A few weeks ago, I was catching up on the phone with my friend, Trish, who knows me better than almost anyone.
"So," she asked, "are you speaking anywhere interesting in the next few months?"
"Well," I responded, "I've been asked to speak at a senior leadership onsite meeting at Fort Benning army installation in Columbus, Georgia."
For a moment, there was silence. And then, the distinct sounds of weak, helpless laughter.
"An army base?!" Trish sputtered. "Are you going to ride in a tank?"
"Actually ..." I began, but Trish howled before I could continue.
I started laughing as well -- because, seriously, the thought of me on an army base was downright ridiculous. For one thing, while I certainly understand the need for a military, I really, truly abhor the idea of war. At my core, it turns out, I'm a pacifist. Secondly, I had absolutely no understanding of the military at all. None of my family members have ever been in the military, and even though I attended Texas A&M University, an institution that commissions more officers in the United States armed forces than any other U.S. college outside of the official military academies, the truth is that I had only a few friends who were in the corps of cadets, and so remained largely oblivious to military life.
In short, I knew nothing.
Nonetheless, on Wednesday, I boarded my flight to Columbus, Georgia, ready to speak to some of the women soldiers and military wives at Ft. Benning. By this point, I had received a detailed itinerary (completely with what "movements" were to occur at times with names like "0700 hours"), and I knew that I was to have a military escort, a driver, and a steward, for heaven's sake, receiving some pretty special treatment while I was "on post."
As a result, I was intimidated as hell.
Since returning from my trip, I've tried to process everything that I experienced and felt, really synthesize it, and the truth is, I can't. I remain pretty overwhelmed. So the following is a sort of retelling of events as they occurred.
* * * * * * * *
I walked through the terminal building at the tiny Columbus airport, searching for my escort, someone who looked like she might answer to "First Lieutenant MaryWhitney Whittaker." I only spotted one uniformed soldier waiting.
"Are you Lieutenant MaryWhitney?" I asked, walking over.
"I am!" said the young woman, standing up and putting on her "cover" (hat). "Welcome to Columbus."
I followed her to a van, where another uniformed soldier, Sargeant Grant, was waiting to drive us. On the way to the house where I was scheduled to stay overnight, First Lieutenant Whittaker pointed out the points of interest we passed. I liked her immediately: she was warm and smart and funny and she laughed at my jokes (which I always consider the sign of someone with good taste and strong moral character. Ahem). She also patiently answered all of my moronic questions, including giving me a primer on the different ranks among the enlisted soldiers and commissioned officers. As she spoke, I couldn't help but notice the flash of her engagement ring and wedding band.
"You're married," I said. "Is your husband military too?"
"Yes," she smiled, her eyes softening at his mention.
"Here at Fort Benning?"
"Well, yes, normally, but right now he's in Afghanistan. In fact, I was talking to him on the phone right before you walked up to me at the airport." She said this without any particularly intense emotion, much in the same way I would tell you that Marcus was out on a bike ride, or at the grocer's. I searched her smiling face, looking for something like longing or sadness, and was surprised when I didn't find it: her husband, it seemed, was just doing his work, like my husband does his in a shiny skyscraper in Houston.
He was just doing his job.
* * * * * * * *
My lodgings for the evening was the Marshall House Distinguished Visitors Quarters -- large house whose name indicates that is clearly designated for visitors far more distinguished than I. Nonetheless, as I was discovering, the post did everything they could to make me feel incredibly welcome, and this house was no exception.
After a delicious dinner with some of the wonderful women who organized my visit, Sargeant Grant returned me to the house at about 9:30 p.m, where I would be staying completely alone. As a result, of course, I started snooping all over the place -- reading where generals and ambassadors and dignitaries from all over the world had signed the huge guest book, browsing through ancient tomes on leadership and military strategy, and looking at the military art on the walls.
Suddenly I heard -- or really, felt -- a deep, low boom, that shook the foundation of the house. Huh, I wondered briefly. I wonder what that was. And then I returned to my book.
And then I heard it again. Followed by loud -- loud -- repetitive percussive noises. Then another boom. Again, I wondered, until slow realization began to creep over me. I called Marcus.
