When a person serves in the United States military, they are not only devoted to a cause to defend the freedoms the country devised centuries ago, they are exposed to a set of beliefs that a vulnerable person might allow them to be easily influenced.
Service members learn quickly about loyalty, putting their faith in a hierarchy of battle buddies, squads, platoons, battalions, so on and so forth. Within this structure is a level of devotion for the branch in which they serve, so much that there were many occasions where they’ve been conflicted with the company they’ve kept, and more so during times cohabitating with men in uniform; personally, drunk Marines refusing my offer to drive them home because I was in the Army, and Air Force airmen inclined to circle amongst themselves, almost afraid to intermingle with us brutish types.
However, what comes to mind specifically isn’t a time where I’ve encountered the mindless machismo of one armed force versus another, but rather the ego-maniacal pride that comes with an MOS, or military occupation skill – in civilian speak, a job. Translators stick with translators. Medics stick with medics. Soldiers cavorting with soldiers of different duties isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary, but it is uncommon. And in some cases, it can create just as much division as one might assume there exists between America and its foes.
Rewind fifteen years ago.
I’m stationed with the 4/7 Cavalry at Camp Garry Owen, South Korea. I’m a combat medic at one of the northernmost posts in an area that is bombarded by North Korean propaganda regularly. My post has just returned from a three-week exercise “in the field,” which is to say that we’ve been training in real life scenarios for an extended time.
Upon our return to post, there are certain expectations, for certain reasons. Soldiers clean their weapons and equipment, ready for inspection. They do so, not so much for the discipline of orderliness or maintaining equipment. No, the real reason, in my eyes, is because higher ups are preventing a mass exodus from post “down range” into the bars of the surrounding Korean villages where drunken debauchery would ensue.
An inspection, that is, a delayed inspection will prevent arrests. Sometimes.
And then there are the people who instigate. Not me really, as this was yet another moment of lying witness to a possibility to the infinite question of an infinite being. Yet I find myself surrounded, always, by ever-present vortices of hints and clues of the eternal.
Danny Paddock, Chris Welch and I were walking into our favorite bar when three men exited, all of which were cursing up a proverbial storm. The leader of the trio was tall and wearing a grotesque, black cowboy hat that matched his Texan charm – obnoxious. The other two cohorts were faint reflections of his id and superego, flanking a drawling and drooling bafoonery, face-to-face with my own tiny squad of personality in what would become a volatile tornado of quandary.
The Texan cursed and spat, spewing forth insults about a beloved woman, and bartender, who had become our surrogate mother in our time abroad. Calm, yet confused, my two friends confronted the Texan as I knelt down to pet his beautiful Border Collie; long, black coat, one brown eye, one blue.
From what I overheard, petting the dog with a sense of love and gratitude that is rare for pets in a country where dog is a delicacy, I understood that the bar owner, the surrogate mother to us all, had forbidden their dog from entering the bar on account that it wasn’t getting along with her own dog.
I listened for as long as I could, and then I rose. I posed a question to the cowboy who had, for the few minutes of conversation, been belittling the woman we respected with ethnic slurs and sexist comments.
“Do you know why you were REALLY kicked out of the bar? Do you?” I asked.
“No. Why?” the Texan replied, twanging through the two syllables.
“Because your dog is black,” I said. “And they don’t allow blacks inside.”
Holding a mirror to his bigotry and ignorance did nothing but fan the flames and torrential wind that was this three-on-three tournament. The cowboy cocked his right fist back then lunged at me, but not before Danny Paddock leapt on him and threw a combination that still baffles me.
As soon as the Texan was out of the picture it was up to Chris and myself to debilitate the others, essentially dancing around and trading blows to the head and body around the courtyard lying midway between the bar and the highway running through the village.
And then, what began as six soldiers fighting turned into twelve; thirsty bystanders turned enraged participants. Then twelve turned twenty-four; mathematical match-ups. Then twenty-four encroaching on forty-eight, spilling into the highway disrupting traffic running from Seoul to Munsan. The numbers grew until word spread that the military police were on the way to quell the battle that started … over a comment … about a dog.
And just as debris falls from the cyclone after its destructive path, Chris and Danny and I found our way from amidst the mayhem, skirting the chaos and sauntered into the bar in which we first set aim. Alone with scrapes and bruises, sore but smiling, we settled into a booth where the lady we fought over came to take our order.
Three Budweisers. Heavy. Because that was all we knew.
And as we toasted each other for defending someone’s honor, the jukebox played a song, which silenced everything but our sense of faith.
Robert Plant’s sultry voice screamed a sermon.
Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move
Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.
Black Dog. A song. A sense that, yes, it’s possible, someone is watching. Because coincidence isn’t a blatant lyric sung by a god.