When the idea of traveling to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., was brought to me, it sounded like a great opportunity — in theory.
And when I pitched the idea to the Killeen Daily Herald management, I never actually expected to get a plane ticket.
When I did, I knew I had no choice. I was going to the box, whether I was ready or not.
So I took a trip to a sporting goods store with my dear, sweet, patient husband — an armor officer in another cavalry brigade — and purchased supplies. There was a lot of arguing and debating on color and fashion versus necessity and, ultimately, I took his advice.
When I first traded in my heels for those hiking boots, I’ll admit, I felt like an imposter — as if everyone who saw me walking in these boots knew I hadn’t earned them. Surely it was obvious to everyone I didn’t really camp, or hike, or enjoy terrain filled with six kinds of snakes, tarantulas and spiders the size of your face.
But after five days in the box, I earned the right to wear those dusty boots. They are grey, not tan, because I am by no means a soldier, but I gave it my best to chase down every story that desert had to offer. One day, I literally did chase the story across the sand behind a team of infantry soldiers.
Since returning to Fort Hood, I’ve been asked quite a bit if I actually lived in the box, and yes I did — and I only “died” once.
I slept in an Army-issued sleeping bag, changed clothes once in five days, never got a shower, donned a helmet in military vehicles and feasted daily on MREs (meals ready to eat). Feasted is really a stretch, but they aren’t as bad as I thought. As one who shops organic and avoids anything pre-packaged, I learned quickly to eat the darn thing and not read the ingredients.
The candy is really the selling factor of the MRE. At each meal, the soldiers trade peanut M&Ms for plain, or the “Ranger” cookie for oatmeal raisin. If you ever find yourself eating an MRE, I recommend sticking with the pastas. They tasted less processed than the chicken with feta cheese I tried.
Some nights we were spoiled and got hot chow. Unfortunately, you have to eat it standing in the cold, pitch black night air. I learned to eat fast, while stomping my feet to stay warm.
The day I notionally died, well, that was a tough day all around.
I had only gotten about three hours of sleep, which was more than the company commander I embedded with. The infantry soldiers of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, were great guys, and while I enjoyed hanging out with them, it was a rugged, fast-paced lifestyle.
I never got an actual meal that day and I lost my gloves.
That was about the time I was ready to quit, but I knew I would never be able to face the soldiers again if they knew I wimped out and left early. They had been in the box nearly three times as long as I had, and by then I only had one day left, and I’m so happy I stuck in out.
I learned more in those five days about what soldiers actually do, than in my two years covering military news at the Herald.
Being a soldier is about much more than putting on a uniform and understanding your vehicle, your weapon or the specialty you are assigned to. It’s about being an expert in that field, no matter what the circumstances. No matter how dirty, tired, cold, stressed, angry, sad, sore, homesick, whatever you are feeling, you keep doing what you are trained to do.
It’s something I could never have understood had I not seen it firsthand. Just as the dust on my boots proves I survived five days in the desert, I hope the experience is reflected in the stories I wrote from Fort Irwin and those I will write as I continue to report on Fort Hood’s soldiers.
Contact Rose L. Thayer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.