Register Saturday | June 23 | 2018

Caught In the Machine

The Pentagon calls up the wrong soldier for Iraq

"You are recalled for Operation Iraqi Freedom."

The man who identified himself as Major Huisveld kept yelling into the phone, "Report to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. We are carrying you AWOL. People are dying, Lieutenant ... "

The major's voice had no life. Every line was like a snapping branch. "I'm going to FedEx your mobi-pack overnight. We're required to give a month's notice, meaning you'll enter active duty thirty days from today. Lieutenant, do you have any questions of me?"

I had so many questions, including What is a mobi-pack? that I almost couldn't get out the most important one. "Major, I left the army a decade ago ... " There was only expectant silence. "I mean ... how can the army use me? Is there an interview to determine ... "

"No!" he dismissed. "The process is fully automated. You'll plug a hole in some National Guard unit that needs a lieutenant with your skills."

"My skills are eleven years old ... " Still no reaction. "How do you know what my skills are? Do you have my last Officer Evaluation Report?" Officer Evaluation Report? The speed with which the military jargon returnedóand rolled off my own tongueófrightened me. For an instant I regarded myself as a sleeper agent who'd just received his trigger code.

"No. Fax me that, pronto." My handler fed me the number and skimmed ahead as if all were resolved: "Any other questions?" He didn't wait for a response, instead reading back my name in the phonetic alphabetó"Confirm Holbrook: Hotel, Oscar, Lima..."

I was getting sucked into the army's green seam and there was nothing to grab a hold of. "Need to cut this short, soldier. You'll find all your answers in the mobi-pack." The dial tone buzzed.

I paced my house, trying to find some sense. I'd known of the service obligation officers incur when they get commissioned, particularly working stiffs like me who'd gone through college on army scholarships. Uncle Sam bankrolls your education, you owe Uncle Sam time, that's how the deal works. I'd volunteered for the artillery to hold up my end. For four years I rocked the camouflageóin Italy, Germany and some less charming localesótwisting in the dirt, stone and ice with a herd of young bulls following my lead. And even after I'd resigned in 1993, it was no mystery that my name stood on a reserve call-up list for the following four years, to be tapped when all hell broke loose. But that list was supposed to have been destroyed. The longest I'd heard the army held anyone on the hook for was eight yearsófour "active duty" and four "reserves" years. As I had received my commission in 1989, it seemed clear my obligation had run out in 1997.

Nonetheless, I found myself un-
packing cardboard boxes to locate my last Officer Evaluation Report (OER), circa 1993, faxing it away, and awaiting the critical mobi-pack wherein all my answers would be found.

Three days went by with no contact. I hoped the call-up had been a practical joke, and I felt out some mischievous friends. None of them confessed, but I was actually starting to relax until the army called again.

"Lieutenant Holbrook, this is Major John Bivens, PERSCOM, St. Louis. I got your OER, and I'm trying to figure out what you want me to do with it."

"That was for Major Huisveld."

"He's out now. I'm grabbing the slack."

"Sir, he told me I've been recalled for Iraq. That's my last army evaluation to help you place me."

"Jesus!" Bivens exclaimed. "I knew this war had gone sideways, but I had no idea we were calling up guys like you."

"I know," I concurred. "1993."

"What about '93?"

"That's when I got out, sir. Isn't that why you said ÎJesus?'"

Bivens said, "No. I was looking at your raters' comments: ÎInability to... adjust to military life?'"

"Butó"

"ÎSubtle disregard for authority?'"

"All right, sir." I licked my lips while Bivens got further off track.

"Oh, I like ÎMust concern himself with the example he sets for his subordinates.' That's especially helpful in waró"

"Major Bivens," I cut in. I resented his misplaced emphasis on my military record. "I think the point is that I shouldn't have been recalled in the first place."

"I'll say."

I swallowed. "Because I've been out for so long. This is a mistake."

"Oh." Bivens's tone downshifted as he classified me a shirker.

"Do you mind if I ask, sir, if eleven years is in the ballpark of normal recalls?"

"I don't know what normal is. The process is automated." He was angling to a hang-up. I didn't want to lose him. Bivens already liked me less than Huisveld did, but he sounded like a human being. Given the cold army monolith I faced, I found it reassuring that Bivens had emotion enough to despise me.

"Major Bivens, if I have a duty, I'll honour it, but I was commissioned fifteen years ago."

"Where'd you go?"

"My first assignment?"

"For ROTC [Reserve Officers' Training Corps] or for college."

"University of Hawaii."

"God. That doesn't count for either."

