combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2007

Under the Texan Sun

"Johnson, these need to get filled right away. The captain wants them."

"Yessir," I sighed. Chubby, buzz-cut, and bespectacled Lieutenant Blankman dropped a stack of special duty requests in the middle of my desk and scurried out the door. I began to pick through the pile to locate those most urgent. This could be the start of another sixteen-hour day, I thought.

What a duty assignment. As an athletically challenged twenty-three year old, twenty-pound overweight rock musician, I'd been conscripted into Uncle Sugar's Big Green Machine. I'd been drafted in the late summer of 1969 and had managed, by dumb luck and benign neglect, to survive the rigorous eight week course of basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After an additional eight weeks of advanced training at Forts Jackson and Benjamin Harrison, I finally emerged as a PFC Personnel Management Specialist, MOS 71H30 ... a new soldier armed with a typewriter in the utmost defense of his nation! And now, situated at Fort Hood, in the veritable armpit of Texas, my military survival was in jeopardy because I could barely keep up with the ever-increasing load of requests for special duty personnel. I held about a dozen of those requests in my hand and sighed.

1st Armor Division patch

For the past two months I'd been handling Enlisted Special Duty Assignments, while being slowly barbecued by the Texas heat on the second floor of one of the Weber Grill-like beige wooden buildings, green roofed to maximize radiant broiling, that housed the offices of the 1st Armor Division Adjutant General. An allegedly gravy position – at least that's what the guy I replaced in that small one-man office told me. "Pull personnel records for the one or two daily requests," he said. "Type them up, get them signed, then take it easy, or go hide someplace," he advised as he ghosted away.

That idyllic scenario lasted for about a week. With many veterans returning to Fort Hood from the war in Vietnam, the number of special duty requests from division had increased exponentially in an attempt to keep everyone busy. In spite of my best efforts, I was falling further behind, with Lieutenant Blankman constantly on my case to hurry and get more and more done.

Forty-five minutes later he was back at my desk with another load of requests. "Johnson, these need to get filled right away. The captain wants them."

I stopped typing and looked up at him – a big, pink khaki-coated marshmallow.

"What about this bunch you brought me before, sir?"

"Those have to get out right away, too. But these need to be done sooner."

"So those have to be done right away, and these have to be done sooner than right away?"

The lieutenant considered this briefly. "Correct." He glanced at his watch. "So you'd better stop asking questions and get going." He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, turned, and skittered out. Like a hamster. A hamster scurrying back and forth in its glass cage. A hamster that looked like a tan marshmallow. A tan marshmallow with shiny brass and glasses.

Twenty minutes later he popped back in. "Johnson, did you finish with those other assignments I gave you?"

I stopped typing. "The right-aways or the sooner-than-right-aways?"

He sighed and rolled his eyes. "The ones I gave you earlier."

"Oh, the right-aways. Well, sir, I was working on these – the sooner-than-right-aways you brought me a few minutes ago."

The lieutenant put his marshmallow hands on his hamster hips and, in an authoritative manner taught at officer's basic, leaned forward in a commanding pose. "I told you I needed THOSE right away. The captain will be looking for them!"

"But sir, you said you needed these sooner-than-right-aways sooner than right away and sooner than the right-aways."

"Don't confuse the issue! When I say right away, I MEAN right away!"

"But sir ...."

The lieutenant nervously looked at his watch. "The captain's going to have my ass if these assignments aren't done right away and it'll be all your fault ...." He punctuated the remainder of his statement with a pudgy index finger pointed at my nose, "... and then there WILL be trouble." He let that sink in for a moment, then spun around and disappeared down the hall, back into his cage. Buried deep in the trenches of the paperwork war, I should've earned a medal at that moment for not giggling at his performance. Remember, the command relationship is built on mutual respect – at least that's what they kept telling us.

A flush ran through my body and made me as hot on the inside as I was on the outside. Catch-22, I thought. I'll get busted. Fort Leavenworth, here I come. I took a deep breath, stared at the page in the typewriter, and resumed my furious pounding.

I hadn't been at it long when I heard the downstairs screen door bang shut. Someone stomped up the creaky wooden stairs and turned into the lieutenant's office. The bellowing tone of the voice, although muffled, was recognizable: leather-skinned, hard-bodied, by-the-book, chew-'em-up-and-spit-'em-out Master Sergeant Stone of the 16th Engineer Battalion.

