The Waffle Joke

Soldiers sitting on rucks

The Udairi Desert, Kuwait. An abandoned compound in Baghdad. The woods of Fort Benning. An MRAP on the road between Bagram and Jalalabad. A cemetery in Texas.

“Okay, so there’s a sausage, a piece of french toast, and a waffle, right? And they’re all arguing over who is the best breakfast food. So the french toast walks up to the waffle and says ‘hey, I’m the greatest breakfast food ever.’ The waffle doesn’t take no shit so he just beats the crap out of the french toast and that was that. Then the waffle walks up to the sausage and says ‘yo I’m the best breakfast food that ever lived’ and then the sausage grabs the waffle and throws him into the ocean.”

I’ll tell you a joke, but I promise, you’re not going to get it now, but it’ll get funny later

Soldiers’ attitudes change when they go to the field. There’s something that happens between the moments of loading the vehicles with MREs and gear and that last run to the Shoppette to stuff your rucksack full of candy, nicotine, and beef jerky.

It doesn’t really hit until you get to wherever you’re going, the vehicles’ engines shut down and then it’s just quiet. Everyone jumps out the back of the truck, moving gear, already wondering about what time chow is coming. The silence is noticeable, and I imagine it’s similar to what campers or hikers experience when they finally get out there.

In a world filled with noise and distraction, the sudden silence is deafening and often leaves soldiers cutting it with their own noise.

I learned very early that I get funny in the field. Where I might be more serious in garrison, being in the field makes me want to entertain others.

“Whose got a joke?”

Standing around in a circle, everyone’s hands in their pockets because it’s cold and the will to enforce basic standards has started to erode, a grizzled NCO will demand that someone tell a joke. The demand is usually met with silence as soldiers quietly rack their brains for something that’s funny, appropriate, and also not one that’s been used before.

“Seriously, whose got a fucking joke?”

Now it’s become a quasi-order.

These jokes are rarely good. Every now and then you’ll have a soldier who has an amazing depth of jokes saved up for these occasions. He’s a goldmine, because a well timed joke can wash away the grime and suck of the field for a moment.

One of the soldiers in our platoon used to tell absurd jokes that he seemingly made up as he was telling them. A week in the field will make people a little odd, and he was no exception. We’d be laying on our backs, heads resting on our rucksacks looking above into a star filled sky surrounded by darkness as he would rattle off a fifteen minute story-joke about soldiers crossing creeks naked, holding balloons. His jokes were never really funny, but he’d pull us along, all of us yearning for a punchline which never came. Eventually, he’d suddenly end the joke. There’d be an awkward pause, and then someone would say “That’s it!?””

“Yup,” he’d reply.

And then we’d be back in the field.

Watching him, I learned that joke telling in the field can be therapeutic not just for those hearing the joke, but even more so for the joke teller.

He’d tell awkward jokes. Jokes in which he would have pre-coordinated with one or two soldiers to laugh at an absurd punchline that makes no sense. When he’d hit the key-word, those in on it would erupt into wild laughter like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. Soldiers who weren’t in on the joke would start laughing nervously, not wanting to feel left out. This in turn would cause the original joke-teller and those in on it to laugh even harder, watching as their buddies faked the funk just to fit in.

And then there was the waffle joke.

The waffle joke is the ultimate field joke. Once learned and mastered, it can be used at the right moment to keep a platoon of infantrymen’s minds focused not on how much it sucks to be in the field, but on trying to solve the riddle of a joke with no answer.

I’ve told the joke about a dozen times, and it’s all in the telling, not the substance. The context matters too. You can’t tell it on the first day of the field when everyone smells good and their uniforms are clean. You have to be patient. Guys need to be sucking. You have to feel it out, and usually, in the moments when you’re just sitting around, waiting for chow to show up, or you’re in a school resting before resuming the patrol, you stand up and ask “Hey, who wants to hear a joke?”

Tired faces look up and shrug. Someone says “Send it.”

