A Glass, and Darkly
Chapter 8: Waypoints
30 June 2002 – 1st Brigade Area, Fort Bragg, North Carolina
The sign needs a bit of work.
Jeff looked at the faded sign announcing what building he was at. He leaned against his car, arms crossed, while staring across the area where his Army career started in 1987. While it officially started with Basic Training back at Fort Benning, Jeff considered this place to be where his career really began. He watched maroon beret-covered soldiers wander in and out of the area and remembered when he was one of them.
“Help you, sir?” someone asked from his right. Jeff glanced over to see an Airborne first sergeant standing five feet away.
“Good afternoon, First Sergeant,” Jeff responded while pushing himself off the car to stand upright at a loose position of at ease. “I was just reminiscing about when I was assigned here.”
1SG Eberlee glanced at Jeff’s civilian clothes, which revealed nothing about who he was; his haircut was another matter. “How long ago were you here?”
“I left over a decade ago, Top, which blows my ever-loving mind! I barely shaved when I got here in ‘87!”
“I think we all had that problem when we joined up. I’m Shawn Eberlee.”
“Jeff Knox. Good to meet you, Top.”
“1st of the 504th back then; Alpha Company. From your beret flash I see you’re in 2d Battalion, 505th?”
“A-firm, Charlie Company. Where are you stationed now?”
“When I make it through SOCM I’ll be assigned to the 3d Ranger Battalion; I won’t know which company until I get back there.”
Eberlee’s eyebrows rose. “I hear that course is a cast iron bitch! You’ve been in as long as I have but you’re just getting into the Rangers now?”
Jeff chuckled. “There’s the rub, Top. I started when you did, but got out after the Gulf.” He gave his story once again.
Eberlee’s eyebrows rose higher. “Man, you’ve got stones coming back at our age; you’ve obviously made it through the Rangers’ selection process or they wouldn’t have sent you here.”
“I’ve got stones or rocks in the head,” Jeff said, shrugging. “One of the two.”
“When does your course start?”
“Well, best of luck.”
“Thanks, Top. Have a good one.”
Later that evening Jeff and Donal sampled the food at a pub-style restaurant recommended by the soldier working the desk of their VEQ. Jeff hadn’t heard of the place before; it hadn’t been around when he was stationed at Bragg after high school.
“Not bad,” Donal commented while gnawing on a rib.
“I’ve certainly eaten worse,” Jeff agreed. He sipped on a beer which he found a bit too heavy for the meal he ordered, but it was still good and he’d PT it off in the morning. He’d switch to water once he finished it.
“A ringing endorsement.”
“You’d be surprised how difficult it is to make good food for as many people as this place probably sees in a day; they’re doing okay. There’s a similar kind of place not too far from where I grew up which has the best pub food I’ve had yet. They brewed their own beers there too, which were out-effing-standing based on the sampler I tried.”
“Go there a lot?”
“Only once, years ago. I kinda left before they could throw me out. They’re still in business but I’ve never gone back.”
“You got thrown out of a bar?”
“Technically, no. Like I said I left first. Some jerk at the table behind me was badmouthing a friend of mine, calling her a bimbo and an easy lay; she’s a great girl and was my girlfriend during our senior year of high school. I took exception and expressed my displeasure in regards to his behavior and language.” Donal’s eyebrow rose. “I tipped him over backward in his chair, slammed him to the ground, and scared the piss out of him.” Jeff took another sip of his beer. “Scared the shit out of him too, come to think of it. I left not long after that.”
“I can’t picture you doing that,” Donal said shaking his head. “I mean we’re going to be Rangers and I know you’re a black belt and all, but still...”
“I know. I give off such the ‘I’m a lover, not a fighter’ vibe it’s hard to believe.”
Donal snorted. “What do you think about this course we’re starting tomorrow?”
