Soul Doubt: A Glimpse Into My Past

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Glimpse Into My Past

Last week there was a holiday which never fails to give me a little jolt of surprise when I realize that I am one of the people for whom it was enacted- Veteran's Day.

I am indeed a veteran, at least I served in the U.S. Army. But it somehow feels hollow, because from the very get-go I chose a duty station that was non-deployable, a cushy stateside medical post. And I never pictured myself on the frontlines of any war, defending my country- although I'd have gone, had they ordered me to, sure- instead the main things on my mind when I enlisted were the travel, my sign-on bonus, and a chance to go to college.

So I guess that's why I forget that Veteran's Day honors all this country's servicemen and women, including myself. I know I provided a necessary service, as did lots of say, Reservists and whatnot; but we just seem so inconsequential compared to those who fought wars, served hardship tours in far away lands, and shed their blood on foreign soil... I dunno.

On Huckleberries Online, one of my favorite blogs, there was a post by a veteran of the Vietnam War, describing his trip to D.C. to take part in a reading of all the names on the Vietnam Wall. He was so humble and matter-of-fact in his description of the experience- the way he shared about not getting this kind of laudatory welcome when he and his "brothers" came home from the war back then, so it was nice to finally receive it now; his conversing with the many luminaries attending the event, some veterans themselves, and how he respected them; and how he photographed a grave belonging to the son of a local veteran, who, because of his full disability, was unable to travel there himself.

Humbling. For me, anyhow. Put things in perspective.

When I enlisted in the Army, I was barely nineteen years old, and already had made some bad decisions. As a sophomore, I had dropped out of high school; although it was a breeze for me, I thought at the time my social life- one big party with much older people- was more important. I had vague plans for a GED and then some higher education, but wasn't very energetic in pursuing them; in fact, it was sheer luck that I was able to take advantage of a program called "Challenge" that allowed me to attend Maui Community College on a grant and earn my high school credits back through tests I was able to pass. Nevertheless, I blew off the rest of the program once I got my diploma, although I would've been able to continue accruing college credits had I not dropped out. So when by chance I spoke with a recruiter, I made an on the spot decision to sign up, dazzled by the promise of a $15,000 G.I. Bill, a $5,000 sign-on bonus, and the chance to attend college part-time while I was enlisted, for only 25% of the cost.

So I took the ASVAB, testing out at the 96th percentile, which would've allowed me to choose whatever MOS I wanted, had I not already had a bit of a criminal record. Having gotten expelled from a high school for possession and sale of LSD did not look good to Uncle Sam. Did I mention I had already started to make a mess of things even at that tender young age?
I ended up settling for enlisting as a combat medic/ 91B, the civilian equivalent of which is a medical assistant. Not the most glorious job (I was leaning more toward code-cracking, or perhaps foreign languages) but oh well, it offered the above-mentioned sign-on bonus, so that sold me. I swore in, got my traveling papers, and found I was to report to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, then AIT (school) at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.

Basic was all I'd been warned about/ promised and then some, but I sweated and groaned and fought my way through it, coming out on the other side a lean, mean, fighting machine. Or something. I remember being both relieved and sad that it was over- I think that was the closest taste to the "real" Army I ever got.
Then AIT... that was more of a mixture of a frantic cramming of information down our throats in the limited time they had to dispense it, as well as continued physical torture, I mean training. I tied for the top score in my graduating class, and was offered the opportunity to train further, what was called a secondary MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). I recognized a one in a million opportunity for being just that, and accepted. I chose veterinary medicine, which in the service is more of a research position- working with laboratory animals mainly. This was okay with me, as it insured I would remain stateside, rather than being deployed to Korea, where most of my former classmates were going.

So I ended up being stationed at USAMRIID (Gosh, the military just adores acronyms, don't they?), the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease- this is the military counterpart to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Very high-tech, very high-security, lots of important stuff going on there. It was a blast. I think I felt challenged for the first time in my life- I was learning new things every day. And I was a part of something huge, one little cog in a massive machine. I felt at first like I could do this forever, become a careerist, maybe enlist in the "Green to Gold" program and become an officer. I loved it.

But real life intervened, as it always seems to do. After a couple years there, what seemed novel and dignified, paled and became mundane and unnecessary, with stuck-up officers and archaic customs. The high security was a huge pain in the butt. I was exhausted, and since the Army pays a salary, not hourly wage, it wasn't like I could lower my hours. The community college I attended was pissing me off- they didn't offer the classes I needed to take during the hours I had available, so why was I killing myself by going? I was thousands of miles away from my family and old friends, all that was familiar, and the East Coast began to seem cold and forbidding, rather than a wondrous cluster of landmarks, museums, natural beauty and culture. In short, I was burnt out.

This story does not have a happy ending. Not really, anyway.
I ended up having to have a major surgery, getting deathly ill from a burst tubal pregnany or cyst, no one seemed to know which. Too busy doctors compounded the problem by prescribing bottle after bottle of heavy-duty pain medication, which my addiction-prone self eagerly accepted. Months of convalescent leave turned me lazy, sulking at the prospect of having to go back to the chaos of Ft. Detrick. By now I lived off post, separated from the other half of a doomed from the start marriage, and was consorting with civilian friends, smoking pot (after all, we all worked in the lab- we knew when the UA's were coming and how to avoid them) and hosting endless parties. When the prescriptions finally began to peter out, I started making runs to D.C. to score heroin, which I smoked or snorted, thinking that since I wasn't shooting it, I wasn't really a junkie. Ha.

I got deeply in debt, and was calling in sick so often that finally my commander and his staff put two and two together. After a tearful confession, I was placed in rehab at Andrews Airforce Base, on the top floor. I was amazed at how many others there were there- apparently drug and alcohol addiction is more common than you'd think in all the branches of the service. My roommate was a female marine sergeant who got caught stealing injections of morphine from the ER in which she worked, and we cried and sweated and cramped and detoxed together, until she broke down and walked out, going AWOL from treatment when she couldn't handle it anymore. I was so envious, I too plotted to leave, but chickened out. After all, I only had seven months left in my four year hitch, why blow it?
This changed when my sergeant from my unit came to visit. He informed me that they were considering an early discharge, dishonorable at that. I kept my cool, nodding and promising to meet with him and the C.O. as soon as I was released, but the minute he left I went to my room, threw my stuff in a bag and took the staff elevator the hell out of there. My logic: why suffer through all these awful withdrawals when they were just gonna boot me out anyway? So I ran.

Called my estranged husband and promised reconciliation if he'd come pick me up. He eagerly accepted, driving up from South Carolina to meet me there in downtown D.C. By then I had scored some dope, so was feeling just fine about the whole stinkin' mess I'd once again gotten myself into.

Suffice it to say that the next year or so was a mindless blur of drugs, travel and fear. Fear of getting caught- after all, I was a federal fugitive- fear of not getting caught and having to live like this forever! and fear of just about everything else you could imagine a young girl facing alone and on the run. It was a nightmare. When I was finally apprehended at a motel in Las Vegas, it was with relief that I confessed who I was and what I was wanted for.

The anticlimax of the whole thing was spending a bit of time in the out-processing center at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where I was set up with a JAG attorney to represent me throughout the process. She looked over my file and decided we had a slam dunk case, and promised to get me a medical discharge under honorable conditions. Which she did, to my surprised relief. I'm not sure if I was deserving of it, but I guess the upshot of the whole thing was the fact I had served about three and a half years out of my required four with a spotless record- in fact, I'd gotten promoted several times, a commendation or two, and plenty of good reviews from my commanders. The threat of early discharge from my sarge was just that- a threat- and had I not panicked and ran, I most likely would have just suffered a demotion in rank to PFC from Specialist, and perhaps some extra duty. But no, instead I was lucky to get off with what I did- loss of my G.I. Bill, most of my benefits, and my pride in having served.