You enthusiastically declare that this is the greatest joke they’ll ever hear, that you’ve been telling it for years and it always delivers, but you’re remiss to tell it, because it always ends the same way. Everyone in the platoon will hate you for telling it. The worst part of it is, no one will get it now. You might think you’ll get it, but you won’t. In a few days time, it will reveal itself and then you’ll laugh. You’ll either think it is incredible or the stupidest fucking shit you’ve ever heard.

Someone interrupts “Just tell the fucking joke!”

And so you tell it, suddenly stopping on the word “ocean.” You peer into their confused eyes, watching them search for the meaning. One or two soldiers laugh, thinking they’ve figured it out. The rest of them stand there, faces twisting in disgust and confusion.

For the next few hours, soldiers will come up to you with their solution or questions: “Okay, so it was the waffle that got thrown in the ocean, right? Was he unconscious?”

It becomes a topic of conversation. The topic of conversation. Some soldiers enthusiastically throw themselves into solving it. Others decide they don’t even like you anymore. The joke reveals everything there is to be human.

Days pass.

At some point, the time is right, and the joke reveals itself, as you promised it would.

One or two soldiers quietly chuckle. The rest stare angrily with the black face of death.

Everything you said was right.

And they all hate you.

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Field Etiquette: “Ruck Rage,” or, don’t sit on other people’s rucksacks

Sitting on rucks

If you step away from your ruck  and come back to find someone else sitting on your ruck, you might go into “ruck rage.”

“Ruck rage” will manifest itself in a sudden and complete change in demeanor as you quickly and violently question the offender as to why they are sitting on your ruck. Expletives are common. Offenders will usually vacate the ruck immediately, while some will advise the “ruck rager” to “calm the fuck down, bro.”

One’s ruck becomes his/her home when in the field. And while you, the owner, are allowed to treat said ruck in any way you wish so long as it remains serviceable, others are not afforded that privilege.

Best practice: sit on your own ruck or sit on the ground.

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Land Navigation: Declination

Declination: “It’s a real thing.”

There are some things in life I feel strongly about. No Super Bowl will be greater than Super Bowl 42. Reality television is simultaneously everything that is great and terrible about America. And you must adhere to the declination diagram of a given map! Here at Fort Benning, declination is usually glossed over as unimportant.

“It’s only 4˚ gentlemen, you don’t even have to use it.”

At its worst, I sat dumbfounded in a land navigation class as the instructor said that to get a magnetic azimuth you SUBTRACT the G-M angle from the grid azimuth. After the class, I spoke with him, confident that to get a magnetic azimuth at Fort Benning you add 4˚ to the grid azimuth. I was told I was wrong, because “General (Grid) to Major (Magnetic) is a demotion, so you subtract.” I’m sure that he learned that somewhere, at another post, where that mnemonic worked. It doesn’t work at Fort Benning, and if you did indeed subtract, you would be off azimuth by 8˚, which is certainly not negligible (double the numbers at the diagram I have at the bottom).

What is declination? From FM 3-25.26 (Map Reading and Land Navigation):

Declination is the angular difference between any two norths. If you have a map and a  compass, the one of most interest to you will be between magnetic and grid north. The declination diagram shows the angular relationship, represented by prongs, among grid, magnetic and true norths. While the relative positions of the prongs are correct, they are seldom plotted to scale. Do not use the diagram to measure a numerical value,. This value will be written in the map margin (in both degrees and mils) beside the diagram.

Fort Benning Declination Diagram.

In more basic terms, any azimuth you get using a protractor is not useable on the ground until it is converted using the declination diagram. At Fort Benning, to get a magnetic azimuth from a grid azimuth, you add the G-M angle which is 4˚ (70 mils). If, for example, you plotted an azimuth of 90˚ to a point, you would have to shoot a magnetic azimuth of 94˚ in order to walk the actual azimuth you plotted.

I’m assuming that most instructors advise students to ignore the G-M angle for simplicity. It might be too confusing to add 4˚ to a grid azimuth.

I’m a firm believer in using the G-M angle because it is the actual correct azimuth. To ignore it is accepting that you will not walk exactly where you intend to. When navigating, it seems most people tend to drift to the right. That might explain why so many people swear by ignoring the G-M angle – their drifting right actually puts them on the right azimuth!

