Tell Me a True War Story: J. Bengfort
Jacquelyn Bengfort is a Washington, DC area writer and editor who served in the U.S. Navy for twelve years before resigning her commission as a Lieutenant. Jacquelyn (or Jaci, as her friends call her) has a fascinating background. She grew up in rural North Dakota, but over the course of her Navy career she deployed to the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Fleet Areas of Responsibility, or the Middle East/Horn of Africa, Europe/Northern Africa, and Asia/Australia, respectively. What an incredible journey — literally! Read on to hear more from Jacquelyn, who, true to her profession, is a wonderful writer; her interview makes for a lively read. Enjoy!
[Content notification: several mentions of male genitalia, albeit in a hilarious context.]
G: Tell me a little about yourself.
J: I grew up in rural North Dakota. My father, who is also a Navy veteran, worked in a factory that builds Bobcat skid-steer loaders, and my mother worked as a bookkeeper. I applied to the Naval Academy the summer before my senior year of high school, in 2001, and received my acceptance the day after Christmas that year. (In between applying and being accepted, 9/11 happened; I don’t think I fully understood then how much that event would change everything about what I was setting out to do.)
I was inducted to USNA in June of 2002 and graduated with an English degree and a commission four years later with the Class of 2006. I got married the summer after graduation and spent most of the next two years at graduate school — not a normal career move, but I had received a scholarship to attend the University of Oxford. Following my time in Oxford, I was assigned to a Washington-based guided-missile destroyer and a Norfolk-based multipurpose amphibious assault ship (basically a small aircraft carrier). My final deployment was 322 days long — at the time, the longest shipboard deployment in 39 years. Following that deployment, I left active duty and moved to Washington, DC with my husband, where we live today with the dog we acquired in our Oxford days and two children born after I left the service.
G: Do you watch war movies? Do you keep up with other types of popular media about war (like the Serial podcast or Humans of New York’s series about veterans)?
J: Does Wonder Woman count? Honestly, I don’t seek out war movies. I’ve lost classmates to war and that really sapped the appeal for me.
G: What’s the best war movie or tv show you’ve ever seen? Why do you think it’s the best? Do you think it tells a good story?
J: The Battle of Algiers. I watched it as an undergrad and ended up writing a paper about it. And The Grand Budapest Hotel, even though some might argue it’s not a “war movie” per se. As different as these two films are, they have in common the way they show war impacting lives beyond a traditional battlefield. And The Grand Budapest Hotel also benefits from being slightly ridiculous, which rings true to me. My life has been far less fantastic, in the sense of “resembling fastasy” or “difficult to believe,” since I resigned.
G: What’s the worst one?
J: The Last Ship (TNT) wins that prize for me. I think I got three episodes in before I just could not watch anymore. I don’t mind a far-fetched premise, but they completely missed the humorous side of sea service — even under the worst circumstances, there are jokes, there’s an element of absurdity to the endeavor. And when the plot of an entire episode relied on a fundamental misunderstanding of how radar works? I could not even hate-watch it after that.
G: What do you think about how soldiers / veterans are represented in the popular media you consume? About how military service or combat is represented?
J: A few months ago, a friend confessed that she and her husband had disagreed as to whether I even was a veteran, because I’d never been boots-on-the-ground with a rifle in hand, taking enemy fire. There was no malice in his contention that I wasn’t a veteran, but I think that misunderstanding speaks to the way people think about veterans and how they are portrayed. There’s also this obsession with scars, visible and invisible. Yes, we have a problem with the way veterans are(n’t) receiving the medical care they need, with the way PTSD is(n’t) treated, but it seems almost like you’re not a real veteran unless you are damaged. And many of us aren’t.
G: You work as a freelance writer now. I assume that means you are a reader, too! Is there a book or other piece of writing about war that you’d recommend? Where we can find your own writing? I, for one, would love to read it.
J: When it comes to writing about war, I’m hardly alone in finding I always learn something from reading Tim O’Brien. Willfred Owen, one of the pre-eminent poets of World War I, is also a favorite. And as a sailor, I love poetry about the sea as well, especially Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Exiled.” You can find my writing linked on my website at JaciB.com!
G: Is there anything you want people to know about your service?
J: You can be appreciative of someone’s service without giving them a pass on their bad opinions. Nothing convinces me less than an argument that starts with the phrase “as a veteran.” A veteran can be wrong. I can definitely be wrong. Military service is not an inoculation against wrong-thinking.
G: Do you often encounter misperceptions about your service? As a woman, do you think your gender plays into that?
J: I get two main reactions — either a kind of disbelief, because I don’t come off as stereotypically “military,” or uncomfortable jokes about how I must be some sort of super-spy assassin. (Ok, so my archery hobby may have something to do with that.) And yes, I’m sure that my gender plays into that a bit, but it also just shows that many people don’t really understand the nature of service — I know I didn’t, when I joined. Service is really 95% waiting around and preparing for a series of worst-case scenarios, and 5% operating under extreme stress and terrifying circumstances. Even 5% may be high. Sometimes service is sweeping a passageway every afternoon for months on end, or administering smallpox vaccines to three hundred Sailors, or gathering quotes for a press release, or coming into an office and working through stacks of paperwork and going home at night.
G: Tell me a story. Any story.
J: Ok, so this is a weird story, and it’s not about battle or even bureacracy. It’s about cartoon penises. Maybe more of an anecdote about cartoon penises.
At any given time on a destroyer, probably 15–20% of the crew is standing some sort of watch — engineering, which involves keeping the engines and generators running, making sure the water purifiers are functioning properly, tracking oil and fuel onboard; combat, which involves tracking contacts and looking out for threats; and navigation, making sure the ship is getting where it needs to without hitting anything. And the rest of the crew is on call if something goes wrong — everyone has a battle station — or if we’re doing something higher-stakes, like pulling into port, when closer to half the ship’s personnel are on watch.
So, with 24 hours in a day, most of your personnel are going to stand watch between four and six hours a day. On the bridge (or pilothouse) — where the ship is navigated — four groups of junior officers stand three watches in teams of three, generally, and the watchbill rotates, so you are always standing the watch one earlier than the last one you stood. So if on Monday you’re on the evening watch from 5pm-10pm, then on Tuesday you stand from noon-5pm, Wednesday from 7am-noon. On Thursday you pull two watches, the one that starts at 2am and goes until breakfast at 7, and then the one that starts at 10pmthat night and ends at 2am Friday morning. Then the cycle starts again Friday night with the 5pm-10pm. (Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Some ships do it differently, but this was by far the most common watchbill I was on at sea. It’s grueling.)
This is a ton of backstory but I want to make sure you understand the psychology of the situation. Basically you have these four groups of junior officers (usually aged 22–25) who are taking turns at all hours making sure the ship stays in safe water and doesn’t get too close to other ships. These little teams often work together for several weeks before the watchbill is changed up, and they are always taking the watch from the team before them and handing off to the watch after them.
And there’s that hypothetical Thursday I mentioned above — on a day when you have the “rev watch” from 2am-7am and the “mid watch” from 10pm-2am, there’s a strong possibility that you are not going to get more than a nap for a twenty-four hour stretch of time, because you still have a division of Sailors to run and lots of administrative tasking and briefs to attend and meals to eat, etc. This means that while the team coming off the mid is basically giddy with exhaustion and the prospect of getting a few hours’ sleep before breakfast, the team coming on for the rev is already thinking about how shit they’re going to feel by midmorning.
They also hand off in almost complete darkness. Which is how I found myself one day, in I can’t remember what ocean, surrounded by cartoon penises.
The bridge has windows running along three sides for visibility, and everyone keeps track of all sorts of stuff on these windows using grease pen. More senior officers training more junior officers use the windows like a dry-erase blackboard, and we would often put up reminders as to the course and speed we had ordered or major events that would take place during watch. But at night, the black grease pencil markings just blended into the dark sky.
Sometimes you’re just desperate to find something to help you stay awake. The officers standing the mid had somehow decided that it would be hilarious to use the cover of darkness to draw cartoon penises of various sizes — we’re talking from a couple of inches up to several feet — on all the windows in the pilothouse. It’s hard to fall asleep if you’re busy sketching secret phalluses on every conceivable piece of glass. They were probably sniggering in their sleeves as they headed down to get their five hours of sleep before breakfast.
When the sun came up around 6am, I was far less amused — I was the senior officer on watch on the bridge and the captain often took his morning coffee there, to take morning reports and start his day with a bit of sun and fresh air.
I ordered one of the members of my team to call the officer I had relieved in the middle of the night. This was, possibly, the cruelest way I could retaliate, given he was in the middle of the sweet post-24-hour sleep, and I did not care. I was in a full-on rev watch murder haze, and when I overheard him giggling on the phone, it broke my brain a little bit. As I recall, I grabbed the receiver, told him to get up to the bridge immediately, and greeted him by shoving a rag into his hand and telling him to clean up his team’s nocturnal depictions himself.
Not my finest moment, perhaps, but I never had to deal with lewd scribbles on the pilothouse windows again.
I had to look up the poem Jacquelyn mentioned, “Exiled” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, because despite two degrees in English Literature, I couldn’t recall it. Now I know that’s because I had never read it — it is too beautiful to forget. Here’s the first stanza:
SEARCHING my heart for its true sorrow,
This is the thing I find to be:
That I am weary of words and people,
Sick of the city, wanting the sea;
Wanting the sticky, salty sweetness
Of the strong wind and shattered spray,
Wanting the loud sound and the soft sound
Of the big surf that breaks all day.
Jacquelyn, I am sure I speak for many when I say I will certainly avoid creating any unseemly graffiti in your presence! And yes, as far as I’m concerned, Wonder Woman counts for everything. You have my deep gratitude for this interview and for your service.
Next up, we will hear from my dear friend Nicole Uchida, who is currently teaching literature at the US Naval Academy.
Have a war story to tell? I’d love to help you tell it. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: “Tell Me a True War Story.”