My stomach jumped. I tried to type, but couldn't concentrate. I stopped and listened. Heavy steps were moving out of the lieutenant's office, coming closer. Another set of lighter, quick steps made by someone scrambling to catch up with the heavy steps. The image in my head was not pretty, but they say that war is hell. I sat with my fingers poised over the keyboard. Perspiration dripped down my neck.

Sergeant Stone stormed in clutching a bunch of orders, which he thrust in my face. The lieutenant was right behind him, stretching to see around the bulk of his shoulder. "What the hell is this shit, Johnson?" the red-faced sergeant bellowed.

"Yeah, what is this, Johnson?" chimed the lieutenant in a futile attempt to maintain his authority.

I looked at the crumpled papers in the sergeant's fist. I looked at the lieutenant peeking over his shoulder. My nervousness began to fade. Anticipation of the confrontation had been worse than the actual event. My brow wrinkled. "It appears to be shit from this office, sergeant," I calmly replied.

"You're damn right it's shit from this office!" He slammed the papers onto my overflowing desk. "How do you expect me to run my battalion when you keep taking my men for these chicken-shit assignments of yours?"

"Yeah, Johnson, how do you?" the lieutenant added.

Twinges of anger prodded my innards. "Your battalion seems to have the greatest number of chicken-shit-qualified men."

The sergeant's face got redder. He gritted his teeth. "I don't give a rat's ass how friggin' qualified they are – get 'em from somewhere else, you understand?"

"Understand, Johnson?" squeaked a hamster-like echo from the back. "Let's help out the sergeant, okay?" the lieutenant meekly glanced at Master Sergeant Stone. The sergeant turned, pushing past the lieutenant without another word, and stomped down the stairs. His parting was palpable, and his absence was almost as powerful as his presence had been.

"I don't know about you, Johnson. Lotta problems. You'd better get moving on those assignments. The captain is waiting," he said, pointing to his watch as he left. His parting was insubstantial, and his absence was almost as faint as a fading wraith.

I decided to skip lunch, and in three hours I was finished. The small fan on my file cabinet didn't help to negate the effect of the Texas sun baking our AG building; it turned the 90-plus degree heat in the office into a 90-plus degree breeze. Sweat caused by the temperature dripped down my forehead. Sweat caused by my nerves ran down from under my arms inside my khaki shirt. Dry Texas heat my poor sore eye.

I bunched together the big stack of assignments and hurried down the hall to the lieutenant's office so he could sign off on them. A slight feeling of relief washed over me.

The lieutenant was at his desk, reading some kind of a report. I placed my stack right in front of him. "Here are those assignments, sir," I said, a bit out of breath.

He glanced up at me, then grabbed a pen and began flipping through the papers, lifting the lower corner of each to scribble his name on the signature line of the next. "I don't know what I'm gonna do, Johnson. I've got the captain on me, waiting for these things, and now Sergeant Stone is giving me a hard time about the special duty assignments – and look at all this stuff here," he said, gesturing to the two-inch, neatly stacked pile in his in-box. "I just don't know how I'll get everything done."

YOU don't know anything, I thought ... not a clue. All YOU have to do is sign this stuff. I have to pull records and check status and type requests and deliver forms and get orders cut and everything else ... and you complain.

The lieutenant finished, dropped his pen on the desk, and rubbed his hand. "I need a break," he said. "I'm going out for awhile." He pulled his garrison cap out of the otherwise empty top drawer, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and left, colliding with the desk on his way out.

I stared at the abandoned pen. It wasn't sizzling or smoking. It wasn't even out of ink. I sighed, picked up the papers and went downstairs to the captain's office. Captain MacDougal was there, leaning back in his chair, feet propped up on a bottom desk drawer, reading the Wall Street Journal.

"Sir, here are the Special Duty assignments you were waiting for." I held them out to the captain. The captain set his paper in his lap and took the stack, a puzzled expression on his face. He flipped through them.

"I was waiting for these?" he asked.

"According to Lieutenant Blankman, sir."

"Oh." The captain smiled and tossed the assignments on his desk. "Thank you, Private. That will be all." He picked up his Wall Street Journal and went back to reading. I stood there a moment, deflated, then saluted and left. Stupid lieutenant was my immediate thought, then stupid PFC instantly succeeded it as a more credible conclusion.

Back in my office, I slouched in my chair. I can't go on like this, I thought. I don't get paid enough. I need a raise – or a transfer – or a Section 8 discharge. All three would be best.

