Because spending five weeks at Camp wasn’t enough (generally speaking, it’s never enough), I volunteered for three more weeks of CTLT, making for an uninterrupted two months of Army Fun. CTLT is a sort of internship-slash-job-shadow where a Cadet, like myself, gets paired with a Lieutenant. This is neat for two reasons: you get sort of a preview of what you’ll be doing in a year’s time, and you get to spend time in a real unit, interacting with all the Officers, Sergeants, and Soldiers. You learn a lot of very practical things.
I volunteered for an Engineer unit: Bravo Company, 249th Battalion (Prime Power). And I really lucked out with the 249. Unique is a highly overused term these days, but that’s what they are. Their mission is to provide massive amounts of electrical power on demand, anywhere in the world. They’ve got some real powerful generators to help them do it (big ones, mounted on trailers, capable of powering medium-sized cities). More importantly, though, they’ve got the technical know-how to get it done.
Every enlisted soldier, as part of in-processing, takes a comprehensive test over 14-odd subjects. The top score is 130, the minimum 31. Soldiers that score 31 pretty much wind up with job titles like “infantryman” or “cook.” To branch Engineer requires a generally high score, but for Prime Power, though, the minimum is very high: 110. And all Prime Power soldiers are sent off to a year’s worth of college before they linkup with the unit. So Bravo 249 is filled with highly trained, very competent Sergeants and Warrant Officers. They aren’t any Specialists, Privates, or – for that matter – Lieutenants in 249. The platoons are called detachments, and they’re led by Warrant Officers (who know a lot more about electricity than any LT).
Bravo 249, like I said, is unique – it’s not part of the 82nd, or even the 18th Airborne Corps. I apologize for all the Army mumbo-jumbo jargon, but what I’m trying to express here is that the chain of command is very, very short. The Captain in charge of Bravo reports to the Colonel in charge of the 249th, who in turn reports directly to the Deputy Chief of Engineers, a General that wears two stars on his uniform, is the highest ranking Engineer in the Army, and generally spends a lot of time at the White House.
Seeing as there aren’t any LTs to mentor me, I bounced around the unit like a motivated, dedicated, and curious Ronin, learning about things on both the company and platoon levels. So it was a big help that everyone in the unit is knowledgeable and willing to take a minute and show the Cadet something.
Life itself is a lot better here at CTLT. They put all of us Cadets up at the Gateway Inn, a dinky little hotel right off post. The Internet access is on-again, off-again but it’s got clean, private bathrooms, and two big old queen size beds that we never have to make. I’m a pretty tidy person, but at camp you slept on top of your already-made bed, thankful to be shivering under a thin blanket rather than be scrambling to remake the bed during the next morning’s hustle. And that’s already assuming that you weren’t sleeping on the cold, hard ground.
Back in K-vegas, where I go to school, I couldn’t ask for a better roomie (that’s you, DM Redbeard). And it seems I lucked out twice: my roommate is a Puerto Rican named Jose Raymond Santiago. Santiago was in my platoon at camp, and I couldn’t really ask for a better CTLT roomie. He doesn’t steal any of my TA-50 (stuff), he racks out about the same time I do, and he’s always up for going and getting something to eat. I tell you what, after five weeks of Army food, I was ready all of it: gagburgers, gutbombs, french fries, greasy pizza, grapefruit, Juicy Fruit… [I] committed a little mortal sin. It’s good for my soul.
Living at Gateway isn’t great, but I can’t complain – CTLTing is predominately a 9-to-5 job, meaning we’ve got a time to decompress a little bit of the combat fatigue leftover from Camp, we get absolutely glorious amounts of shut-eye, but we still stay busy enough to make the time pass.
Now, then – that’s the setup, these are the stories:
I, for totally trivial reasons, had to make at appearance at the hospital during my second week. During the sign-in process, they asked for rank and I, being a Cadet, marked CDT (as I had a thousand other times on a thousand other forms) and thought nothing of it. When I turned the form back in, the receptionist looked at me a little funny, which should have alerted me that something was off. But it wasn’t until, 40 minutes later, a nurse opened the door and called for “Captain Fenton,” that I figured out something was, indeed, off. Captains in the Army usually have, say, 7+ years experience, and spend sometime in charge of a company (160ish soldiers). Cadets, on the other hand, have a few months experience, and we usually spend sometime in charge of other Cadets.
So, after scanning the waiting room, wondering if maybe my Dad had a real high-speed brother I didn’t know about (My mom has a high-speed brother, whose names is also frequently preceded by “Captain,” but I already know about him), I explained to the Nurse that, while I wrote “cDt,” the receptionist must’ve read “cPt.” The Nurse then explained to me that I was in the system as “CPT,” and that wasn’t about to change, and congratulations on being the only 21 year old Captain in the Army of this Grand Republic. I was promptly demoted upon exiting the hospital.
On one of the 249’s slower days, I got a chance to spend some time with a Topography Engineer unit on the other side of base. I got paired with LT Smith, who went to West Point and really changed my perspective on Pointers. Before him, the three or so West Point graduates I’d met had epitomized the Type A, Lieutenant-Never-Give-Up stereotype. LT Smith, though, was laid back, relaxed, and entirely squared away.
The Topo company was split into four platoons – a Survey platoon, a Terrain platoon, a Production platoon, and a Headquarters platoon. I saw a little bit of them all, but spent most of my time with LT Smith and the Survey platoon. They’ve got a lot of real high-speed and rugged GPS equipment, which they use to plot points on the ground, mostly in the construction of airfields. Since FAA regulations stipulate that all airfields must be re-surveyed every 5 years, they keep busy with a lot of traveling/training.
Since they were getting ready for a trip down to FT Hood, Texas next week, they were unpacking and testing all their equipment, and they let me play with a bit. What they do is really pretty incredible – they can, quite literally, take a dime-sized spot on the ground and give you coordinates with “sub-millimeter accuracy.” That’s crazy and what’s crazier is that, when they work in conjunction with the rest of their Battalion, they only need 72 hours to transform a big old piece of terrain (forest, desert, whatever) into an airstrip (clear it, survey it, pack it, set up defenses, etc) capable of landing a fleet of fully loaded C-130s (big old planes you can fit a few tanks into).
As far as traveling goes, there wasn’t much. Our first weekend up was a three day, and we spent it in South Carolina. We hit up Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and Wilmington (where they filmed Dawson‘s Creek). I was joined by three other cadets, including my roommate, Santagio.
Now I don’t mind group traveling but in my experience, anything more than three makes for trouble. But there are certain undeniable benefits – shelter costs are split, it’s a bit easier to talk to locals, etc. I won’t say they slowed me down, but I will say they slept in few hours longer than I did, they didn’t like to drive more than 100 miles at a time, they wanted to stop at every store we saw and one of them was cell phoning it about half of his waking hours. The trip still went alright, and we got to see some real cool stuff, but I did break my own rules and I paid for it. Starting with, of course, the Cardinal Rule of Fentonian Travel: invite others to travel with you, but don’t break your plans for man, woman, or beast.
The funniest thing that happened on the trip happened in the South Carolina welcoming center, which is a little funny in-and-of-itself. None of the workers would talk about anything outside of South Carolina, and they shushed me anytime I asked. Still, I persisted and when I finally convinced the girl helping me to thumbs-up or thumbs-down a town right over the border, she made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone (who would I tell?). If it sounds stupid to you, I suppose the hilarity is in the immediacy.
I also wandered into competing in the FT Bragg Invitational Swim Meet, which was a lot of fun. I was asked if I could swim on a Friday (I said I could). They didn’t tell me the meet was on Tuesday. Which was sort of bothersome, especially since Alcatraz was three years ago and I’ve been dry ever since. But a lack of swimming doesn’t correlate to a lack of exercise, and I keep in pretty good shape. The meet was spread out over two days, and I raced four events each day.
