Welcome to Colorado!

After US Army Basic Training in Fort Dix, New Jersey, I was off to my next level of training.  I arrived at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center (FAMC) in Aurora, Colorado in February 1991.  I got short term barracks on base with the rest of my arriving class and settled into a routine fairly quickly.  I did the necessary paperwork to be approved for off base housing because I was married, and started apartment hunting.  This presented itself with several challenges, not the least of which was figuring out which bus to take to get to the part of town I needed to be in.  I wasn’t the only one on the apartment hunt, but it was my first real introduction to city buses.

I was also simultaneously doing paperwork to have my belongings in Washington packed up and shipped to Colorado, which according to the military, also included my spouse!  I found a suitable apartment complex, completed applications and set a move in date that coincided with the arrival of my spouse, and planned for shortly there-after, our belongings.  We got settled in fairly quickly, and my training classes started up the beginning of the next month.

I was in training to be a 35G – Biomedical Equipment Technician.  I studied anatomy and physiology, electronics, pneumatics, mechanics, and all sorts of other stuff.  It was interesting and suited me just fine.  I enjoyed getting to know my classmates, had some study groups, and generally enjoyed my life in the military.  When we weren’t in classes, we were doing group PT and other basic military training.  We spent a fair amount of time in and around the hospital in disaster training.  There was a war going on, and Fitzsimons was a major orthopedic facility.  So we did mass disaster training focused on transporting the wounded from helo pad to ambulance to medical facilities.  We braced ourselves for the worst…but to my knowledge we never did get a wounded soldier transferred to FAMC for treatment.

So while I was focusing on being a soldier in training, my husband was looking for jobs “on the economy” and not really doing much with his life.  It was kind of ironic really, the role reversal we found ourselves in.  Our whole dating relationship he had been in the Marines and had planned to stay in.  I had been a high school student, engaged to a Marine and planning to be a military wife.  In fact, just before I graduated high school, it was brought to his attention that something was off with his re-enlistment paperwork, and he had the option to take a new agreement, or revert to his original enlistment.  As a surprise to me, since he had this new option, he decided how great it would be for him to revert to his original enlistment and he would be done with the Marines and able to “come home”.  Uh – yeah – he really didn’t know me at all, did he?  This surprise was delivered at the airport in Florida when I arrived for what I thought was his leave.  We’ve talked about how that trip already and all that happened.

Anyway, back to the role reversal.  Now, close to 2 years later, I was the one in the military, and he was the spouse.  He eventually found a job with a major security sub-contractor.  AKA – he was a rent-a-cop making minimum wage.  He had been doing menial labor kinds of jobs in Washington too, which is a whole lot of why I ultimately wanted to join the military – to make some sort of life for myself and “us”.  So I was doing something meaningful and fulfilling and making a life and a career, and he was working for minimum wage.

It was frustrating.  I started on a rant that became pretty common in our house – “get a better job or go back to your dad.”  I wanted him to do more…to BE more – not just for me, but for US and for him.  We argued a lot, and neither of us had the skills to discuss and compromise and find some resolution.  We were young and immature in the relationship realm.  We just fought, and used every trick we knew of to get what we wanted.  We tore each other down and fueled the flames of resentment.  We were unhappy but didn’t know how to deal with it.

It was during one of these arguments that things escalated beyond just the verbal mud-slinging that had become common place in our lives behind closed doors.  I couldn’t tell you now what the argument was about or why it got physical, but it did.  It went from verbal insults to pushing and shoving that night.  I’d love to say it was an isolated event, but it wasn’t.  I’d also like to be able to say that it was only him, but it wasn’t.  I knew exactly what buttons to push to piss him off, and I tore at him (verbally) relentlessly.  We both spewed venomous words at each other intending to hurt the other.  But he was bigger than I was, so when it did eventually turn physical, I went defensive.  I was shocked the first time he shoved me…and more than a little bit afraid.  I had seen him mad…but I had never seen him fighting mad.  I think the shock of it that first time hit us both, as it was so unexpected.  Apologies followed of course, promises of never again were given, and we made up.

The pattern continued, as it is want to do in unstable relationships.  A disagreement turns into an argument.  The argument turns dirty and the taunting begins…and the abuse changes from verbal to physical.  Just a little bit further each time.  Shock, apologies, shame, denial.  I am not without blame.  I was as nasty as I could be verbally, and I taunted him relentlessly.  But he pushed and shoved me…down…into things.  He did strike me a few times, grab me too tightly, and always used his size to intimidate/threaten me.  The art of verbal intimidation is something we both learned in the military.  But he never hit my face, he never broke the skin, and he never used a weapon.  I never pushed him that far.  And there was always an apology, and a promise it wouldn’t happen again.  And it never crossed my mind that I should report it.  We were having an argument; I was as much to blame as he.  I pushed him too far.  I should have stopped.  It was my fault.  (Pretty standard refrains for someone involved in domestic violence, I think.)

During the day, I wore my uniform and went to work and got on with my life in the military.  I worked hard, I trained hard, I did whatever it took to be the BEST soldier I could be.  I was proud of my accomplishments, I enjoyed the people I worked with, and I was encouraged to work hard for what I wanted – and plan for my future.  I was praised for my accomplishments, recognized for the work I did.  It was the positive reinforcement I had craved all my life, and seemingly only found in a military environment.

In the evenings, and in other quiet private times I really questioned where my life was going, what I wanted, and how I would get it.  Wondering what it would take to get my husband to truly approve of me, to accept me, to be proud of me.  I was convinced that I was less of a woman because I couldn’t make him a father.  This was all my fault, and something truly insurmountable – and it was brought to my attention often.  But how could we have a family when we would essentially have to BUY a child?  If I could have gotten pregnant…the military would have paid all my pregnancy, labor and delivery costs…we would just have to pay for things after bringing the baby home.  But I couldn’t get pregnant…so we would have to pay legal fees, adoption fees, agency fees and all that…plus pay for everything after bringing the baby home.  It wasn’t fair, and it was one of many things we fought about.

I don’t honestly know at what point I finally realized that I had to get out of the relationship.  I wasn’t a quitter…I was stubborn and hard headed and dammit, don’t tell me I can’t do something!  But I did finally accept that there was not a healthy viable future with that man…and my choices started to change.  Thoughts turn to intentions, intentions turn to action, and action compels momentum.  Eventually the wheels of change started to pick up speed – and once again it was Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome.

Basic Training

I joined the Army in November 1990.  I did my basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey.  Joining the military was not a shock to my system, it was more like coming home.  I understood the roll drill instructors held, I understood the basic expectations placed on me as a recruit.  I actually thoroughly enjoyed my basic training.  Well, not mornings – but I’ve never been a morning person!  I wrote letters home to my husband and my family.  I wrote letters to former teachers, the pastor of my church.  I was able to call home occasionally.  I was completely comfortable, and in my element.

I was so comfortable that I often got in trouble…for laughing at inappropriate times mostly.  I laughed at my squad members.  I laughed at my drill instructors.  I laughed on the firing range.  I laughed in the chow line.  I did a lot of push-ups for laughing at the wrong thing, or at the wrong time.  I did KP a few extra times for laughing too.  So you are probably wondering – what exactly did I find so funny?  Well, mostly the fact that the drill instructors LOVED their jobs…they loved being able to intimidate young recruits.  They loved to yell and boss us around.  But their façade had cracks…they were human, and sometimes the drama of 60+ women between the ages of 18-25 is just too much.  The sheer idiocy we showed was just funny sometimes.  And the incredulity of our drill instructors when we did something really stupid…well I just laughed.

Drill_instructor_at_the_Officer_Candidate_School

You’ve seen it in the movies I’m sure, some hapless recruit being screamed at by a larger than life drill instructor unable to do anything but respond with a “Sir, yes Sir”.  It cracked me up, and when asked what I found so funny, Private?  “You, Drill Sargent” was apparently not the correct response.

