Shave or… Die!

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One immeasurably troubling night in 1997, I found myself tapping, unwillingly, on death’s door.  Why the Grim Reaper, himself, didn’t open it completely, I have no clue, but I believe he cracked his door open wide enough to see whom it was.  The seemingly dormant ulcer I thought I had conquered was no longer so.  If only I had had symptoms beforehand to give me a warning sign.

A bit of background is essential here: To help pay off my $29K in undergraduate student loans, I joined the US Army in 1997, somewhat selling my soul to do so, and sometime that summer, I was off to basic training at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina.  Getting through basic was, well, pretty damn basic.  Nothing like the movies more-often-than-not sensationalize, it was a breeze for the most part.  Being in good shape in my later mid-20’s, I found that PT (physical training) was generally no sweat, and I blew away most of the teenage enlistees in all that we did, sometimes making me question what kind of shape the general US youth population is in nowadays.  “Didn’t schools require PE classes anymore?” I often wondered.  Other aspects of Basic were also completely doable, and I had no issue with getting up early, running through the forest playing war games, or challenging ourselves on the obstacle course or at the Victory Tower climbing wall.  All in all, drill sergeants, attempting to get some previously-undisciplined recruit to follow the rules, were just regular ol’ guys and gals doing their jobs, trying their hardest to instill in those kids a sense of teamwork.

Periodically, however, some dimwit would really goof up and piss off a drill sergeant, resulting in a ridiculous punishment that did prompt me to ponder what the hell I had done, e.g., doing intense exercise sessions in our NBC (nuclear, biological, & chemical) suits, a thicker charcoal-lined outfit that, naturally, was dauntingly too thick and hot to wear.  Nonetheless, with some mental and intestinal fortitude, handling such routines was easy.  Generally, I didn’t have any problem dealing with all of the challenging external stimuli.  However, habitually my own worst enemy, internally, I may have induced what later transpired, pushing me nearer to death’s door than I’d ever been before—or hope to be in the near future.

For the few weeks leading up to my ER visit during my seventh week of basic training, I was the man on the shooting range.  Hitting pop up targets from 100, 200, or 300 meters, sometimes in the rain, was a breeze.  Gale-force winds, an earthquake, and someone tickling my armpit—all at the same time—wouldn’t have caused me to miss.  I was money.  And I can recall, now, fifteen years later, the drill sergeants having used my name regularly in running cadences, calling out “Specialist Brown, where you at?” followed by “sharpshooter,” “expert,” or other laudatory accolades as they did.  Perhaps it was all my years as a kid growing up with BB-guns back in the then-provincial town of Warwick, NY, that helped me hit my targets without error, and I seemed to have nerves of steal for those few weeks of routine practice at the firing range.

However, when the big morning came to prove our marksmanship skills, I choked.  I bombed.  I faltered.  FUBAR!  What a bust!  Countless privates then passed by me in line to qualify ahead of me.  “Step aside, Specialist Brown,” or “Nice going, College Boy,” I could hear them snicker as they walked by.  Then, I had my chance once more.  My rounds hit the dirt.  I could see the puffs of dust hit the embankment lining the back of the firing range, wide left, wide right, too high.  Perhaps I even hit a bird flying overhead.  Or was that a Boeing 747?  Whatever it was, I was a “no go.”  I then had to sit in the bleachers, sequestered from the lot of ‘em all, watching nearly everyone else get through on his or her first attempt.  First try.  Pass.  Go.  Marksmen they were.  Sharpshooters.  Experts.  Pass.  Pass.  Pass.  Again I tried; again I failed.  I flopped.  I choked at least four more times.  Pressure got to me.  I suffered from stage fright.  Performance anxiety got the best of me.  What a letdown I was!

