A new Lieutenant in the US Army Reserve, I had the unfortunate luck of lacking a military assignment or unit to call my own. Like an unwanted orphan, I transitioned through my first training courses, unsure of whom I belonged or to where I was to finally report. My only contact with Army personnel (other than the ones in my classes) was by the letters I received every few weeks in the mail from “Big Army”, ordering me to my next block of instruction. It was during this time of “floating,” that I took the phone call from a man who was to be my Commander in one of the first of my world adventures.
I swept the school’s hallway floors furiously, eager to be finished with my additional duties and task-free for the rest of the day. Hour upon hour of military instruction in a classroom had me longing for fresh, outside air, peace and quiet, and possibly a beer. By this point in time, I was getting good at taking every opportunity to not be in uniform and instead, exploring the city of Augusta, GA. Finally finished, I flung my broom back into the cleaning closet and jetted out the nearest door. Only a few steps out into freedom, I felt the undeniable vibration of a ringing cellphone in my pocket.
I need a quicker exit, I thought to myself, pulling the phone from my pocket.
Not recognizing the phone number, I answered hesitantly, half-expecting a classmate calling to notify me of another random tasking.
“Is this Lieutenant Bramlett,” the voice on the other side asked.
“This is he…” I responded slowly. Definitely not one of my classmates.
“This is Lieutenant Colonel Adam Roth, Commander of the 844th Engineer Battalion,” the voice said matter-of-factly.
“How can I help you Colonel Roth,” I asked, still unsure of where this conversation was headed.
“For starters,” he began. “Welcome to the United States Army and congratulations on your recent commissioning into the military. Just so you’re aware, you’ve popped up on our books in the last few days, making you part of the 844th team. I wanted to call, personally, and get an idea of what your goals and aspirations are in the Army Reserve.”
All of it sounded so rehearsed; I got the sense he had practiced these lines a few times before calling. Regardless, I knew what I wanted in the Army and had no problem sharing it with this guy.
“To be honest sir, I actually have a lot of aspirations towards a career the Army.” I paused. It occurred to me that if this guy was truly about to be my boss, I would need to choose my words carefully. “In fact, I wasn’t planning on staying in the Reserves long…I intend to go onto active duty as soon as possible.”
Like any professional salesman, he started again without a missed beat. “That’s great! The active duty side needs more dedicated officers like you! I fully support your pursuits! When do you start?”
I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t ACTUALLY applied for active duty as of yet. My plan so far had been just to go for it in the near future.
“Well sir, I’m not sure yet. I guess I’ll have to wait and hear back once the packet has been submitted…”
“Even better! And I think I’ve got a proposition for you!” This guy WAS a pro. “You see, I happen to know that the active duty side of the Army doesn’t take brand new Lieutenants from the Reserve side without some kind of time in service and experience. But I can offer you that service and experience, right here! My unit is deploying to Iraq in the next few months and we’re in dire need of Signal Officer. If you help me fill this need, I’ll make sure you get everything you want in the end. How about it?”
This was the first I had heard of not being able to easily transfer to active duty and this guy DID seem to know what he was talking about. I mulled over the proposition for a few seconds before giving my answer. “Alright, sir. I’m in.” I never thought things through fully until it was usually too late. Why should this be any different?
“Good choice young man,” Lieutenant Colonel Roth said. “We’ll see you when you get here.” And with that, he was off of the phone, leaving me in the deafening silence of my quick decision.
As rash a decision, one could assume I had no idea what I was doing. But I did have valid justification. You see, up until this point in my life, I had little to show for accomplishments in my adulthood and was tired of it. I had squandered away enough good opportunities in my younger 20’s while my peers and friends had progressed in their career fields of choice. Thus, it was time to reclaim my fate and going to war was going to be my fast-track. My Mom was going to be sooo mad.
My first few weeks at “war” were far from exciting as I spent the majority of my time glued to a desk, attempting to learn the intricacies of my new job. To give a good comparison of this: it was like trying to drink water from a fire hose. And my Soldiers were faring no better. Like me, all of them were fresh out of Army training right before our deployment. And like me, they had the look of a deer in the headlights as the team we were to replace taught us the common tasks we were to take on. Going back and forth from work to my quarters consisted of sprinting as if my life depended on it. I soon concluded that running was not necessary as I was probably safer on the base than anywhere in the United States. Where else would I have the luxury of living behind a high wall crammed with guard towers, 24-hour security details, and surrounded by 40,000 Soldiers armed to the teeth? Even knowing this, it was a month after my arrival before I dared venture out past the base walls with the big boys.
