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~~~by Laurent J. LaBrie
Going into the Army was one of the hardest but best decisions in my life. It was definitely the most worthwhile job I have had in my life. As they promised, it was more than a job, it was an adventure.
As I was planning to go to college, my parents and I knew that we couldn't afford the tuition at Lehigh University without some financial help. I got a $250 scholarship from Ashland Oil, but that was peanuts compared to the tuition at private schools. The Army rescued me by providing a full-tuition ROTC scholarship. However, this meant that I had to enter the Army afterwards. I had heard my dad's stories of his time as an enlisted soldier, and they weren't very exciting. I didn't see how my electrical engineering degree was going to be put to good use in the infantry.
My junior year, I had extreme doubts and remember talking with my dad in the living room. It was a sunny summer day but that didn't reflect my emotions. My dad said that I didn't need to sign up, but could repay the money that they had given me. However, walking out now presented ethical dilemmas as well.
As a young Christian, I spent a lot of time trying to seek God's will on the decision. I put out a fleece in church one rainy day and said "God, if you want me to be in the Army, let it thunder in the next 5 seconds." I counted, "one, two, three,..." cabam went the thunder. I did this two more times. Although there was no thunder in the time between, God sent it at the time I requested. For a spiritually mature adult, God probably wouldn't guide this way, but to an immature teenager He extended His grace. Of course, I've changed a lot since those days of innocence.
It finally came time to sign on the dotted line and I remember the day well. Upstairs in Lehigh University's Grace Hall. In a room where wood paneled walls framed a yellowish-green carpet upon which long wooden tables had unfolded. About a score of us were in that room that day, sitting on metal folding chairs two at a table. Most of my classmates seemed certain about their decision, while I was trying my best to weasel out of it. In my last ditch attempt, I even asked for a definition of "conscientious objector". However, at the end of the day, my John Hancock was on the line. Once again, what was right had overcome my desire. And God was to bless me for it beyond what I could have hoped and dreamed.
The Army appointed me to the Medical Service Corps and since I didn't receive my first choice of corps, I got my first choice of duty stations, Ft. Carson, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This was an incredible blessing, because I loved the mountains and skiing. The weather in the mile-high city is as magnificent as it is unpredictable. One day I was at the pool at 3PM and by 7PM it was snowing.
My first position was as the Medical Officer for the 2/34th Armor Battalion, the "Centurions". My superior officer was Captain George Seiferth, an officer who was very professional and cared enough for his soldiers to mentor them. As were all my military superiors, he was a fantastic person for whom to work-fair and ethical, devoted to work. It was from him that I first heard the principle to arrive before the boss and leave afterwards, and he practiced it. A handsome guy about six feet tall, he kept his boots, uniform, even his hair in perfect condition at all times.
The acronym for medical officer was MEDO, which I soon learned also stood for Multiple Extra-Duty Officer. Whenever I got one area organized, I'd turn around and CPT Seiferth would assign me another extra-duty. For someone like me, motivated, workaholic, and wanting to make a name for myself, being given overutilized was not a problem. CPT Seiferth found it easy to use someone he saw as proficient at taking tests and eager to take on problems. So, I ended up with 12 extra tasks, including Moral Support Funds Officer, Fire Marshal, and Safety Officer.
One Tuesday afternoon at about 16:30, CPT Seiferth called me in to his office. He said, "Lieutenant, tomorrow, I want you to report to Building 647 and take the postal officer course. You will be our postal officer." I saluted, surely after informing him that this was my 12th additional duty, and being told, "Don't whine, lieutenant." I did an about face and headed out the door.
The next day, I reported as ordered, got my books, and sat with eight to ten other officers, commissioned and not. The understanding that the people had of the course material on the first day amazed me. "These are some squared-away people. Why don't I have a handle on this stuff?" At lunch, somebody asked me, "Where were you yesterday? We have been here since Monday and have the accrediting test tomorrow." I had a decision to make. I could use the excuse of not being given enough time to take the entire course in order to fail the test and escape the job. Or I had to tell myself, "You are a Lehigh grad, failing is not an option." That was when pride took over and I crammed that night. Friday, the results came back and I had passed.
Unlike my colleagues, for us in support functions like medicine or logistics, time in garrison was difficult. I rarely got to the Junior Officer's Professional Association (JOPA) functions as the Captains and Lieutenants called their occasional day on the golf course or bowling alley. On the other hand, in the field, my fellow lieutenants who were tank commanders had exercises while we just took care of the occasional patient. When things were going well and I was succeeding as safety officer, we saw only two or three patients a day. So, when I wasn't performing my duties as Field Sanitation Officer, I spent a lot of time studying. I knew that I would have to start learning what my soldiers knew in order to speak intelligently on the subject. I often also found myself the consultant on medical matters.
One day in garrison, at about 15:00, a master sergeant in his early forties, a bit overweight from tasting too much cake, approached me. He saluted with a hand rugged from cooking and cleaning pans and said, "Sir, can I speak with you in private?" As I returned the salute, I thought, "Uh, oh, which of my soldiers did what now?" I guided him into my office and he said, "When my wife and I want to have sex, I can't get an erection. What can I do?" I nearly fell out of my chair. Nothing in all my engineering or art classes had prepared this 23-year old to play Dr. Ruth for a man twice his age.
Fortunately, God gave me the sense to know that this was a sensitive moment, so I tried my best to maintain my composure. I gave the caveat of not being a psychologist and then did my best to imagine what could be the problem, despite my never even having had sex before. Speaking to a chaplain later, I discovered that he would have given about the same counsel. So, I had a lot of studying to do.
I would be lying to say that I preferred time in the field. Going days without a shower, getting 4-7 hours of sleep a night and eating two of half a dozen Meals Ready-to-Eat out of a plastic bag. The latter was the real challenge.