Veterans Day Remembered: Forced Fun

(Presented as a message sermon at the First United Methodist Church of Port Jefferson, Long Island, New York, Sunday, November 11, 2018 by Montgomery J. Granger, Major, US Army, Retired. Video: https://www.facebook.com/pjfumc/videos/502873243555742/ Start at about 19:20)

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Good morning!

Happy Veterans Day!

Would all the Veterans here today please stand? Thank you for your service and Welcome Home!

Let’s please remember, Memorial Day is for remembering those who either gave their lives in battle or who have otherwise passed on. Veterans Day, today, started 100 years ago, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918, and known as Armistice Day at the end of World War I, is to show appreciation for those served and who are still with us.

I would also like to remember Army Veteran Shirley Leonard, and my good friend PFC Wayne F. Hurley.

I am a former US Army Medical Service Officer who started as a combat medic, and then after five years as an enlisted soldier went to Officer Candidate School and then served 17 more years as a Medical Service Officer, the last 9 of which were with a Military Police (Enemy Prisoner of War) Brigade Liaison Detachment, whose job it was to take care of bad guys, which we did with Christian spirit and professional acumen, contrary to what you may have heard from the mainstream media. After 9/11, from February to June, 2002, I served at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the ranking US Army Medical Department officer with the Joint Detainee Operations Group, Joint Task Force 160, in charge of coordinating medical, preventive medical and environmental services for detainees and the guard force at Gitmo. I served again from February to June 2003, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then again for 14 months, from October 2004 to December 2005 for a tour to Iraq, where again I found myself coordinating services for detention operations there, in Baghdad, at Camp Victory, in Abu Ghraib (after the scandal there, my unit was sent to help clean it up), in Al Basra, at Camp Bucca, and in Ashraf, at Forward Operating Base Spartan.

In deference to my father-in-law, a Korean War veteran with the Air Force, and who is at home today dealing with COPD, among other things, he would want to know how long my message was going to be. 15 minutes Bob, and you can start timing me now!

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Fair warning, this is a participation message, and may have some repeat after me moments.

Forced Fun

Forced fun is when you are ordered to do something that if you weren’t ordered to do it you probably wouldn’t do it.

November, 2008, a month before I retired from the Army after 22 years of service, including nearly 2 ½ years of deployments since 9/11/2001, and I had never participated in a parade. This time there was no escape.

Like a Commander’s Ball, no one could get out of it. With a wink and a nod the command had made it abundantly clear that from the very top general in the region, “everyone” would participate in the annual Veterans Day parade in New York City.

The uniform of the day would be the battle dress uniform, at this time it was the pixeled pattern we called the Lego pattern of light green and tan. It would be cool, but according to the powers that be, not cold, so no field jackets or anything worn on the outside of the uniform. You could however put layers on underneath and wear gloves. But if one person wore gloves, everyone had to wear gloves. If one person forgot their gloves no one could wear gloves.

Head gear would be the black beret; in other words, cold ears.

With temperatures in the 40’s in the morning prior to the march we would be shivering a bit.

There’s a lot of “hurry up and wait” in the military. This was no exception. The parade would start at 11:15, at around 26th Street and 5th Avenue, and then conclude at 46th Street, a distance of a little over a mile.

Report time? Zero 8:30, or 8:30 a.m. for you civilians.

“Don’t complain,” I told a colleague, “we’re getting paid and we’re not getting shot at.”

“Hooah!” Came the answer. Hooah! Is Army speak for just about anything except “No.”

For example, “How are you?” Hooah! “How’s the chow?” Hooah! “Did you get the beans and bullets?” Hooah! “Good morning,” Hooah! Question: Hooah? Answer: Hooah!.

I know you want to, so go ahead and try it one time: Hooah? (Audience: Hooah!)

So, from now on, when you hear my question, Hooah? You may answer back, “Hooah!” It will let me know your still with me. Hooah?

That’s the Army for you, simple and direct, efficient and effective. No wasted words or energy.

“Conserve the Fighting Strength” was the Medical Service Corps motto, and we put that to work every day.

I remember at the parade that not everyone had brought their gloves. Bad news. Good news: we could wear our gloves if we brought ‘em BEFORE the parade started. We could also go, a few at a time, to local coffee shops or kiosks and get coffee. That helped.

