Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Chicken Noodle Soup?

Oh my gosh. I am so sick! It seems like I am catching bug after bug. Last week it was stomach aches and the flu and this week it seems to be in my lungs. That's a big weak spot for me ever since my time in the military.

I got pneumonia pretty bad in Basic Training. It was about two weeks before Basic ended and we all moved on to our respective job training schools. I was so worried about being held back that I didn't go to the hospital. Not until I'd graduated BMT, spent about a week at Sheppard in-processing and attending miscellaneous briefings, and finished my first two week block of training in Fuels school, but by then it really wasn't an option.

I remember when it first felt as if I might not be able to make it. It was a hot Texas summer and the hike back from the training ground was almost more grueling than the night without sleep that had preceded it. The TI wanted us back in time for chow but we'd gotten a late release from the instructors at the outdoor training area. It was up to us to make up for lost time.

One of the guys in our unit was in charge of assigning the door guard shifts. I don't think he liked me much. He had assigned me the night before the outdoor training, where we had to stay up all night, and then the night after. The shifts were scheduled on 24 hour rotations, so I often found myself scheduled for the last shift of one day and the second shift of another. That would only give me a few hours of sleep between shifts. I think that was a major factor in why I got so sick. My body just couldn't keep up, but I struggled on.

My wife was pregnant with our first child. I had joined the military as a way to get from where I was to where I wanted to be while serving my country. Some of the old timers will tell you that's a selfish reason and a person should join for the sole purpose of serving their country. Regardless of my reasons, I was there and she was back home and pregnant with our first child. The docs had picked up an abnormality in the ultrasound shortly after I left for my training. My wife told me in a letter that our little girl had a condition called hydronephrosis and I was scared. We were working ourselves out of a hole that we'd gotten into while trying to help out a friend. We couldn't afford to have her move out to my post-Basic training base, so it was imperative that I finish up on schedule with no hiccups. Even if we could, I'd been told she'd be too far along in the pregnancy to be cleared for travel. One bad step and I could be held back a week, which could impact everything in a chain reaction that could cause me to miss the birth of my little girl. I was driven, I had a reason to succeed, and I did my best to deliver.

That march back, at double-plus speed, was the first moment in my life where my body truly screamed "I can't!" while my mind pressed it onward. Sure, getting a stitch in my side while running in gym class had been tough. But my mind didn't protest when the piercing pain suggested I stop to "tie my shoe". During this march, though, every fiber of my being was screaming to fall out with the select few who had already done so. I was already on thin ice.

One TI in particular (we had 4) wanted the guy who slept on the bed next to mine gone. He wanted his Carolina ass out of his Flight and on a bus back to mommy and daddy. The guy wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but he was a decent kid. So when it came time for the wall locker inspection, the clincher, the opportunity to make this kid go away... he couldn't. I had meticulously secured my own locker, ensuring folded clothing items met the required measurements, tucking away every conceivable thing into the correct spot. But he was having trouble. The end was in sight for him. Soon he'd be on his way back home with his tail between his legs. We'd already seen several guys pack up and go and had never seen them again. If memory serves me right, I think he started to cry. I worked with a speed I didn't know I had. I measured, I folded, I primped. I fixed his hospital corners on his bed. It was a lot of work, but in the end I had saved him from dismissal. I knew it, he knew it, and the TI that wanted him gone put it together when he inspected his locker. The dismay that flashed on his face had been quickly replaced with anger. He had torn through my locker, desperately seeking to find something, anything. The only thing he could find was a sticker on my toothbrush holder. I hadn't taken it off after the required purchase. No one had said to do so and I didn't bother. He held it up for the world to see.

"What is THIS!?" His deep voice had boomed. "Trainee Frost, why is there a sticker on your toothbrush holder? Is this an authorized addition to your required equipment?!" It went on for several tirading minutes. He had to make an example.

When he had asked what I had to say for myself, what possible reason I could have for failing to ensure my equipment was fully functional and up to standards, I felt all eyes on me. I knew what they were thinking. They were thinking I was a goner. They were hoping they wouldn't be the next target of this man's rage. The same man who had, the week before, thrown the bed of the trainee I had saved from a failed inspection across the room, knocking several other beds aside.

In that moment I could think of only one thing to say.

"It was negligence, Sir."

He was at a loss for words. It wasn't what he had hoped for. He had expected a stammering list of excuses, most likely an "I didn't know" but what he got was intelligent, unarguable. He looked like an ass. He knew it, I knew it, and the rest of the room was catching on.

They say in Basic that the goal isn't to be a superstar. They say you have to lay low. They tell you to never give one of your TI's a reason to learn your name. That day, in front of everyone, my name had been etched in stone. The final straw was after our base liberty had been taken away due to the idiocy of two trainees who had just been washed back into our Flight for saluting with the wrong hand, I'd been given special call-home privileges by one of the other Training Instructors to find out what was going on at home. Don't stand out? Impossible by that point.

