Saturday, January 09, 2016

The Army I Knew: DEROS

When last seen, young SGT Chief was in the dank jungles of Panama, serially attempting to preserve the honor of winsome REMFs, fighting a neverending battle against mildew, or firing flaming balls of asswipe across the greensward.
As I mentioned in the previous installment of this series, the enticement of NCO school was part of the cunning plan of my then-superiors to try and keep me around. Unfortunately for them, there was a hitch in their re-up giddyap.


In case you're not familiar with the term, it stands for Date Eligable for Return from OverSeas. Any soldier (or airman; I think the zoomies use the same acronym) who is deployed gets one. How long the tour determines the DEROS, and in my case my initial DEROS was based on a "short tour" of 18 months which would come due late in December of 1986.

However. During my tour conditions in Panama were getting less-fun for both the United States and Panama. General Noriega, the then-caudillo of Panama and the guy who had ditched my Hootch Jump School graduation, was feeling the heat from the gringos now that the amount of Bolivian marching powder skating north through his joint was more irritating than his looking the other way whilst we screwed with his Nicaraguan pals was helpful.

It was getting harder to find suckers volunteers willing to come serve a year and a half in the tropical paradise. So the Army did what the Army does when it can't find eager dupes young American heroes willing to get stuck in for God and Country; it involuntarily extended our tours.

We (who were already posted there) now had to do a full 3-year "long tour" if we re-enlisted...regardless of what we wanted to re-up for. So if I re-upped for, say, sputum-sucker school (otherwise known as "91 X-ray", a whites-wearing, barracks-living REMF hospital job highly coveted by line-dog medics tired of living out of a rucksack) I'd have to do another 18 months in the Xanadu of the Isthmus. With an increasingly unpleasant citizenry that was getting increasingly willing to show me how little they liked to have me in their crib.

My alternative was to ETS. Drop the mike and walk off. Pull the pin. Get out of active service.

So, in December 1986, I did.
I want to stop here for a moment and mention something that was odd about the Regular Army of the 1980s

First of all, though, I need to talk about Vietnam.

So, here's the thing. You remember that back in the Sixties and early Seventies there was this thing called a "draft", right? Where you got to go be a soldier whether you wanted to or not and, if you were unlucky, got an all-expenses-paid year-long trip to the land of formaldehyde beer, pretty girls in ao dais, and irascible locals who would try and kill you?

OK. So the thing is that if you were one of those guys what you probably wanted most from Vietnam was out. And - short of a horrendous wound - the only way to get out was to get to the end of your time in service - your ETS - and so you damn sure kept track of how many months, weeks, or days you had left. There were even special calendars to help you, many of them designed to remind you of one of the big reasons you wanted to go back to the Land of the Big PX...
When you got down to about 90 days left or so you could officially call yourself a "short-timer" or just "short". This was usually announced as a barking cry of joy when, for example, you passed an officer. Instead of the usual "All the way, sir!" or "Wolfhounds, sir!" you'd back "Short, sir!" whilst snapping off your brightest sniper-pointer salute.

Not surprisingly, officers and senior NCOs hated the whole "short-timer" business and spent a tremendous amount of time and effort hunting it down to try and kill it.
So the funny thing is that, hard as they tried, the Army powers-the-were couldn't put the kibosh on the business. The short-time enthusiasm persisted into my Army of the 1980s...which is frankly odd when you think about it. We weren't getting shot at. Hell, we were all genuine volunteers; nobody had a real reason to rush for the door. You'd think that the shorttime countdowns and "Short!" giddiness would have died along with the draft.

But no. I and most of the guys I knew counted down our last days, yelped "Short!" when our names were called, gleefully informed anyone who asked that we were so short that we had to roll our socks down to take a shit, and ostentatiously took our boots out to the powerline outside the barracks on our last night to hang there as reminders that another inmate had made it over the wall.

So in the Eighties it was an oddity, a bizarre relict of a war, and an Army, long gone.

But I sometimes wonder. With the reality of endless deployments and stop-loss and repeated tours, I wonder if short-timer syndrome has returned to the GIs of today and the boots hang again on the wires outside the barracks..?

I returned to the States from sunny Panama to a freezing-ass cold winter, without a job and without any real skills. I had a degree in geology that I hadn't used in years and enough medical training to be hired as an assistant ass-wiper in any of the finest nursing homes in eastern Pennsylvania. Oh, and because of the peculiarities of the M782 Gama Goat ambulance I was fair at wrenching on diesel engines.

So I got a job working in a Ford tractor shop and - since my pay wrenching on Dearborn's products wasn't exactly princely - signed up to put in a weekend a month in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with the U.S. of the 1980's may find this amazing, but at the time the Army Reserve (or USAR) really was a "reserve". USAR units would drill two (or two-and-a-half, mustering in Friday evening and getting released Sunday afternoon...) days a month and then two weeks a year for annual training, usually in the summer hence "summer camp". Occasionally units would get deployed to, say, Honduras for annual training and spend some time supporting some sort of U.S. foreign policy there.

But the notion that these units, and these reserve soldiers, would end up in a war, an actual, shooting war short of WW3 or the Second Korean War?


So it was with a sort of holiday getting-off-work feeling that I drove up the road to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to my new unit of assignment; 99th Combat Support Hospital, 79th ARCOM.

Here's a funny thing; the unit I was joining is still there, at the Reserve Center on Ranck Mill Road in Lancaster. It's not part of the 79th ARCOM anymore; the old ARCOMS have been converted into "Regional Support Commands" and the RSC for the 99th is now the 99th RSC (which must be fucking confusing...). But the CSH is still there.

Although probably not as it was when I arrived in the winter of 1987.

I must have looked like a freak. I hadn't bothered to do much upkeep on my BDU uniforms in tropical Panama, where we got to strut around in our OD jungle fatigues, so I wore a pair of OG 507s under my BDU field jacket. And although I did have a BDU cap it had been used only for fieldwork, so it was fairly dingy and adorned with a pair of luminous "ranger eyes" and my nametag on the back.

I was as hardbitten and salty as only a young buck sergeant can be. So far as I was concerned, I was a real loose cannon, a firey furnace ready to chew up steel rails and piss out iron filings, and I was going to be the baddest-ass medic this little rural Reserve hospital had ever seen, and I walked in the doors of the Ranck Mill Reserve Center with a chip on my shoulder the size of a surfboard.

Next: Lucy in the Sky With Diamond Earrings


BigFred said...

The "Short!" lives on in the Navy. Hell, even when I left my last active duty job after 20 years of service to the MAN, at my last staff meeting when they handed out the long range schedule (90 days), I tore off the front page, kept it and handed back the other pages to the PA (secretary) and said, "I won't be needing these..."

Brian Train said...

Oh goodie, more Army Days stories!

almost drafted said...

One of my favorite pieces of service s#1thouse graffiti (just after "flush twice -- it's a long way to chow hall 3") was "I'm so short I walked under the door to get in here."

Thanks again for all your good work, Chief. I don't spend much time on blogs anymore but I still check in, mostly to lurk, at this place and MilPub. Just to see what you may have to say.