At 17 years old, I lie in bed looking at a small postcard the Navy sent me. It is black and red and looks like it could be a screen shot from one of my XBOX games. And like those games, it promises adventure and a complete extraction from my current life of grades and high school drama. I have a middling GPA and an ACT score that might earn me a small scholarship at one of the less popular state schools, but I have no desire to go to college. Not yet. I tell myself that if I knew how to tread water, I might respond to that postcard. I think about how surprised everyone would be—my family, my friends, my girlfriend—if I just up and joined the Navy. The idea of that thrills me.
Everyone else in the Beebe High School class of 2000—the class of the millennium—seems to have plans. They have their entire lives charted out. All I want to do is play Super Tecmo Bowl with my 14-year-old cousin in the floor of his house, which is where I am when the Army calls looking for his older brother.
“Will’s off at college,” I tell the voice on the phone as a way to imply there’s no reason to interrupt our Nintendo game in the future.
“Well, how old are you?” the voice responds.
“Have you ever thought about what you could do for your country?”
When I tell my mother I’ve invited an Army recruiter into our house, she is confused, but tolerant. She respects my ability to make a smart decision, but she is still my mother and loves me and the Army is still the Army and so when I ask her to sign the waiver saying it’s okay for me to join the military as a minor, she says, “Are you sure this is something you want to do?” Her question sounds like a plea.
I tell her I am sure, but I’m not. I am sure I want to fit in somewhere, I want to belong. I am sure I want to have a plan after high school, like everyone else. I’m not sure I belong in the Army. But I don’t tell her that. I simply nod my head.
When my mother leaves the room to retrieve her glasses, I ask the recruiter if basic training is hard.
“Girls do it,” he tells me.
Had I any idea how tough most girls actually are, the sales pitch wouldn’t have been as effective at the time, but it was, and so I scribble my name in my little kid handwriting on the government contract form. I get my “Be All You Can Be” bumper sticker, which I put on the blue bicycle I ride to school every day, the bike my dad bought me for $129 at Sears. And I get my Army t-shirt, which I wear in my senior portraits with something that resembles pride. And I finish my classes, and I get my diploma, and I stand with my mother on the linoleum floor in our kitchen on that late evening in August, and we wait for my Army recruiter to knock on the door. I am nervous, but I am eager for him to escort me into adulthood, into freedom.
Since my parents’ recent split after more than two decades of marriage and my sister is off at Arkansas State, it’s just been my mother and me for months in the house, and I’ve enjoyed having her to myself. We both keep late hours and she doesn’t mind me playing my stereo loudly. But I’m too self-absorbed to realize how apprehensive my mother must feel about me now going away too. How quiet the house will be when my stereo isn’t blasting Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine every night.
“Did you get your toothbrush?” Mom asks.
“Yes, Mom,” I tell her.
“Did you see your clean socks I just washed?”
Billy Corgan’s mother doesn’t ask him if he packed clean socks when he goes on tour.
I anticipate more questions, but there are none. My mother and I simply stand there in silence for a moment, stuck in a period of time between the end of my childhood and the beginning of my adulthood.
But eventually, she can’t stand the silence any longer and she speaks.
“Write to me when you get there,” she says. “Promise you’ll let me know you’re okay.”
“I will,” I say.
The knock comes right at 9pm. We say brief hellos, I give my mother a long hug, and then I follow the recruiter to his navy blue Dodge Stratus with government plates. I feel important. As we pull away, my mother waves from where she stands at the corner of the house beside the fig tree. I have lived in that house for a decade. I know every inch of it.
I wave back to her, doing my best impression of an adult.
“No one can help you now, shitheads!”
Drill Sergeant Winstead paces the long single-file line of soldiers outside a small, square, cinder-blocked building at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Everyone refers to it as Relaxin’ Jackson, but we in the line are anything but relaxed. “This portion of your training is called Gas Mask Appreciation. For the next couple of hours the government has authorized me to do whatever I deem necessary to make sure you learn to appreciate your mask. It can save your life, hooah?”