A day later my prayers were answered ... almost. There were rumors of a levy coming down for Germany. If only my name could be somewhere on that reassignment of personnel listing from the Department of the Army. The Deutschland. Nice weather, nice beer, nice fräuleins. No more Lieutenant Blankman. Nice fräuleins. No more special duty assignments. Nice beer. No more Master Sergeant Stone. Nice fräuleins. No more Fort Hood. Nice fräuleins.

PFC Riley from across the hall came into my office with a green and white computer printout in his hand.

"Got the levies here. They just came in." He dropped the printout on my desk. I got up and walked around and stood next to him. "Germany ...." He ran a finger through the three pages of the German levy. "Nothing."

"You said levies."

"Yeah. One came for Korea, too,"

He flipped to the Korean version. His finger ran down the first page, second page – it stopped in the middle of the third. I looked where he pointed and there it was: 71H30, Johnson, Wayne E., et cetera, et cetera. Korea? At least it wasn't Vietnam, but it wasn't Germany either. Korea?

"Looks like you're outta here."

"I don't want to go to Korea. It's cold and nasty and everything's always gray. Didn't you see Gregory Peck in Pork Chop Hill?"

"It was a black-and-white movie."

"You just thought it was."

He flipped the printout closed. "Well, maybe the lieutenant can get you out of it."

"The lieutenant can't even get himself out of his office without running into the desk."

"Hmm. I guess you'd better start practicing with chopsticks."

The next day I stood in front of the lieutenant's desk. "Johnson, they specifically requested a 71H30," he told me. "You're the only one on that whole levy. Sorry." And that was that.

I trudged back to my office. At least I could maybe get a promotion and raise before I left. Turning to the small shelf beside my desk, I pulled out the Army regs, flipped to the section on enlisted promotions and read down the page. Never happen. I'd need waivers for both time in service and time in grade, supported by a recommendation from my superior officer. And even with the maximum waivers allowed, not to mention the futility of getting some glowing praise from Lieutenant Blankman, I'd still be short on both counts. I leaned back and pondered my situation. I thought, "What the hey. Why should I let being tremendously unqualified stand in my way? If the Army got rid of all the unqualified people in its ranks then it would resemble the Marine Corps ... and with two Marine Corps, America would be twice as dangerous! Incompetence is better, friendlier, much more practical."

I shoved the manual back into its slot and went over to my file cabinet and searched through the folders for blank promotion and waiver request forms. I found some and stuck the first sheet in my typewriter. Special duty assignments could wait.

The next morning I was in before sun-up as usual. By the time everyone else arrived, I had a good bunch of assignments finished. I took my promotion form, waiver requests, and gushing recommendation and slipped them into the middle of the stack. My stomach knotted slightly as I headed down the hall and neared the lieutenant's office.

There he was, sitting at his desk, leaning over a few sets of orders. I held out the papers. "Here are some more things for you to sign, sir."

He took the pile and began scribbling. It was still early and he wasn't in a hurry yet, so he read over each one briefly before he signed. This supervisory action needs to be nipped in the bud, I thought. I glanced at his in-box. The paper stack looked taller. "Looks like you've got your work cleaned up from yesterday, sir."

The lieutenant stopped writing. "Cleaned up? See that?" he said, pointing to the pile in his in-box. "You should only know how much I have to do." Mildly agitated, he began signing the papers again, without reading them. "And I've got the captain on me waiting for these ... and now this Sergeant Stone thing which I have to straighten out ... which YOU have to straighten out before he goes to the captain ... I've got a lot of pressure and responsibility in this position, you know ...."

I tuned out his pitiful ramblings and nodded occasionally while I stared at the papers in front of him. The lieutenant babbled on until he signed them all. I felt a tremendous rush of relief. He hadn't spotted my forms.

"... and that's just the beginning." The flustered lieutenant gazed at the center of his desk. "I need a break." He grabbed his garrison cap from his top drawer and headed out past me, banging into the corner of his desk.

I picked up the papers and dashed down the stairs to the captain's office. The captain looked as if he hadn't moved since yesterday – feet propped on a desk drawer, reading the Wall Street Journal. I saluted while reporting. "Good morning, sir. These need to get out right away."

The captain put down the Journal, sat up, and returned the salute. He took the papers from me and raised the corner of each one in turn to sign off underneath Lieutenant Blankman's signature.

"Here you go, son." He handed them back.

"Here I go, SIR!" I replied, almost gleefully, as I saluted and bolted out the door and on to the company commander's office.