"Sir, I just want to know if this is a computer error."

He crinkled my evaluation report. "You served during the Gulf War?"

"The first Gulf War," I emphasized for dinosaur effect.

"What did you do during the Gulf War?"

"I'm not at liberty to discuss that, sir."

"You've got to be kidding!"

"I'm sorry, sir." I felt his frustration, but I spoke the truth. "In the debrief, they ordered me never to discuss it. It was a top-secret unit; there's not even a record anymore."

"Next time, make something up," Bivens stated irritably.

"Yes, sir."

"If the army called you, then you're going to have to show up. There's a reason."

"I don't accept that, sir. I want to know what the reason is."

"That's too bad. I've got to go. I'll forward this OER to your recó"

"Sir, who else can I talk to? Your boss?"

"Colonel Rosato? Why not? I'll enjoy this."

I heard nothing for a long minute. I considered that Bivens, in a final insult, might have hung up on me.

Then a fresh voice greeted my ears, "This is Frank Rosato."

"Ames Holbrook, sir. I'm a former lieutenant who's been recalled for Iraq and I'd really like to talk to you."

"Okay, Lieutenant, what do you have?"

Rosato's tone was warm and open. He was one of those teddy-bear colonels. This time, I explained my situation over the phone with a measure of real optimism. Rosato asked, "Was Major Bivens able to help you at all?"

"I don't think he was trying to help me, sir."

"Ahem. Well, Major Bivens is in my office now, so we'll keep this on speakerphone so we can all learn."

I liked the "Ahem." It was a grunt of obvious disapproval for Bivens. I said, "Colonel, I really appreciate your giving me your time here."

"You're welcome. I've always got time for a young lieutenant."

"I'm not a young lieutenant, sir. That's the thing. I'm a thirty-six-year-old man who's been out of the army for eleven years and I'm trying to figure out why I've been recalled."

"Wow. What's your civilian job? Is it something the army has a particular need for?"

"I'm unemployed, sir. I left my last job to write a book."

"Then this is a blessing!" Rosato declared. "Here you are out of a job, down on your luck, and along comes the army in the nick of time."

"Sir, I quit my job. I desire this free time."

"I can see it now," Rosato said excitedly. "Hero lieutenant writes the Great American Novel about the Iraq War."

"I don't want to write about war, sir. Even if I go."

"What! Why not?"

"Everyone else writes about war. I like subtler conflicts."

"What kind of soldier are you?"

"Sir, this will help you answer that," Bivens stated acidly. I could hear the papers shift hands.

"Let's see, forward observer assigned to the Third Infantry...He's Îtalented and aggressive in the field.' That's just what we need in Iraq. And you're questioning why the army mobilized him?"

Bivens snorted, "Sir, why don't you start on the first page? ÎQuestionable judgement in dealing with higher-ranking officers.'" Bivens was killing me. I no longer wanted him around. "Keep reading, sir," he urged. "It gets better."

Rosato let out a low whistle.

I jumped in. "Please, Colonel, my fitness for duty is not in question. I received an honourable discharge, which I'm sure we all agree is proof of the superior calibre of my service. What we need to focus on is that I have been out of the army for over a decade."

There was a frustrated exhalation and I heard my report being slapped down. Rosato asked, "Aside from this tour of infamy, what else did you do in the army, Holbrook?"

"I was in the Tenth Apple Division, Belgium. I took my orders directly from General Red Buckles."

"Tenth Apple...What theó?" Rosato demanded, "Is there such a thing?"

"No, sir. Major Bivens told me to make something up."

"Unacceptable, John!" Rosato upbraided Bivens. "At West Point, didn't you have something called the Honor Code?"

"Yes, sió"

"Get out of my office!" Rosato roared. The teddy bear had some wrath in him. I heard rapid steps and the hinging door. I could feel the colonel stare at the telephone, wanting to be completely alone.

"Lieutenant Holbrook," he said, "This might not be what you want to hear, but you'd better just go to Iraq and fulfill your obligation."

"What obligation, sir? I've never heard of any soldier having a fifteen-year obligation. If someone can cite for me the obligation I have, I will fulfill it."

"Can you prove you don'thave an obligation?" Rosato posed.

"I wouldn't even know how, sir. But all the facts..."

"You served your four years of active duty?"

"Four years to the day, sir. I fulfilled my obligation and resigned unconditionally in 1993."

"Maybe you were never officially discharged."

That I knew to be wrong. My career may not have been memorable, but I took pride in my inspiring discharge. Following my return from Europe, a former trench buddy had met me for the ceremony in Fort Dix, New Jersey, and wheeled me away in a rented Cadillac sunk to the shocks with Cuban cigars, whisky and nearly two hundred pounds of illegal fireworks. We traversed America for three weeks, covering expenses with hot cheques written at military bases coast to coast. I saved the receipts for the Cadillac, the high-octane gasoline, the lodging (hourly rates included) and the bar tabs, and when it was all over, in one of my all-time great military coups, I had the army reimburse me for it. "I was discharged, sir. I've got paperwork to prove it."

The colonel drummed his desk. "Son, why don't you report to Fort Sill as ordered and bring up your questions there? Maybe they'll give you some light duty and you won't even have to go to the war."

"Sir, you describe my greatest fear. If I have to derail my life and put on a uniform, then I want to be on the front lines, contributing. My nightmare is: I show up in Oklahoma and they see how old I am and how long I've been out, and I get assigned to guard some tennis court on Fort Sill for the duration of the war."

"You're a pessimist, LT. Next time call me with something happy. 'Cause I gotta tell you, all you're bringing me so far is grief and bananas, and it looks like you forgot the bananas."

The colonel laughed and I laughed along. That grief-and-bananas quip hadn't been in circulation during my stint in the army, although I knew that it was now. Career military officers never cracked jokes that hadn't already enjoyed wide approval among the senior cadre.

Just the same, I tried injecting a little humour of my own in the hope of winning Rosato over. "I have to say, Colonel, this recall after eleven years is too bizarre. I think I may be part of some terrorist sleeper cell."

Rosato shouted, "Holy schmaltz!" His tone suggested eyes frantically seeking cameras and fingers pulling the telephone apart for bugs. "Are you shitting me? We don't shit about things like that in the army! What the hell is wrong with you, son?"

"I'm sorry, sir, I jusó"

"Good bye, Lieutenant. I hope you find your answers."

"Thank you, Colonel. God is great!"

He hung up abruptly, leaving me in a spiral. There was no way to fight the madness of the machine. I was doomed to spend my foreseeable future guarding Fort Sill's recreational facilities.

FedEx came the next afternoon. Apart from my exact report date (twenty-four days later), Major Huisveld's mobi-pack contained no answers. Instead, there were child-appropriate travel tips like "Always use your seatbelt" and jarring checklists. "report with these items," one flyer commanded. "Class B Uniform, US Army ID Tags, All Battle Dress Uniform items, 2 pr. Combat Boots..." I had none of it. The only equipment from my army days I hadn't thrown away was my rucksack, and I was feeling grateful that I'd at least hung onto that, until I saw the list of prohibited items on the next page: "warning! do not bring: rucksack..."

The affair was bleak, but I wasn't in this alone. Word of my recall was splashing across fifty states, and even as I tumbled deeper into the army abyss, friends of mine on the outside rallied overtime with rescue in mind.

Twenty days short of my report date, I was summoned outside by the sounds of a heavy undercarriage scraping my driveway and the bleat of a powerful horn. The Band-Aid Man greeted me. My pal Band-Aid, it should be noted, was the legend who'd picked me up for my notorious road-trip discharge. He'd arrived in a Cadillac this time too, albeit an old one, probably off a used-car lot. "Dude, what's this about the army being just like the Mobóyou can never get out?"

I laughed and hugged his six-foot-five frame, then stepped back and took in the face with the pale-blue eyes, brilliant smile and perfect hair. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm driving you to Oklahoma. And back."

"My God. Who knows when back will be?"

"Oh, it'll be soon," Band-Aid stated. "Almost immediately." He opened the DeVille's passenger door and a body spilled onto my driveway. "Introducing our secret weapon."

I had trouble reconciling Band-Aid's confident smile with the limp form at our feet. At first, I thought it was a corpse, but on closer inspection I saw the head begin a slight, enduring nod. The watery eyes, treated to sunlight after so long behind the tinted windows, blinked nervously. I cringed at the sight of the black veins, the mucous. "This man is obviously a junkie."

"He's you," said Band-Aid.

For an instant, as turned around as I was, it struck me that I was standing before the same Cadillac we'd rented a decade ago and that the junkie on the pavement was meómy friend was showing me an alternate reality in which that first discharge road trip had never ended.

Band-Aid clarified, "When we get to Fort Sill, this dude's gonna report in as you. He'll piss so hot on the drug test that you'll be kicked out on the spot."

I smiled. The brazen imposter scheme was hard to resistóone last prank on the army for old times. But the flaws were too apparent. "Band-Aid, they'll try to treat me. I'll spend six months in some army rehab centre."

