Getting Your Mind Right for War

Soldiers on the Eve of the Unknown  

By Joe Kovac Jr.  / Originally published June 7, 2009
The silver wedding ring will not be going to Afghanistan. The bride who wears it will. So will the real-estate man. He signed up for the free schooling. Wants to be a physical therapist. He doesn't much believe in amulets coins, necklaces, certain underwear. He considers himself lucky already, fortunate to be going to a land on the other side of Iran.

The guy from the nuclear power plant is shipping out, too. Within the month, when he and his fellow National Guardsmen are, as the soldiers put it, "boots on the ground" in the eastern reaches of the Middle East, the father of three says he will be "locked, cocked and ready to rock."

Along with him will be the youth-detention worker and former Army man who has already dodged danger at this very training base. He outran an Indiana landmine: a skunk. He says, "It's not funny at all. They run pretty fast."

The design engineer will also join them. His titanium-stout frame makes him look like he rolled off the assembly line mounted to the trigger of a Humvee's rooftop machine gun. His 14-year-old daughter bought dog tags for he and his fellow Dublin-based Georgia reservists. In bold letters, the tags read, "Not Afraid." Funny, he says, because any man who claims he isn't scared is fooling himself.

For each of them and 150 or so of their 148th Brigade Support Battalion comrades, the last strides in the march to war have come in the American heartland half an hour south of Indianapolis.

Camp Atterbury, not far from the Hoosier National Forest and hamlets with names like Gnaw Bone and Stony Lonesome, has been their home since late April. Signs along the outpost's roads remind all who pass that "Complacency Kills."

The World War II-era training base seems a fitting backdrop for a send off. On a rainy day last week, the landscape flat, Army-green and crisscrossed by dirt roads bore the feel of a Midwestern farm minus the grain silos. The spread is bounded on the east by the Big Blue River, which swings southwest to the Wabash and the Ohio. Most buildings are squat and block-walled. They are the color of lake sand, their shingles mud-brown. Vintage passenger railcars, remnants of a bygone depot, pass for public art near the base entrance.

On the eve of a yearlong journey into harm's way, it is the perfect place to look ... inward.

* * *

The silver wedding ring is on Spc. Lawanja Godfrey's finger.

She married four months ago.

In a few days, when she makes her last visit home to Georgia, to Dodge County, the ring will come off.

“It costs too much,” she said. “I can’t afford to lose that.”

She will wear a plain band into the war zone, where she’ll drive transport trucks. The plan, as her commanders have said, is to teach the Afghan army and the country’s national police to “take the fight to the enemy.”

Godfrey lives in Chester. She did four years in the Army, served in Kosovo, then became a corrections officer at her hometown state prison.

At 32, she still has a baby face. In combat gear, she looks almost 10 years younger, a cherub decked out like a home-plate umpire.

She played basketball at Dodge County High School. She is now one of about 30 women in Alpha Company, a transportation and supply wing of Georgia’s 48th Brigade.

To pass the time, she writes poems, listens to music. She likes taking pictures. She prays.

“You have to get mentally prepared for this,” Godfrey said. “It’s easier said than done.”

“You have to have an open mind, be flexible,” she said. “It’s gonna be tough.”
And yet she is ready. “I just feel it.”

* * *

Spc. Willie Johnson used to sell houses. He had his own company in Macon. He couldn’t get the military out of his blood.

He pulled half a decade in the National Guard in the early ’90s. Then he dove back in two years ago.

A supply-platoon gunner who once ran a 10.3-second 100 meters for the Central High School track team, Johnson, 42, can still leg out the Guard’s required two-mile run in under 15 minutes. He still sports a sprinter’s taut physique and a chiseled, wind-cutting jawline. He has the quiet gaze of a marksman.

And here he is bound for war, the price he is paying to learn a new trade, physical therapy.

After lunch the other day in a training-range mess hall, Johnson spoke of the mission ahead. The one that begins between a soldier’s ears.

He mentioned a prayer that he prays: “I do not fear death. And when I do have fear, I conquer my fear because I know that when death comes to me, it is because my Father wishes it for me.”

“Why would you worry?” Johnson asked. “Is there a reason to worry? There is nothing I can do ... if it is my time.”

He likens it to, say, being afraid of a needle at the doctor’s office. You know, right before they stick it in you. Small as the needle may be, there still might be some anxiety.

“You’re gonna have some fear, but you have to conquer it in some way. Because, believe me, if you get to the point where you are so locked into fear that you can’t move ... at some point you have to snap out of it. It’s like a deer caught in car lights. At some point, he has to move. He’s scared for a moment, but then he reacts,” Johnson said. “Now he might not react fast enough ...”

