I'll never forget
The two duffle bags were filled with my equipment collection of nine years. Cold weather mittens. Goggles. Kevlar. Canteens, canteen cups and canteen covers. Pistol belt. First aid kit. It was all there. Except for a camel back that was lost in Iraq.
Any equipment not turned in, even after a decade of service, the soldier is responsible for. I signed a statement of charges for a little over $30 for the item and I was done. I wrote a typical military memo, dry and free of inspirational thought, indicating my intentions of getting out.
I wanted to write that I planned to grow my hair to the length of my butt and not shave for two years, but I didn’t. I wanted to say that my final day of Army service was one of the happiest days of my life, but I didn’t. I wanted to thank the Army for losing my medical records three separate times, causing me to receive more vaccinations than a Rabies patient, but I didn’t. I wanted to write about how the Army’s health insurance, TriCare, failed to pay for multiple bills it was responsible for while I was hospitalized with Lyme disease, leaving my credit rating a wreck, but I didn’t. I wanted to ask how some officers ever received promotions while several more-deserving candidates were passed up because they were not good-old boys, but I didn’t. I wanted to demand an answer for why we need to fill out 25 pieces of paperwork to use a toilet in a government building, but I didn’t.
See, I don’t measure my years of service by the Army’s inadequacies or the people I want to forget. Rather, I will remember the important moments.
I’ll never forget the 25-mile road march in basic training. My feet were raw and my arms, back and thighs were sore as sore can be. After the march, we turned Blue, meaning we received the infantry’s coveted Blue Cord. I felt like a man that day.
I’ll never forget my first drill in Wisconsin. The majority of the unit was women. Being an infantryman transferring to a public affairs unit, I felt out of place and in the past harbored ill feelings toward female soldiers. But the females made me feel comfortable and the commander encouraged my creativity. I reenlisted after one year of service in Wisconsin.
I’ll never forget the day I received the “call.” It was Valentines Day, 2003. We were placed on alert and the only girls I called on this day of love were those I called soldiers.
I’ll never forget the time I spent in the hospital. My most frequent visitors were fellow soldiers.
I’ll never forget when we boarded the plane to leave the U.S. Joe and I placed towels on our heads and we laughed the flight away.
I’ll never forget the smell of my first patrol. The mixture of sewage and burning trash is a unique smell.
I’ll never forget our first night in NCO alley, where we learned to leave the war behind and just laugh. We learned the only way we can get through Iraq is by leaning on one another. By laughing more than crying.
I’ll never forget meeting Sergeant Mitts. His smile, his soft-spoken words and his heart impacted me in unmatched ways. At his memorial, I didn’t cry. I smiled in his memory.
I’ll never forget the day Samir bought me a vase from the Mosul market. He tried for a week to find one nice enough for my mother. “For you, sergeant, only the best.” The man made me laugh more than anybody and to this day, I can’t stop thinking about him.
I’ll never forget hearing the national anthem as we walked off the plane. Shaking hands with politicians and seeing American soil for the first time.
I’ll never forget the battle within my mind with readjusting. The nightmares. Fears. And how I overcame them all without medications or drinking. How it was tough and will continue to be a challenge, but I got through it and will continue to do so with the help of special people.
I’ll never forget my last drill. We had two new soldiers, both of whom wanted me to stay in.
“You can’t leave, man, you’re so funny.”
I’ll never forget Sammy’s face as I walked down the long hallway to our office for the last time. Tears filled his eyes as if he were at a funeral. He and I are close.
I’ll never forget opening my car door on the last day and I saw Sammy walking toward me.
“Dude, are you stalking me?”
“No, I got to go across the street to turn in some paperwork.”
I’ll never forget how red his eyes were. They were visible even under his thick magnifying glasses.
I’ll never forget my last salute as a soldier. Near my car in the Wisconsin Guard headquarters, I snapped to attention, looked in the direction of Staff Sgt. Brian P. Jopek, aka Sammy, raised my right hand, touching the brim of my soft cover and simply said “take care, brother.” He didn’t respond and just kept walking. See, NCOs don’t salute NCOs. Technically, you’re only supposed to salute officers and in ceremonies. But out of respect, I was saluting Sammy. “Dude, I’m serious. I’m saluting you.” He returned the salute and held it. “Take care, Sammy. I love you man.” He didn’t respond. “Hey, aren’t you going to say something?” “The last time I said something like that, you called me a faggot.” “I was joking then; I’m serious now.” “OK, I love you too.” He dropped his salute and proceeded on. As he left, I yelled “faggot. I can’t believe you said you love a man.”
I’ll never forget Sammy’s laugh. After all the ridicule I’ve given him over the years, including my in-jest fagot remark, he still laughs at every stupid thing I do. It was this laugh that got the gang in NCO Alley through many tough times.
I’ll never forget my military career. Through all the bad, there was plenty of good. And more laughs than on Comedy Central.