You’re in the Army Now

One of the things you’ve got to understand is that for military families, the military is GOD. The Commanders and Officers will tell you that: you obey military commands first, then you can consider what God wants later. And of the two, you’d better put the military first. God comes second. You come a distant third, and if you are a military dependent, perhaps fourth or fifth.

In some ways this story is a precursor for understanding the second “set” of stories; stories about our lives on the military bases overseas. My life can be defined as a series of sharply defined periods, separated by sharply delineated lines. There was the period “before” the hood, from age one through five. There was the period “in” the hood, from five to eleven. Then there is the period “after the hood”, from age eleven to fourteen. There are other sharply defined periods as well, but they are for later stories. In this “series” of stories, we are entering the third period: the time when I went to Germany. Whereas before we had almost always lived in the “civilian” world – in civilian neighborhoods surrounded by civilian friends – a new factor was to enter our lives: the all-powerful hand of military command, military protocol, and military rules. No longer did our parents come first, though they would relay our new god’s commands; our parents came second. We could see that in our parent’s behaviors – the meek subservience of my mother to this “greater god” (her, who had never bowed to anyone); my father’s sternness about us “behaving in a proper military manner”, and obeying every military command, and our own helplessness regarding our fates, our lives. We were in the Army now, and there was no escaping it.

 

When you live on a military base, no matter who or what you are, you are expected to follow military protocol. There are announcements (both formal and informal) which may take place at school (if you go to a military ran school, such as we did overseas) – or by your father, or your mother (having been told what to say by the father, who in turn is told what to say by his commanding officer, “the CO”) – or simply posted on one of the innumerable bulletin boards. They may range from mild reminders (“Residents will their lawns manicured and litter free”) to more serious issues (“Children will NOT throw rocks at aircraft”) to ones that leave you scratching your head in bemused befuddlement (“Residents may hang pictures without attachment.”) Regardless of the regulation, you obey.

Obedience comes in many forms, whether it be standing up in the theater and putting your hand over your heart at the beginning of the movie, when they would play the national anthem, to pulling over your car (or bike) and getting out, stand at attention facing the base’s major flagpole and standing at attention when taps are played (promptly at five o’clock). Failure to do so can result in more than disapproval by your fellow slaves; it can result in demotion (if you are military personnel) or persecution of the person responsible for your care (and thus your behavior). I have been with civilians on an Army base when taps are played – they are amazed: everyone stops what they are doing, and everyone faces a central point – even if you can’t see it from where you are standing – and stands at attention. The Mecca of their attention, that single flagpole set somewhere – is rendered proper respect while the flag goes down.

Obedience comes in several other ways, some almost too subtle to be seen, the unwritten rules governing everyone’s behavior. No one cuts in line – unless it is the officer’s wife, and then only in an emergency. (They are given priority, anyway.) In some of the military branches (eg. The Marine Corps), the enlisted (lower ranks) eat first; the upper ranks come last (part of “looking after your men”.) The MP’s (military police) are the arm of god; they are given obedience at the least, respect if you are wise. They are the ones who can “take you in” – and pity the military dependent who gets taken in. While they will be treated with respect, their “sponsor” will bear the full brunt of their punishment – and it is not uncommon for that “sponsor” (the military member) to take home that punishment and deal it out among the offending dependents thrice-fold. Thus if you are a military dependent who is intent on breaking the rules, it behooves you to take the utmost care. Some behaviors can get you “ejected” from the base – or if overseas, from the country you are in. Not that the country cares; they won’t even know (the military keeps it’s embarrassment and secrets to itself). But you will, for if your sponsor is ejected with you, you can count yourself fortunate. It is not uncommon for the dependents to be ejected, finding them homeless and without care here in the United States while their military member continues to serve their tour of duty elsewhere. It’s can be hard life, and the military used to be harsh that way. I do not know if such practices still exist today.