My first trip into actual Iraq was a 30-minute helicopter ride north to Balad, an Air Force base with no real difference in amenities from my own (Stryker). Except that Balad had a swimming pool. This alone was the deciding factor in my agreeing to an initial face-to-face meeting with my superiors. Since our meeting that could have easily taken place over the phone, as expected, the entire event took a total of 10 minutes (including greeting and handshakes), leaving me the rest of the day to explore Balad as I awaited my flight back to home base. And since one could literally walk the length of the base in less than 15 minutes, I had ample opportunity to examine every nook and cranny. It was then that I discovered a tiny Iraq run shop, tucked away in a corner of the airbase.
I stepped into the shop and was immediately greeted by the owner, a squat Iraqi man who looked in his 50s. I returned the Arabic custom greeting and waved off his offer for a tour of his wares. Shops like these had sprung up on the American bases in recent years, all selling the same junk. Most of the stuff was knock-off antiques, barely worth pennies (evident by the “made in China” inscriptions stamped on each), and I wasn’t prepared to haul anything back on the cramped helicopter ride back. I passed by the walls of old currencies, random unit patches for resale, and fake name brand watches, making my way towards the back of the shop (where good items were usually hidden). Stacks upon stacks of black market DVDs served as my aisles as I rummaged through the piles aimlessly (one can never have enough DVDs when deployed). Finally reaching my way to the rear of the shop, I spied a familiar object that I would have never expected to see here. Propped in the far back corner, unused and collecting dust was a wooden 6-string, acoustic guitar. I hesitated for a minute before picking it up unsure if the guitar was actually for sale or just kept there as storage. Squatting down to quietly to test the strings, I strummed lightly with the pads of my fingers. The sound was nothing miraculous but considering the rare find, it was music to my ears. It was good enough for me and wanted it. I stood up and made my way back over to the shop owner.
“How much for the guitar back there?” I asked.
“100 dollars, “ he replied in a thick, Arabic accent.
“No haggle?” He looked at me perplexed. He seemed confused I wasn’t going to bargain for a cheaper price. I’m no good at bargaining. Even at a yard sale.
“No haggle, here’s the cash.” I handed over the wad of cash from my pocket and grabbed my new toy. Now I just had to hope that one of the pilots on the helicopter shared my love for music. Choppers don’t usually come with storage compartments for band equipment.
Originally, I thought to keep my new guitar in my quarters (aka CHU, or containerized housing unit, or metal box with door and air conditioning). But with so much of my time spent in the office, I rarely had the chance to play. Even when I could manage a few minutes of free time to myself, my roommate’s opposing schedule meant my jamming out interfered with his napping. So after a few days of sitting un-played in the corner, I brought the guitar to the office.
The 9 Soldiers in my charge and I shared a large office space; our desks were strewn about the room in a disheveled formation. As the Battalion Communications officer for the unit, it was my duty (and those who worked under me) to provide computer, phone, network, and radio support to anyone who needed it. I had decided early on that the best way to accomplish this kind was by running a Help Desk. Soldiers and customers could come by my section with their technical issues, fill out a Trouble Ticket, and we would repair or replace the particular item. The system worked well! Except that in order to provide support to the amount of Soldiers we had in the unit, the Help Desk had to run 24/7…always fun. This also meant that there was no alone time for anyone while actually in the office. Personally, this meant having an audience every time I broke out the guitar. For my Soldiers, it meant having to grit teeth and bear the grinding of my guitar as I attempted to play.
I started playing guitar at 14 when I received my first as a birthday gift from my mother. After a month of picking out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” at a slow snail’s pace, my mother also decided to throw in guitar lessons as part of the birthday gift. Luckily, my instructor was the coolest, most supportive teacher I could have asked for. And Greg Eustace was a hippie that was down for whatever his students wanted to learn. If you wanted to learn a song, he was in. If you wanted to sit and chord grind, by God, he was in for some chord grinding. In a matter of weeks, I learned songs from the likes of Green Day, Tonic, and Jewel (maybe not the best repertoire, but hey, we all start somewhere). If it wasn’t for Greg’s motivation and lack of pressure, I probably would have dropped learning to play after a few frustrating months. Instead, my interest only grew! So when there came the time for the family to move again, I kept playing. No matter where I’ve been over the years, I’ve always been sure to bring a guitar with me. There will always be a place for drunken guitar playing and singing.
