click here for pt 1
“Have a seat, Private,” Drill Sergeant James ordered, and I obeyed. His office was a tiny airless room which
could just as well have been a broom closet, near the front entrance to the barracks. The OD Green paint on the walls was chipped, the filthy window was wired and shut, his Drill Sergent hat hung on a hook on the wall and his Ranger mug with coffee stains that will never come out sat on his desk.
There were only a few reasons to be called into the Drill Sergeant’s office, and none were good. Of course, there was the off chance that he was going to tell me he was recommending me for promotion to Private E-2 but that didn’t seem within the realm of possibilities…considering he hated my guts. To formally receive an Article 15 was the most popular reason, so in my mind I was trying to figure out what I had done that warranted this punishment.
Nothing came to mind, as he sat behind his desk trying to disarm me with a smirk- the closest I’d ever seen him come to a smile, so I spent that moment trying to decide whether or not I would choose Court Martial and fight what would be a cooked up charge rather than accept it, as was my prerogative according to the UCMJ.
“Why do you think I ride your ass so hard, Loco?”
“I’m sorry, Drill Sergeant???”
“You think it’s cuz you’re a hard case?”
“I don’t think I’m a hard case, Drill Sergeant.”
“You don’t, do you?” he asked, like I didn’t know myself well at all. Which made me question whether I did or not.
“I don’t think I’ve done anything to deserve an Article 15, Drill Sergeant! That’s for sure. And if you Article 15 me I’m not going to accept it. No way! I’d rather get Court Martial-ed!”
“Is that a fact?” He sat back in his rickity chair and folded his arms, that same smirk on his face. Something about his demeanor made me feel more brazen…like he were inviting it.
“That’s right, Drill Sergeant!” I said, with more edge than I’d intended. “I’ve been busting my as…butt around here lately but you just keep riding me and riding me…like you’re trying to break me.”
He laughed, softly to himself, like I’d said a joke.
“I wasn’t trying to break you, son,” he said warmly. “If I was trying to break you, your ass would be broke!”
His laughter got me a little agitated.
“So, why do you keep fu… messing with me, when you know I’m doing my best?”
He sat up sharply at that.
“…Drill Sergeant,” I added quickly. Most every question a trainee asks or statement he makes is supposed to end with ‘Drill Sergeant’. If not, some Drill Sergeants are known to get uptight. James was one of them.
“Since you ask, I’ll tell you…I was trying to help you.”
“Help me???” I snapped. His tone was starting to irk me. “Help me do what?
He cocked his head to the side the way he does to convey the message have you lost your fucking mind???
I figured he hadn’t been planning to Article 15 my ass. Otherwise he would have gotten all official on me already, so he must have wanted to talk about something. So I said, “permission to speak freely, Drill Sergeant?”
He sat back, slowly. “Go ahead, Loco.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Are you a nigger?” he asked, suddenly, throwing me off guard. His face was gentle but his eyes were piercing. This was an earnest question, and he expected an answer.
I thought about it for a second.
Obviously he didn’t mean in the same sense that Frick meant nigger…like it’s synonymous with black person. And I was pretty sure he didn’t mean it the way most black people used it, like it was some kind of cultural term of endearment or fraternity, or as an innocuous put-down. Did he mean it like a Shit Kicker would use it, to demean or marginalize, establishing their superiority? Did he mean it like my mother used it, when she would say to me and my brothers, “I ain’t raising y’all to be some shiftless ass niggers!”? Or did he mean it…
“”You’re not Army material, Loco,” he said, jarring me from my revelry.
“You’re wrong, Drill Sergeant! I can handle anything…”
“I don’t mean it like that…so don’t get me wrong,” he said, his tone like he were speaking to a family member or a beloved son. “I know you can handle the physical tasks. And I know you can shoot and toss grenades and all that shit. I’m even pretty sure you’d be a exemplary leader of men…and men will follow you and respect you…if you could get your head outta your ass, that is. I know it. You’ve proven that.”
