say an eloquently cutting remark but must juggle his busy schedule with his need to validate his command status to someone as worthless as me. He doesn’t bother. He walks to the elevator and leaves. One more happy customer. The ballbuster is he would have gotten lost without my directions.
There is a map of the entire building, all four levels, on the wall beside my desk. There are maps in every hallway of this building. Yet people still come to me, asking for directions, as if they don’t have time to read a map. No wonder we’re stuck in Iraq, everyone wants the easy answer.
I work the security desk at the SOAF building. I know, I know, it’s an acronym. What can I say? The Army loves acronyms. But SOAF is easier to say than the Special Operations Academic Facility. This is where the Green Berets go to school to learn their job and a foreign language.
No, I haven’t seen Rambo in the halls. People don’t go to class with gulley suits on while low crawling down the hallway shouting, “All Clear!”
Think of the SOAF as a college building full of students going to and from class all day long. Except instead of college kids, the students are soldiers. Yes, they have backpacks.
My job, working the SOAF desk, is not a job you can sign up for. This is not one of those 212 ways to be a soldier in the United States Army. This job, though easy, is tougher to get than one thinks. I am ranked as a Specialist in the Army which essentially means I’m at the top of the food chain for bottom feeders. I have reached the glass ceiling of minion-hood.
If I become any higher ranked, I’ll be in charge of other personnel. Up one more rung in the ladder, and I become a Sergeant. But who really wants that kind of responsibility?
I am also an OT. Another acronym, welcome to the world of the military lingo. OT means I’m out of training. This Special Operations Academic Facility that I am currently guarding, yea, I’m supposed to be taking a class here right now. But I’m not. I’m sitting behind this help desk, forced to watch my former classmates enter and leave.
Oh great. Here comes someone else with a confused look. It’s funny how people twirl around like a ballerina when they’re lost. They think that by spinning they can unclutter their brains and finally navigate the building. Unfortunately, a centrifugal force isn’t the answer.
“Is this the Special Operations Academic building?”
“Yes, it is,” I answer. I like the look of him, plus he’s a private. Lower ranked than even me. “How can I help you?”
“I have some paperwork for Mr. Bevels.” Mr. Bevels is the building manager.
“Take the elevator.” I point to it. You can never be too careful. “Top floor, his office is on the right.”
“Thank you,” he says.
“You bet,” I answer.
This is my seventh month at the job. I’m pretty proficient at its intricacies. I have video cameras on the corner of my desk. I can see all the entrances and exits and loading docks in the back. I never watch them. They’re in black and white. Not even my grandparents watch TV in black and white.
The threat level dictates the number of security guards we have here. There have been a few times we’ve actually manned the booths outside and checked IDs upon entering. It’s amazing how pissed off people get when they have to show their ID and they don’t have it. Never mind that the rules require you to have Identification on your person at all times. There’s always a few students who wave a photo ID of a clown or a dead celebrity, like Elvis, and walk right past you. They’re the same cocksuckers who later come inside to tell me a guard let them in after they waved an imposter ID. They act like we’re protecting their life. I tell the Elvis imposter to find something more substantial to do than pretend he’s someone else.
It’s mid day. I would love to take a nap right now, but that would be unprofessional. So I pull out a crossword puzzle and begin. My comrades are over in Iraq fighting a losing war. I wage a different struggle with the same results on page 43, 12 across. Five letter word and the hint is talisman. I am the George Bush of crosswords. Clueless.
I don’t look at the papers. I may feel guilty, and the only thing worse would be if I didn’t. I think that may completely shatter my self-image. I have a cush job. There is no doubt about that. It came with a price. The price of disappointment. I paid the price with the credit card of realization. My bill said, “Life isn’t fair.”
That’s why I got this job. Because life isn’t fair. I am part of a statistic. Yes, I am a part of the 48% of the Army who has not deployed into a hostile zone. And do you want to know why? Because life isn’t fair. If it was fair, guys on their second or third deployment would have my job. No, in this country, we stick it to the people who volunteer.
You want to volunteer for the Army? Fuck you, and here’s another year of deployment added onto your contract. Stoplossed—you have no choice. And you wonder why credit card companies can change your billing without notifying you. Because the government can.
I don’t hold it against myself. I enjoy things one day at a time.
I tried out for the Special Forces. I was what they called an 18 X-Ray. It was an enlistment option that guaranteed me the right to try to become a Green Beret but not the right to be one. That had to be earned, or at least that’s what my recruiter told me.
It was OK, though. I had played millions of hours of Ghost Recon and Call of Duty 3. I was prepared to stealthily stalk my pixilated victim from behind and slit their throat. I could snipe an enemy from long range with a variety of weapons ranging from the AK-47 to M203 Grenade launcher. There was no mission I could not handle. At least in the video game.