From Left to Right (top): Start Point, 50m, 90m, 130m, 200m.
From Left to Right (bottom): Start Point, 300m, 600m, 1000m, 1500m.

The map above shows how declination works at Fort Benning. From the start point (SP) at the road on the left I plotted a 90˚ azimuth to the road on the right. If you added the G-M angle (4˚) and walked a perfectly straight azimuth of 94˚, you would walk along the bottom line. If you did not add the G-M angle and instead walked a perfectly straight azimuth of 90˚, you would walk along the top line. The numbers on the bottom line are the distances in meters and the numbers on the top line are the approximate distances off azimuth a navigator would be at the given ranges.

So, for example, by ignoring the G-M angle, you would be off by approximately 50 meters after walking 300 meters. Not a big deal if you are looking for something big, like a house. But if you’re looking for a small orange and white box on a six foot stake in the woods, obscured by foliage and sadistically placed in the most out-of-sight-spot, at night, it might be hard to see that from half a football field away.

As you move further along your un-declinated azimuth, the distance only widens. At 600 meters, you are just under 100 meters off azimuth. At 1 kilometer you would be about 130 meters off. 1500 meters: 200 meters off.

Of course, a good way to compensate for this is to understand the terrain you will be traversing. If I was walking the 94˚ azimuth in the diagram, I would know that to get from one road to the other I would be crossing the creek at just over 1000 meters and then crossing a second creek at about 1500 meters. If I chose not to add the G-M angle, I would still cross the creek, but that would happen at about 600 meters. Coming up to the creek 400 meters too soon should give the navigator pause and he should stop to figure out what is going on.

The “oh by the way” of this is I have plenty of friends who have successfully completed land navigation courses here without using the declination diagram. They may have drifted into their correct azimuth or used a combination of land navigation techniques to improve their chances of finding their points. The point is, at Fort Benning it is possible to ignore the G-M angle and still do well. But why knowingly handicap yourself when all you have to do is add 4˚?

Declination. It’s a real thing. When it comes to land navigation, I’ll take any advantage I can get it.

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Running around like a maniac in the woods, and winning

The last couple of times I’ve been on a land navigation course, I didn’t do so well. The first time, I tried to “take it easy” and walk the course (I normally run a lot). I wasted a lot of time slowly traversing the course, and then because I had it in my mind that I was “taking it easy” it was more difficult to get amped up to crash into the woods and destroy the homes of hundreds of Fort Benning spiders.

Then, at Ranger School, I made a couple of bad decisions at the start of the course which threw me off.

This past week I had another go at a land navigation course for IBOLC’s mini-RAP week. Excited for the chance to get back on a land navigation course and “get my groove back” I put in a little more preparation than usual. One of the problems I had during RAP week land navigation was poor fieldcraft. I didn’t have a clipboard or flat writing surface and I placed my map haphazardly in a zip-up map case. I wasted lots of time digging it out for map checks. Precious minutes spent standing around on a land nav course messing with gear can add up and work against you.

Eager to not make the same mistake twice, I dug through my giant box of old Army gear from my enlisted time and fished out a plexiglass map case I made. It’s something I picked up from watching officers on the drop zones of Fort Bragg. Many of them would pull out these hard map cases with all of the key information they needed already plotted. The case was easy to handle, flat, and protected the map (see here for instructions on how to make one).

After making a few minor repairs to the case, I headed out to the land navigation course with the other post-IBOLC students for the land navigation course (a painful day, wake up at 0030). Surprisingly, we did not go to the usual Red Diamond course I’ve done almost a dozen times since being here at Fort Benning. It was some other course that I’ve never been to before, just south of the Ranger School land navigation site. It was exciting to have to do a new, unfamiliar course.

The map we got for the course was pretty bad. The contour lines were difficult to make out and everything was blurry. I slipped the map into my case and began plotting. Lesson learned: it would probably be better to plot directly on the map and then put the map into the case. The map case is tight, but the map tends to slide around a little bit, and I had to ensure that the map was correctly lined up each time I pulled an azimuth. Also, the parallax caused by the thickness of the plexiglass can effect grid plotting and azimuths if you are not looking directly down at the map case.