There was a time when I took swimming very, very seriously. I lived for the meets; the feel of the water, the thrill of competition, the stench of chlorine. But all that is behind me, and it was an altogether different experience, swimming for “just the fun of it.” I swam with two LTs and a few Joes under the 30th Engineer’s roster (including two relays), and we didn’t do to bad for ourselves. Especially considering that I got lost on my way there, running on deck just as they were clearing the pool to start the meet, so I started the meet sans warm-up, which was a bit daunting. But I preserved, got some medals, and had a jolly good time. The big competition was some soldiers from a Special Forces Training Group, which was a bit intimidating (only until I beat them, I mean….).
Our next trip was up to the Capitol area. It was a four hour drive to Richmond, Virgina and a two hour train ride from there to the District. Despite the opinions of some of the women I’ve dated, I’m not stupid enough to drive into DC. My roommate, being from Puerto Rico, wanted to see all the sights (I’ve been) so we did, and it was cool. We stayed in a funky little hostel in the Georgetown suburbs, sampled the nightlife, woke up, saw the rest of the sights, and went home. It was a pretty quick (30-odd hours) trip.
CTLT, in closing, wasn’t bad. Camp seems like it was years ago, and a lot of suck. In the end, it was just something I had to go through to get to where I wanted. But CTLT was something fun. I learned (a lot), I got to see a few parachute drops, I sat in on a few teleconferences with Germany and Iraq, and I did a lot of playing around with some really cool Engineer equipment.
And, as if this writeup wasn’t long enough, I’d like to take a paragraph to explain all the switcheroos surrounding my moniker. It’s a long-ish story that starts, ironically enough, with a little drinking. I swear I’m not the boozebag I make myself out to be, but that’s how it starts. I stayed a little to long in that familiar phase where you begin to think you’re the smartest guy in the entire world, and I wound up concluding a number of things:
that the purpose of a name is to distinguish human beings from other human beings -> that running into (on that particular day) three other humans called “Josh” defeated the purpose of that particular name -> that my middle name, Kirk, would now serve as my first name -> that, as a man of action, I needed to make the world immediately aware of this Change Of Plans
And that is the story of how and why I changed my name on Facebook and my banking statements. Yet, after a bit of thought and two instances of fellow cadets correctly guessing my first name (apparently I’ve got that “Josh” look), I have re-embraced my Josh-hood with… how do you say?… panache. Josh is my generation’s everyman; the common name of those that I will defend, write about, and represent, if life allows me the slightest opportunity to do so. I have, in closing, made note of those that supported my freedom of name-choice and those that did not. I will hold grudges accordingly.
Having said that, I must admit that I’m very excited to make it back to Kirksville. All this Armying has it’s place, and now it’s time to start wearing civilian clothes (although I will miss all the handy pockets: for the last two Saturdays, I’ve caught myself more than once reaching for things in pockets that aren’t there). It’s time to get back to that college environment – to see all my great MOpals, breathe that sweet Missouri air, do a bit of late-night socializing and all those things other stupid/smart things.
edit: Let me tell you a little bit about my aunt Jennifer. I visited FT Bragg almost exactly a year ago, under the auspices of training with my Uncle. The weather in Fayetteville went south, and my flight was canceled for three solid days. Jennifer bent over backwards two or three times to get me back to Portland and, consequently, off to Sydney. Even now, twelve months later, I still cannot express my gratitude enough.
I am now, through curious circumstance, writing this in the Fayetteville airport and stuck in much the same situation. My flights have all been jumbled up and my choices came down to A) wait a day or B) fly into St. Louis and footmarch it up to Kirksville. Remember when I said my roomie, DM Redbeard, was a top shelf guy? Well he, Kelly, Mary and I are thick as thieves, basically. Kelly and DM drove down to pick me up and take me back (six hours, round trip). Mary, who lives in St. Louis now, meet us all at the airport, and it felt pretty good, seeing all my hombres as I stepped off that plane.