Archive for October, 2012

News from the front lines of BCT

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

After not hearing from Ethan since he left for basic training in South Carolina more than a month ago, we got our first letter from him last week. I loved that it was written on camo stationery. But it’s a good thing that drill sergeants don’t inspect the letters sent by the soldiers in their platoon; Ethan’s scratchy penmanship would certainly cost him a few dozen push ups.

He’s a third of the way through BCT (basic combat training) and it is proving to be everything he hoped. I believe he would have been disappointed to have the build up to going in the army and then get there only to find it like a glorified summer camp.

He reports it’s quite the contrary. “It is hard, every day. Every day brings some new challenge, some physical and some mental.” One of the challenges he is encountering is having patience for some of the kids who don’t pick things up as quickly as he does. He is also six years older than some of them so that is bound to give him an advantage at times. For a kid like Ethan who often wore his arrogance on his sleeve, learning how to work as a team with all types of people is a wonderful life skill.

It was so great to hear that he says the drill sergeants are “fantastic – way more than teachers to us, more like surrogate family.” To have that kind of respect for the authority figures around him inspires my faith in the army system.

He said that when they are able to eat in the mess hall, that the food is really good and even the MREs they eat when they are out marching aren’t too bad; it’s just that there is never enough food in them when you’ve been burning calories tromping through the woods of South Carolina for hours on end.

The second page of his letter was a “LIST OF STUFF I CAN DO NOW” written in the vernacular you might expect of a soldier. In addition to disassemble, clean, reassemble, fire and zero several different weapons, here are some highlights of his list:

–          Be covered (face, neck, arms and hands) in fire ant bites and not care

–          Climb down a 60 ft. rope bridge unsupported; not be a bitch about it

–          Carry a rifle everywhere, not get tired

–          Chug three quarts of water, run in place, spin around, do push ups, sit ups and jumping jacks; not throw up

–          Do land navigation, find five correct points in under one hour

And the last item on his list, “Plus so much more I can’t remember right now…” Evidence indeed that as he says in his letter, he’s “growing as a person and a solider.”

Army Intelligence

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

I knew that the army had contacted the character references who Ethan had listed on his enlistment application but I was surprised to get a call last week from a man who identified himself as a “special investigator retained by the US office of personnel management.” He went onto say that he wanted to interview me about my son as part of a background check for Ethan’s MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) in army intelligence.

Although I didn’t say it, the thought that went through my mind was, “You’re interviewing his mother?! Aren’t parents the very definition of biased when it comes to their children? Don’t most think that their kids are absolutely wonderful – so much so that they are often blind to their child’s character flaws? How about all the interviews that air after someone commits some really horrible crime and the mom always says “what a nice young man he was” and how she could never believe he would do anything like that.

That said, the army has decades of experience evaluating young men so they must find it worthwhile to interview the moms or else they wouldn’t make the investment to do it. So in spite of being caught a little off guard, I replied that I was happy to answer any questions about Ethan. Any dirty secrets I know about Ethan have a lot more to do with dirty laundry than indiscretions.

Over the phone, I jumped right into it: “What can I tell you about him?” But the investigator said that he would prefer to conduct the interview in person and could we schedule a time to meet. He would be happy to meet where ever it was convenient for me. When I suggested a Starbucks, he said that would be fine but that we should sit at a table where no one could overhear us, just in case there happened to be someone within earshot who knew Ethan.

Wow, now we we’re getting into cloak-and-dagger territory. I was starting to feel like an extra in a Jason Bourne movie. I decided it would be simpler to ensure privacy by scheduling an early morning appointment at my office before anyone else would be there.

The investigator was about 10 minutes late for our appointment – good thing he wasn’t dropping off data that was crucial to national security – and we got started. He showed me his badge and then began asking questions to establish the timeline of Ethan’s life: when did he graduate from high school, when did he move out, what years was in college, where did he work, that sort of factual questioning.