I don’t plot out my exact route or course of action for a land navigation course. After plotting my points (and checking!) I usually move myself to the furthest point first, using the night hours to erase the distance. I’ll have a general route plan in mind, but I don’t lock myself into it because I don’t know how the course is going to treat me. I choose my first point, and move out. After getting it (or not), I’ll look at the map and choose the next point. I repeat this until I finish.

After pinpointing my location, I began the course. I used the trails to get myself to attack points. Most of the course was done during the night, so I kept my attack points within 300 meters. While moving along the trails, I jogged. Time spent traversing the course is time wasted. I want to have as much time as possible to locate the little orange and white boxes in the woods after navigating to the general area. The way to get more of that time is by moving swiftly from point A to B.

On this particular lane, I had three points close to the start point, so I snatched those up first. Then I moved to my two furthest points and got those before bringing it back to the start point, grabbing the last two points along the way in my lane.

At the end of the course I was soaked in sweat, but hadn’t actually broken too much brush because I used good attack points. Going with what I know worked (moving quickly, especially at night) and doing well on the land navigation course provided a much needed shot of confidence. Bringing out the map case was helpful, and I learned some lessons on how to use it effectively.

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The melancholy before going to the field

Sundays before a week in the field never really get any easier. There’s a strange thing in the air; the anticipation of being away, the forethought of separation.

I’ve been in the same relationship the entire time I was enlisted, through college afterwards, and now again in the Army this second time. Knowing that I’ll be away for a few days casts a heavy blanket of sadness over the day – especially the final hours before going to sleep.

We’ve recently found a way to fight it – we go out to the movies on Sunday evenings, instead of the usual Friday or Saturday evening we used to. We find that it’s better to go to a movie and escape into something else for the last few hours, rather than sit on the couch, shifting our eyes between the television and the clock, counting down the minutes before we go to sleep and say goodbye.

Worse, of course, is that same feeling before a deployment. It’s similar, but it starts earlier. Instead of the hours before the end of the weekend, it starts weeks earlier and only intensifies as the day gets closer. Moments are magnified and take on unnatural significance. There’s a sudden urge to be sentimental.

It’s not all that different, I imagine, to what regular couples experience when one goes on a business trip. Yet, there’s something more intense about it when the goodbye is coupled to military service. Even if it’s just to slip away into the woods for a week.

Having something to look forward to at the end helps – a trip, a romantic night out, or a party. Something special and unusual to make the time away feel like it was worth it.

I’ve read somewhere, on some blog or maybe I saw it in a movie, that this feeling is something that’s best shed as soon as possible. That the feeling is poisonous and might make you soft. Maybe.

I’m not sure that this is a bad or unnatural feeling to have, though. Leaving is unnatural. Feeling a little sad or depressed before going away is natural. Worse, I think, would be to completely look forward to getting away. Getting away to escape whatever is at home. That would be saddest of all.

And truthfully, it’s really not that bad. I’ve always had a knack for reminding myself that things can always be worse. And I look forward to going out and doing Army things – the things I signed up to do, whether it is in the field or forward. But I know that typically if I’m thinking or feeling something, then others are too. Talking about it and writing about it helps to address it. And that, after all, is the point of this blog anyway.

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The things I carried (in the field!)

Last week, I had my first “real” field experience since being back in the Army. The field time at OCS wasn’t bad at all. We slept on cots in heated tents each night – so that didn’t really count.

Like always, we had a pretty standard packing list, designed to meet a certain weight threshold and provide the soldier with the minimum stuff he’d need for a week in the field. There are a few things that I packed in my ruck that I knew would be good to have based on prior experience. And then there were some things that I forgot to bring, based on a faulty memory. I won’t forget again.

The things I remembered to bring:
Vaseline: Chaffing happens in the field. It didn’t happen to me this time, but it happened to some friends and they came begging for it.
Gold Bond Body Powder: When you can’t wash, you can at least get dry.
Foot care kit: Moleskin, gauze, tape, and band aids. Only needed the band aids this time.
Dust brush: A barber’s brush, for weapons maintenance. There is nothing more annoying than people constantly asking to borrow your dust brush.