“It’s gonna be a brain-buster. From what I understand the Anatomy and Physiology class we took at Columbus State University during pre-SOCM will help some, but it’ll still be tough and far beyond what I know as a paramedic. Remember everything we’ve heard tells us we’re going to need to manage our free time carefully, split it between keeping up with our PT and our studying. No nightly binges.” Donal gave him a look. Jeff held up his hands. “I’m just sayin’. You young kids, first time away from home...”
“Hey, where did your walker go? Did you leave it in the bathroom?” Donal rejoined.
“Good one! Now, seriously, since they’ve assigned us adjacent rooms in the VEQ I think we should be each other’s Ranger buddy while we’re here: to help each other study, to stay motivated, and to do our PT. From what I hear any SEALs in our class will absolutely kick our asses when it comes to being in shape, but there’s no reason we can’t stand tall and represent as you kids say. Our minimum standard should be to score three hundred on our PT tests.”
Donal nodded while taking a sip of his sweet tea; he was still under age and didn’t like soda. “I think you’re right. They keep telling us the attrition rate for this class is close to fifty percent; I’d rather be in the fifty percent that stays.”
“Good plan. Have you called Sarah Gillis since we got here?”
“Yeah, once I unpacked. I want to thank you for telling me to keep in touch with her. She’s starting to feel like my big sister now. It’s nice to have something like family again.”
Jeff stared wistfully at the far wall, thinking of Heather once more. Move on, Jeff. Remember, it is what it is...
Donal and Jeff started their new routine Monday morning before the first SOCM accountability formation; they woke at 0400 and hit the track near the VEQ. Jeff introduced Donal to his normal workout which pushed the limits of the younger man’s endurance, even though he was already scoring three hundred on PT tests. He cautioned Donal – “Don’t let me lap you!” – before they started their six-mile run; they completed their final lap with Jeff chasing Donal while yelling like a hellhound.
Showered, shaved, and in the correct uniform before heading to breakfast, the two avoided carbs there as much as possible; the last thing they needed was to nod off on the first day of the course. SOCM cadre allocated the first day to the admin minutiae that goes with any multi-day class; Donal and Jeff met their Ranger Liaison, most of their classmates, and received their mountains of reading material.
SOCM is required for medics from all branches who wish to work with special operations forces. Some SOF medics add more courses, some have lengthier time-in-service requirements before attending than Ranger medics, but all are deadly serious about keeping their charges alive. Looking around the room Jeff didn’t see many smiles in evidence.
The most dangerous part of the course for Jeff would be the beginning, the Basic EMT training which makes up most of Block One. As far as he could tell, he was the only one in the class who’d been a civilian EMT and the only one who’d have to unlearn civilian habits. Ranger medics who took the class in years past often passed along their observations from training; for this block almost all the advice he heard was to drill yourself every chance you got to be ready for the tests. The cadre also wanted to see good critical thinking skills more than rote memorization.
A face from class appeared in Jeff’s VEQ doorway later that night; its owner knocked.
“Hey, there,” Jeff offered while placing items on his desk; he walked over to the door.
“Hey. I’m your neighbor to your right, Shawn Stevens.”
“Jeff Knox; good to meet you officially, Shawn. Which branch?”
“SEAL corpsman?” Stevens nodded. “So this is only the first of a couple stops for you then?”
“BUD/S and SQT were my first stops but, yes, I’ve got another twenty-four-week class looming after this. You?”
“Aiming for Army Ranger medic, so this is the only medical class I’ll need before I get back to the Regiment. I’ll be going to Ranger School once there.”
“Not first? I guess I’m confused about how your training goes before you can deploy.”
“Normally someone enlisting on a Ranger medic contract – what the Army calls an ‘Option Forty’ contract – would do Basic Training, medic AIT, Airborne School, Ranger Indoctrination, then come here to SOCM; this is the last step of the journey for most. I’m prior service so I did medic AIT and RIP before coming here. Ranger School is required for NCOs and officers in the Regiment.”
“You’re an NCO, then?”
“Sergeant, E-5,” Jeff confirmed. “That equates to what? Hospitalman second class?”