“Hooah!” we sound off.
“Men, let’s show these females how it’s done.” Drill Sergeant Winstead has told us since we got here to write our congressmen to say we shouldn’t have to train with females because they are making us weak. That because they are here, we men won’t be fully prepared for the hardships of war when the time comes. We all hate Drill Sergeant Winstead. He is cruel and he loves his job too much. At night, he tells us how our girlfriends and wives are having acrobatic sex with a man named Jeff while we lie there with our M-16s. Because, he says, that’s what happened to him. Jeff was his best friend.
Outside the gas chamber, Drill Sergeant Winstead smirks at us like he knows something we don’t. He says, “I’ll see you in there,” just loud enough for us to hear before he dons his own mask and walks into the chamber.
“We’re fucked,” Gagel whispers to me.
“This isn’t like...real gas, is it?”
“I don’t know, man.”
Drill Sergeant Ziebarth comes running around the side of the building like a linebacker in search of a quarterback. His presence alone startles us, but it’s amplified when he yells “GAS! GAS! GAS!” My heart races as I try to remember the steps the drill sergeants have taught us. I hold my breath. I tug at the Velcro opening on the pouch strapped to my leg. I pull my mask out and put it to my face. It is August and hot and I feel my sweat against the rubber of the mask. I clear it by pushing out the existing air through the canister with my lungs. And then I try to breathe normally, hoping that I did everything right, that I got a good seal on my face. I look at Gagel in his mask. He looks at me in mine. We are both looking to see if we got it right, but neither of us knows. There is panic in the air. Someone down the line has fumbled his mask and Drill Sergeant Ziebarth has pounced. He slaps the mask from the private’s hands.
“You’re fucking dead, soldier!” he yells in the kid’s face. “I told you how to put your mask on, but you couldn’t follow directions you are too stupid to live! Get that mask on, private!”
When the all-clear is sounded, we remove our masks and Drill Sergeant Ziebarth tells us what’s going to happen. “I’m going to send 25 of you into the gas chamber at a time. You will march at a normal pace in a single-file line. You will march with your left shoulder against the east wall until your battle buddy in front of you stops, then you will conduct a right-face and put your back against the wall. Hooah?”
“And then you will be given a signal to don your mask, at which time you will have nine seconds to put it on before the gas will begin affecting you.”
My best time in practice was 10 seconds.
“Once your mask is on, a drill sergeant will step in front of you and ask you for the three things the Geneva Convention requires that you give should you find yourself a prisoner of war—what are those things?”
“Name! Rank! Social security number, Drill Sergeant!”
“That’s right. And I swear to God if I ever find out that you got captured because you stopped pulling that goddammed trigger, I will hunt you down and kill you myself before you have a chance to tell the enemy so much as a teary-eyed whisper. But in this case, you will tell your drill sergeant those three things, and to make sure that your drill sergeant understands you, you will take off your mask to speak to him. Hooah?”
“Hooah!” We sound off loud and proud, but on the inside we are actually closer to doom and gloom.
When we enter the gas chamber, it is lit around the edges of the room by high-powered glowsticks we refer to as chem lights. There are four drill sergeants, already wearing gas masks.
“GAS! GAS! GAS!” they yell. It feels like a drill, but yellow smoke climbs slowly into the air out of a charcoal grill in the middle of the room like a king cobra being charmed from a basket. We each reach for the mask on our legs, but the drill sergeants push us against the wall chaotically as if they are in a mosh pit, causing even more panic. The gas releases a rotten smell into the air, but now I’ve got a good seal on my mask. The yellow smoke fills the room with a stagnant haze. My nostrils burn. The soldier to my right is bugging out and still trying to put his mask on. Between the muffled echoes of yelling in the concrete room, I can hear the soldier crying in desperation. The drill sergeants hear him too and they descend on him like lions fighting for a place to sink their teeth into their wounded prey. The echoes bounce back and forth from wall to wall.