"Those things are co-ed," Band-Aid reminisced fondly. "For full salary, you play spades all afternoon with real army addicts who make your own problems seem tiny, then, at night, you wander the dorms in search of cold-turkey whores who need other releases. The chow's great."

"Wait a minute," I corrected. "I won't be in the program."

We examined the form at our feet.

"You'll be doing this fucker a service," Band-Aid gushed. "Everybody wins."

I shook my head. "I can't. This is my problem."

Band-Aid cursed. He threw the man back in the Cadillac and retrieved two large shot glasses and a bottle of Crown Royal from the driver's side. He filled our glasses on the hot hood. "You gonna answer the question everyone's asking?"

"All right."

"Why? Dude, this is your life. The army made a mistake. Why don't you just tear up your orders and let the brass come get you, if they're so sure you have a commitment?"

I answered, "Pops." My father served thirty years as an airborne infantryman. His name had come up for numerous combat deployments, including three times for Vietnam. Now seventy and enjoying life in retirement, Pops had never failed to answer his country's call.

"Oh, yeah," Band-Aid said. "You don't want to let him down."

"I'm not worried about letting him down. But this thing's such a mess, if I don't show, I think they might recall Pops next."

Band-Aid threw his big arm across my back and pulled me in. He smiled wearily. "Give me the number of the office that cut your orders. I'm gonna tell 'em I want to go back in with you on the buddy system."

"Band-Aid, that's crazy."

"It'd be the only part of the whole thing that makes sense. I had almost the same army career as you did. No reason they should want you and not me."

The Band-Aid Man handed me my shot from the Cadillac hood. He lifted his own and we drank to whatever came next.

Ten days short of my report date, I found out that the scheming wasn't just limited to friends outside of the army. I answered the telephone to hear the voice of Rusty Palanapa, my ace running partner in the ROTC days and now head of operations for an infantry brigade in the Hawaii National Guard. Rusty had been a leader among leaders in ROTC, taking charge of exercises with a combination of personal magnetism and military grandiosity so winning that our actual instructors usually smiled when he stepped on their toes. Aware of his rocketing cadet stardom, Rusty had worked around the clock to ensure his out-of-uniform legend always eclipsed it. As the army commendations rolled in, so multiplied the kegs, the girls, the brawls, the beach parties and other after-hours pursuits. I'd gravitated to him in those dreamy tropical days when, despite his endless self-competition, he'd found time to be an awesome friend. More than a decade later, I was about to be reminded how awesome.

Now his island pidgin was coming in so dense, complete with offbeat accents, I just knew he was piling it on to screw with me.

"Bruddah Ames," Rusty said, "if you have to go, brah, why you don' come wit us?" He rattled off several familiar names. "They already plan one Persian Gulf mission, see you can still get up on da board. We get UH [University of Hawaii] reunion in Baghdad."

"You can do that?"

"Shoots, what you tink? Have one captain slot fo' your name."

"Man."

"Iraq, dat's no joke, brah. We get plenty blood, but wit who you raddah go? We been beefin in da sand since forevers. Best of all da down time: guaran's presidential suites, Dubai liquor connect, wahines from Bahrain..."

Rusty was on the money. If I were to go, these were the boys to go with. Not only would I fight alongside my old island playmates and crack-of-dawn surfing partners, but I was joining a light infantry brigade of rocked-up Samoans, Tongans and true-blood Hawaiians. The gods of war would have our backs the whole time.

"Thank you," I said.

Sometimes life works out. The army had told me I'd be randomly assigned to a National Guard unit, and here was a National Guard unit that needed me, a place where I'd do some goodówhich was worlds better than what might have happened had my fate been left entirely in the hands of the US Army. For a few days, the picture didn't seem so bad.

A few days is all it lasted.

One week before my report date, I got a bulletin from my original nemesis, Major Huisveld, who no longer deemed me phone-call worthy:

As you are currently on mobilization orders, you cannot change your status by joining the National Guard. Let me caution you that we have had some soldiers enlist in the National Guard to avoid their mobilization tour. We prosecute these soldiers to the full extent of the law.

Holding back tears of anguish, I fired off an immediate reply:

Thank you for the email, it's good to have this on the record. In case you hadn't noticed, I've been trying to do the right thing, even though any claim the army had to me expired in 1997. Check your facts. If I interrupt my life and report to Fort Sill because of a bureaucrat's negligence, I will prosecute those responsible to the fullest extent of the law.