“Right. That’s my rate and rating.”
“Well, my buddy and I are gonna try and keep up with you SEAL types on the PT, though I’m sure you’re well out front in that regard.”
“How goes the course so far, my husband?”
Jeff laughed a mirthless laugh. “This phone call may be the only time I’m not studying or doing PT all week! I’d heard about how difficult this class would be, but I’m glad I’ve already adjusted my routine. We’re going to be going full-speed until our clinical rotations.”
“I am sure you will do well, as always. How many others are in your class?”
“About seventy or seventy-five. This course has folks from almost every branch, too, which never happened at any other military training I attended; also, I don’t think I’ve seen more than a handful of smiles since the class started.”
“‘Almost’ every branch?”
“The Marines don’t have a medical branch; they borrow folks from the Navy.”
“What about receiving visitors?”
“Weekends would be easier than during the week, obviously. Maybe Columbus Day weekend? That’ll be toward the end of Trauma II, traditionally the hardest block, but I’d like to see you guys; a long weekend will be easier, too. Labor Day’s too close the start of your school year. We’ll be evaluated multiple times over the length of this course, so I’ll have a good handle on how I’m doing and what the potential for visiting is like before then.”
“Remember what I said to you earlier, Jeffrey: kick ass.”
Jeff made one other phone call during a weekday lunch break despite what he told Keiko over the weekend.
“American Association for EMS, how may I direct your call?”
“Barry Silverman, please. Jeff Knox calling.”
“One moment, sir.”... “Hey, Jeff. How’s it going?” Barry Silverman was the AAFEMS Vice President for Education and Recertification. Barry acted as the point person for figuring out how to credit a military medic’s education to help them maintain their certifications; he took personal interest in the subject.
“Hey, Barry. This course has been full-throttle since Day One, that’s for sure.”
“Well, just worry about the course; your current recert cycle is all set thanks to your work at medic AIT. Your 2003 to 2006 recert will be credited as complete as soon as you finish the SOCM course. When you pass the course, you’ll get an AAFEMS medic card which reads ‘Expires June 30, 2006’ about three weeks after we get your paperwork. Any Advanced Tactical Provider refresher course you take while you’re still in will count as your continuing education and refresher for whatever recert cycle you’re in as well.”
“Wow! You’re kidding!”
“Not at all, Jeff. You worked hard helping to get the bridge program for Army medics off the ground, and you’re putting your ass on the line for our country, so I thought the least we could do is to return the favor. We’re about ready to add the 91B-to-Paramedic bridge class to the post-Army classes we sponsor; we’re going to work on making all the bridge classes applicable to folks from other services as well.”
“That was quick!”
“Eh, it makes sense.”
“Last time we spoke I only asked what I would need to do to keep my certification active while I’m in! I appreciate your hard work on this.”
“There wasn’t much to it, honestly. Pretty cut-and-dry from our end since we already have a relationship with the Army Medical Department. My next big project will be to see if we can get the Paramedic Specialty Certification Board to allow a SOCM Advanced Tactical Practitioner to transition to their ‘Certified Paramedic, Tactical;’ that’ll be a bigger challenge since they don’t yet have a relationship with AMEDD.”
“Yeah, they aren’t part of AAFEMS so I can see how that’s gonna be a tough sell. Still, it’d be one more way to provide an easier transition to the civilian world for these folks.”
“And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
“I seem to remember telling someone that once.”
“Good thing I listened to you then, huh?”
“I guess so! I don’t think it violates OPSEC to tell you this, but the way they test on EMT stuff here is a ball buster!”
“Operational Security. They make sure you know the material but they also make sure you know how to think critically, too.”
“Never a bad thing in our line of work. I’d imagine it’s really important the way you’ll need to do things ‘down range’ as you’ve called it.”