One night, after most of my guys had cleared out of the office, I pulled out my guitar for a little practice time. My roommate Molina, another a staff officer in the Battalion (and musically inclined), joined my practice session with a set of bongo drums I had received in the mail as a gag gift from Mom. Using sheet music from the Internet, we dove into playing bad renditions of our favorite songs. But as bad as it probably sounded, we were lost in the moment, able to forget that we were trapped in the deserts of Arabia for the next year. In fact, we were so caught up in the music neither of us heard my office door open as someone let themselves in. It wasn’t until their shadow crossed my desk did it register that someone was with us. Standing across my desk, looming over us stood my Battalion Commander, LTC Adam Roth, with the strangest look on his face. I feel the need to mention here that receiving strange looks from this man was not unusual, for anyone. Neither was being berated, lectured, completely ignored, or praised for actions one may have not been involved in (I was once thanked for making a website load faster while he browsed online…I had no involvement). Caught in the act of time-wasting, I stood to face my commander and prepared myself for the onslaught of screaming. Still silent, his eyes darted back and forth between Molina and I, as if deciding on which to cut apart with his words, first.
“Grab your little things and meet me in my office in five minutes,” he spat finally, turning on his heels and walking out of my office.
Molina sat back down, mortified (I was better used to scolding’s from the boss so I remained calm). “Is he going to fire us?” he squeaked out.
I thought for a second. “No. He has no one to replace use with. But let’s not keep him waiting.”
We gathered our gear and trudged down to the commander’s office. I walked in first, Molina trailing behind solemnly, and stood at half-attention (half, because I wasn’t sure about how formal our visit was and I wanted to be prepared, either way). LTC Roth sat with his back to us in his large swivel chair, furiously working away at some object that was too far out of my line of view to identify. Probably my counseling statement, I thought to myself. But as the boss’ chair spun back round towards me I couldn’t help but smile as I immediately recognized what he had: an electric guitar.
“I found some sheet music and want us to try it,” the boss said, half-singing as he went right into a song.
It only took about 10 seconds to realize that my Commander, perhaps, wasn’t the best singer or guitar player. Completely off-key with half of the guitar chords correct, he banged out a disjointed “Hotel California.” Molina and I did our best to join after a few notes with the harmony. The boss played through the song twice, without stopping, before finally setting his guitar down.
He stared up at us questioningly. “What did you boys think?”
I thought long and hard before deciding on my response. “Sir, for a first time run-through, that wasn’t half-bad.”
Molina remained silent but nodded his head in agreement.
“You know what I think?” the decider of our military fates asked.
I jumped in. “That we should start a band?” I could only hope that my response came out less acerbic than it sounded in my head.
“That’s right! We just started a band!” He sat back in his chair, as if feeling accomplished.
Shit, I thought to myself, I’ve just worked myself into a corner.
Since Molina’s continuous silence meant he was probably not going to assist in extricating us from our sudden dilemma, I realized it was up to me. Because I’m not the best at hiding my initial reactions to things I don’t agree with, I can only guess the look on my face as I spoke.
“Yes sir, we can definitely play more music. Whenever you like.”
“You’re not getting it,” the boss said. “When I say band, I mean a band. As in playing for other people.”
I knew exactly what he meant. I had only hoped that by playing stupid, I could buy myself enough time to figure a way out of it. Boss man wasn’t having it.
“We keep having all our events thrown with no music. I don’t like that. With all of the Iraqi DVs (distinguished visitors) coming through for visits, we’ll have a fresh crowd to play for every time.”
Now it was my turn to feel mortified. I could feel the blood drain from my face and the floor began to spin. The thought of performing (badly) for not only my peers but for a group of dignitaries I had worked so long to impress was enough to make my body physically reject the idea.
My career survival instincts kicked-in. “I’m not sure that’s the best idea, sir.” But he wouldn’t let me finish…
“You two will be at the Annex tomorrow at 8pm for our first practice.” And with that, he was out of the office and gone for the night, leaving Molina and I to piece together what had just happened. Flustered, I grabbed my guitar and walked out of the office, turning back only to give Molina the look of death (how else will they learn?). “Thanks for backing me up there…buddy.”
Within minutes, I was storming into my little, metal box of a home, pissed at myself for ever buying a guitar in Iraq.