Before noon I had all the required signatures. As I'd hoped, no one had questioned the waivers or recommendation. I supposed each officer who signed had foolishly assumed that the previous endorser knew what he was doing. Now all I needed was to have orders cut. I skipped up the wooden stairs to the print shop as I had done practically every day since I'd been at Fort Hood, only this time it was earlier and I was happier. I opened the door and stepped up to the counter.

"Hi, Joe," I called to the Spec-4 at one of the presses. He returned the greeting, wiped ink off his hands, and walked over. "You're early today. Usual stuff? Be ready tomorrow p.m."

"Well ... actually I need a favor ...."

"Look, I told you guys before: if I get caught reproducing any porno here again I'll be breakin' rocks. Can't you understand that?"

"Rest, Joe." I pulled my sheets out of the middle of the stack. "Could you cut these orders by three today?"

Joe grimaced and sighed. "I'm really backed up ...." He looked them over. "Hey, these are for you!" he said with a half smile.

"Yeah, and I really need to get them to Admin and into my records so I can get a raise by payday. Could you do it?"

Joe raised his eyebrows. "If you can do me a favor."

I figured that. "What?"

"It's not even for me. Julie's cousin, John Schulman, PFC, is here back from 'Nam and he's getting a lot of bullshit from his master sergeant. John's a good guy, easy-going, kind of skinny and bookwormy. He got chewed up with shrapnel and got a Purple Heart. I don't know why the sergeant's picking on him. Anyway ... could you give him some special duty – away from his company?"

"Where's he at?"

"The 16th Engineers."

I cringed. Not Master Sergeant Stone, of all people. "I don't know ... I ...." I took a breath and thought. Joe held up my order request and looked expectantly at me.

"What do you mean kind of skinny?" I asked.

"I think when he had his private stripes sewn on, they had to wrap them around his arms twice."

"Can he swim? Or even just flap his arms and kick so it looks like he can?" I asked.

"I've seen him floating around the pool – in the deep end – face up even."

"Close enough. I'll make him a lifeguard at one of the beaches."

"Hey, thanks. I'll tell Julie."

The beach I had in mind was on a lake out in the boonies at a far end of this huge fort, and was never crowded. That would give Schulman a chance to practice swimming if he needed it.

"You can come back about one to pick these up," Joe said with a wave of my paperwork.

At one, I was ready to grab my promotion orders and head off to Finance. I ran up the stairs to the print shop and flung the door open.

My excitement had me asking as I passed through the doorway, "Got my orders, Joe?"

"Uh, yeah, but ...."

But? ... what do you mean by saying "But?"

"Snyder spotted something," he said in a loud whisper. "He wants to talk to you." Joe turned toward Lieutenant Snyder, seated at his desk in the back of the shop. "Johnson's here, sir," he called, then turned back to me and said quietly, "This won't affect the deal with Schulman, will it?"

I sighed. "Not unless I get court-martialed in the meantime."

The lieutenant made his way to the front and leaned on the counter with my papers in his hand. "PFC Johnson, it seems something isn't right here on this request of yours."

"It's right here ... there, sir."

"No problem with the request for orders, but these waivers are out of line."

"Could be, sir. My typewriter is very old."

"When I say out of line I mean you're way short on time in service and time in grade to be able to get a promotion."

"Really, sir?"

"Really, Johnson." He looked me in the eye. "You work in Personnel and check records all day long, and you know what I think?"

"I surely don't, sir, but I bet you're going to tell me."

"I think that you knew you were short on both counts and pushed these waivers and this glowing testimonial through, hoping that no one would bother to read them before signing off."

"I can't imagine dedicated, responsible officers in positions of authority would not read something they were signing, can you, sir? ... I mean, you certainly did, sir."

The lieutenant pursed his lips. "You handle Special Duty Assignments don't you?"

"For enlisted men. PFC Riley assigns officers."

The lieutenant leaned in closer and lowered his voice. "I understand division is looking for a lieutenant-type special-duty officer to take charge of the grounds at the Officer's Club Golf Course."

"Okay ...."

"If I were that officer, I'd probably be too busy getting my files squared away before I left here to notice any discrepancies in promotion orders passing through this office."

"Um-hmm. I'll be right back, sir."

Ten minutes later, I returned. The lieutenant was still by the counter.

"Sir, PFC Riley's typing the request now. By this time tomorrow you should see the paperwork in here."

"Thank you, Johnson. Here are your orders," he said, grinning ear to ear, handing me the papers.