"I think I'm under attack."
"They're doing artillery exercises somewhere very, very close. Can you hear it?"
"Barely. That's sort of cool!"
"It's totally not. It's very creepy. I'm a little freaked out. It's like Baghdad up in here."
"Well, yeah, that's how it sounds, I guess."
"Why are they doing it at night? I mean, it's 9:30! Don't these soldiers have to go to sleep?"
"You donut." I could almost hear him shaking his head. "It's not like during war time, the enemy goes, 'Well, guys, I guess that's it for the day. Time for tea!'"
Oh. I guess not.
That night, in the dark house, I lay in bed and listened at the artillery noises until the exercises were finished, at about 11 p.m. And even though I knew I was completely safe, it was then that it really hit me: war really ain't no joke.
* * * * * * * *
The next morning, the steward of the Marshall House, Specialist DeShonta Meares, met me in the dining room with one of the best omelets I've ever eaten in my life. As I greeted her good morning, I asked, "Those were artillery exercises I heard last night, weren't they?"
She thought for a moment, "Oh, yes ma'am, I guess so. I don't even notice them any more."
"Well, boy, I noticed them."
She smiled. "Yes, some guests complain about them. I'm sorry."
"Oh, no, I'm not complaining! It was sort of cool, I guess. But it sort of freaked me out."
She laughed. "Sometimes, the helicopters fly over as well."
My eyes widened. "Dude, thank God that didn't happen. I held it together with the artillery fire, but if a helicopter flew overhead, too? You would've found me this morning under your desk in the basement. I'd have totally thought they were coming to get me."
She burst out laughing. "Ma'am, coming to get you for what?"
"I don't know, just get me!"
"Ma'am, if I found you down there, I would have died with laughter."
We spent the rest of my breakfast talking, her telling me why she joined the army (to become a chef), and her aspirations (to work in the kitchen on Air Force One). She was totally full of joy and optimism, and I loved meeting her.
All too soon, it was 0745, and time for me to meet First Lieutenant MaryWhitney to begin my day. I thanked Specialist Meares profusely ("I'm so glad you ate everything I made you!" she said -- but seriously, it was amazing). Then I grabbed my bags, signed the guest book, and left.
* * * * * * * *
Our first stop that morning was to the National Infantry Museum, located on post, and dedicated "to the long legacy of valor and sacrifice of the United States Army Infantrymen." This is a truly impressive building with extensive exhibits, and I was scheduled to tour "The Last 100 Yards," a series of installations depicting 236 years of the various wars of which the United States Army has been a part.
Mr. Frank Hanner, the curator and director of the museum, guided us through the tour, and was full of stories and anecdotes about details of obstacles and challenges the soldiers faced, and acts of heroism. He was so passionate, it was impossible not to get drawn completely into the the events.
And this is the part where I admit that it got to me. As I walked through the exhibit, going from war scene to war scene, with the dramatic music swelling around me, punctuated with flashing lights and the loud sounds of gunfire and bombs exploding, I pretty much almost lost it: on several occasions I found myself biting my lip or digging my fingernails in the palms of my hands in a desperate attempt to keep from bursting into tears. Under different circumstances, I probably would've been able to keep my shit together a little better, but I couldn't help but notice that as I walked through, actual soldiers who were visiting the museum -- young kids in uniform -- were walking right past me. These are scenes and sounds and noises these kids could very likely experience very soon in Afghanistan, I kept thinking. I was heartbroken.
After the short visit, as we walked out into the sunshine and I blinked way my tears, MaryWhitney looked at me. "I'm sorry, I should've warned you," she said. "I've been to this exhibit several times, and I always get choked up, as well."
"Don't you ever get scared, MaryWhitney? How does this not terrify you?"
"No, I really don't," she said, smiling kindly. "But of course, I grew up with this. My dad is career army, and my brothers are in the military. My grandparents were in the military. It's what I know."
"Man, I'm petrified for you," I said. "I don't know how you do it."