When it was time to march a strange feeling of nervousness grew amongst us. Some had been in parades before and told those of us who hadn’t that it was no big deal. Just look straight ahead and march. We would be singing cadence, so the march will go by quickly, and before you know it it will be over.

We heard drums and a band, and we saw costumed high school students with batons and flags and instruments. Giggling girls and serious boys, scrambling to form up.

We had been standing in formation for over two hours. Army people can never just stand around in a blob, looks bad don’t you know? And when we stand in formation we always keep one foot anchored to the ground in line so that if need be, in an instant we can form up and look like perfect little soldiers.

The commands were given, “Group, at-TEN-SHUN! Right, FACE. Forward . . . MARCH!” And off we went, left foot first then right. “Left . . . Left . . . Left, Right, Left.”

The cadence caller warmed up and then began to sing. When you sing in the Army it’s more like military rap. Most guys can’t carry a tune, so the caller usually just sticks to monotone and simple words:

“One, two, three, four,” was the call, and the reply, from almost all veterans and folks who’d been in 10, 20 or 30 years, was “You can’t count to five!”

And you can imagine the echo amongst the tall buildings coming from hundreds of soldiers.

“One, two, three four,” “Can’t count to save your life!”

So you get the idea, when cadence is called, the caller sings and the group repeats. So, let’s try that.

“Here we go again (Audience Repeats), same old stuff again (AR), marchin’ down the avenue (AR), one more mile and we’ll be through (AR). I’ll be glad and so will you!” (AR) Excellent! Easy, isn’t it? You could all be soldiers! Hooah!

On we went, singing our souls out, loving the tremendous echo we were sure traveled all the way down to the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan.

We stopped and started with those ahead of us, never longer than a minute or two. It seemed that whenever we got into a rhythm we’d have to stop.

Police stood at intersections, intermittently allowing foot and vehicle traffic to sever the parade stream, and then as quickly let it flow again.

Between 26th and 34th streets there seemed to be a decent crowd of people watching with interest and clapping from the sidewalk. That gave us a warm good feeling inside, despite the chill. There they were, perfect strangers, standing, smiling, clapping and waving.

“It’s great to be an American,” I thought. Hooah?

As we moved further uptown, the crowds thinned and then got sparse, as the band up ahead moved off at the end of the route, by the time we reached the end, only passersby were left, walking and going about their business, not seeing a mass of hundreds of uniformed soldiers marching, and then dispersing.

My wife and family were waiting for me at the end, and we smiled and hugged.

We all came to see Daddy in the parade, and to attend a free showing of the Rockette’s Christmas Spectacular, at Radio City Music Hall, sponsored by the United Service Organization or USO.

Walking to the theater, my wife told me how shocked she was that when we, the soldiers got to the end no one but them and other families were clapping. In fact, she said, one woman passerby came up to her and asked what was going on. “It’s a parade,” she said to the woman. “It’s Veterans Day.” “Oh,” the woman said, and then moved along.

It’s Veterans Day.

In line for the show, which stretched around the block into Rockerfeller Center, there were many uniformed folks all around, from all branches of service.

I actually ran into an Army chaplain I had known from my service in Iraq. We were both very surprised to see each other, as the Chaplain was from Atlanta, Georgia, but had come north to visit family who had obtained tickets for the show.

The Chaplain and I had served together at Forward Operating Base (or “FOB”) Spartan – “Come home with your shield or on it!” Was the motto, a nod to the ancient warrior class of Greek Spartans. The metaphor was honor. Come back with your honor or don’t come back alive. Hooah?

These were serious dudes we served with. The FOB, a security and detention operation of Active Duty Military Police, had the reputation for being the most disciplined FOB of any American outpost in Iraq. And it was so.

Strict Army discipline was observed. Attention to detail was the order of the day. Paying attention to detail in a war zone saves lives. Hooah?

The FOB was so, well, Spartan, that we had to have daily LOG runs, or logistical convoys for supplies, such as beans, bullets and water. Twice a week we made two trips a day. The spring and summer of 2005 were perhaps the most deadly up to that point in Iraq.

Insurgents were pushing in places like Falluja, Baquba, and the Airport Road in Baghdad. IED’s, or Improvised Explosive Devices were common, sometimes hidden inside the dead carcasses of large animals left roadside, frequently stopping log convoys such as those to and from FOB Spartan.

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I was on convoys to and from our log base once or twice per week to coordinate medical, preventive medical and environmental services for FOB Spartan.