The things I forgot to bring:
Watchcap: How I forgot this, I don’t know. My bald head is the only thing that pokes out of a sleeping bag, and we lose a lot of heat from the head.
Bug juice: As in, insect repellant. I suppose I thought it was still Winter. It’s already Spring here in Fort Benning. My face, head, and neck have the bug bites to prove it.
Canteen cup: It wasn’t on the packing list, so I left it out. I could have used it for hot water.

I usually err on not bringing extra stuff to the field. When I was in the 82nd, everything extra that you packed would be strapped to you for the jump in, so getting as light as possible was the goal. A watchcap and insect repellant are light enough to warrant bringing to the field for the added comfort.

What else is good to bring?

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Self-preservation mode

After branching day at OCS, the BN CDR and BN CSM grabbed all of the new infantry guys and gathered us outside to give us a quick pep talk. The BN CDR spoke about the pride of being an infantryman and the importance of going to Ranger School as a new 2LT.

The BN CSM reinforced what the CDR said, and then delved a little deeper on what to expect going forward in the infantry. He talked about what he called ‘self-preservation’ mode. As a prior service infantryman, I knew what he was talking about, but never heard it put that way before. He described the suck of being in the infantry; the cold, the hot, the wet, the fatigue, the bugs and on and on and on. Life in the infantry can suck. As humans, our bodies naturally try to protect us from these things. This protection manifests itself in the shamming soldier (the ultimate of which is embodied in the soldier in the above pic). The soldier who shuts down, stops volunteering, stops being motivated, stops talking and on and on and on.

Self-preservation mode. The goal is to preserve yourself by shutting down. Anyone who’s been in the field for a few days or has been ground down by tough training knows the feeling or at least have seen others experiencing it. I felt it at the end of last week as the culmination of a weeks’ training took hold late at night.

What I found interesting, is that since hearing the CSM describe that feeling as ‘self-preservation,’ I’ve been able to identify it when it settles on me. Before, I just thought I was “tired” which seems natural enough. There’s something about labeling this thing as ‘self-preservation’ that makes it especially repugnant. Heading towards self-preservation mode isn’t weak, though – it’s natural. Your body and mind are going to push you in that direction. By acknowledging it, however, I’ve found that I’m able to reclaim it, and choose to fight it.

Fight fatigue with action. That’s been my motto when I feel myself going into self-preservation mode. The more I sit and think about how much it sucks, the deeper I go into self-preservation. If I fight it, I stand a better chance of staying out of the trap. Granted, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes things just suck and the best you can do it grin and bear it.

My hope is that by making a habit of fighting off self-preservation mode, it will become easier and easier to do. We’ll see how it goes.

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Garrison soldiers, field soldiers, and missing the point

Garrison vs. Field: An imaginary distinction.

“He’s good in the field, but he sucks in garrison.”

I saw this story last week, and it bummed me out. ‘82nd Airborne Paratroopers Unhappy with Iraq, Afghanistan Withdrawals.

Paratroopers like to fight. They like to go to war. But I was saddened by the tone in this report, suggesting that soldiers fear a return to a ‘garrison’ Army, one in which they won’t be doing real work, but instead, focused on things like area beautification and the ‘ol dog and pony show. It’s a strange fear, since, for most of these soldiers, they never really experienced a garrison Army.

One soldier reports that he wants to do his job and he can only do that while deployed.

That sentiment is echoed throughout the article, although, the younger soldiers seem to fear garrison life more than the older ones (who are on their umpteenth deployment and wouldn’t mind a little more family time).

The idea forwarded is that being deployed constitutes real work, while being back home does not. It is easy to understand where this attitude comes from. For those who join the Army looking for action and adventure, garrison life is a distraction and boring. I suppose time spent training in the field doesn’t count as strict garrison, and would qualify as a cut above pure garrison life (whatever that is), but still short of an operational deployment. But even time spent out in the field might be a downer. No one in the field is out there trying to shoot you.

Sadly, this eagerness to deploy to do ‘real work’ suggests that being back home isn’t taken as seriously. That is, true soldiering is something that happens only while deployed. Everything else is just nonsense. Not what I “signed up for.”