"Yes, sir," I saluted and hustled out the door to the Finance office. That favor had cost me a night of taking guard duty for Riley. And the thought of another impending confrontation with Sergeant Stone over Schulman tied my stomach in a knot. But so what? I was a short-timer now. I could take it. No matter how miserable my last days might be, I could take it.

Specialist-4 sleeve insignia

I turned copies of my orders in at the Finance desk. Then it was over to Admin to slip a copy in my files, and finally to the PX to pick up a set of Specialist-4 shields, commonly known as bird umbrellas. I stitched them on one of my khaki shirts by hand that night.

My telephone rang off the hook all of the next morning and early afternoon. The temperature was in the nineties again and I was hot and frazzled. Just after two, the inevitable call came.

"Specialist Johnson, sir," I answered the phone.

"You stay right there. I'm on my way over!" The caller slammed down the receiver. He didn't have to identify himself. Even if I were deaf, I could identify Master Sergeant Stone from the vibrations of the sound waves pumped out by the 95-plus decibels of his voice.

It wasn't long before the downstairs door slammed. Then came the heavy footsteps up the stairs, down the hall past the lieutenant's office toward mine – and there he was in all of his red-faced, sweating, nostril-steaming glory. But I had my promotion, I had my extra pay, I was leaving ... and I didn't care anymore.

The sergeant held a crumpled up piece of paper that I thought I recognized as the requisition I'd typed for Schulman's lifeguard duty.

"What the hell kind of bullshit is this?!!" Stone bellowed. "Didn't I make myself clear? Did some of the shit that's in your head fall down into your ears and plug 'em up?" He leaned over the desk, slammed the paper ball down in front of me and glared. "Goddamn lifeguard at the beach? And Schulman?" He squinted. "Why do you want that little worm-dicked weasel?" he asked, suspiciously.

I reached to the right side of my desk and flipped through the listing of Military Occupational Specialties. "Weasel ... weasel ... hmm. There's no MOS for weasels, big or little. And if you've got a weasel, with the reproductive organ of a worm no less, your battalion is not authorized to have one, so I'd just as soon take it for a lifeguard. Although a weasel is a carnivore, I believe that the specter of punishment rendered by an Article 15 would encourage it to rescue the helpless rather than eat them." I held my chin and looked directly at Stone. "What do you think?"

Leaning massively over the paper ball on my desk, he tried to intimidate me by moving further into my personal space. "I think I ought to grab you by your wise-ass chicken neck and shove this paper down your throat until it comes out your wise ass, you wise-ass," he hissed.

Just then the lieutenant passed, leafing through a handful of paperwork as he walked. He seemed much more hurried and hassled than usual. A batch of the papers slipped out of his hands in front of my door. When he swore and stooped to pick them up, the lieutenant saw Master Sergeant Stone. He bunched the sheets together and came into the office. "What's your problem, sergeant?" he said wearily. I detected some agitation in his voice.

"Special duty bullshit from this office, that's my problem. It's always my damn problem. But this time –"

The lieutenant sighed and broke into his complaint. "Sergeant, like you, we have jobs to do. We don't make these assignments up. Johnson ..." he glanced at me, "... SPECIALIST Johnson has to get men for special duty for me because the captain requests them; the captain requests them because the colonel requests them. If you have a problem with that I suggest you take it up with division."

Thus spake Lieutenant Blankman? I was shocked. Apparently the sergeant was shocked too, because there was a moment of dead silence. The sergeant snatched the wadded paper off my desk and stomped out.

"Keep doing what you have to do, Johnson," said the lieutenant.

I faced the typewriter, but out of the corner of my eye I could see the lieutenant staring at me. He looked puzzled, but a nearly imperceptible smile appeared on his face.

"Congratulations on your promotion."

"Thank you, sir," I said, avoiding eye contact. The lieutenant turned and walked out ... without stumbling or scurrying or clipping any furniture. Then he backed up and stood again just outside the door.

"Johnson, wasn't I supposed to sign those promotion orders?"

"You did, sir."

Nothing ... and then he uttered a meditative "Hmm." What little there was to his smile disappeared as he turned down the hall to his office.

by Wayne E. Johnson
... who is a Vietnam-era veteran, a part-time writer and ghostwriter, a children's book illustrator and book designer. His articles and short stories have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Tooling and Production, The Herald, The Journals of Father Nick Thomas, and Rivulets. He edited and designed the nonfiction hardcover book Making It In Hollywood for Gail O'Donnell and Michele Travolta; and has a screenplay under consideration. An earlier version of this work was previously circulated among the members of the Napperville Writer's Group.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones