Postcards from Tradocia

Category: army life (Page 1 of 38)

Top of the Mountain


“You’re at the top of the mountain, gentlemen,” our ACE said, addressing us on our first morning back at the freshly-renamed Cyber Center (or Cellar, if you prefer) of Excellence. “From here on out, it’s all downhill.”

I’m back at Fort Gordon for my third and final phase of warrant officer basic course (WOBC), and the mountain analogy is an apt one: descending from the summit, I look into the valley below, and I’m not sure I like what I see. I’m not sure what I expected, but I always thought it would look more like the Shire. Instead, from afar, it’s more like Dagorlad.

I can’t coalesce that idea any further, so don’t read too much in to it; it could be a manifestation of Army school-induced ennui, or a sign of all-too-common mid-career fatigue. Always in motion, the future is – so what one sees from the peak may look different at the floor of the valley.


There are three hotel-like buildings on Fort Gordon. Last time, I stayed in Ring Hall, a seven-story facility crawling with cute baby lieutenants. This time, I was assigned to Stinson Hall, a kind of skeezy drive-in motel deal with sticky old carpet and peeling paint. As soon as I opened the door, I had reservations about the place, but it’s free living and besides, I could park right outside my door. Hell, it’s not like I was in Iraq or something…how bad could it be?

My rhetorical question was answered by the next day, when I went to put away some groceries in the under-counter cabinet. A pair of dead cockroaches greeted me – but hey, they were dead! On the counter went the groceries, and I liberally applied bug spray around the door and in the cabinet, but the next evening the roaches had their revenge.

Getting up from my chair, a roach was casually sitting on the floor, which of course led to me screaming in terror (it was armed, I swear). I stomped on it but not hard enough, so I went to the cabinet for the bug spray – only to discover a group of the fuckers fairly taunting me. I gave them a blast from the spray can and slammed the door shut, only to find another pair had escaped chemical death. I hit them with foot and spray; within minutes, I had five dead roaches splattered across my floor. That was IT (cue the reaction GIF) – I called the front desk and politely said, “get me the FUCK out of here.”

That night, I moved over to Griffith Hall, thus completing the trifecta of lodging on base.


The Atropian Gambit

Last month I completed what was only my fifth annual training period in my twelve years of service in the National Guard. It’s a figure surprising even to myself, until I remember that those other seven years were blanked out by deployments or Army schools, such that I now have over three years of active federal service. For being a “weekend warrior,” I sure have put in a lot of time.

This AT was optional too, but in my new role as a warrant officer, I felt like I had to step up get integrated with the section and the unit. Plus, the S-6 actual was unable to attend AT, meaning that without me, the section wouldn’t have an officer. That meant that my role would be to serve as the S-6 – a job normally held by a major – and I would be walking into the mission essentially cold, having participated not at all in the planning or preparation for the event. It also meant that I would be taking the one role that I explicitly cited as a reason not to become a commissioned officer as my first job as a warrant officer. Talk about karmic re-balancing…

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The Longest 15 Days, Part 2

Can't even tell I'm missing a leg here

Can’t even tell I’m missing a leg here

Hopefully I’m not breaking any kind of non-disclosure agreement by writing about WOCS. I’m pretty sure I didn’t sign anything to that effect, but there was a lot of paperwork and I was pretty tired. What follows are a few more anecdotes about WOCS. Still more to tell…

Also, as requested by Sabathius, here’s a Delobius action photo. (I’m the one in the middle, after being a “casualty.”)


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WOBC, Week Seven

A couple of weeks ago all of the new students had a reception with the post commander. He shook the hand of every student – there were a couple hundred of us, probably – and did what all generals do, which is talk. He was more engaging than most, though, and one comment in particular earned him much credibility.

Because of its role in training new soldiers, as well as providing MOS training for existing ones (like me), Fort Gordon is what is known as a TRADOC post. This means that operations are overseen by Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), which has a stigma of applying an extra layer of administrative overhead and general silliness to the already-absurd functions of an Army base.

In his talk, the post commander discussed some of these challenges, and said that he had to learn to speak “tradocian,” (pronounced tray-doh-sheean), and that one had to speak this language well among the denizens of the world of Tradocia. And in that moment, a new term was born, and a new understanding; for we are truly living in Tradocia, perhaps a synonym for my Demon World terminology. (This also brings to mind what would be my album title, or band name, for my Army career: “Postcards from Tradocia.”)

He also showed a weird propaganda video for Fort Gordon, highlighting its “best-in-Army” features, and the amazing things about the local community. What was most bizarre, though, were the 3-D models of the general and his command sergeant major featured in the video that were voiced by each man respectively, and were utterly creepy and terrible-looking. He made light of the weird avatars after the video was done, but if I was him, I would probably use my powers as a general to get that weird shit removed.


Speaking of weird videos, we also had to attend the graduation ceremony of another WOBC class. While waiting for the graduation to start, we had to watch a Signal Corps video (YouTube link), which seemed like another vaguely lame Army video, but then a laser beam shoots out of space and makes Signal Towers explode, which made it the best video I’ve seen in my 11 years of enlistment. Then a soldier talks about fighting our nation’s greatest enemy, which turns out to be mildew, and also a radar dish glows blue and vibrates, so it’s basically the crowning achievement of the Signal Corps.

After that, we watched another video about Army families, and how they’re really great and we’ll take care of them. Maybe I’m cynical, but saying that people love their families isn’t exactly new or hard-hitting stuff, and was a weird choice of video for a graduation. It used a slower version of the song from the Army Strong commercials, which was a good choice – it’s a great theme – but I would’ve preferred something to get me a little more pumped up. I guess now that we’re a “peacetime Army,” getting pumped up isn’t our goal anymore.


Indeed, my life here in the Demon World has become one of such indolence that I’m afraid I might never be able to work again. To continue the graduate school analogy from my previous post, it’s much like being in school (well, it is school, technically), except I already know most of the material. That means that my days largely consist of thinking about something else; any mental refuge will do as long as it can allow me to maintain consciousness. Evenings and weekends consist of relaxing, playing video games, drinking, whatever – with no responsibilities other than class, it’s a veritable vacation for one who comes prepared to entertain himself.

The problem is, it’s poor preparation for doing anything in the Human World.

At least I’m lucky that I didn’t get hit with the mind-control rays that are apparently flying around this place, like this woman (YouTube).

WOBC, Week Three

I’m not sure why the “Sex Rules” are only for leaders. Interestingly, I realized that I framed

It's important to have rules

It’s important to have rules

this image such that it sums up the Army’s current attitude towards sexual relations:


And that’s all I have to say about that.

I’ve settled into a routine here, after the turbulent first week, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t halfway enjoying myself. Our “ACE” (no idea what the acronym means, but it’s a

senior warrant officer assigned to the class as adviser) only interacts with the student class leader, which means that most of the time, we’re free to manage our own affairs. Maybe it says something about the amount of coddling soldiers receive when simply deciding when to get up and when to go to bed qualify as major personal freedoms, but it’s nice to be treated as an adult all the same.

The accommodations are much nicer than over at the NCO academy; it’s downright civilized to have your own fridge and microwave and toaster, and to be able to roll out of bed and go to your own bathroom and not see any other naked men on the way. My room in the on-post hotel is basically a studio apartment (though no stove), and I go to class all week, so it’s kind of a student lifestyle here. In a way, this feels like Army graduate school (though not in terms of academic rigor, at least not for me); Iraq felt like being an undergrad (not basic training or AIT – the experiences are their own things). In a very real sense, Iraq was the college dorm life experience that I never had; I was a commuter student in college, so I never had that during my actual school days.

Apparently the lieutenants living here never left college, as they seem to be treating this place like a dorm. I was awakened at about 0300 Saturday morning by drunken yelling outside my window, followed by pounding footsteps on the floor above me. I know they were 2nd lieutenants and not warrant officers, because all of us crusty warrants have kids and bills to pay and divorces to fund, and so can’t afford the all-night per-diem-fueled benders that the butter-bars can. Also, you kids get off my lawn!

But they are kids – as a relative baby-face myself, it might sound ironic – but some of these young officers might not yet be old enough to drink. Seeing young privates is one thing; you know they’re supposed to look like that. But officers…I guess that in the units I’ve been a part of, the lieutenants had at least a couple years under their belts before showing up (whether by luck or by design), and so I never dealt with the stereotypical new officer. Us new warrants dutifully salute the new lieutenants, and marvel at their youth and naivete after we pass. I’m sure they’re not all clueless naifs, but it doesn’t help when you overhear them saying things like, “Are you wearing your warmsies?” on a cold November morning. Would you like some graham crackers and a nap with your “warmsies”?

WOBC, Week One

Energy Donkey welcomes you to Fort Gordon

Energy Donkey welcomes you to Fort Gordon

I’m not sure what the campaign-hat-wearing donkey (or ass, if you prefer) has to do with energy conservation, but I’m sure it’s a metaphor for something in this place.

By this place, of course I’m referring to the Signal Center of Excellence, that Army installation that we all love to hate, our telecommunications Valhalla and electronic purgatory, Fort Gordon.

I was last here in 2009-2010 for ALC (which I’m pretty sure stands for Advanced Lawn Care), which was by far the dumbest thing I’ve had to do in the Army. The pure, distilled stupidity of those fourteen weeks exceeded anything I encountered in two overseas deployments – it truly represented the low point in my Army career.

Driving through the gate last week, I realized that despite how much I hated ALC, it made an indelible impression on my psyche, like a photo negative etched by my hateful feelings for the event. For the first couple of days, I had to make a conscious effort to stop myself from saying things like, “when I was here for ALC…” when I realized that a considerable portion of my spoken communication began with that phrase. I started to sound like an obsessive.

Two trips to the Middle East didn’t break my mind, but one stint at the Regimental NCO Academy sure did.

Luckily, being here as a warrant officer bears little resemblance to that experience – by and large, we’re treated like human beings, if not almost like adults. But there’s another flavor to the experience here, one that I somehow didn’t expect: it’s like being on active duty.

For a Guardsman, it’s a cultural shift, maybe more so than the usual shift into an Army school environment. In the Guard, time is always at a premium; there are never enough hours or days or weeks to accomplish everything, since we’re expected to perform in an equivalent manner to the active component with only “one weekend a month and two weeks a year” to do it. This seems to have two second-order effects: one, it creates a culture of short, intense periods of work, followed by downtime, since you never know if you’ll get the task done in time. Two, some of the finer points of military life – formations, military courtesies, etc. – tend to take on less importance. The protocol overhead becomes excessive, and is dropped as a result.

Here, it seems exactly the opposite: we have nothing but time (or so they say), and it’s all about the niceties and sideband activities of military life. Things like briefings, paperwork for four-day passes, fall cleanup, “volunteer” activity, and so on seem to consume an inordinate amount of time when we’re supposed to be worrying about our technical training.

There’s also an incredible emphasis on risk avoidance and consequences for various types of bad behavior. Apparently, the most important things we do here are expressed as negatives: don’t drink and drive, don’t fraternize, don’t speed on post, don’t jaywalk, don’t hit any pedestrians, don’t let privates not salute you, don’t fail any tests. Those topics were covered by no fewer than four people on our main day of inprocessing briefings, and again on the next day by yet another Fort Gordon luminary. The battalion commander is briefing us next week, and I don’t think anyone would bet against him hitting those highlights yet again.

All of these proscriptions add up to create this strange fearful atmosphere, where it seems that any wrongdoing, no matter how minor, will result in swift and fierce retribution, spelling a rapid and spectacular demise for our budding warrant officer careers. The post commander evidently reinforces this atmosphere: the briefers last week regaled us with stories of his ride-alongs with MPs, working the front gate in his PT uniform, excoriating people who don’t pick up litter alongside the road, and more.

I understand that the Army is, by its nature, a rules-based organization, and punishing soldiers for small, weird offenses in the name of “good order and discipline” is nothing new. But this new culture seems unsettling, and – dare I say – vaguely tyrannical. In prohibiting various behaviors for ostensibly well-intentioned ends, it brews a zero-tolerance mindset for any mistakes or infractions, and defines success as watching for rule-breakers rather than accomplishing the mission. This sounds more like a stereotypical corporate bureaucracy rather than a fighting force, but as the mandated force reductions scythe through the active component (a reduction of 80,000 soldiers by FY2015), these tendencies will only become more intense.

I guess that’s what they mean by a “peacetime Army,” but the peacetime Army always becomes a wartime Army again, and we learn the hard lessons anew each time…

The Longest 15 Days

On Saturday, September 21st, I took the oath of office and accepted my appointment as a Warrant Officer One in the United States Army and the Minnesota Army National Guard. It was a moment more than a year in the making: I was federally recognized (“fed rec’ed,” as they say) as a warrant officer candidate in June of 2012, and started the application process long before that. Seven months of drill weekends and fifteen days at sweaty Camp Atterbury, Indiana came to a head that sunny morning when I and 157 of my classmates spoke the oath, leaving our enlisted careers behind.

In talking to warrant officers before I began the ritual dance known as WOCS, few provided any insight or even any amusing anecdotes about the experience. They painted broad strokes of misery, and offered helpful tidbits like “your class better develop teamwork quickly,” but weren’t otherwise forthcoming about their experiences. I thought that maybe part of the warrant officer mystique was some informal oath of silence, to better preserve the system shock of screaming black-hats and endless sock-stenciling that awaited beyond the gates of WOCS.

Now that I’m done, though, I see why those warrants had so little to say. All the trivialities that consumed my life for all those long days and nights (does the fold of the towel face in or out?), the minutiae that were elevated to life-or-death importance (do the collars of the shirts face up or to the left in the drawer?) – all those things vanish from the mind like waking from a horrible dream once those silver bars are pinned on your shoulders. Looking back now, even less than a week later, I wonder what the big deal was. After all, it was just writing some memos, and stenciling my name, and folding some socks… It is as if the reward at the end of that long path was so eminently worth it that it obliterated all that came before. It’s not as if the benefits have already begun to accrue – I haven’t even yet received my first paycheck as a warrant officer! – but rather that the verdant spring valley of the future stretches out before me in endless beauty and possibility, made all the more sweet after the sulfur-choked hell-cave through which I had just passed.

Embarking on this journey, I asked myself – at first rhetorically, but with increasing seriousness as WOCS dragged on – how much of this process is actually training, and how much is instead ritual? Certainly, no one in the schoolhouse chain of command would ever admit that any of the stupid shit that happens in WOCS is for any other reason than the training of the candidates. But try as one might to see a grand design behind things like making up warrant officer-themed lyrics to Justin Bieber songs, sometimes the conclusion is inescapable: a large part of WOCS is a giant shit test. It’s a giant ring of daunting mountains that surrounds the aforementioned spring valley of awesomeness, and you have to go through a little bit of hell to get inside. But once you cross those mountains, life is good.

Unlike Officer Candidate School (OCS), which is designed to mold inexperienced candidates into junior officers (or, less charitably, to lobotomize them), WOCS is merely a scouring process, or a midcourse correction. It doesn’t have to make something from nothing – warrant officer candidates are already experienced soldiers, so the raw material is already there – it just has to strip off the rough edges and smooth out some of the more unsightly blemishes. It’s not long enough to completely remold a soldier, either; instead, it instills a powerful sense – maybe a sacred charge – that says, if I’m in charge, things will never be this stupid again.

(Another post will follow with various amusing anecdotes and observations about the long fifteen days of Phase III.)

The Only Thing I Know for Real

Warrant Officer 1My journey down the path of the warrant officer continues, with only three more weekends and a two-week annual training between me and the so-called “thousand-dollar dot.” The rank gets the name from the black dot (obviously) and the fact that one has to buy a bunch of crap (uniforms, stencils, markers, paint, towels, shirts…) during the course. I think it would be better named the “thousand-letter dot,” since I had to write or stencil my name on every piece of gear and clothing I own, to include socks, underwear, t-shirts, uniforms, gloves, and shoes. A true “what am I doing with my life?” moment came when I was standing in the back yard, applying Krylon spray paint to my 99 cent shower shoes.

The first weekend was a fascinating exercise in self-inflicted stress. We all had a good idea of what to expect – indeed, after three months of preparatory drill weekends, we were arguably over-prepared, our heads bursting with the innumerable tasks and functions we were expected to perform. So it was with some manic force propelling us that we rolled our socks, arranged our towels, and made our beds, hands shaking and tension high. Looking back, I wondered why we were so anxious – our TAC officer (Train, Advise, Counsel, also known as a “black hat”) hardly uttered a word of admonition all weekend, except for one night, when he calmly told us to get down and start pushing. Just the very thought of his mere disapproval was enough to send us into paroxysms of effort; for my part, I was stricken with a blinding headache for most of Saturday in what must have been my first migraine.

The very fact that everybody cared so damn much about lining up our towels and stacking our books and taping up loose straps on our bags speaks to the fact that you don’t get into the warrant officer program unless you already have the traits necessary to succeed. In a way, WOCS isn’t a barrier to one’s accession to chief-hood, but rather a validation, an exercise in tautology. You don’t get to WOCS without being able to get through WOCS.

As the second weekend approached, I felt much better about the situation. I felt like I had the measure of WOCS, and that nothing particularly fatal lurked within – just a lot of fatigue of the physical and mental varieties. As usual, I wanted to dramatize the situation, to turn this thing into an epic quest, but I realized that it’s just a slog of twenty-hour days and struggling to stay awake in a classroom.

One of the major parts of the slog is a 10-kilometer (about 6.2 mile) ruck march, carrying a 48 pound load (not including water, helmet, and fake rifle), to be accomplished in 106 minutes or less. During the second weekend we did a short march – just 2.5 miles – which seemed like a nice easy nature walk when it was briefed to us. Within the first ten minutes I realized my error, as my shins and calves burned and I struggled to keep up with our TAC, who seemed to have concealed rocket thrusters in his rucksack. As both the shortest and lightest guy in the class, I felt like I got a raw deal: not only did I have the shortest stride, but I was also carrying the largest percentage of my body weight (about 33%). I spent a lot of time jogging. I figured out the technique by the end, but I have a lot of training to do between now and July.

The state Command Chief Warrant Officer (CCWO) taught our class on the history of the Army warrant officer, and it was hard not to feel charged with sacred purpose after hearing him expound on our heritage. I’m quite glad that I opted for the state WOCS program instead of the federal one at Fort Rucker, because it’s much more inspiring to marinate in the world of our own warrant officers – from new WO1s to the CCWO – than to be lectured by anonymous active duty warrants who know little of our unique world of the National Guard.

It seems hard to believe that in four months I’ll pin WO1 and I’ll become “Mr. Delobius.” I’ve already asked the guys at work if they’re going to start calling me “sir” – and I hope not, because I desire dominion over no man. If I wanted kowtowing, I would’ve become a commissioned officer.


Wakka Wakka

What is this weird thing on my chest?

What is this weird thing on my chest?

I’ve started on the path of the warrant officer by way of our state’s Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS). Unlike those who attend the federal WOCS course at Fort Rucker, Alabama – who enter the school as an enlisted soldier and leave a shiny warrant officer – I will undergo a six-month transition, basically waddling around in this pupal state for all to see.

It’s an awkward transition not unlike puberty, where others are unsure how to interact with you and you can’t yet identify your mutating role in the world. I’ve been sirred a couple of times already, which is amusing when a young specialist does it but strangely disconcerting when it’s someone who was a peer in rank just a few weeks before. More than one person has asked if they’re supposed to salute me (no), and many more have asked what to even call me (“candidate” is fine, I guess).

Another side-effect of my slow-motion metamorphosis is that it requires a mental gearing-up before each drill weekend. Monday through Friday, it’s all “hey Dave” and laughs around the water cooler, regardless of ranks, but when the WOCS drill weekend arrives it becomes “yes sir” and “no sir” and snap-to and “CANDIDATE DELOBIUS SIR.” The week before drill the thing hangs over me like a black cloud and it hasn’t even really started yet (April is the first no-shit real WOCS drill). Last night I had a dream that we held the class in my house and I got yelled at because I didn’t have a projector screen; earlier in the week I dreamed that our team-building exercise was piloting a massive cargo ship without looking out the windows. Shit, I thought, it’s bad enough that I know nothing about operating a giant boat, but I have to do it blind, too? Objectively speaking, there’s really very little to be afraid of, but even so the process is a black box and my subconscious is working overtime to crack it open, however futile that might be.

Another facet of WOCS is the seemingly endless list of rules and regulations governing our lives there. Detailed protocols dictate all manner of behavior, including dining, with rules about how many utensils to take, where they should be placed (to the quarter-inch) on the tray, and how to fold your napkin. All told, the WOC Standard Operating Procedures (WOCSOP) is a PDF document almost 120 pages long, two columns per page – a fat rulebook for the roleplaying game called WOCS. (Cue an angry warrant officer berating me for not taking this seriously – “you think this is a game, candidate?”)

Actually, having a massive rulebook suits me just fine; if everything is written down, it keeps the amount of invented bullshit to a minimum. It’s easy (comparatively) to meet expectations if they’re explicitly defined. Additionally, I’ve proven many a point during my career with the thorough look through obscure manuals and regulations. I wield well-timed quotes as weapons, and will not hesitate to do so here. As long as I don’t have to steer any watercraft, I should do just fine.

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