LIFE LESSONS LEARNED AS A SOLDIER
A Great Army Adventure
Some of the best adventures I had in my life were in the Army. Considering that I spent 28 years there, you would kind of expect that, wouldn’t you?
When I was headed to Germany from Fort Dix, NJ in April of 1976, the guy driving me to JFK airport had a flat tire and no spare. It took us a while to get to the garage, get the tire repaired, and head north again.
All the while, I was a bundle of nerves worrying about I would miss my flight and be considered absent without leave (AWOL).
By the time I got to the airport, I had missed my flight. I went to the military liaison immediately to turn myself into military authorities. I knew that if I was under military jurisdiction, I wouldn’t be considered AWOL.
They turned me over to the military police (MP), who took me to Fort Hamilton to spend the night. The next day, I sat in the terminal, waiting for a stand-by flight hoping someone didn’t make it on time.
I wound up getting four seats in first class because an Army General had decided to take his family on vacation rather than fly back to Germany after giving a speech at West Point.
The stewardess even brought me a second meal after I wolfed down the first one. Having a full belly, I stretched out across those seats and slept most of the way to Germany.
When I got to the replacement detachment in Frankfurt, the clerk asked me where I wanted to go. I said, “Shoot, I don’t know anything about Germany. Where’s a good place to go?”
He said, “I’ve heard people say Heidelberg is the best, but there aren’t any slots there right now. I can get you a place in Mannheim, which is about twenty minutes from Heidelberg.” I said, yeah, sure.
He said, “You look wiped out, how long have you been traveling?” I said it had been a couple of days because I missed my flight out of New York. He said, “How long has it been since you had a good meal?”
I said, “Not counting airplane food, a couple of days.”
He said, “Yeah, airplane food can be pretty bad, huh?” I didn’t tell him I had two meals. Then, he asked, “How long’s it been since you had a joint?”
I laughed and said, “Yeah, a couple of days, too.”
The Regional Personnel Center (RPC), Mannheim, Germany
Then, he got on the phone with the First Sergeant at my new unit, and said, “Hey, First Sergeant, I have a new 75D for you. He smokes dope, though.”
I thought to myself, you sneaky SOB. But what could I do, right?
When I got to the unit, the Frist Sergeant says, “Welcome aboard, Specialist Dalton. Let me show you where your room is, but I got to tell you, the Commander doesn’t like dope smokers, so keep that shit out of the barracks.”
He takes me upstairs to show me my room, and there’s a cloud of smoke hanging in the hallway. He opens the door to the room, and three guys were sitting there, smoking a bong.
The First Sergeant says, “Hey, what did I tell you about smoking dope in the barracks. And why aren’t you guys at work? Get out of here and get back to work.”
Officer Records & T. T. Sanders
I was assigned to Officer Records as the Officer Efficiency Report Clerk. Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CW4) Thomas Tolson Sanders, or T. T. as his friends called him, was my boss.
He was the coolest man I ever worked for and funny as hell. I remember one time, he reached in my ashtray, pulled out a cigarette butt, and said, “Hoss, one of these days, I’m gonna stomp your butt!” As he threw the cigarette butt on the floor and stomped on it.
When he asked where I was from, I said, “Maine.” He said, “Oh yeah, that’s one of them little counties of Texas.”
Everyone that worked in that office was so friendly. I think it must have been a prerequisite to work there.
SSG Bellah was my Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC). Twenty years later, I was speeding on my way down to Dallas-Fort Worth to catch a flight to Atlanta, I got stopped for speeding. Turned out, he was a sheriff there. He didn’t give me a ticket; he gave me an escort to the airport.
There was Pat Oard, Leah Head, John Romero (my roommate and best friend), Marsha Marchbanks, Terry Jones, and later SSG Leclerc (who was also really cool and we’re still friends on Facebook). Keep in mind, this was 1976–78, and we still keep in touch even though we haven’t met again in person.
Some of the people have a Facebook Group (headed by Max Mora) and they still get together for a reunion every now and then. I’ve just never been in the right situation to get there.
Our Field Training Exercise (FTX)
This was a personnel center; we never went to the field or did any of the things other Army people did.
Major (MAJ) Dodman and Captain (CPT) Hodges decided to take our operations to the field for two weeks, which was an excellent idea to give us an idea of how the Army worked outside the office.
We had a few big tents to eat in and carry on our usual operations, but everyone slept in two-person tents formed using each Soldier’s shelter half, some had zippers, some buttons, and some snaps.
As we set up tents, Diane had snaps on her shelter half the same as me, so we started setting up our tent together. MAJ Dodman came over and asked us whose tent it was, and we both said “me” at the same time. He said, “Oh no, that isn’t happening.”
I said, but sir, we’re both Soldiers. He said, “Yes, but there are female Soldiers, and there are male Soldiers, and you are not sharing a tent.”
I learned so much in those two weeks and had a great time. We were out on “patrol,” and we saw the “enemy” with a flat tire on a big 2.5-ton truck, what we called a “deuce and a half.” They had their weapons stacked, and they were changing the tire. I told everyone to surround the truck, so we could take them prisoner.
As we walked up, the tailgate dropped, and there was a gunner (big SGT Pitts, a gentle giant) with a machine-gun in the back. He opened fire, and we would all have been dead had it been real bullets.
On the last day of the exercise, we marched out to the final battle in a wedge formation. They were dug in on the top of a hill. On the way there, there was a lookout tower. MAJ Dodman told me to sneak up the ladder and make sure no one could radio ahead to warn them we were coming.
When I got up there, the lookout tower was empty. I ran as fast as I could to catch up and not miss the battle. Just as I got there, my multiple integrated laser engagement system (miles) gear went off, I had been shot, and thus taken out of the battle. After that, MAJ Dodman started calling me, SGT Rock.
Good friends and good times, those were some of the best days of my life. In my 28 years, I haven’t had many commanders who were more compassionate and caring than MAJ Dodman.
When I was stationed in Belgium 20 years later, our higher headquarters was in the same building that was headquarters for the RPC and later the 187th Personnel Service Company. The rooms for male Soldiers were on the second and third floors.
When I went there to pick up some radio parts, Mr. T. T. Sanders was the person I had to see to get those parts. It was amazing to see my old boss and friend. He passed a few years later. See you on the other side, Chief.
In the next episode, I need to tell you the heartbreaking reason I left there and got out of the Army for just over five years.
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Stephen Dalton is a retired US Army First Sergeant with a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and a Certified US English Chicago Manual of Style Editor. Currently living in the Philippines, Stephen is a Top Writer in Virtual Reality.