Even though I could blow off steam at other times during basic training—and so much of the previous seven weeks had been like water off a duck’s back, especially when some silly, immature private messed up and aggravated the drill sergeants to the point of them dishing out consequences to the whole group, for those issues were nothing I could do anything about personally, I couldn’t let this one go.  It was on my shoulders.  I’d messed up, embarrassingly so, or at least I led myself to believe it was something to be embarrassed about. With an internal locus of control dominating my personality, I personalized it.  I brooded in the bleachers between chances, lambasting and chiding myself.  Steam came out my ears.  I internalized, and anger festered inside me those few hours on the range.  Too self-critical, under my breath I muttered about how freaking pathetic I was to have fumbled the ball—and then I was even more resentful of how I allowed myself to come apart at the seams.  I didn’t let it go.

Eventually, as the sun was cozily tucking itself behind the bed sheets of the horizon, casting a pinkish light over Ft.  Jackson’s firing range, I hit what I needed to, giving me a perturbingly minimal qualification, something even my feeble-bodied great-grandmother could have done at 98-years of age at the time.  Then the one remaining drill sergeant who’d been forced to stay behind, minding the stragglers, who’d up until then been biting dirt from under his fingernails and counting the hairs on the back of his hand, let out a sigh of relief that echoed off the dirt embankment down range.  I collected the rounds from the ground around me, grumbling to myself, policing up my area, and then joined the last group of other sad sack qualifiers, heads hung equally low, to walk back to the barracks, hours after the main cohort had returned.  There were to be no more Specialist Brown call-outs during our running formations.  No more proverbial pats on the back; just silly, self-induced frustration.  I’m certain I heard the other drill sergeants snigger when I shamefully shuffled by their open office door.

A typical evening ensued after returning from the range, with evening mess (a beef stew, I recall) and the requisite, enthusiastic downing of a canteen of water (“Beat the heat, drill sergeant, beat the heat!”) before heading back into the barracks.   Lights out happened at the standard 9p.m.  At 11p.m., begrudgingly so because I was, for some reason, rather sluggish, I was awoken to do my two-hour shift of barracks cleaning and sentry duty; theretofore, it was all just part of the process—and I regularly had no qualms doing what needed to be done, for such an easygoing habitual mindset was much better than fighting the system, with all its oddly idiosyncratic, mundane (and outdated, I might add) tasks.  With a Private Brown, my bunk mate because we shared the last name, I mopped the floor and cleaned the latrine.  However, I felt astonishingly lightheaded and dizzy, almost as if I had downed a fifth of gin on an empty stomach before lights out.  Naïve as to why I was so lethargic, chalking it up to lack of a peaceful rest, and too enveloped in a hazy state to really even care, I, forthwith, went back to sleep when our shift ended.

Sometime in the middle of the night, perhaps around 2a.m., I awoke, just as I did every night, to relieve myself of the canteen of water we had been forced to drink before retiring back to our bays.  The drill sergeants in Basic required chugging water nightly (well, some mandated Army protocol was the true reason behind it), a rule that really did make sense because of the amount of fluids we sweated out daily.  Thankfully, our bunk was near the latrine door, so I could customarily mosey in, half-asleep, and do my thing without much thought.  This time was different, though, for when I arrived at the urinal, I could barely stand.  Upon finishing the task at hand, pardon the pun, I teetered.  Like a spinning top that’d given up on the notion of inertia and acquiesced to gravity’s power, I collapsed, hitting my head on the rock-hard, tiled floor as I landed.  Ages passed, it seemed, and I lay there, practically comatose.

From out of nowhere, violently, I spewed a reservoir of purplish-red liquid out onto the floor.  Listless I lay there, only able to zone in on how the edge of the fluid pool spread out leisurely over the tiles, expanding outwardly in a circle around my head and torso, like a slow moving tide.  My focus then moved to the beads of sweat developing on my forearm.  Perhaps two inches from my face, my right arm, as if everything happened in slow motion, bled perspiration like condensation droplets forming on a freshly-served glass of iced tea on an August-in-Alabama afternoon.  Yet I couldn’t do anything.  I was lost as to what was transpiring.  I couldn’t call out for help.  Lying there, I hoped someone would soon come in.  My energy empty, my vocal cords apparently frozen, I lay there thinking, “Why is my vomit so dark?  Is it the beef stew?  It shouldn’t be the color of cranberry-grape juice.”