I weighed my options. Do I become an Army Green Beret (and have my own song), a Navy Seal (and do a lot of diving), or Marine Force Recon (and land on beaches with boats)? I had to carefully weigh my options and the associated prestige. What did I want to be known as a “former” of? The former members of these fine professions are the object of awe. No Dr. or Mr. proceeding, but immediately following the name comes “he used to be in Special Forces.” A knowing nod and awe comes from the recipient of such classified knowledge. And every time they see the former spook, they try to ferret out dark black secrets of government intrigue or behind the scenes info, or if that part in Tom Clancy’s novel could really happen.
In the end I came to an obvious conclusion. Rambo could kick Steven Segal’s, Charlie Sheen’s, and Jon Cena’s combined asses.
That’s the phone. In addition to keeping the building safe and everyone directed to the proper spot, I also have one more penultimate task.
I must answer the phone. If I don’t, who will? If no one is on my end of the receiver to verbally answer the caller’s question, then all hell breaks loose. The caller would be unable to reach anyone and thus assume the building was devoid of security. If the building is devoid of security, then there are no students. If there are no students then there are fraudulent expenditures of the defense departments and budgets (and coincidently no more Green Berets are being trained). Someone contact the President and let’s get a handle on this thing!
“SOAF building. How may I help you?” I ask in my honey-sweet voice. This could be my opportunity to speak with the Secretary of Defense and tell him what a joke this all is.
“Is Specialist Mendez there?” a female who most certainly is not the Secretary of Defense asks. She is far too young for such an esteemed position. So I drop the honey sweetness and lay on the sarcasm.
“Ma’am. We have over six hundred students in this building at a given time. But no. No, he’s not here. In fact, I think he said to cover for him, or was that Specialist Herndon?”
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“Yes,” I answer. “Yes it is.” And I hang up.
I joined the Army to become the ultimate badass. Ninja training and Indian scout school was on the horizon. Soon I would join the ranks of MacGyver and James Bond with my snappy wit and remarkable ingenuity.
Boy, was I disappointed.
The Special Forces course is a nine month long test of strength, endurance, intelligence, and character. At least that’s what the brochure says. To enter the course you must first pass selection. Think of it as an open house for a frat— if they like what they see, they’ll ask you to pledge.
I was selected to enter the hallowed Green Beret training grounds and could now take part in the Special Forces Qualification Course, the initiation of the frat. The initiation is four phases plus language school spread out over a period of nine months.
Overall, the course was very unsatisfying. I kept hoping at some point we would learn ninja vanishing tricks and expert marksmanship with a bow and arrow created from twigs and pig dung. All my expectations were thoroughly thrown down on the ground and stomped.
Think of it like this, I am in an academic facility filled with Special Forces, a college of Green Berets if you will, and do I feel any safer? Hell no.
Red Dawn was the greatest propaganda movie ever made. It inoculated a generation with fear of surviving the anarchy threat. I wouldn’t be surprised if the military funded the movie. Like the movie, Special Forces is the great lie we all choose to believe. We want to believe the movies. We want to believe a super smart Arnold Swartz egger is protecting our freedom and safety from would-be terrorists without us ever knowing. We want to believe he is the smartest human being alive, capable of lifting and driving cars equally as well, and can shoot a pea from the head of a charging horse.
The truth is, there is no such person. There are no superhumans out there. I watched a newly minted Green Beret eat a dried cow turd to win a ten dollar bet. Yes, this is what stands between the would-be-terrorists and us. Forget snake eaters. Turd eaters. A guy too stupid to walk away from ten bucks.
We want to believe in heroes, and we want to believe they’re better than us. It’s all hype. There are no above-board human beings capable of feats of incredible self sacrifice and at the same time, cold-blooded killers who ruthlessly beat down opposing terrorists. There are no story book endings.
There are only people. Only us. The good, the bad, and the ugly, and we are all capable of being the hype, the hero, of the movie of our life.
There were days I would look around at my classmates and cringe. These people are the best America has to offer? All around me were imbeciles capable of eating or sniffing glue, maybe doing both at once, or steroid heads with inferiority complexes.
Now I’m a dreaded OT, out of training. To them I’m a disease. A parasite unworthy to be looked upon. These same morons walk past me with the same oblivion they have treated their entire life with and due to some Darwinian anomaly managed to survive to this point.
I’ve seen America’s best, God help us with America’s worst.
I was thrown out a month before finishing. A piddly charge, but aren’t they always to the accused? Any alcohol related offense is enough to be booted from the course. So a small-potatoes public intoxication ticket was enough to derail my dreams of male elitism, but if I do something, I like to go overboard. So I did the assault for good measure. I’m not a violent guy. Fill me up with tequila and jack, then call me a dickhead, and I morph into a violent guy. Even the best of us have faults.
