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2.5. Late To Formation: Unit Supply Course

Chapter IX

"A Nice Hotel."

March 2007

When I left San Antonio, I was hungry for a win. Because I had just lost. When you spend most of your life feeling like a loser, and you get the briefest taste of winning, there was no going back. My career was off track. Unit Supply School was where I would fix it.

I flew into Virgina the weekend before and got what I thought at the time was a charming hotel room, simply because it was bug free and the doors locked. I spent the weekend making early mistakes, the sort that I was glad to get out of the way when I was a trainee, and no one expected me to know anything. I went out on the town in uniform, emulating the movies I saw of Vietnam soldiers on a three-day pass. I got dinner in uniform and found a bar to play pool. I remember taking my ACU top off and playing pool in just a tan tee shirt, smoking cigarettes and having a grand time.

I was so inexperienced that I had no idea just how out of regulations that was. It was a major cultural faux pas because the military is all about conformity, and NO ONE wore their uniform on a night out in the town. To be an individual was a dirty word. To stand out was to seek negative attention. It was also extremely dangerous. Not everyone supported the troops. Wearing a uniform was a bright red signal to those that wanted to hurt us. Sometimes it was disgruntled townies. Sometimes it was local gangs. Sometimes, but rarely, it was people that supported the cause of our enemies. Sometimes all of the above.

Luckily, there was a Staff Sergeant in civilian clothes clocked me walking down the street and ran out of a bar to square me away. “My name is Staff Sergeant Smith. What unit are you with?” The Staff Sergeant asked.

I stood at parade rest and said, “I’m not with any unit. I just left basic training. I'm going to AIT at Fort Lee to be a supply clerk.”

He breathed a sigh of relief, and said, “You probably don’t know this, but don’t ever, even in your down time, go out in about in your uniform. It's completely against regs. I would go back to your hotel room and change.”

I went to attention, and said, “Thank you, Staff Sergeant.” Then I left. I went back to my hotel and then I reported to unit supply course that Monday morning. It wasn't what I expected. Medic School has the same level of deadly seriousness that Basic Combat Training had. The drill sergeants threatened to kill you, screaming at us about the cost of our failures. If we failed, people died.

That was an echo of that on day one of Supply School. They harassed us for an hour or so to assert dominance, and then we grabbed our duffle bags and went to our assigned rooms. Going from having dozens of roommates to three was nice. The world there just seemed less tense than the strict rigidity that i had known up to that point. In retrospect, it made sense because that course was designed to train people how to maintain a unit’s property book. Outside of critical wartime operations, unit level logistics held more room for error than emergency field medicine. The classroom time was mostly spent on teaching us how to hand receipt property and create a chain of custody through paperwork in case of audits. It was all very...dry. But the world functions on dry, boring jobs.

Since the coursework didn't require much study outside of the classroom, we had plenty of downtime. My friend Brandon and I would go to the PX and buy tv seasons on DVD, and then watch them on portable DVD players that had mini-screens on them. Our favorite was the fifth season of Angel, where a good vampire fought bad demons in Los Angeles. The best episode was where the whole cast was turned into puppets. I've seen season five at least a dozen times, only because it reminds me of carefree days with Brandon in 2007. I stay connected with him a little bit to this day, and he's still crushing it. He's still one heck of a supply Sergeant, and was on my podcast, “The Derwin Lester Show,” during the first run of “Pandemic Perspective,” episodes. Click on the link to learn more:

Chapter X

"12 Hour Pass."

On the weekends, if we passed the PT test, we’d be eligible for 12 hour passes off post. Before they released us, the drill sergeants would inspect each barracks room. They always went through the female barracks first, and once they got to the male barracks the hallway would echo with, “AT EASE!”

I knew I had plenty of time before they got to my room, so I would lay my head on a duffle bag and take a nap. One weekend, as I laid on the floor, I opened my eyes saw a drill sergeant crossing his arms, standing above me. I hopped to parade rest and gashed the side of my scalp on the sharp wire racks we slept on. As the blood ran down the side of my face, the drill sergeant said, “Well, I won't have to punish you, private. You did it to yourself. I hope we’ve learned our lesson today.”

While I cleaned the blood off my face, the drill sergeants asked me who I was and the name of the president. Once I was presentable, and gave the correct responses, I was sent down to formation. After we were released, a friend of mine named Andy and I were at this little café on post, and as the waitress brought us lunch I said to him, “Man, I’m starting to feel dizzy.”

“Should you go to the Aid Station, you think?” He asked.

I shook my head and told him definitively, “Listen, I might have a slight concussion, but we got a twelve-hour pass. I’m not wasting this on a trip to the aid station.”

As the course continued through the brief seven weeks, I got to know many other medic school dropouts. There was a dozen or so of us, all having failed out at various stages at San Antonio. I had a friend there named Stephanie, and we met each other in Foxtrot Company 232 Medical Battalion. She and I related in many ways because we weren't remarkably successful in the civilian world. Basic Combat Training was the one time that we had succeeded at anything in our lives. Then we failed out of medical school, and that creeping realization that failure is only a couple bad mistakes away drove us to ensure that we were successful in supply school.

Years later, I would run into Stephanie again. She was running a successful Facebook group called, "Military Date Night." It was a spot for singles to meet up. (This was before Tinder.) While it was great getting to know Stephanie again, I met a woman who was also in the National Guard in a different state. We dated online for eighteen months and met in person three times. It didn't last, but that's ok. I wish her nothing but the best. The fact that it happened at all was a million to one odds and was only possible because I met Stephanie in San Antonio.

It was a strange, shared experience we all had, that failure. Because being a supply clerk wasn’t what we wanted to be. It was just where we ended up. That was ok, though. I wasn’t ready to be a medic at that point. So, I decided that the Unit Supply Course would be where I got back on track, and progress into the BIG ARMY. It would be a simple win. It wouldn’t change the world, but it would change mine.

When I was in high school, I figured out that a D-minus would get me through a class. The Army was set at a C-minus minimum to pass, so I adjusted accordingly. The danger there is that if you shoot for a C-minus, and are off by a few points, you don’t have any buffer room. If one thing goes wrong, you fail.

Once I failed out of medic school, I was in danger of my whole life going off the rails. They wouldn’t send you to another MOS school. If you failed out of two, they kicked you out. This was it. I didn’t have any other prospects. If I didn’t make it through Unit Supply School, best case I was back to washing dishes in a greasy spoon diner.

But after seven weeks, I completed the course. Turns out all I really had to do was just show up, do what I was told and don't cause problems. Surprisingly enough, that was a lesson that I had needed to learn. You don't gotta be the best of the best, just don’t fail. The Unit Supply Course taught me how to not fail. I would take that lesson with me to my first duty station and learn how BIG ARMY functioned when I PCS’d to Fort Gordon, Georgia as a Supply Clerk.