sat bolt upright and reached for my cell phone, but it wasn't ringing. I had only owned it for a week and already the ringtone haunted my dreams. It rang incessantly, day and night, ever since I was forced to buy it after being named platoon sergeant. This was a Staff NCO billet on the MEU. As a corporal, I was two ranks too low. The other platoon sergeants that I dealt with on a daily basis were staff sergeants, gunnery sergeants on their second, third enlistments. I was 23 years old with less than three years time in service. And directly responsible for thirty five men.
My mind heard that nonexistent ringtone over and over again. That ringtone signaled the impetus of my back-to-back-to-back reign as battalion NCO of the Quarter, culminating in my meritorious promotion to sergeant. It was also the death knell of my military career. It rang all day as I coordinated the transportation logistics for the entire MEU. It rang all night as the men in my charge drank too much and got into trouble.
I glanced at the clock: 3am. I had to be up in two hours to lead the platoon in Monday morning PT. Because of the time difference, the early Sunday football games were just kicking off back home, so I flipped my TV over to one airing on AFN, laid back down and tried to get back to sleep. My sleep-deprived self noted the irony of the players bashing their heads against each other while I felt like I was bashing my head against the wall all day, every day.
I drifted off into a listless slumber, only to be awoken an hour later. This time my phone was actually ringing. I glanced at the caller ID, it was Staff Sergeant Sanchez from the infantry battalion currently attached to the MEU, and flipped open the phone.
"Lucier, where the fuck are my trucks?" Good morning to you too, staff sergeant. His platoon was spending the week at J-Dub, the Jungle Warfare Training Center on the north end of the island.
"Let me get ahold of my dispatcher and get back to you, staff sergeant."
"Hurry the fuck up!" Click.
On TV, one of the safeties delivered a bone crunching shot to a receiver that had ran a route over the middle. I fantasized about delivering a similar blow to Sanchez and called the dispatch office at our motor pool.
"CLB-31 Motor T, Corporal Granger."
"Hey, it's Lucy. What's up with those trucks taking 3/5 up to J-Dub?"
"We're ready to roll, Lucy. Waiting on A-Drivers." Standard operating procedures dictated that tactical vehicles required "assistant driver" passengers.
"Does their request say that they are providing A-Drivers?"
"I think so, but let me double check." I heard Granger shuffling some papers, "yep. Says right here ‘3/5 to provide.’"
"Roger, solid copy. Stand by, I'll probably be calling back soon." I pushed end and flipped the phone closed. Fucking Staff Sergeant Dumbass called, woke me up, yelled at me, and it was his own fault the trucks weren’t there. I got all of my cursing at Sanchez out of the way before I called him back, insubordination being punishable under article 91 of the UCMJ.
He picked up on the first ring. "Tell me some fucking good news, Lucier!"
"They're ready to roll, staff sergeant. But they are waiting on A-Drivers," I responded.
"Well where the fuck are the A-drivers?!"
"Your request said that you were providing them, staff sergeant."
"Think about that for a second there, corporal," Sanchez sneered. "If I provide the A-Drivers, they have to ride back, yes?"
"Yes, staff sergeant. But..."
"So, do you know where they wouldn't be?"
"At J-Dub, staff sergeant. But..."
"Bingo! Now wrangle up some A-Drivers and get those fucking trucks over here NOW!" Click.
I pulled the phone away from my ear and stared at the screen: CALL ENDED. "Aye aye, staff sergeant," I sighed and glanced at the TV just as a defensive end went unblocked and blindsided the quarterback who lay writhing on the ground. "I know how you feel, buddy."
I desperately needed coffee, but didn't like drinking it before working out. So I grabbed a Gatorade out of my mini fridge, my pack of cigarettes and lighter off my desk, slid on my flip flops and headed out of my room.
The barracks hallway, all weekend long a scene of drunken debauchery, was a ghost town. I shuffled along, stopped two doors down and pounded my fist on the door to wake up Privates First Class Fitz and Peterson, two of the newer members of my platoon. Fitz opened the door a moment later, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "Good morning, corporal," he yawned.