Well, Army leaders have nodded towards a coming realignment where discipline and old school garrison attitudes will soon be making a return. The drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the current budget crisis and a downsizing Army suggests a coming higher level of accountability from soldiers across the ranks.

The attitude expressed in the article reminded me of my first year in the Army. The ‘Global War on Terror’ had just started, but only affected a relatively small number of units and soldiers. There was a sense in the air that something big was looming on the horizon, but we were still a ‘garrison’ Army transitioning to a ‘wartime’ Army.

In the Army in days of yore, attentive soldiers with an eye on rapid advancement understood that a premium was placed on the wear and appearance of the uniform. A clean, freshly starched set of BDUs with razor angles and boots that shone like black glass attracted praise from tough NCOs. Standing tall and looking good was not done simply for its own sake, but was often done seeking reward. Preferential treatment, additional passes, and compliments rained down from superiors, who wished to foster an environment where all soldiers took pride in their uniform and appearance.

There were other soldiers, though, who were having none of this. So much attention paid to an immaculately kept uniform detracted from other, more important tasks. ‘Real’ soldiers were good at their ‘real’ jobs, and in the case of the infantry, that is closing with and destroying the enemy. Real soldiers were good at core tasks and were good in the field – PT, shooting combatives – whereas garrison soldiers were good in the rear – well-manicured uniform, competes in soldier of the month/year/millennium boards, takes correspondence courses, has the right things in the right pockets, knows unit history, etc.

Field soldiers and garrison soldiers.

A garrison soldier in the field.

Such a stark division couldn’t last. Handsomely dressed gentlemen wouldn’t survive in the field (there are bugs). And raw grunts would smell bad and break all the fine china in the chow hall.

This led to the inbetweeners. These are the soldiers who fancied themselves grunts but saw the value in keeping a good uniform and understood pragmatically that standing-tall-looking-good-ought-to-be-in-hollywood was good for their professional advancement. But they were torn, because it seemed as if only one path could be chosen – field soldier or garrison soldier. For an infantryman, the choice would be obvious. But to choose the field route meant forfeiting the benefits of the garrison route.

To address this, the inbetweeners decided to maintain a field uniform and a garrison uniform. The field uniform would be the standard issue BDU, but not specially kept. They would never be starched and they would be worn ‘as is’ – wrinkles and all. Field boots would be occasionaly slathered with a chunk of Kiwi quickly rubbed in with the sole intent of preserving the leather. There was little shine, only a matte, dull look that absorbed the sun.

The garrison uniform, on the other hand, would be kept clean and starched heavily. On Monday mornings, it would be carefully removed from its protective plastic wrapper. As arms and legs penetrated the pressed uniform, thin sheets of heavy starch might crack off and fall to the ground, shattering like tiny pieces of glass. Soldiers could look at themselves in the mirror-reflection of their black boots, which may have been shined by hand, or by the boot guy on Yadkin road.

Garrison soldiers could rarely ‘put their arms down.’

A 0900 Monday morning formation was always one filled with grumbles, as the field soldiers scoffed at the parade-ready garrison soldiers, who of course, insisted that they were simply wearing their garrison uniform – not their ‘real’ uniform. Field soldiers retorted that uniforms are uniforms and there should be no distinction, to which the garrison soldiers responded with accusations of laziness and jealousy.

That battle didn’t end until the introduction of the ACU and the tan boot, which requires no shoe polish. It’s hard to make the ACU look good, so no one bothered trying.

I recall seeing starched DCUs while deployed. Relevant? No. Silly? Probably.

The point in all this is to highlight the long-held distinctions soldiers have had on garrison life and field life (whether ‘field’ means a week out in the woods, a couple of weeks at NTC or JRTC, or a year-long deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan).

Wherever soldiers are and whatever they are doing, that’s their real job.

Going forward, the challenge for leaders will be to convince a transitioning wartime Army that these ‘old school,’ basic soldiering skills are no less important than core skills related to a particular job. Leading soldiers in combat is important, yes, but should not be taken more seriously than leading soldiers in the rear, where the threat of death and injury exists just as it does while deployed (but with a different enemy).

Soldiering is soldiering, whether it is in the field or in the rear.

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