It was a very thorough interview covering things I expected such as if he had ever been involved with law enforcement (i.e. did the police ever show up on our front doorstep) to some more unexpected questions such as how frequently we saw him after he moved out and his financial situation. Since Ethan doesn’t have any record of risky or illegal behavior, it was hard for me to discern if any of my answers were a red flag to the investigator. My hope was that I represented him as he is: very bright, eager-to-please, good at following orders, and excited about the opportunity to serve his country.

Later that afternoon, I got a call from one of our neighbors in our old neighborhood to let me know that she had been contacted by the special investigator who wanted to interview her about Ethan. Good thing he has nothing to hide…the long arm of the army is bound to uncover it.

Army Communications

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

As of Saturday, Ethan was two weeks into basic training and we hadn’t gotten any letters from him. We had been told by parents of other soldiers that the drill sergeants make the recruits write to their families. We knew that getting a phone call from him was unlikely until he had been in long enough to have an opportunity to earn phone privileges as a reward for good behavior. So although we weren’t worried – if something really bad happened to him – beyond the disorientation, physical exhaustion and verbal abuse that is an expected part of basic training – I’m sure the army would let us know.

So when I came home from church today and found a voice mail message from him on our machine, I was very surprised and happy. But the best part was that by the time he had finished saying, “Hey, it’s me, Ethan,” I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was doing just fine. Mom and dad could breathe a big sigh of relief.

He explained that they were “good” so they had earned a “secret” phone call and that’s why he was only going to be able to talk for a couple of minutes and he had to keep his voice low.

He said basic training is “tough as hell but worth it.” It would be hard not to feel a surge of pride both in him and the army over that statement.

In his rushed phone report, he told us that in the past two weeks he has repelled, done the gas chamber training, can now do a ****load of pushups, he can run forever, and stand at attention until his feet feel like they are going to fall off. This is from a kid who spent so much time playing video games when he was in his early teens, that we joked that the strongest part of his body was his thumbs.

They get up at 5am and go to bed at 9pm; the food is good and there are a lot of great guys. He sends his love to us, love to his two younger sisters (that’s a first!) and he wants us to go pester the cat for him. “Don’t worry about me; I’m doing good.”

He wrapped up the call by saying that he would write but when we get his address, don’t write back. For some reason that I don’t quite understand, getting a letter means having to do more pushups. That’s certainly not going to stop me; I’ll just be helping him get army strong a little bit faster.

No news is good news

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

It’s been one week since Ethan began basic combat training and we haven’t heard from him.

One of these soldiers could be Ethan

We didn’t really expect a phone call because the “Guide for Future Soldiers and Their Families” said that in BCT “phone calls are for emergencies only.” But then the next line seems contradictory because it says that “Soldiers can earn special phone call privileges.” Which of course, makes me wonder what task or quality earns them a phone call? A bed made so tightly that a quarter will bounce off of it? Once again, everything I know about basic training I learned in the movies. I’m counting on Ethan to set me straight once he graduates from BCT.

For this generation of soldiers, I have to wonder if instead of a phone call home, it would be more motivating for them if they could earn internet or video game time for doing a zillion push ups or a really good job scrubbing the toilets with a tooth brush. My guess is Ethan would rather spend two minutes on IMDB reading reviews of Taken 2 than talking to us and getting the latest news from Cotati, CA.

The other day, I was chatting with a friend about the highly restricted communication for Ethan while he’s in BCT and they asked me, “Can he write?”

“You know, I’m not sure. I’ve haven’t actually seen him communicate in any way that didn’t involve a keyboard since he was in sixth grade. So I don’t know if he actually can write by using a pen and paper.”

I took me a minute…“Oh, you mean, ‘Is he allowed to write?!’” “Yes, I think so.”

The word from other parents is that the drill sergeants make the soldiers write letters. So I’m hopeful that a letter postmarked South Carolina will arrive in our mailbox this week. I wouldn’t be surprised if it said, “What kind of reviews did Taken 2 get? Love, Ethan.”