This story was written and performed by Monty Daniels for the live, personal storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession With True Life Tales) at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas, on April 17, 2012.
The theme of the show was "Have a Field Day."
"Monty Daniels got a rude awakening when he signed up for the Army thinking a few 'yes, sirs' would earn him college money," says Oral Fixation creator and director Nicole Stewart. "Things got even rougher for the young private once real war kicked in. But he survived -- and lived to tell his story with good humor. Read it here and don't miss his performance in the video below."
I joined the Army in April 1990.
I was living with my parents and finishing my second year of doing nothing in college. I was quitting my third rotten job in as many months because it was "hard." At 19, I somehow understood that I had no work ethic -- and that this was something I should do something about.
I realized that the Army would give me a chance to work on this. A couple of years of playing soldier would also allow me to put off making any real decisions about what to do with my life, while not actually wasting time. It would also get my parents off my back about how much college was costing.
It seemed like a safe bet, too. In 1990, the United States had no real enemies. Mickey Gorbachev was busy turning the Soviet Union into "Russkie Disney." We still thought China was the "third world."
I wanted to play with cool toys, so I signed up to drive M1 tanks. I just had to wait until June for the next cycle of 14 weeks of combined basic training and tank school to start.
So I spent the next three months trying to prepare myself for Army life. I halfheartedly tried to get in better shape. I let my hair grow as long as possible -- so there would be something decent to shave. Mostly, I watched the 1980s crop of Vietnam War movies, to get a feel for what the Army would be like. Especially Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, the first half of which was thought to depict basic training very accurately. Yeah, I was prepared.
Mid-June came quickly, and I got to my training unit at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Staff Sgt. Pleasant made his presence -- and the irony of his name -- known on day one. The first time a skinny kid answered a question in the manner we had all learned from watching the Kubrick movie -- "Sir, yes, sir," -- Pleasant's response was immediate. "WHAT DID YOU CALL ME, PRIVATE? DID YOU CALL ME 'SIR'? I AM NOT A GODDAMNED OFFICER! I WORK FOR A LIVING! GET DOWN AND START DOING PUSHUPS! KEEP BEATING YOUR FACE UNTIL I GET TIRED!"
As the kid strained to keep doing pushups, I stood at terrified attention while the platoon was loudly informed that Full Metal Jacket was about Marine jarheads, not Army soldiers. Staff Sgt. Pleasant was not a Marine drill instructor but was, in fact, an Army drill sergeant and was to be addressed as such. The only thing the film got right for Army recruits? Everything had to be shouted at the tops of our lungs, especially, "YES, DRILL SERGEANT!"
My heart sank as I realized what I had gotten myself into. For 14 weeks.
It quickly became a routine: up before dawn, physical training every day, learn whatever was on schedule, and do pushups for every little screw up. Even meals were hellishly efficient. All 20 soldiers in my platoon would file into the chow hall, dead silent. We would have about 20 minutes as a group, so the last guy in line would have maybe three or four minutes to eat. The drill sergeants would stalk around, ordering us to "SLAM THAT SHIT DOWN, PRIVATE!"
Except for one day. I drew kitchen patrol -- or KP -- on August 2, 1990. Despite what the "Beetle Bailey" comic strip taught me, KP was not punishment -- just a temporary assignment for one day. For me, it was awesome: I had an absolute field day.
I reported to the plain brick chow hall at 0530, with a few guys from other units. I stayed there all day, doing whatever menial task I was assigned -- in my case, scrubbing pots and pans. I answered to the civilian employees who ran the facility, who were basically nice people -- they didn't tend to yell. Once the work was done, maybe 90 minutes or so after each meal finished, my time was my own -- a first since I had started basic. I had to hang around the mess hall, available to do whatever the staff asked, but they didn't ask much.
When I wasn't busy I could watch the TVs we were normally never supposed to look at or read the Army Times newspapers. Even better: I could eat whatever I wanted and take my time doing it. That's what I focused on. I chowed down for the entire day. Never in my life had cafeteria-style mass-produced spaghetti and beef somethingorother tasted so good! And I could eat slowly, free from having a drill sergeant shouting, "EAT IT NOW, TASTE IT LATER!"
And then there was my long-starved sweet tooth. At no other time were we allowed near the sodas or the desserts, which were nevertheless offered, probably mainly to torture us. But on KP, I wasn't watched, and the staff didn't care. That was the best Coke I ever drank, and I drank gallons of it! Desserts? I ate all the green gelatin and chocolate sheet cake and instant banana pudding I could get my hands on.
I never even glanced at the TV. I didn't want to see the outside world. I just ate, wandered around the mess hall looking at the various pictures and awards and histories of the units that had used the facility, and talked with the other guys. We commiserated about our different basic training units and our drill sergeants.
I had the best day anyone ever spent washing pots and pans and eating cafeteria-style food -- ever! But while I spent a day in what seemed like heaven, the world was changing.
When I returned to the barracks that evening, the rooms we slept in were eerily empty. There was a hubbub coming from the last room down the hall, which we were never allowed to enter. The TV was on, and my entire platoon was in there, dressed in their barracks uniforms of brown boxers, T-shirts, and various colors of shower shoes.
Except one guy: Hack, a National Guardsman from Leitchfield, Kentucky, who looked about 12 years old. He was dressed as the others, but he also wore his Kevlar helmet. He had his gas mask slung over his shoulder, and he was terrified. "That's it! We're goin' to war! We're all goin' to war!"
Everybody talked at once, but I eventually got the word: Some country I barely knew existed -- Iraq -- had invaded another country I'd never even heard of -- Kuwait. President Bush had announced that he was mobilizing the Armed Forces, sending several hundred thousand troops to the Middle East. The drill sergeants had us watching CNN while they were in a briefing with the commander.
Realizing what this meant, I got scared. My "safe bet" had gotten dangerous. We all spent the next couple of hours scaring each other with our BS theories and complaining, "But I just came in for the college money!"
At the next morning's PT session, things were obviously more serious. As the drill sergeants were yelling at us to do more pushups, their threats became specific and scary: "PUSH YOUR LAZY ASS OFF THE GROUND, PRIVATE! YOU GOTTA BE STRONG SO SOME 14-YEAR-OLD IRAQI DOESN'T CUT OFF YOUR BALLS AS TROPHIES!"
Even more ominous, we heard that the company graduating the next week had all of its orders changed right before graduation. Instead of posts in the United States or Germany, they were going straight to Saudi Arabia. They would be on the front line when the expected war started. This added to my fear -- and the sense of urgency to learn this stuff. I knew the same thing could happen to me.
By the time my company graduated in October, Operation Desert Storm was well underway, with hundreds of thousands of American troops waiting for the shooting to start. We were pumped up and projected confidence. I talked big, like everyone else, about wanting to go "kick some ass in the desert." But the fear was still very real.
Some of my platoon went to Saudi, but most of us went to units in the United States or Europe. To my relief, I was assigned to Fort Knox, staffing an M1 tank training and demonstration unit. Like most Americans, I watched the Gulf War on CNN.
I stayed at Fort Knox for the duration of my two-year enlistment and then returned to Texas to complete my degree at the University of Texas at Arlington -- and eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.