"Well," she conceded, a shadow crossing her face, "I mean, sometimes if I think about it a lot, like especially my husband being there now, sure, I worry about him." Her face cleared. "But you have to understand: this is what we do. You just get on with it. We're fighting for what we believe in. This is what we do."
* * * * * * * *
Our next visit was a tour of the armory and the tanks. As our van drove up, we were met by several young soldiers who gave me a tour of two of the tanks: the Bradley A3, and another one that begins with an A whose name I totally forget right now. As I climbed into and on top of and crawled all over the tanks, I couldn't help but breathe a silent prayer that I had chosen to wear trousers and low heels for this trip.
If Trish could see me now, I thought.
Just like MaryWhitney, the young men who gave me the tour were incredibly patient with what must have been completely idiotic questions, pointing out how the tanks work, and what their various jobs were as part of the team who would operate a tank. Finally, I asked the question I'd been dying to ask:
"So, have any of you seen any action?"
They all pointed to one young soldier to my right, who couldn't have been more than 21 or 22.
"Where were you?"
"Wow. So can I ask you a question?"
"You're in Baghdad, riding around in one of these things, shooting at targets and getting shot at and bombs going off all around you, is that right?"
"Okay, so when you get back, and you see all your civilian buddies who are busy playing video games ... do you mock them? Like just shake your head at them, thinking these chumps don't even know?"
His face broke into a smile, but he didn't skip a beat. "Yes, ma'am, I do."
"Because I gotta tell ya, I've never been to Baghdad, and just crawling all over this tank makes me want to run home and make fun of my husband and his computer games right now."
"Yes, ma'am, I think you should."
* * * * * * * * *
Finally, it was time to do my presentations. I was actually scheduled to give two talks: the first part was a presentation, largely based on The Beauty of Different; the second was a workshop after lunch, based loosely on the Path Finder course. They both went well, thank heavens: the women who kindly attended were deeply engaged, and eagerly shared their stories. During the lunch, I was able to meet several of their spouses, who were having a seminar of their own in another part of the building. Everyone was amazing and gracious, and without exception, I loved everyone I met.
At the end of the day, as I was taking my leave, I was approached by a tall, very congenial uniformed officer. He was none other than Major General Robert Brown, the leader of the entire Ft. Benning installation. He extended his hand.
"I hear you did an outstanding job," he said, with a huge smile.
"Thank you sir, I hope so!" I said, shaking his hand.
"Well, we're so pleased you came out to see us," he said.
"Sir, the honour was definitely mine. I'm really overwhelmed."
"I wanted you to have this," he said, pressing a coin in my hand.
"We give these to soldiers who perform outstanding service," he explained. And then he began describing all of the symbols that were both on the front and back of the coin.
And for the second time of the day, I found myself fighting tears.
"Thank you, sir, I'll treasure it," I said. "May I salute you?"
"You may!" he smiled.
"Oh dear Lord, not like that," he said. And he adjusted my hands and fingers and when I was saluting properly, he saluted me back.
"Thank you, sir."
"Thank you. Have a safe trip back to Houston."
As I mentioned at the beginning of this epically long post, I'm still really overwhelmed and processing everything I experienced. But I do know this: my feelings about war are as intense as ever; perhaps even more so now. War is an ugly, ugly thing, and it pains me that politicians, many of whom have never experienced war themselves, easily send young men and women off to do battle.
But for now, that's beside the point.
What I also know is that the men and women I met at Fort Benning are impressive, not just because they "fight for their country," or "make such sacrifices" or any of the cliché terms you hear about the military. They're impressive because from what I saw, they are devoted to each other: they truly care about each other's well-being, and they believe and show true passion about their work. They are devoted to family, and despite the horrors of war, they do as much as they can to make sure that their families are as supported as possible. Also, each person I met was, without exception, warm, and respectful and kind -- again, not just to me, but to each other. And believe me, I was watching.
And so, deep, heartfelt thanks to Major General Robert Brown and his wife Patti Brown, Susan Berry, First Lieutenant MaryWhitney Whittaker and each and every one of my new friends at Fort Benning. It was an experience I will never, ever forget.
(And, as always, here's what else I'm grateful for this week.)