That was the big one, and I think the reason why I usually don't mention having even been in the service. It's humiliating to have to admit how the story ended.

But nowadays, I don't see that sort of pride as such a necessary attribute. I'm okay with having some humility, and admitting my past mistakes. There's only One who I'm interested in impressing- and I think I've made myself right with Him.

Anyway, there's the story with how I (sort of) qualify as a veteran. Thanks for reading.


  1. Thanks for sharing that, Kendra. I totally agree with your last point, that the only audience that counts is God, and coming clean about our shortcomings is part of our personal growth. He knows it all, anyway, thank goodness!

    I hope you're planning a wonderful, family-filled Thanksgiving celebration. Have a great week!

  2. What a story! And how old are you? Sounds like you've lived a lot more than I have, and I'm waaaay older than you. You didn't "sell out", Kendra (as the top of your blog says); you're "buying in" to a better life. It sounds like you've learned a lot of hard lessons. When you learn things the hard way...those lessons STICK. My best wishes for you always.

  3. Kendra: I enjoyed reading your story and would still of course consider you a veteran of this great country of ours. You served and served well, it just didn't end up the way you envisioned. I hope your life goes the way you want it to now, we will all be on your side. The Stickman

  4. I had a question of sorts, did you ever run into a young woman in the prison system by the name of Nikki Oss? The Stickman

  5. Stickman~
    Thanks for stopping by! And hope you didn't mind the plug. You're just what Veteran's Day is really all about, I think.
    How bizarre that the girl you mentioned I do indeed know. Tall, long dark hair, very young and pretty, unfortunately addicted to oxycontin. I saw her last in Adams County- thought what a shame that bright young women such as her are in prison.
    Are you related?

  6. Kendra: Yes, she's my daughter and doing very well at the moment. I will write her and tell her about you, you have a great story and I hope the same happens to Nikki. She is still in Adams County Jail after making a few trips here and over to Spokane to clear up other warrants she had. She may have a month or so to go and then she will come back here and get her life in order. Her family is very much behind her and she has a great attitude about things. I'm glad you knew of her, it makes me smile at the thought. The Stickman

  7. Kendra: Since I haven't heard back from you, I am assuming you know her well and I will write her and tell her so. She enjoys all of her companions and has a very good attitude, somewhat like yours. i hope your life goes the way you want now, and Nikki's as well when she gets out. The Stickman

  8. Kendra: I saw you post yesterday on the Wild Card and though I answered you there, I will answer you here as well. Nikki's address is: Nikki Oss #77795, Adams County Jail, P.O. Box 64, Council, Idaho, 83612. I'm sure she would love to hear from you. I write to her every few days and her attitude is fantastic. It would be very cool if you wrote her and maybe even mentored her when she gets out, she will need all the help she can get. As for the sticks, you need no invitation, you just come by. I live on 10th street about a half a block from Sanders Beach and right across the street from the entrance to East Tubbs Hill Park. You can't miss it as there are sticks all over my small carport. I am usually here in the afternoons and especially on the weekends. If you know a specific time and day that would be better, as I would make a point of being here to give you a stick and some Jam if there is any left and some conversation. Hope to see you soon. The Stickman

  9. Kendra: Already a change. Nikki is now in Pocatello and will hopefully be there without moving again till spring. Her address is: Nikki Oss, #77795, Pocatello Women's Correctional Center, Unit #3, 1451 Fore Road, Pocatello, Idaho, 83204. She would love to hear from you. Thanks again for your positive thoughts, The Stickman


Thanks for taking the time to read what I ramble about- I consider it an honor to get feedback from you guys, so please tell me what you think, feel, if you have a similar story... whatever you'd like! Thanks again and God bless.