So I couldn't give up. I couldn't just Fall Out with the few who would probably get away with doing so. No. Trainee Frost had to finish with the Flight. Trainee Frost had to be called up to The Snake Pit to answer a barrage of questions, testing him on the rank structure, the current chain of command, all the way to the President. Trainee Frost could not give up. So he didn't.

When we got back to the barracks I went to the bathroom and found an empty stall. I didn't have to go. I just needed to rest. I was burning up. My back was sunburned like it had never been before. It burned. But even deeper than that, I knew something wasn't right. I had a fever. My brain felt like it was shutting down. The water in the toilet gave off a cooling aura, a sensation I had never encountered while sitting on a toilet.

Almost six weeks later, Basic had finished, I had graduated. It had been over a month since that march. Three times a week I woke up at 4 AM to run three miles. I studied a lot. The training was boring and I had to make flashcards to remember all of the information. I always felt like sleeping. Things didn't get easier, they got harder. I couldn't eat. I couldn't drink. I always wanted to sleep but I couldn't for more than an hour before waking up, drenched in sweat.

I had just taken the test for Block 1. I thought I was dying. Somehow I had done it. I scored a 96 percent. We had gone to lunch after taking the test. I stared at the food on my plate in disgust. The blue flavored drink didn't look the least bit appealing. I forced a sip. Someone told me I needed to go to the hospital. They suggested that I call. I was groggy, my thoughts were incoherent. I felt like I was burning up. I looked at the phone on the wall across the dining hall. For a moment I almost got up and made the journey over to it. Every single step was a journey. My body ached. My head throbbed. I just wanted sleep.

I got on the bus with the rest of the group and we headed back to our building. When we arrived, we all filed down the hall and waited until our room was unlocked. Once we were let inside, I gave up. I put my arms on the table in front of me and laid my head down to rest. It was a dangerous move. Sure, this wasn't Basic. This was Tech School. There were no TI's but the instructors could still hold you back. I had just finished Block 1 and missing a day wouldn't put me behind. If I was going to give up, this was the only reasonable point to do so. It didn't take them long. A passing instructor burst into the room.

"WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING!!!!?"

I didn't answer. Someone did for me. "He's really sick. He's burning up. I think he needs to go to the hospital."

After a moment the instructor realized I wasn't trying to sneak a cat nap. He put the back of his hand to my forehead and the expression on his face sickened. He looked at me with pity in his eyes. The next thing I knew they had called a base taxi to come pick me up and take me to the hospital. I was in the bathroom splashing water on my face. I started to cry.

I had always thought that I could endure anything by sheer force of will. I had been sick for over a month now and it had finally won. I couldn't keep going. I was too weak. It was not a realization that came easy. I knew that if I kept going, kept running, kept marching in the hot sun, I wasn't going to make it. Eventually my body would give out. My mind was not strong enough to make it comply.

Then something strange happened. In the taxi to the base hospital I started feeling better. The air conditioning was a sweet nectar from god. I didn't just feel better, I felt good. That's when I started to panic. If I showed up at the hospital and felt good they might report me as faking. We had been warned not to try to use the hospital as a way to get out of things. This was a training base. They'd seen it all and punishment would be swift if it was abused.

I put on my meager attempt at a game face. I tried to will myself to feel bad again, if only long enough for them to see that I wasn't faking it. I knew it would all come back soon enough, but why not now? Would I be called a faker and still have to feel so bad? I filled out the forms and waited. When I entered the initial examining room they asked me questions about my symptoms. I couldn't remember a lot about the haze of the last month but I tried to list off everything: the incredible fever, the aches, the weariness, the overwhelming desire to sleep. I did my best to look the part.

"Oh my goodness!" The nurse exclaimed.

My temperature was 103.2. I felt good and my temperature was 103.2? What had it been in the classroom before the air conditioning? In the chow hall? What had it been when I felt an inch away from death itself?
They took me to see a doctor and lead me down halls and corridors. My mind was still foggy and I just followed wherever they went. Soon I was getting X-rayed. The doctor showed me the water in my lungs and told me he would probably have to hospitalize me. I told him that wasn't an option and why. He squinted his eyes. "Okay" he agreed, but on the condition that I remain confined to my quarters for the weekend and take antibiotics. Running was out of the question. He wrote me a profile so I could miss it for the next few weeks. No more marching the two miles to the training building in the morning. I got a bus waiver instead. The final gift was a strict warning that he would put me in a bed if I did not comply with every word of his instruction. Hospitalization meant missed training days. Missed training days meant that I would be pushed back to the next class. That was unacceptable. I agreed to comply.

Ever since then, any time I get sick, the cold, whatever. It seems to like heading for my lungs. Now that I have a better understanding of the world, I suppose I might have been able to get away with going to the hospital in Basic. But the problem was that I was no doctor. I figured that lack of sleep and the strain of training was wearing on me. I had no way of knowing I had pneumonia. Even to this day it astonishes me how long I fought it. I think about that moment when I broke down in the bathroom often. My body was trying to tell me something. Things were not right. My stubbornness could have cost me my life.

That's it for story time. Sorry if I rambled.
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