There was no ceremonial chastisement. There was no media embarrassment. I was bailed out of jail and taken to the office where I signed my “drop” paperwork. It was a bureaucratic nightmare of signing and flipping paper that officially ended my stint in the Special Forces Qualification Course. And here I am.
But this job is the reminder of life’s unfairness. My former colleagues may view me with disgust, but it is I who am not afraid of deployment. The paper I signed released me to worldwide orders, but somewhere along the way bureaucracy aided me. And now here I am.
Behind this desk, the king of my castle.
Look at that guy. Another person lost. Here he comes. Shit, that’s a star on his rank. I need to stand up for this guy.
Generals are always the same. As long as they feel they get their due respect, they’re oblivious to everything else. I’ve met more than my share of Generals. Oh, they’re in this building all the time. They’re always lecturing or meeting about some other nonsense. You can always tell them by how they carry themselves. It’s like a Pomeranian, all pomp and their shit don’t stink.
Usually we get the heads up about these special guests. Someone in the chain of command usually gets wind of it and forces the labor pool to pony up a mass cleansing of the grounds. I’m talking sterilization. We roll out the red carpet. Generals get the special treatment. Maybe they think it’s always as clean, or everybody is always nice and polished. It’s hard for me to classify Generals as human. There’s a fervency in their eyes that I equate to a cult leader. I’ve never been a part of a cult, but I think it’s a suitable hunch.
In some ways the Army is a cult. One has to believe a true believer to take all the bullshit and stay in. Maybe it gives meaning to their life, a purpose. Whatever. I just know these cult leaders are off in the head.
I salute. I don’t want to cross this guy. One negative word to my higher-ups about my performance and I’m done for with this job. It’s amazing how the power of life and death are in General’s hands, even not on the battlefield.
“May I help you, sir?” I ask. I don’t dare drop my salute until he returns it. Sometimes I swear they make you hold the salute pose to make themselves feel more important.
“Yes…” He’s looking for my rank. His eyes just narrowed. He found it. “Specialist. This is the Special Operations Academic Facility, right?”
“Yes sir,” I respond, still standing there like a chump as this guy talks to me without returning my salute. I want to take my hand down and shoot him a bird. I want to tell him to stick this ceremonial bullshit up his ass and shove it.
And then he returns my salute. I put my hand down as he walks over and leans on the desk.
“I’m supposed to give a lecture in room 247. How do I get there?”
I know right away something is fishy.
I look down at my schedule. Just as I suspected, nothing is happening today in room 247. This will be a tricky proposition. “Sir, are you positive today is the day? According to my schedule—”
“Your schedule is wrong.” The General looked down at his paperwork. “According to this," he holds up the paper before slapping it down on the desk, “my class meets today. Now, all you need to do is tell me how to get there.”
I look down at the paper. I see a date on it. It isn’t today’s date. It’s tomorrows. I am at the intersection of good sense. Do I try to point out the obvious or let him discover his own mistake? I take the road less traveled.
“Specialist, just tell me where the fucking room is located. And not another word from your mouth.”
I acquiesce. “Up the elevator, second floor and to the right.” I have a job to protect. I can’t just go around pointing out the mistakes of these cult leaders. They will command their cult followers to throw me to the wolves, and it will happen. I promise. You can’t tell a fanatic anything they don’t want to believe. And if the seaweed doesn’t flow with the current, it gets uprooted and drifts away.
He’s spinning in a circle, looking disoriented.
Exasperated, he questions, “Which way is the elevator?”
I point to it. I should have been more careful. Judging by his expression, I either made a face or he was embarrassed by his own stupidity and wanted to take it out on me.
“I don’t know who you think you are Specialist, but you have a bad attitude.” And with that he storms off and presses the elevator button. There’s an awkward two minute gap where he waits on the elevator to come to this floor. I sit in silence and he stares up at the numbers and watches the light descend integers.
Can you imagine the havoc in these hallways without me? Everyone jockeying for position around the map, fighting and shoving. No one willing to listen to a central authority. Pandemonium and mayhem everywhere with no central authority figure to interpose justice? People would spar over who was in charge. I am designated and everyone listens to me. I am the dictator and this is my kingdom. I know everything that happens here.
And now I practice my stealth skills hiding behind this desk. I am the man for this mission. It requires no overseas foreign time. These sterile white concrete hallways with the white tile, this is my deployment, this is my home. I patrol these borders and maintain the peace. I am a peacekeeper. I give direction. Without me, no one would know where to go. I am irreplaceable.
Who do I think I am? I’m Almost Forces.
BIO: D Lee was a member of the United States Army from 2003 through 2008. He resides in Raleigh, NC with his wife. Right now, he is working on short stories and putting the finishing touches on his novel, American Terrorist Manifesto. This is his first publication.