My backlash e-mail was some salve for my soul, as were the indignant Huisveld replies streaming in over subsequent days, all freighted with demands for formal apology, that confirmed I'd gotten his goat as much as he had mine. Still, my world was crashing. In its determination to ruin me, the army had derailed my University of Hawaii Baghdad reunion, thereby killing not just my best plan, but the most effective military option. There was no reason anywhere.

Five days short of my report date, I was in a bottomless depression. When the phone rang, I barely found the energy to pick up.

The caller was animated, throwing out scattershot strategy I couldn't quite understand. "Need one outside man," Rusty Palanapa intoned. There was a commotion on his end. I pictured him at his command desk, barking military orders to underlings all around. "No way you can be officially connect to me. Bruddah Ames, you listening?"

"Uh...yes."

"So enjoy yourself, cruise fo' couple months. Call you den."

"Enjoy myself? I'll be in Fort Sill guarding tennis courts."

"Dat's ova, brah. Now you freelance on my team, foó"

"Hold it," I said. "How is it over?"

"I told 'em I get amend orders. To stop me, da army has to prove ownership of you. Army neva can do it."

I contemplated this revelation with wonder. Rusty had finally forced the army's hand by telling them he'd changed my orders. If they wanted to stop it, they would have to prove they had a claim to meóand they'd been unable to prove anything of the kind. "So I don't have an obligation."

"Tink about it, Ames. Da army have you on da books as lieutenant fo' fifteen years. How you can be one lieutenant fo' fifteen years? Eeda you make captain or kicked out. Army no can have it bof ways so you get no benefitóyou neva get promote or retireóbut dey can use you fo' each war."

I'd never thought about that. The army might have had a leg to stand on if it had elevated me to captain at some point, but by keeping me as a lieutenant for fifteen yearsófar beyond the time it prescribes a lieutenant must be promoted or firedóthe army had made its position indefensible by its own standard. I asked, "Did you know that from the beginning?"

Rusty's pidgin broke for a moment: "You and me in uniform together would have been all right."

"Yeah."

"Now I use you fo' special contract, da kine military guys neva touch. You in Iraq as one tourist, like da guy who got his head cut off."

"Good." I saw he was resuming talk of some kind of behind-the-scenes role he had planned for me and I tuned out. I could learn that when the time came. All that mattered now was that my nightmare was over.

"I give you one gun at da flight lineó"

"Rusty. Thank you, brother."

I was off the hook. My friend had done it. I had only to wait for the army's concession speech.

Two days short of my original report date, the army envelope arrived. Enclosed were fresh orders revoking my recall for Operation Iraqi Freedom and a certificate of honourable discharge. Although this was my second lifetime discharge, it seemed as beautiful as the first. I was ready to close the book on the US Army and never look back.

I'd forgotten one detail.

The night before I was originally scheduled to report in Fort Sill, I was summoned outdoors by a familiar scrape in my driveway and a persistent horn bleat.

The Band-Aid Man leaned across the Cadillac bench and threw my door open. "Dude, get in. If we don't make Sill by tomorrow midnight, we're AWOL."

"What?"

"I've got orders," he beamed, waving a stack of papers in his hand. "We're back in on the buddy system."

"Band-Aid. My orders were revoked!" I declared urgently. "We've got to cancel yours."

A grimace stretched his face. "I signed up. My orders can't be cancelled."

"Yeah, they can. We've been out too long. The army can't make us lieutenants for life. They don't own us."

"Dude, you don't understand." Band-Aid stressed, "I'm a volunteer."

The distinction wrenched me. I sat shotgun in the Cadillac and pulled the door in. "Only one thing we can do."

"Right." Band-Aid threw the car in reverse and we hit the street in a bloom of sparks. He knocked the shifter into overdrive and stamped on the gas.

"So, you know where that junkie is?"

"I know where a lot of them are."

I suggested, "We should get an old Dead Head. When he starts telling the army he's not you, they'll think he's still crazy from the acid."

"He'll wind up in the Veterans' Hospital mental wing," Band-Aid agreed. "We can milk this for years." He hit the freeway and flattened the accelerator all the way to the floor. It was suddenly more important than ever that we get there on time. He grabbed the Crown Royal and poured two shots on the dash.

I clinked his glass. The whisky went down beautifully. "Did you sign up for direct deposit?"

"Of course." Band-Aid flashed his bank card.

The freeway was rushing at us and we felt like such free dogs. The world was ours for the taking. It was one of those weightless bounces off rock bottom, the kind that makes you think you'll just keep going up.