The log base was Camp Anaconda, about an hour from our FOB and over the Tigress river, in the land of the birthplace of civilization and the stories of Babylon, and the Garden of Eden.

Compared to FOB Spartan, Anaconda had civilization. Swimming pool, Movie Theater, mall, barber shop and fast food. It was an oasis.

I remember entering the MWR (Morale Welfare and Recreation hall) there for the first time.

Lots of board games, video games, ping-pong, magazines, TV, DVD check out, popcorn machine and Movie Theater.

There were no tickets, and no charge for anything.

Army soldiers and Marines wandered inside, dusty, sweaty and tired. And some with that look in their eyes, the look coined in WWII as the Thousand Yard Stare. The person was there, but not there.

When I entered the movie theater inside the MWR, a large room really, inside the airplane hanger-sized building, it was pitch black, between scenes in a movie. When the flicker of the film returned it lighted the faces of dozens of soiled, exhausted men, almost every one of them . . . fast asleep.

The convoys certainly took it out of you, whether an 18 hour schlep to Al Basra to inspect a detention facility at Camp Bucca, or an hour long ride to and from Anaconda the stress of not wanting to “Get blowed up,” took all of your energy. Hooah?

The stress was so intense that it was common for drivers and soldiers to fall asleep at the wheel once inside the wire and before parking the vehicles. Energy drinks such as Red Bull were encouraged.

***

The Chaplain and I hugged, and asked about family and introduced everybody to each other. It was really great to see her.

She was a staple at FOB Spartan, offering Bible study, prayer groups and two Protestant services on Sundays, one traditional and one contemporary.

I was more familiar with the traditional services, so I attended those at first, and then I got curious about the contemporary services, which ended up reminding me more of my mega church experiences as a young Christian teen growing up in Southern California.

I’ll never forget one Sunday when the Chaplain invited everyone to a baptism.

She had convinced a visiting group of combat engineers to dig a hole, about four feet, by four feet, by four feet, lined it with a tarp, and then filled it with water. She had ministered to some of the Pakistani cooks at the FOB dining facility, and several wanted to convert to Christianity! Now that’s doing God’s work! Hooah?

Did someone say “Crusade?”

No, we did not, but Christian soldiers were there to accomplish a mission, and even created one there in the arid land where God put the first of us.

Beside the door to the tent/chapel was a wooden sign with the 91st Psalm painted on it. Many of us there had the 91st Psalm, what we called the Psalm of protection, printed on camouflaged scarves we kept with us on convoys.

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That worked for me.

Prayer also worked. Hooah?

I’d like to thank the Worship Committee again for asking me to share my thoughts with you this Veterans Day Sunday.

If any of you know a veteran, ask them about their favorite Veterans Day, or their most memorable. If they can’t think of one, help make a memorable one for them.

It’s OK to ask us about our service. It shows interest and appreciation, and it makes us feel . . . normal. Many of us have some fond remembrances and some funny stories. Yes, there were some scary parts, but talking about it helps us make connections that are important, especially with family and loved ones.

I hope this was better than forced fun for you, and that through my stories you’re able to see veterans as normal people, and not just as a group of folks who are mysterious or scary.

We are just like you in most ways. And one thing many veterans have in common is the belief that every day is truly a blessing. That God’s gifts are sweeter and more vivid in the light of day after service.

What a blessing it is to be safe, secure and not worrying about getting “blowed up.” Hooah?

Thank you!

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(Major Granger is the author of “Saving Grace at Guantanamo Bay: A Memoir of a Citizen Warrior” http://sbprabooks.com/montgomeryjgranger/ )

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Fall

Sugar Maple

The sugar maples caught fire this week

Spewing leafy flame about the yard

Burning bushes are lit

Searing fence lines and fields

Crisper air has bit my nose

And colder winds through the forest blow

Evergreens are standing stiffer

Shivering silently in the new winter breeze

Birds tweet and soar

Searching now for winter homes

Children run, house-to-house

Seeking tricks or treats

Pixies, witches, monsters and heroes

Flit, fly, hobble and sprint

Bright shining sun

Warms less than just a week ago

But feels good upon my naked face

Eyes closed and full of hopeful thoughts

Setting sun brings winter’s chill

Soon an hour earlier we will run

Wood cutting and bundling up are near

For fall and winter’s promise are here