Jeff followed other advice he picked up and skipped lunch after the first week of SOCM. A mile and a half-long running trail next to the ‘schoolhouse’ provided a chance to recharge in the middle of the day. Jeff found that if he sprinted most of it he could finish two laps; he still had time for a shower and a granola bar before class started up in the afternoon. The tree-shaded trail kept the blazing North Carolina summer sun off of him, too. Freshly showered, he munched on his lunch while walking back to the schoolhouse. Food wasn’t allowed in the classroom though water was; Jeff dropped the bar’s wrapper in the trash and took his seat.
“Thank God they sent us to Columbus State for that A&P class! I’d be totally lost right now otherwise!” Donal said with his Block Two Anatomy & Physiology books and flash cards spread out in front of him; there was a similar pile in front of Jeff.
“I doubt you’d be as lost as you think you’d be, Donal. You’re a smart kid.”
“Thanks, but this stuff’s still got my head spinning!”
“Mine, too. You’re not alone, don’t worry there. A lot of this stuff is far beyond what I covered in paramedic school. Suck it up and drive on, right?”
“Right. So, the cranial nerves? Can we go over them again?” They still had five minutes before class restarted.
“Sure. Count ‘em off.”
“Okay, the twelve cranial nerves: one, Olfactory; two, Optic; three, Oculomotor; four ... uh, four...
“‘Oh, Oh, Oh, To Touch And Feel A Good Vagina and Hymen.’”
“A mnemonic we used in paramedic school to help us remember their names and order. ‘Oh, Oh, Oh, To Touch And Feel A Good Vagina and Hymen.’ Olfactory, Optic, Oculomotor, Trochlear, Trigeminal, Abducens, Facial, Auditory, Glossopharyngeal, Vagus, Accessory, Hypoglossal. The Auditory nerve is now called the Vestibulocochlear nerve so one new mnemonic is ‘Oh, Oh, Oh, To Touch And Feel Virgin Girls’ Vaginas and Hymens.’“ Donal stared at his study partner. “Hey, what do I say about if it’s stupid but it works?”
“‘Then it’s not stupid.’ Yeah, okay, I guess you’re right.”
“You don’t get off that easy, kid. What do the nerves innervate?”
“Geez, you’re a bastard, you know that?”
“Like I told your roommate at Fort Sam, my parents are married. Let’s go, tell me what they innervate.”
Donal sighed. “Okay, the Olfactory is a sensory nerve which conducts the sense of smell from the nose to the brain. The Optic...” Jeff made sure Donal had the cranial nerves down before they moved on to the next topic. They alternated quizzing and being quizzed each day; they changed up the subjects when necessary. Their study methods proved successful for them to this point; both were still in the course. Seven of the original seventy-six members of their class couldn’t say that.
“Are you okay, husband?”
“Hmm? Yeah, Keiko, why?”
“You seem distracted tonight.”
“Sorry, Keiko. The course is getting pretty intense.”
“More so than before?”
“Believe it or not, yeah.”
“How are you and your young charge handling it, husband?”
“We’re doing okay at the moment, Keiko. I’ve finally convinced Donal to join me on my noontime runs. The running’s helped me keep my head clear along with keeping me awake in the afternoons because I haven’t filled up at lunch. At the most I have the time for a power bar or something like it before class restarts for the afternoon.”
“It sounds as if you need to change your routine again, Jeffrey, to help you ‘stay loose’ as you are wont to say.”
“Yeah, I think I might. It feels like I’ve had my nose in my books for months, even though I do extra PT when I can also.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
During Jeff’s brief forays off-post he found that precious few of his once-favorite places were still present in Fayetteville. Most of the restaurants he once frequented closed in the ten years since he left, or their reputations declined so badly that he wasn’t interested in returning to them. He discovered one favorite recreation center where he once spent many hours was still open and thriving, however.
He stepped up to the outdoor service window and picked up a batting helmet which fit his head; the bats were different models of the same brands he remembered from high school, so he chose one at random. Jeff walked through the clouds of go-kart exhaust to reach the batting cages; he recalled hosting friends here and the fun they had. He stepped into a cage marked for fifty mile per hour pitches since he hadn’t swung at a baseball in well over a decade.
Jeff’s first few cuts at the pitches revealed his rusty swing. He didn’t even make contact. He stepped out of the batter’s box and let a few balls sail by while he thought about the mechanics of his swing; his next practice swings felt better than the swings he took a few moments earlier. Satisfied that he remembered those hitting mechanics, he stepped back up to the plate.
The baseball shot back toward the pitching machine on a line; it ricocheted off the protective screen in front of it.
Jeff settled into a rhythm just before his dollar ran out. The lack of a pitch confused him for a second before he realized what happened; he walked back to the coin-operated timer and dropped in another four quarters. He laced the majority of the next set of pitches back as line drives. Jeff felt his swing smoothing out with each repetition.
When the second dollar ran out Jeff moved to a faster cage. After a few pop-ups and grounders the faster pitches were returned in the same manner as the ones in the first cage.
“You were gettin’ in some good cuts there,” a man on the other side of the screen commented when Jeff went to add more money.
“Thanks. Did you want to get in here? I was going to add more money, but I’ll hold off if you’re waiting for a turn.”
“No, I’m good, thanks. There’s two other cages at this speed that aren’t being used. You’ve got a real sweet swing; I’m guessing you played in high school? Maybe college?”
Jeff chuckled, stepping out of the cage. “High school, yes. College, no. Some folks gave me a look during my junior and senior years of high school back home, but I opted to do some post-graduate work at the Fayetteville Institute for Vertical Envelopment up the road a piece.”
The other man laughed. “Haven’t heard that one before. Jack Spiker.”
“Jeff Knox. There was a man who ran this place back when I was here in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s whose name was Amos Spiker. Any relation?”
“Dad,” Jack smiled. “He should be in by now; you wanna see if he is or take some more swings first?”
Jeff twisted his torso, working out a kink in his back from the now-unfamiliar swing movements. “Why don’t we see if he’s here first?”
Donal sat down next to Jeff while he and Shawn Stevens reviewed their TMEPs – Tactical Medical Emergency Protocols – at the end of another lunch break; Jeff watched the young man open an energy drink and fire it down before throwing the can away.
“What?” Donal asked.
“You’ve read the labels on those things, right? You’ve seen how much sugar they put in them, right?”
“I’m trying to make sure I don’t fall asleep!”
“When you come off that sugar rush your head’s going to leave a dent in the table.” Donal gave him a look while Shawn chuckled. “All I’m saying is you’re not gonna like it when I put my elbow in your ribs to wake you up. You’ll be standing against the wall to stay awake for most of the afternoon, mark my words.”
“Five bucks says you’re wrong!”
“It’s your money, kid,” Jeff shrugged. “You know what I’ve heard about Clinical Medicine?” Donal shook his head. “You know how we’ll practice the physical exams we’ll learn about in the A&P block?”
“You’ve heard how in-depth those practice exams get, right?”
Donal’s eyes narrowed. “No...”
“We’ll be introducing each other to the ol’ Wizard Finger soon.”
“The Wizard Finger.” Jeff got a blank look from Donal. “Finger of Doom?” Blanker. “The first half of a Dirty Sanchez? No? How am I more hip than you?” Jeff shook his head and sighed; Shawn looked pale. “A digital rectal exam. It’s used to check anal tone for evidence of neurological injury, to check the prostate, the appendix, for occult blood – lots of things. It’s part of the physical.”
The narrowed eyes widened. “You’re shitting me!”
“Poor choice of words, Donal,” Jeff chuckled. “Anyway, there will be a lot of good information in this block, too. We’re gonna learn even more about all the major body systems: cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune, GU, GI, endocrine; you name them, we’re gonna learn more about them than at CSU.” Donal rubbed his face. “You thought they were kidding? Remember, it gets harder. You’re gonna wanna stay awake.”
“I’ll stay awake just fine, old man,” snorted Donal.
He wasn’t snorting when he handed Jeff five dollars later that night.