Perhaps ten minutes passed.  Perhaps five.  I have no clue.  All was foggy.  However, at some point, a voice inside me urged me to do something.  If I didn’t, I could have lain there until dawn—or perhaps I may have never even gotten up; undoubtedly, I had started to worry.  Not knowing what state I’d be in if I were to continue lying there ‘til morning—or until someone came in on his own volition, I mustered up enough energy to flail my arm out and toppled over the garbage can nearby.  Into the tiled bathroom wall, near where I lay, I kicked the can, literally—not figuratively, two or three more times, expending the last bits of energy I had left.  Within a minute, some soldiers, their flip-flopped feet the only things I could see from my vantage point, rushed in.  Incoherent chatter ensued, for all, including their voices, was a blur to me, and then an unknown period of time passed before I caught sight of a drill sergeant’s footwear, an impressively, perfectly shined pair of combat boots.

A short, pigheaded curmudgeon in a crisp, starched set of BDUs, he was visibly upset that someone had woken him from his I-can’t-believe-I-am-on-weekend-duty-again midnight nap (He wasn’t one of our regular NCOs, an enlisted Non-Commissioned Officer, but rather a fill-in for the weekend).  Barking orders like I had done something wrong, he commanded that I get up, which, of course, required assistance to do.  He then looked me over, head to toe, and aggressively demanded I make a decision.  “Soldier,” he growled, “you can go back to bed, or you can go to the hospital!  What do you want to do?”

Propped up between two soldiers who’d grabbed me under my armpits and held my arms up over their shoulders, I simply wasn’t thinking clearly.  In retrospect, fifteen years later, I simply don’t understand how this sergeant, in his at-least-a-10-year-plus Army enlistment up until that point, didn’t recognize that the pool of deep purple liquid that had flowed across the floor in front me—and slightly under me, was blood.  I myself knew, even in my altered state of consciousness, that it surely wasn’t just the beef stew I had eagerly scarfed down the evening before, but, then again, I wasn’t functioning cognitively enough to argue with the asshole.  All I had wanted to do was lie down.  The bastard should have understood what was happening: that I wasn’t in good shape should’ve been clear to him.  Incredulous I am to this day that he was so incomprehensibly obtuse.

The next day at 6a.m., on a Sunday it was, the morning pre-recorded reveille went off—an hour later than our normal wake up since it was, after all, God’s day of rest.  As others jumped out of their bunks to toe the line, as the same drill sergeant came in to do roll call, I struggled to stand up.  Dizzy, I walked groggily to the line at the foot of our bunk, a perfectly-straight red line that ran lengthwise down and around the center of the entire bay—where each enlistee was to stand every morning; however, I, instead, urgently returned to my bunk and plopped back down like a sack of floor, unable to even sit up with any semblance of uprightness in posture.  A marionette would have sat more erect.  While he walked the line to make sure all were present, I lay limp, halfway falling off my pillow, watching further sweat beads swell up on my arm again.

Naturally, this irked the sergeant on duty, who came over to demand an answer as to what I was doing, perhaps having ignorantly forgotten that I’d just spent part of my sleeping hours curled up in a fetal position on the latrine floor, with a stagnant, sanguineous puddle nearby.  Rarely, apparently, had he been put in charge of making prompt decisions, for he stood there above me, practically tapping his foot on the floor, waiting for me to tell him what course of action to pursue.  Mercifully, or perhaps because he simply didn’t know what else to do and he hadn’t any other unscripted ideas to fall back on, he scoffed to my bunkmate, “Pack his stuff up and help him get dressed.  He can go to the hospital if he wants.”

Private Brown and a few others gathered around me.  To get me ready, they took out various personal-hygiene items from my locker and packed my olive green pillowcase with a change of clothes and said belongings.   Into my Army-adorned PT sweatpants they changed me, even putting on my running shoes for me.  I felt like my six-month-old son must feel when we put him into a Onesie, his arms forced into the sleeve holes and his body propped up so as not to fall over.  To have someone tie my shoes was foreign, too, for that hadn’t happened since my own toddler years (or was it actually one absurdly silly college binge-drinking session at a frat party once?).  Soon after and ever so slothfully, across the large 60-man barracks bay, down three flights of stairs, and out onto the covered area where the company met for morning formations, they carried me, struggling like porters at the Ritz Carlton forced to haul a starlet’s twenty-piece luggage set up to her room for a weekend-only luxury hotel splurge.  Downstairs, they attempted to sit me upright against the wall near the NCO’s office door, and there, wearied and languid, I slouched, head hanging and torso slumped to the side as if it were on a spring that had been bent over permanently in that direction.  A four-year-old may have had more success getting his bigheaded, top-heavy Play-Doh figurine to sit up straight.

However pressing the situation was, however dire my circumstances were, it didn’t matter, at least it appeared to my helpers and me.  Sergeant Nonchalance, as he will forever be known to me, the idiot jackass that he was, was too busy inspecting the boots of the company’s recruits.  Eons passed.  I was alone for some time, for my “battle buddy” and the other blokes had to get their own uniforms on for inspection, but they later returned as hastily as they could, thankfully.  From the time that they’d brought me down, perhaps ten more minutes passed before the E-6 (a staff sergeant) came over, demanding that I be stood up to address him.  Only when I was did he mention the hospital again, but he then, instead, incredulously, barked, “Wait a minute!  You didn’t even shave!  There is no way I am taking you to the hospital unless you shave first!  Get him upstairs to shave!”

Seriously?

Back up the three flights of stairs and back across the bay they dragged me, much to their chagrin—and mine.  Propped up by my two comrades-in-arms, literally and figuratively, I didn’t have much of a clue what was going on other than a clear recognition that the NCO was a moron.  What the hell could we have done?  The two privates didn’t have a clue about what was transpiring, and I still wasn’t sure.  Regardless, we didn’t have any power to respond to him in any other fashion than, “Yes, Sergeant [you A-hole].  Right away, Sergeant.  Roger that, Sergeant.”

Once we arrived in the latrine where I’d spent a good chunk of the night before, they had no other option than to stand aside me, shoulder to shoulder, to keep me propped up on my own two feet, so that I could proceed, struggling all along with even holding my razor, to shave my five-o’clock-shadow of a beard.  Not to belittle anyone who has ever served in the military and, under incredible duress and facing danger and death, helped a fellow comrade to survive, meriting a Purple Heart—deservedly so, but my two buddies should have gotten some sort of recognition for doing what they did to help me.  Unfortunately, as you’ll see later, I never had a chance to say thank you, and, chances are, they never received any sort of commendation for all they did, let alone a pat on the head.  Patient and astoundingly helpful, they got me through the near-fatal ordeal.

Whether or not I actually did a solid job at shaving isn’t clear any more—and, assuredly, I didn’t even know then, nor did I care.  What does stand out, though, is that I had a sudden urge to sit in one of the nearby stalls, to which they hurriedly hauled me.  There, without control, I did my best impression of a faucet whose water-conservation attachment had been screwed off, expelling what seemed to be gallons of the same cranberry-grape juice, this time from the other end.  By now, mental alarm bells rang.  This, undeniably, was troubling—even to a bloke who was only semi-cognizant of his own condition.  Frantically, I implored them to bring me back downstairs.

There, once again waiting for the NCO to come back over (to hear whatever clever responses he had this time), becoming rather irked even though my emotional reaction was much subdued and kept in check by my lack of physical pep and logical reasoning, I asked my buddies for a latrine.  At least there was one nearby so that we didn’t have to return to the third floor.  More liquid ensued.  In horrifying amounts.  I dramatically called out to the two blokes, “Holy crap!  Dudes, there is something wrong,” thinking all along that I had just learned the hard way what Old Faithful, the famous Yellowstone geyser, must feel like every time he has no choice but to expel the watery explosion that happens to him like clockwork.  Poor fellow.  Poor me.  Having only barely enough energy to open the stall door again prompted me to nearly cry, and I leaned over in slow motion, worried that I may collapse, to release the latch and to allow them to pull me out even though I couldn’t stand up to pull up my own sweatpants.  Bashfulness had no right to rear its head in such an emergency.  They were the puppeteers.  I was Disney’s Pinocchio in their hands.