"Is Peterson up? I need you both, go get him."
Fitz opened the door wider and I saw Peterson groggily swing his legs over the side of his bed and stand. "I'm up, corporal."
"Good. Hurry up and get dressed and get down to the motor pool. You two are A-Driving up to J-Dub. Have either of you been up there yet?"
"Negative," they replied in unison.
"Good. Pay attention so you learn the route. And fellas, double time it, here. I'm going down for a smoke. You'd better be out the door by the time I'm done, good to go?"
"Aye aye, corporal."
The door swung shut and I continued shuffling along to the stairs and down, past the duty desk occupied by a half-asleep lance corporal from another platoon. He heard me coming and sat up straight, muttering, "oorah, corporal. Up early?"
"Same shit, different day. Keep those eyes open."
"I'm good to go, corporal."
I walked outside and fished a cigarette out of my pack. The smoke pit was a pavilion with two concrete tables and benches with empty ammo cans for butts. That morning, empty beer cans and bottles were strewn about as well. I jammed the cig into the corner of my lips, flicked my lighter and inhaled a deep drag. As I blew the smoke out I immediately felt some of the tension leave my shoulders.
I felt bad for having to wake Fitz and Peterson. They would have been up in forty five minutes anyway, but still. They probably saw me the same way I saw SSgt. Sanchez: assholes corrupted by power. Was it possible to be in my position of power and NOT turn into a Sanchez? Unfortunately (with a few rare exceptions), his behavior was representative of the majority of staff NCOs. Their brows had been so thoroughly beaten that they all wore the same perpetual scowl. Thoroughly institutionalized, they constantly prowled for the minutest of infractions, screaming at junior marines for having the audacity to do something as out of line as putting their hands in their pockets.
I pulled another drag and tapped the ash into an ammo can. A gust of wind blew an empty Bud Light off the table and it rolled around loudly. Keeping the smoke pit clean was part of the responsibility of the barracks' duty. I thought to myself, "I ought to go get that half asleep lance corporal and make him come clean this shit up." I took a step that way, but hesitated. That was Sanchez-style leadership. Sure, it was someone else’s duty, but it wasn’t like I was busy. I was on a smoke break, perfectly capable of cleaning up while puffing away. So, instead of tearing into a junior marine over something petty, I grabbed one of the empty ammo cans, gathered the cans and bottles into it, hauled it over to the dumpster and deposited it into the recycling.
I had fended off the corruption of power this time, but how much longer could I keep it up? A slide show of all of the staff sergeants I had dealt with in my career played in my mind. With the rare exception it was one asshole after another. Is that what it takes to be a leader? Is that what I wanted for my career, a constant battle with myself so as not to let the slightest bit of power turn me into a dick?
Not a chance. I decided then and there not to reenlist. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest my life, but I knew this wasn’t it.
Fitz and Peterson stumbled out into the darkness and flashed me a thumbs up as I took my last drag, field stripped the cherry and threw the butt into the ammo can. “Hang on a second, fellas,” I called after them. They stopped and I approached the two newbies. “Come see me when you get back, I’ll let you off early. Sorry I had to wake you up, the grunts fucked up their request.”
“All good, corporal,” Fitz replied.
“Alright, get up to the motor pool,” I ordered.
They responded in unison, “aye aye, corporal,” and marched off.
I strolled back into the barracks and up the stairs. When I walked into my room, the football game had reached halftime. The screen highlighted all of the day’s action, big plays and vicious tackles, celebrations and injuries. I pulled out my cell phone, opened up the settings and changed the ring tone. I vowed to change it every few days before it invaded my dreams. As soon as I finished and flipped the phone closed, the brand new ringtone assaulted my eardrums. I flipped it back open. “Corporal Lucier.”
Bob Lucier served as a Motor T Operator in the United States Marine Corps from 2006-2010 after failing his first attempt at college. He currently lives and works in St. Louis, where he is studying Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri -- St. Louis. He is a contributor for RTB. Follow Bob on Twitter.
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