“Rank has it’s privileges” goes the old saying, and as a dependent, you find that you, too are ranked according to your “sponsor’s” rank. Officers and enlisted do not mix. High ranking enlisted may mix with lower ranking enlisted, but only to a limited degree. The Commanding Officer doesn’t mix at all. As an enlisted man’s dependent’s we found ourselves giving preference to the dependent’s of officers. The officers had separate housing on the military bases – real houses instead of the apartments us “lower class” or lower ranking dependents had. In Germany the officers inhabited the houses of their former enemies; us dependent’s lived in our former enemies enlisted housing. It was almost as if there was an invisible line drawn across the base: they had “theirs” and we had “ours”. Theirs was almost invariably better – to be envied by us enlisted brats. And the separation showed everywhere – from school, where officer’s kids were isolated, almost shunned by us “enlisted brats” – to the commissary, where the enlisted mens’ wives would silently steer their buggies in wide circles around the higher ranking officer’s wives. It showed in the clubs and recreation areas: you had the stiffly opulent “Officers Club” – and the more relaxed atmosphere of the “E-club”. In the Youth Activities center the officers’ kids were often at one end – and us “enlisted” kids at the other. As a result most kids kept the identities of their father’s rank secret. But for the Commanding Officer’s kids: there was no way for them to hide their identity. Because a word from them to their father could result in further investigation, no matter what the crime or slight, real or imagined – they were shunned. We rarely mixed with the officers’ kids, if only for that reason. Anything we did or said could impact our father’s career – and thus it was better to err on the side of safety, and just stay away from them.

This is not to say the military is unfair. The military seemed extraordinarily fair. As far as I could tell throughout my entire twenty-four years of military association (twenty-eight, if you count my contract experience) – they didn’t care what color you were, what religion you practiced, or what your rank or status was – as long as you obeyed the rules. Break the rules and you would be punished. It was that simple. Obey the rules and you would be rewarded through advancement (and thereby pay and privilege). And the same went for dependents. Obey the rules and your sponsor would be rewarded. Disobey the rules – and the sins of the dependents would fall upon the sponsor’s head. Thus the inversion of the old saw: the sins of the father will be laid upon their children – for in the military that saying was reversed. The sins of the children would fall upon their father’s head. And woe to the child who did that.

For that was one thing odd and strange. On a military base it didn’t matter if you were three or thirteen, two or twenty: you were expected to obey the rules. The Army seemed blind to age and children. They seemed blind to a lot of things, such as expecting that six year old or eight year old – or fifteen year old – to obey with the same blind obedience that they expected everyone to obey with. The thing is: kids will be kids. They will get into things – and sometimes things they aren’t supposed to get into. Kids are enormously inquisitive; if there is a hole, they will crawl into it; a fence, and they will scale it. And we were a lot like that, getting into things and places we never should of belonged, and doing things that quite frankly should of gotten someone killed.

Another thing about being a dependent – and it’s something you’ve got to realize right away. You are a second class citizen. The soldiers come first, you come second (or third or fourth or wherever the military decides you belong). It is evident in military care: in the hospitals there were signs stating that dependents would be treated ONLY after all the G.I.’s had received their care. It is evident in their rules: the rules go to the G.I.’s – and then the G.I.’s are expected to make sure their dependents follow them. If there is a convoy – you give way. If there are soldiers marching – you step aside. And if there is an alert – the military rounds up the troops, and the dependents are expected to make their own way to safety, minus the comfort and protection of the one who is supposed to be comforting and protecting them. It is evident in everything the military does: the soldiers always come first, the dependents come second. And before you go condemning the military for that, think hard and fast – for who has the military hired? You, the dependent? Or the military person who has accompanied you? And if the enemy is invading, which is more important: that soldier separating himself (or herself) from her duty to aid his or her family – or standing and fighting while the dependents get away? There is a weird and bizarre logic behind the military’s doings – and while I sometimes saw some sad results of that logic, rarely could I argue with the military’s mind. Not that it would of mattered: the military is like a machine, governed by procedure and regulation – and nothing short of God moving heaven and earth can change it.

It was into such a world that my brother, thirteen, and I, eleven, suddenly found ourselves in. Gone were the carefree days of doing as we wished outside: now we had a invisible head watching us, a stern and unyielding hand to guide us. No longer could we be friends with anyone we liked, nor could we speak bad of anyone who disliked us – and whose fathers exceeded ours in rank. Never before had our father’s rank in the military mattered to us, nor our own behavior in terms of how it might affect him. Neither had our father ever had to consider how we might impact his career. But now – thrown together on military bases overseas – it all seemed to matter – from how we held ourselves in the theater, to whom we greeted on the street or in the PX – and how we greeted them. Unconscious actions could have extreme consequences – a perceived slight could echo up the food chain – and then back down again, ultimately falling on your own head. It was strange, and yet oddly predictable – just as the military is. You always knew where you stood in station, life, and priorities (which for us enlisted dependents was pretty low) – and slowly it would dawn on you.

Piece and parcel, body and soul: You were in the Army now.

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