One evening in particular, most of the way through basic training we were out on Bivouac – that’s camping for you civilians – I was with a couple other recruits and we were tasked to watch over a pile of gear and wait for the truck to come so we could load it up.  Other recruits near us had some other job, and I don’t even remember what started it…but pretty soon those recruits were being punished for something.  The drill instructor had them running in a tight circle, raising their weapon up and over their heads, and chanting “I am not a knucklehead, I am not a knucklehead.”  “Knees up, soldier…higher…higher…keep that weapon in the air…knees up” It was HILARIOUS…and it was raining of course.  My group got caught watching, and of course then I was laughing…and the whole, “What’s so funny, Private Miller?”  “Just you, Drill Sergeant” thing got me and my group added to the running group of Knuckleheads.  For the record, the drill sergeant was also named Miller, and he was also laughing at the group between yelling at them.

Another memory I have from basic training was pretty iconic.  It’s even written in the margins of my Drill Book.  You see, I was in basic when the bombing began in Tel Aviv – the start of the first gulf war.  When the world became acquainted with the war on terror, and the man, Saddam Hussein.  This was an OMG kind of moment – even when that particular phrase wasn’t in wide use.  I was 19 years old, had pledged my life to the US Army, and a WAR started.  We were gathered in the common room of our barracks, had mats out on the floor for some training activities, and on the schedule was some tactical and combat training exercises.  It wasn’t conducive weather for outdoor training – rain, cold, mud, etc…so we were on the mats combat crawling as quickly as we could from one end of the room to the other while drill instructors were lobbing erasers at our butts telling us to get down, duck your head, crawl faster.  Yes, I was laughing…No, my drill instructors were not amused.  For the record – I was NOT the only one laughing.  We were having fun on a rainy afternoon…crawling around racing back and forth with one particularly funny Puerto Rican drill sergeant really letting loose on us.  Drill Sergeant Figueroa was so stereotypically Puerto Rican most of what he did was funny.  About 5’7”, stocky build, thick PR accent…and constantly yelling at us in English and Spanish.  Finally after the millionth round of stop and give me 20 to our whole group for not focusing and too much laughing…he attempted to get us to sit in a group and pay attention.  We needed to take our training seriously, because someday soon it could be Saddam Hussein launching scud missiles at us instead of just drill instructors launching erasers at us!  We aren’t just killing time here, we’re trying to teach you how to survive in a battle! That kind of brought us up short.  We were in the US Army.  There was a war that just started.  Our country and our lives, values, family, and FREEDOM were at risk.  It was a reality check, and much of the next few weeks were full of quiet conversations about our advanced training coming up and how close to “combat” we might actually get.  Back then, the roles that women were allowed to have were limited to non-combat, mostly support roles.  But I will probably always remember the combat crawling on those mats that rainy night with Drill Sergeant Figueroa launching scud missiles at our butts in the form of chalkboard erasers.

I will also remember basic training, because it was the first Christmas that I was away from my family.  Most of us called home and talked to family.  Many sat in groups with our ranger buddies talking about life and war and home.  At one point that morning I happened to be walking past the cadre offices when Drill Sergeant Figueroa was calling home.  It was like an alien had possessed him.  This grouchy mean obnoxious Puerto Rican man was talking baby talk to his 3 year old daughter.  “Daddy loves you sweetheart, I’ll be home soon.”  Aww…my heart melted.  And I laughed to myself as I quickly kept walking to avoid being caught eavesdropping.

I loved my time in the military.  I loved serving my country, and I truly enjoyed most of the men and women I served with.  I’m sure I’ll share many more stories of my time in the Army, as it was a time of great personal growth for me.  And I will certainly remember a few key phrases, words of wisdom imparted by drill instructors – and most of them are accompanied by more laughter.

“I am not a knucklehead”

“I don’t care what color your skin is, you’re all a bunch of little green shitheads to me”

“No more Drill Sergeant Figueroa, No more Drill Sergeant Figueroa” (sang in formation on our way to the parade deck for graduation day!)