* * *

James McRae, a staff sergeant in the company’s transportation section, passes the time playing spades, reading, working out.

He figures a lot of folks who aren’t in his boots take their families for granted.

McRae, 39, has three kids and a wife of six years back home in Telfair County. He goes online a lot to catch up on the news. Being away, he said, “it’s hard.”

He works at the Plant Hatch nuclear facility in Baxley. McRae has been a reservist for 21 years. He did tours in Bosnia and Iraq. He knows the drill, that the training before go-time is a grind. They all need it, perhaps some more than others.

Seasoning they can’t much teach. McRae exudes it. He has the soothing grin of an easy-to-know leader, a confident, matter-of-fact manner.

“Once I get in-country, I get focused then,” he said. “I know you’re supposed to train the way you fight. But I can’t do that.”

He is experienced enough to admit that when his unit rolls into action, “I’m gonna be afraid.”

“Hopefully when that first [Improvised-Explosive Device) goes off, if one goes off, I won’t be afraid anymore,” McRae said. “It’s just like when you’re playing football. You have butterflies before the game starts. Then once the game starts, you get that first tackle. You’re OK then. Hopefully, that’s the way it’ll be over there.”

* * *

When he has a bad day, Spc. Jason Speed, who may have the coolest name in his company, hits the road running. All over the base. Yeah, he had that run-in with the skunk a few weeks back, but the time alone clears his head.

When he gets to Afghanistan, Speed, who is 32, will serve as a driver for his unit’s first sergeant.

“Speed” in block letters on the right breast of his fatigues all but screams that he is a man primed and ready. The oval-faced 6-footer isn’t one to psych himself up. He was in the Army for two years. He grew up in Texas.

“I was born 36 hours after Elvis died — at least that’s what my daddy told me,” he said.

These days he makes his home in Laurens County, in Dexter. He works at the YDC in Eastman. He has a son and two stepchildren. He has a thing for motorbikes. As for going off to war, “you just do it,” he said.

“If someone says they need me to do this, I just say, ‘Let’s go,’ ” Speed said. “We have this whole mentality of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, nothing matters.”

Except maybe the MREs, the “meals ready to eat,” known as vegetarian omelets. He prefers the desserts: Reese’s Pieces.

The nights can be long. One of his pals reads. Others clip their nails. Speed whittles on a 2-by-4. The troops have smoke-and-joke sessions outside the barracks.

“A lot of guys have to talk it out,” Speed said.

There is, however, an unmistakable air of adventure. The other day on a training maneuver, a baby snake slithered under another guy’s foot. Little things like that make it worthwhile, eye-opening.

“A lot of people say this is a bad thing,” Speed said. “It’s not, man. It’s beautiful. The military is probably the best thing that can happen in a young man or young woman’s life.”

* * *

The time for reflection is nigh.

At least in Spc. Troy Wadford’s way of thinking.

Wadford designs and manufactures custom machinery. He himself has the look of a die-cast warrior. Three years shy of 50, he still fits the action-figure mold. His voice is a blend of gun-sight sure and country calm.

He is a former Marine who, after separating from his wife in 2002, moved onto his mother’s old home place between Gordon and Gray, in Jones County. 

Wadford’s 14-year-old daughter, Ellen, who sings in a local choir, is the one who passed out the “Not Afraid” dog tags. On the back, the tags quote Psalm 91:5 -- “I shall not be afraid of the terror by night nor the arrow that flies by day.”

Wadford listens to CDs. He doesn’t do iPods. His music tastes run from the Doobie Brothers to Boston to heavy metal.

“It doesn’t pump me up,” he explained, “it lets me disengage.”

He reads biographies, military history, sci-fi.

Getting a grasp on the job ahead is, to him at least, an individual matter.
“If you do not know fear, you’re a fool,” Wadford said. “It’s what you do with it that makes the difference.”

His advice to the company newbies? Rest, chow and, um, relief.

“Never, ever pass up the chance to sleep, to eat or to have an up-close, personal discussion with a piece of white porcelain,” Wadford said. “I had a gunnery sergeant when I was a Marine who told me that. And he was right.”

Now comes the beginning, the jagged unknown, the thinking about it, the anticipation. Training will take hold.

So, too, will the private thoughts of soldiers.

“I don’t know that there is anyone,” Wadford said, “who can honestly say what having your mind right is.”

No comments: