I enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1991. I had, as kid consumed a steady diet of books and movies about World War II and Vietnam. I was a pretty uninspired student in High School, I did not do well in classes that did not interest me. Math and science were obscure foreign tongues that I could not understand. There were exceptions, like Algebra and Biology but for the most part they may as well have been written in ancient Aramaic. As a consequence 29 years ago almost to the day, my prospects for college looked grim.
My father had offered the following incentive one day, while I was experiencing my first hangover after a night of teenage partying. He said; "Son, I do not care if you get into a college, get a job and an apartment or join the Army but come September you will no longer be living under my roof." It was not a fun conversation but it was one that I desperately needed to have. My father also made it clear that he loved me but I needed a kick in the ass.
I shot off a last minute and desperate application to the University of Rhode Island, a Hail Mary that even Doug Flutie would be proud of. I also hedged my bets by calling the Army Recruiter who had been calling my house with the frequency and enthusiasm of a teenage stalker. He was more than happy to help me enlist. I had done well on the ASVAP (the military's aptitude test, which I had hoped would have more questions about grenades and such). I also received a week later a large envelope from URI. They accepted me for the fall of 1991. I called the recruiter and asked about going into the Reserves instead of Active Duty. He assured me I could and we agreed that I could go to Basic Training in June of 1992. When I got to URI I joined Army ROTC, figuring that I could gain some experience as an Enlisted man in the reserves and could go on Active Duty once I got Commissioned.
Shortly before the end of the school year I was a passenger in a head-on car collision. GMC pick up versus Dodge Omni. The pickup, not surprisingly fared better than we did. The Omni was good craft and deserved a better fate. Miraculously we came out of it with a couple of broken bones between us. Unfortunately mine happened to be a collar bone. Due to broken bones and an inability to do push-ups (the preferred method of conditioning and attitude adjustment at Fort Benning at the time) my ship date was pushed back to August which meant that I would also miss the first semester of my sophomore year by the time I finished Basic and AIT (Advanced Individual Training).
I had heard the term SNAFU in movies and read it books. It was a bit of World War II GI slang that stood for Situation Normal, All Fucked Up. Those first, hot, unbearably humid days in Georgia at Fort Benning gave me a small taste of what that meant. I should mention that I am a native of New England, of Slavic extraction and the heat and humidity of the deep South were a special type of torture for me. Running a lot and "Pushing Georgia" as the Drill Sergeants frequently referred to push ups as. One day Drill Sergeant Lewis said; "Men, today you are going to do a thousand push-ups. Tomorrow morning when you shave...your arms are going to shake." There was no animus, he was an impersonal inquisitor and he was right about our arms after a thousand push ups in one day. That was "Pushing Georgia", as though by doing push ups we could push Georgian into the ground itself.
Later at the Military Police Officer's basic course I would be treated to more examples of SNAFU. Field problems with young Second Lieutenants leading other brand new Second Lieutenants and a brush fire that we had to put out then and there. Then more so on my first deployment to a forgotten corner of the Balkans called Kosovo there was just a bit more of it. I worked with the Russian Army and they were like a merry pirate band. They operated very differently than we did and so that was kind of a SNAFU in itself.
Invading Iraq in 2003 was like the World Series of SNAFU. Vehicles that didn't work, equipment shortages or just plain not having the right equipment was just part of it. Four American soldiers living in a house on the local economy in Kurdish Northern Iraq or as I think of it Kurdistan, that was SNAFU all day every day. Going back to Iraq in 2008 we had solved the equipment shortages but somehow in five years things were almost as SNAFU but more boring. In short the Army had conditioned me to expect, to operate in and possibly even appreciate situations that can be described as SNAFU.
A couple of months ago we all went to bed and everything was just plain normal. Then there were news stories as things progressed turned into nightly briefings. Suddenly Doctors and scientists were being listened to and even appearing on TV nightly news. Maps and charts appeared and America resurrected its Vietnam War era fascination with Body Counts. We were told to stay home if we were non-essential (truth in advertising my day job does not qualify for non-essentiality). Restaurants and stores were closed or access restricted. Toilet Paper became worth more than Crack Cocaine and harder to get than gold. Then we all had to wear masks. Suddenly you could walk into a 7-11 at three in the morning with a bandanna covering your face and it was cool. SNAFU.
Americans, good, decent people, became bitterly divided about social distancing and sheltering in place. Bitter feuds raged on social media and people rallied in protest. There is more so much more but by now you should have figured out my not so subtle premise.
The Situation is Normal, All Fucked Up. That is where the world is right now. That is where America is right now. But if you think about it we are on a rock hurtling through space. There has always been a Pandemic or a war or a Depression or a lot of other things. There isn't much that we can do about that.
I am reminded of one of the best bits of advice my father gave me and I have carried with me my entire adult life. It goes like this..."You can not choose the situation you are in. You can only choose how you react to it." You can choose not be angry because someone doesn't agree with you or believes in a different political party than you do. You can choose not to buy all of the chicken nuggets at the store. You can chose to accept things are different now. SNAFU. You can accept that you aren't the only person who is scared or worried.
Here is the thing, SNAFU's don't last forever. The SNAFU is a temporary, extreme condition. Not unlike a Pandemic or a Depression. We will be able to get through this, hopefully as friends, neighbors and Americans. We are on a rock, hurtling through space. There is a lot that can go wrong...but that doesn't mean we have give into the pressure and fear of it.
Photo by Avery Colt 1993. SPC Peter Colt.