“We’re fucked!” Gagel screams from within his mask. The sound comes out muffled, but possessing a wise certainty. The drill sergeants dance like maniacs as every last private eventually gets his mask on and puts his back straight up against the wall. Between the restriction of the mask and the thick yellow smoke and the absence of drill sergeant’s brown rounds, I can barely distinguish privates from cadre. I only know that my friend Gagel is to my immediate left and that information helps pacify my fears.
“Who are you!?” a masked drill sergeant asks Gagel. I try to keep my eyes faced forward, but I see my friend remove his mask to respond. I hear him strain to get out his name, rank, and social security number. I see him put his mask back on. I convince myself I can get it all out in one breath to keep from having to breathe the thick yellow smoke. Other drill sergeants question other soldiers. There is yelling and coughing and more crying.
When the shortest drill sergeant steps in front of me, I take my mask off quickly. I can feel the gas immediately creep into the pores of my face. I see a silver lieutenant’s bar on the man and know it’s my company commander rather than a drill sergeant. I hope he will be more lenient than a drill sergeant because isn’t everyone more lenient than a drill sergeant?
“Who are you?!” he asks me.
“Private Guy Choate, sir!” I sound off loudly. But before I can tell him my social, he interrupts me.
My eyes burn. My skin burns. I start to repeat my name, “Private Guh—!” But before I can finish, the lieutenant shoves his hand palm-first into my gut, just below my rib cage, knocking the oxygen from my lungs and forcing me to take a deep breath of the poisonous air.
“Answer the question, private!” the lieutenant yells.
My lungs burn. My nostrils and sinus caps and mouth burns. I try to say my name, but all that comes out of me is drool and snot in a steady stream. I watch it pool on the concrete floor beneath me. My attempts to speak turn into empty heaves. The lieutenant grows bored with me and moves on. I put my mask back on and clear it, but I’m still drooling. My nose is still a constant drain of snot.
Light floods the left side of the room and soldiers walk in our single-file line toward an open door. A private with no mask on desperately tries to run past me to the door, but a drill sergeant immediately dips his shoulder and knocks him on his ass. I feel sorry for him, but we all have our own version of hell to deal with today.
When I am outside, I remove my mask and someone tells me to flap my arms like a bird to open up my lungs. My face is still draining and I can barely open my eyes. One of the drill sergeants has a small camcorder and he is laughing.
“That really wasn’t that bad,” Gagel says, his arms also flapping like a bird’s wings.
I can’t inhale against the current of fluids streaming from my face. When I don’t respond, he turns to look back at me.
“Oh, shit,” he says.
When trying to look at him, all I see is the long line of soldiers who haven’t been in the chamber yet. They stare at the 25 of us who are exiting and they are scared for what must’ve happened to us in that little concrete building, what they must soon endure themselves.
Gagel leads me to the place where we are to sit in the sand amongst the fireants and wait on the rest of Delta Company to cycle through the gas chamber. I think about my high school friends who are off at college, settling into their dorm rooms, trying to decide to which fraternity they will pledge, meeting girls from other towns. I joined the Army because I wanted to belong somewhere. Drill Sergeant Winstead tells me this is exactly where I belong—in the Army, with snot draining from my face—and I suppose he’s right.
When I can finally open my eyes again, I pull the pen and few sheets of folded paper from my breast pocket.
Drill Sergeant Winstead walks along the line of sitting soldiers to survey his work. To see whose faces are swollen from the gas. He laughs at the worst cases. When he gets to me and sees me writing a letter, he says “Yes, good work, Chode...”—my last name is Choate, but he refers to me as Chode—“...fill your congressmen’s mailbox with those letters and tell them we need to get these fucking females out of here, like, today, hooah.”
“Hooah, drill sergeant,” I say, but I am only thinking of my mother’s smile when she will pull the letter from her mailbox and she will read that I am okay.