This is the week for Thanksgiving. I got a lot of thanks this past week, but I don’t feel that I deserved many of them.
Last week I set off to camp, but it’s not the kind where you swim and make crafts and sing around the campfire. As a public affairs staff sergeant in the California State Military Reserve, I drove to Camp Roberts (north of Paso Robles) to take photos and write a story about a unit that’s been helping to train National Guardsmen on pistols and rifles.
The CSMR is the California National Guard’s close cousin; the principal differences are we can’t be federalized or sent overseas (in most cases), and we don’t get paid unless called to state active duty, which usually means emergencies like wildfires and earthquakes.
To the average citizen, considering that our uniforms are almost identical (chief difference: the tape over their left breast says “U.S. Army”; ours says “California”), we are often assumed to be active duty soldiers on our way from or to the Persian Gulf.
Many is the time people have said to me, “Thank you for your service.” It always makes me feel 60 percent good and 40 percent guilty.
Certainly I think that my brothers and sisters in the CSMR are serving their nation and state, but it doesn’t quite compare to what our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed. Explanations of exactly what I do seem confusing or ungracious, so I merely reply, “Thank you very much,” trying not to sound like Elvis.
Of course, not all expressions of appreciation go quite like that. On my way home from Camp Roberts I stopped in San Luis Obispo to get some lunch. While walking along Higuera Street, an elderly lady came up to me.
“Are you in the Army?” she asked. I explained that I was in the state military reserve. That was good enough for her. She thanked me and then said, “Now, you keep kicking those Arabs’ a—es!”
I feel a little less than worthy because the people who really deserve the recognition don’t get it, although they have sacrificed much more. My father, Sal, served in the Army in his youth, giving up three years of his life (spending the last year in combat) and carrying the horrors of war inside him ever since.
My brother John, also served in the Army being stationed in Korea for nearly two years. He left behind his wife and child and lived in a frigid combat zone.
My trip to “camp” underlined the nature of what they contributed to us. Military life is often uncomfortable, confusing, humbling and sometimes dangerous. There wasn’t too much of the latter last weekend (although there was lots of live gunfire all around), but there was some of the rest.
Camp Roberts is a pre-World War II facility that has not aged gracefully, to be frank. The barracks are old-style open-bay, with narrow bumks lining each wall. Each cot is topped with a hard mattress and a contour sheet that could have stood some washing, or perhaps, replacement. Ten years ago …
The latrines were, well, mostly functional. The mass shower was a dark, deep closet that inspired all kinds of bacterial imaginings. As I lay there on my narrow bed Friday night, I started harvesting my grumpiness. I had driven for five hours to get there, some of the traveling in the dark and rain, and here was my reward? I had spent $140 for my helmet and other kit, and they didn’t even have blankets?
Out in the field, waiting for the weapons practice to begin, I stood patiently with my camera. “What are you doing?” asked the colonel.
“I am … uh … standing around, sir!” I replied.
“Well, don’t stand around,” he yelled. “Take some pictures! Do something!”
Which I did, grumbling to myself about how I was a college perfessor and I was the owner of a newspaper and I wasn’t used to being talked to like that ….
Of course, I soon came to my senses. My measly two days in the field was nothing compared to what full-time soldiers go through. The tiny bruises to my ego can’t begin to compare to the terror of being shot at. My longing to go home was the faintest of shadows of the feelings men and woman stationed all around the world in defense of our nation, often in distant, dangerous and remote locations.
So when I get those “thanks for your service” I count them now as 99 percent dedicated to the “real” soldiers who earned them, such as my father and brother and countless others. I’ll be happy with the remainder.
Of course, considering those bunks and those showers, maybe I’d better take 2 percent. Not every scary place is in the Middle East ….
– Jim Tortolano