I’d proven it? I was dumbstruck. In 2 months Drill Sergeant James had never said anything to me below the decibel of 20, and here he was, this man I’d come to abhor, speaking to me man-to-man, unleashing what sounded like compliments. He’d shut me up. I just sat there looking at him.
“What I mean,” he said, “is that you’re a thinker. I asked you what most people would think is a simple straight forward question: Are you a nigger. If you answered “yes” sure I’d probably want to put you through that wall, but I’d know you were Army material. Army has a place for niggers. If you said ‘no’ then again I would have thought you belonged. But, you sat there and actually thought about your answer. Army ain’t no place for people who think as much as you do. Especially not as an Enlisted man. You gotta take and follow orders to the letter. The only thinking involved…the only thinking allowed, is how best to execute the orders you’ve been given. You would challege every order you didn’t agree with.”
Pain was all over the Drill Sergeant’s face. Deep anguish. Striking emotion from a man that spent 18 hours a day yelling in robotic tones, only to go home to a wife and kids he only really saw on the weekends, in his big caddy.
“I’ve been in this man’s Army for 10 years, son. I know you’re type. I’ve seen them come and go. I’ve seen them suffer, forced to take orders from someone taking orders from someone taking their orders from someone you’ll never see and never meet. I’ve seen these good men, smart men, put other soldier’s lives in jeopardy with their constant thinking. Now, I know I’m making thinking sound like a bad thing. But, you know, and believe me I know, it isn’t. It’s a great thing. An all-too rare thing…and the Army is no place for it.”
I didn’t realize it until I felt a tear land on the back of my hand resting in my lap that I had been crying.
“I hear everything that goes on in here, Loco. Even when you don’t think I’m listening, I’m always listening. It’s my job to know my men! So, when I see a thinker like you running around with a redneck who calls us niggers, I know why. You’re studying him. And when I hear the other brothers in the platoon calling you Uppity-ass nigger, I know what that’s about, too. They can’t see you the way I see you. They’re not thinkers. To them, you’re one confused nigger, don’t know shit from shinola. But, I heard your stories, about your African school and those crazy-ass half-Muslims you used to run with. And, I know you grew up up north in New York where the white folks are different then these southern and mid-west whites you’re with now. To you, this is some kind of educational experience, you’re own laboratory of human nature. But, to most of these people this is their lives! They ain’t got nothing else going for them but this! I think recently you’ve realized this and come to respect that fact. That’s why I’m talking to you now.
“You got more on the ball than any of these soldiers in here. You’re a weekend warrior, and one of my orders is to ridicule you for being a reservist and nudge you towards going Regular Army. But, like you, I’m a thinker too sometimes. I want you to know, Loco, that I rode you because I wanted you to know that your type ain’t welcomed here. Take your thinking ass back to Brooklyn, and go do something with your life. Do things that thinkers do: Teach, preach, Do something useful, but don’t waste your life in the Army! You got me, son?”
“Yes Drill Sergeant!”
“Alright, get the fuck outta my office!”
I walked out of the Drill Sergeant’s office into the open bay. Most of my fellow soldiers were on their bunks writing letters to loved ones, talking shit and laughing, playing cards, shining boots, etc…soldierly activities. In two weeks I would say good bye to these guys…forever. Some of them will rise in rank and some day have platoons, battalions and even brigades of their own. Some of them will be sent into danger’s path and return home heroes or at least survivors. Some will meet their makers at the hands of America’s ever-growing list of enemies, following orders they’d never question descending from places they’ll never know. Black and White, together, united to fight, to kill, and possibly to die for whatever cause came down from on-high.
I didn’t feel pity, though. I just felt the awesome humbling power of the world we were living in.
Burns walked up to me, still swollen from the beating he’d taken from Frick but looking recovered spiritually.
“What happened, Brooklyn?” he asked. “What the Sarge say?”
“Nothing I didn’t need to hear,” I replied.
…to be continued