Thursday, September 10, 2009

Who Fights This War?


"I'd rather be digging a damn ditch than sitting on my ass in an air-conditioned office pushing FRAGOs." That was one of the first things Staff Sergeant Laura Beaufort said to me when I met her walking across on open area in a sandstorm. She is a cheerful, imposing, funny woman of 43 who joined the Army Reserves on a whim just before 9/11 and now has an intense love-hate relationship with life in camouflage.

Until last month SSG Beaufort (not her real name, of course) was the sergeant in charge of the convoy training school here on Camp Adder. She taught troops how to drive and fight in convoys and how to best use the ungainly MRAP fighting vehicles that are now the standard troop carrier across Iraq. She loved convoy training and did not mind when her tour was extended. When she did the unit she went to decided her training as a military police officer would be best used processing FRAGOs--the daily changes to orders that bubble through the military system day and night.

Beaufort loves being outside, moving troops, and has no desire to sit in air conditioning, but she will do the job as well as she can until the end of her extended tour.

She joined the reserves in 2000 at age 35 with no prior military experience at all, because she saw two soldiers hanging up a sign in the small town in Kentucky where she lives. The sign said the Army would repay student loans for reserve soldiers. She had three daughters between 8 and 13 years old at the time, taught math at the local high school and had $30,000 in student loans. She signed up. She went off to basic at the end of the school year, trying to fit basic and advanced training into the summer break. Training did not quite fit her school schedule and she was just about done with training when the 9-11 attacks hit.

At that point she just wanted to serve and was jealous of the regular Army soldiers who were whisked away to airborne schools and other assignments. She served as an MP until 2004 when she trained to be a drill sergeant. Every summer after that she would "push troops" through Fort Knox, Kentucky, during the 11-week summer break at her school district. Her experience as a drill sergeant and an MP lead her to convoy training here in Iraq.

Now she is ready to go back to being a drill sergeant part time and a full time teacher. "Each year it gets easier to go back to pushing troops and harder to teach school," she said. "It's not the kids. It's the damn parents." She then gave her version of the teacher's lament that parents call her, email her, come to school to say their little child is special. "In the Army you don't deal with that. Mom doesn't call basic training," she said.

She also likes the structure and clarity of Army life, at least in training. "We have a goal; get the trainees ready to be soldiers." She also likes the deference of soldiers when compared to civilians. "When I get back from Knox and I am in a crowd at Wal-Mart, I wish I could yell 'Make a hole' and have everybody get out of my way."

Beaufort's wall is covered with pictures of her three children. She is very proud of them--even the one who, "Is a liberal and wants to save the whole damn world. She voted for Obama. We don't talk about politics." Beaufort is somewhere to the right of Oliver North politically and hates everything about France, which is a double layer of irony given her name. The pseudonym I chose for her is combines a very feminine English first name with a French cheese for her last name--which is just like her real name.

At age 43 she has eight years of service and will have to decide soon whether she will make the Army a career or not. I'm guessing she will. The look she has in her eyes when she talks about basic training and convoy ops is not there when she talks about Algebra 2.