by Elizabeth O’Herrin
Years have passed since I joined the military on September 13, 2001 and it feels like long ago and yesterday all at the same time. When I decided to leave the military I suspected I would miss it. I contemplated reenlisting, but decided I wouldn’t miss it enough to spend more time as United States government property. So after seven years in, I decided to get out. And although I left years ago now, I have these nights—although they are fewer and farther between—these quiet nights when I’m by myself, sipping wine, and the memories flood unexpectedly.
It feels like only a few months have passed since I bounded into roll call before dawn, amped up on three cups of coffee and ready to cause trouble. When I put on the uniform, I detected a significant change in my personality. I’m not sure it was a better me, but it certainly was a more foul-mouthed me. And so sometimes, on those quiet evenings, when the nostalgia kicks in I wonder if maybe me and Uncle Sam could’ve made a deal for a few more years. I had a lot of fun as that girl in uniform. Maybe too much fun.
There was the night during a training exercise that three middle aged, married men were arrested for streaking naked through a Wisconsin township at 2 o’clock in the morning. The movie Old School had recently made its debut and “hey everybody, we’re going streaking!” was shouted sporadically throughout the duration of a week full of gas mask drills and grueling 15 hour work days. From the post bailout debrief, I gathered that the mantra culminated in a rather blurry decision making process fueled by overconsumption of light beer and a misguided sense of invincibility in the north woods.
During that same training exercise, there was my emergency room trip that lived in infamy because it involved a deeply personal component of my anatomy, and one that was unfortunately injured—thankfully not permanently damaged—via a failed leap from a bomb assembly line. “It’s ok, O’Herrin, I’m married. I’ve seen it all. You can tell me where you’re hurt,” offered my shop chief as eyewitnesses deposited me in front of him. I refused and demanded to speak with a woman, who upon hearing the specific nature of the incident and that there was bleeding insisted on taking me to the medics. I prayed for female medics. To my dismay, three male medics hurried out after being notified a casualty was en route. They shook their heads in confusion upon being notified of the specific nature of my injury. To my further embarrassment, I was hoisted into an ambulance and driven off (sans sirens) to the local civilian emergency room. The incident was the butt of a joke—only once—months later, and we all shared a good laugh. Then I made convincing enough threats and it was never mentioned again.
On one deployment, the base authorities rationed us three cold beers per day. We managed to bribe the morale, welfare and recreation airmen to let us do some of their heavy lifting, unloading the weekly shipment of 2,400 cases of beer every Tuesday morning. In return they locked us in a cooler and we guzzled Tuborgs and Heinekens as fast as we could, far above our three beer limit. We stumbled out of the frosty air and into the blinding daylight and tried in vain to look sober. And although the morale, welfare and recreation airmen were suddenly switched to other shifts, we never did get in trouble for it.
There was the time I zoomed across an active runway, hauling a trailer laden with countermeasure chaff and flares. “Zoom” being relative, as I was technically speeding at a whopping 23 MPH in a tow truck on a flight line. I had no access to the airfield control tower via my radio channel, and my supervisor said “just look both ways real good” when I protested that I wasn’t supposed to cross the runway without radioing the tower. I finally gave in, as no amount of protesting from me was magically going to get me a radio that had access to the tower. And the visiting A-10’s had a schedule to keep and sorties to fly. Although I’m sure this breach had rippling repercussions somewhere down the line, no one ever said anything to me.
There was the time the Iraqi contractors offered to help me carry a plywood board bigger than me and then ran off and threw it in their truck instead, rendering me boardless and helpless in front of their smirking Army escort guards. There was the time we were issued plastic rape whistles for protection against our own guys and we thought it was a cruel joke, but it wasn’t. There was the time in the Florida Keys when I had to pull over on the flight line next to an F-16 so an unnamed airman could go flying out of the vehicle to puke up last night’s whiskey. There was the time I played the role of The Harassed Female at a security checkpoint during a drill to test the military police’s comprehension of relevant procedures and they threw The Harassing Male flat on the ground before we could announce it was a drill. Times like these made me miss the weird hilarity of it all.
Then there was the time that I escorted the Dream Weaver (Dream Weaver is what we called the truck driven by Filipino contractors that pumped the goop out of the port-a-johns, and for the life of me I can’t remember why). As I cautiously eyed the Dream Weaver, he began to back up across the bomb pad. Meep, meep meep, the truck went. Then: ca-RUNCH. I sat bolt upright. Did he just run into that missile can? Oh yes he did. And there are definitely missiles in there. Live missiles. I flew out of the truck and sprinted across the bomb pad. He flew out of his truck yelling, “I SORRY MA’AM I SORRY MA’AM I SORRY MA’AM!” I inspected the damage—no dent in the can. No apparent damage done. After further inspection and deliberation I swore the Filipino man to secrecy as he nodded furiously, and we went our separate ways without an incident report.
There was the time in the hospital when a whole slew of Army guys came in, who had unknowingly blown up a chlorine bomb as they completed a controlled detonation on an IED. They laughed as they recounted the yellow cloud that enveloped them, but the laughter disguised sheer relief and quickly turned to hacking coughs. The guys weren’t well enough to make it to the dining facility and meal delivery hours had passed. They weren’t going to eat unless we got unconventional about it. We worked a little magic and “acquired” perishable goods to make sandwiches for them, and I wheeled pans of roast beef and cheddar cheese into the hospital bay and started taking orders. They asked me if I was a nurse and I said no, I build bombs, and they asked then why I was making them roast beef sandwiches in the hospital? And I said because where else would I rather be on my night off?
There was the time I watched a Marine as he sobbed over his naked buddy’s bloody body. He had been the passenger, unscathed. His friend was the driver. There was the time I stood by a soldier’s bedside as he awoke from an amputation, all doped up or morphine, and dug his Purple Heart out of his bag when he demanded to see it because he thought it was lost. These memories don’t surface as often, deeply buried.
I knew there were things I would miss about serving, and I turned out to be right. I’ve missed these things enough to spend evenings with my feet propped up on my balcony, contemplating my existence. I’ve researched joining the Coast Guard, because who sends the Coast Guard to Iraq? They go to Florida and Bolivia and Alaska and stuff. Or maybe I could reenlist in another career field, one that’s useful to humanity, like nursing or public affairs.
But ultimately, I know that my military chapter should stay closed. It turns out I’m not getting younger. The military was an incredible beast to be a part of when you’re young and dumb and life is one big adventure full of lessons, so long as you don’t kill yourself trying to learn them the hard way. But at twenty-seven, twenty-eight? Thirty-three, thirty-five? Those same lessons learned the hard way take you further from stability. And sanity. You learn who you are and discover what you want out of life, like the ability to make your own decisions about where you go and who you spend your time with, and the military gets less appealing. Much less.
But I miss that life, bleached of all comfort, where a day is simply an attempt to exist in 130 degrees without passing out, getting into trouble or killed. And the sheer gluttony when you are able to come back to the conveniences that everyone else has been taking for granted. And the strange unexpected nostalgia that forms in your gut as you get further from the experience of war.
It’s just not for me anymore. It was time to fold up that uniform, and the foul-mouthed girl who wore it. But I’ll keep the memories out. Some of them.
Elizabeth O’Herrin served in the Wisconsin Air National Guard from 2001 to 2008 as a munitions technician. She has worked in veterans advocacy in Wisconsin and Washington, DC and is currently pursuing her dream of starting a small business in Denver, Colorado.