Only when he was finished chatting with a group of young enlistee females, showing them his best, well-versed technique for shining a pair of combat boots, did Sergeant Nonchalance come over.  Oh how I wanted to, from the ground where I was sitting, listlessly leaning against the brick wall outside his office, deliver a swift kick to his crotch as he stood above me.  Such thoughts entertained me momentarily, but I then returned to the dazed la la land where I’d spent much of my waking day so far, waiting for him to take action.

Finally—perhaps two hours after I had first fallen back into my lower bunk bed at reveille, not to mention all the time since I had first vomited on the latrine floor in the wee hours, he said, “Let’s go,” and with that my rank-less saviors placed me into a four-handed seat-like carrying position, so that they were lifting my legs off the ground with my bum balanced on their interlocked forearms, my arms draped over their upper backs.  Into the rear cargo area of his POV (privately owned vehicle), a pick up truck of some make and model, they loaded me, coming along themselves for the ride to the Ft. Jackson base hospital, a respite they probably actually enjoyed because they were finally able to get away from the barracks and the routine of Basic Training.  Within a few minutes, we arrived at the ER’s entrance, and they then hauled me in to the waiting room.  They, at that point, left me there, solo.  Alone I sat, never to see them again.

Minutes passed before a nurse came over to ask if I was okay; incoherently, I mumbled something about wanting my mommy.  My torpid state and unintelligible reply must have sent her into action, swift and decisive, indeed.  All I can recall afterwards was her taking my blood pressure, and then, once she got a reading, how she had gasped, dropped her jaw to her sternum, and instantly, dramatically—like in an exciting episode of M.A.S.H when copters arrive with the wounded, called out for assistance.  I can still hear her shout, “Stat!”  Frenetic action ensued, with staff coming out of the woodwork to get me onto a gurney, a few working frantically to insert an IV drip in a withered vein.  Into the deepest recesses of the hospital they shuttled me, and I only recall seeing bright lights above as I was whisked down the hallway, lights, I assume, that were merely the overhead hallway fluorescent tubes—not some celestial, ethereal ones.

At one point, I was out cold, and the next thing I knew was that an Army officer, a captain, came in to my curtained-off, sequestered ER “room” and shook my shoulder to wake me up to explain that he needed to perform a gastric lavage.  “A what?  A who?  You don’t say!”  Though I am always eager to learn a new vocabulary word to add to my lexical repertoire, I was neither eager to know nor impressed to have learned what that meant.  Getting a semi-flexible plastic tube shoved down through my nasal passage downward into my stomach, in order for some machine to suck out my stomach contents—blood, in my case—wasn’t the most exciting news he could have delivered.  If he’d given me the option of pulling out my fingernails with a pair of pliers, I, undeniably, would have gone for the latter.

Without a choice, however, I reluctantly stated, “Uh, okay, doc, but treat me nicely.  I’m a first timer.”  A few moments later, some bloke came in toting a coiled tube, something akin, in length at least, to an anaconda, yet not as thick, thankfully.  Over the course of the next two minutes, he proceeded to hastily feed it through my nostril, past my throat, and deep into my gut.  Wanting to sneeze violently at first, and then feeling like I needed to regurgitate it all, I clenched the sides of the chair I was on, repeating to myself that I just needed to relax.  Easier said than done.

For the machine at my side to methodically extract all the blood in my stomach took nearly an hour, and when the procedure was nearly completed, sucking air like a teenager rudely finishing his McDonald’s milkshake by inhaling every last droplet desperately through a straw, the captain came back in, brushing the privacy curtain aside like a man on a mission.  In one brief moment he stated gruffly that he was going to withdraw the tube, and in a nanosecond, he then jerked it out so abruptly that I thought my insides were coming out with it like an ancient Egyptian king’s innards were yanked out during the mummification process.  With that, his face stern and serious, his tone more critical than accommodating or sympathetic, he told me that I had lost seven total units of blood, an amount that “could have—or possibly even should have—killed you.”

They had apparently, unbeknownst to me, already performed an endoscope, (to be honest, the endoscope may have come afterwards, because it doesn’t make sense to go deep inside my gut if I had been full of blood, but my lack of sequential accuracy here is based on my state of mind at the time—and on the fact that it is 15 years later), finding an ulcer in my duodenum, just south of the stomach—and they discovered that the little bugger had eaten away at a blood vessel in the lining of my intestinal tract, causing—as was evident by the amount of blood I had eagerly dispensed back in the barracks—a massive upper-GI bleed.  Whatever Sergeant Nonchalance was thinking at the time still remains a mystery to me today.  What else did he think all that blood was?

Bored out of my skull and lonely as hell, I spent the next three days in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Ft. Jackson base hospital; subsequently, I was shipped to a local hospital where I met a gastro specialist who also declared, matter-of-factly, that I should have died due to the amount of blood lost—and I then spent nearly a week there.  At one point, the same captain, the one who’d ripped the lavage tube out from my nostril as if he were a overzealous newbie competitor in a spinning top championship who yanked his top‘s string too abruptly, causing only pain and anguish, came in to chat with me.

“Specialist Brown,” he addressed me, “you have two choices.  You can get out of the Army now, and there will be no record that you were ever in the military.  On the other hand, you can go on a 30-day convalescent leave and then return to finish your training [which only entailed one more week of final processing and tests].  What would you like to do?”  The choice was an easy one, for I knew I had that nearly $30K in loans to pay off, so I packed my bags and headed off for my one-month, paid recovery leave in Virginia, where my nearest family lived.

A month later, I drove myself back to Basic, checked in with my drill sergeants (the regular ones, not the fill-in-for-that-weekend Sergeant Nonchalance), who’d, in the meantime, received another cast of characters to bend and shape into soldiers for eight more weeks.  For an abbreviated end to the process of basic training, something like two or three days instead of a whole week, as was expected, they only asked me to go and simply throw one hand grenade, which lasted something like ten minutes; moreover, they asked me to do one final PT test, with the number of push ups and sit ups I could do being monitored and recorded in their private office.  They, afterwards, asked, “What do you think you can run the 2-mile in?” to which I retorted, semi-confidently, for I hadn’t done a lick of training or exercise in the month I was gone, “Oh, probably around 13 minutes, give or take an hour.”

They immediately stenciled my guesstimate, minus the sarcasm, in on my PT card, knowing I’d had better-than-average run times before my GI bleed deluge in the latrine, giving me an easy passing mark.  Quickly and nonchalantly they fictionalized my results, treating me like a soldier already, not some dweeb recruit, which I appreciated.  I also told them about my ordeal and how all transpired that night, and, consequently, I found out that the NCO in question, the obtuse one who almost allowed me to die, had been ETS-ing (the “End of Term of Service” period when, much like the last few weeks of a lame duck president’s term, time is spent simply tying up loose ends, perhaps not caring about much else) and that he was out of the Army already.  Go figure.

If he had still been around on base, I would have asked to see him, for I desperately desired to know his perspective on that evening.  If I could have asked him why on earth had he not recognized the severity of the case, I perhaps wouldn’t be so dumbfounded by his actions—even all of these years later.  Wherever he is currently, I hope that his judgments are clearer and his decisions more swift nowadays, for there should have been, undoubtedly, no options in having me shave or (nearly) die.  “Theirs not to reason why,” I suppose, for reason still doesn’t come in to play here.

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2 Responses to Shave or… Die!

  1. kierstenkaye says:

    That sounds like a horrible experience but, having more than a few family members in the service, it doesn’t exactly sound unfamiliar. But it sounds like you handled the situation very well and, as always, thank you for your service.

    • vagabondwithfamily says:

      I do believe I was fortunate and downright… lucky! Makes for a good story, at least. The Army served me well in paying off my near $30K in student loans, and I got a free trip to Kosovo, too! ; )

      Thanks for reading, Kiersten!

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