THE AMERICAN WORKER

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"LACKLAND"

        

By Janice Henry (Wiitala) Westwood

 

  My recruiter, Sergeant Siebert, didn’t promise me a “rose garden” in this new challenge of enlisting in the Ohio Air National Guard.  I just had a small requirement of going through Basic Training in the Air Force.  He softly stated that I could receive rewards in achieving the goal of future employment with the Civil Service technicians as a Personnel trainee at our home base of Ohio Air National Guard at Toledo, Ohio. You will train with enlisted personnel who will continue their career on active duty. Their maximum age limit was 28 years While the Guardsmen and Reservists age limit was 35 years. I enlisted on December 30, 1975. Sergeant Siebert continued with the positive side of the only 6 weeks in training.  I wondered about this small requirement after I found my way off the plane and into the receiving area for my luggage.                  

There it was. The “Welcome Wagon” booth near the door where I spied a large, old bus that civilians like me were boarding with an Airman yelling and pushing them to move ahead. Well, I finally felt reality then.  I grabbed my luggage off the carousel and walked as fast as I could away from the doorway where the bus was parked in the handicapped zone. ”Couldn’t they read English?  Who do they think they are?”I knew this was to be bad.More reality “clicked on” that this was no place for a woman.  This Air Force has its own rules and regulations.   So I made a quick right turn into the closest airport bar. Finally, trying to stay calm I hopped on a bar stool and figured that maybe a rum and coke would fortify my failing mind and shaking body. The inate fear overcome me as I downed the second rum and coke.  My recruiter lied to me!  I wanted to choke him until he couldn’t take it and rescind my enlistment contract for 4 years.

Slowly,  I could move my body off the bar stool.  I hid behind some palm trees in the corner across from the “Welcome Wagon” booth and that shrieking man giving orders.  I decided he couldn’t have been an airman for I was an airman basic now.  No, he was a Sergeant I found out later.  Anyways, I wouldn’t salute him for I didn’t even know him and he had terrible manners.  And I didn’t know which hand to use in this military courtesy.   

My racing thoughts began to slow down as I tried a legal way of getting out of this training.  I pulled my orders out of my purse and tried to find a waiver of sorts.  If not, I could fall over my 1 piece luggage and try to pretend to break my ankle or at least sprain it!

As I stood there, I found another artificial planter that had a chair beside it out of the view of that yelling and degrading person.  I thought of my kids and what they’d think of their mother in years to come who went AWOL (absent without leave) before she even rode on that hot and ugly bus to Lackland Air Force base for her basic training.  I told them that I would be gone for 6 weeks and reminded them that their father and grandmothers would be with them for the whole time.  I quickly stated that I might be an actor for M.A.S.H which was one of our favorite family shows. You could tell that I was really being patriotic and had duty for my country, for their sakes.

  

 Hah! Now, I really had to concentrate.  That Lackland bus was filling up  fast with little Hitler leading them on. Prior to this stage you had a strict physical rundown at home base.  I passed the testing despite the fact that I was 31 years old, mother of 3 children, a housewife for years, a lobbyist for portable potties for the Swanton, Ohio parks and ball fields, and a voter.

I was quite experienced about life and mature about relationships. Oh, “Bunk”, that is not all true for I had only learned not to take abuse and walk away from confrontations, but now I couldn’t do either.  I had to obey orders 24/7.  I had to make my decision fast and I didn’t even have bus fare to home. I approached the Leader and he snatched my orders from my grip nearly ripping them.  He asked where I had been for he had my name on his roster to transport.  Thanks to my recruiter who got me into this nightmare. 

  As I climbed onto the bus and started down the aisles, I scanned the faces that showed fear, uncertainty, and worry. I think they resembled me! The sergeant yelled that if we tried to make a comment to another “prisoner”  that we would all be “giged.”  I guess he meant demerits like we got in the Girl Scouts.  Everything started to get hazy for I didn’t eat yet, and only had the two drinks. When the sergeant yelled again, I listened to him. “You better shut your mouths, you trash!

  Upon my enlistment, the person I hated the most was my recruiter who reassured me that the Technical Instructors couldn’t hurt us physically, but we could get some minor verbal abuse which was just for our own good.  Later, in training I saw a T. I. shoving an airman around. I was so relieved that it wasn’t in our group which now was called Flight comprised of 50 females.  Sgt Seibert was the one person I was going to knock down when I came home.

 Yep, we took a bumpy and emotional ride in that bus. I felt like we were all hand-picked for torture and a nightmare challenge.  I believe it was the start of being stripped of our self-respect, confidence, ego and defenses. After getting out of that smelly bus in the heat, I took a deep breath and was taken to the medical hospital to wait and wait and wait.  I knew to expect this for I’d heard from the our base veterans.  Our biggest complaint was “Hurry up and Wait.”

They made up our medical records and we were roughly checked on

our physical abilities. Some were immediately discharged for being overweight, having to use daily medications, security clearances weren’t accurate, and I particularly noticed that some of the medical staff acted racist towards the black airmen, men and women.

  

After the physical exams, they led us to our barracks which was  blocky and had dark gray mortar and an ugly tile floor that had to be scrubbed each day. Our Training Instructor, SSGT Hairston was not so loud as the others.  She tolerated us and never swore at us even though she’d really get mad when we continually got “giged” for not doing chores correctly.  I wondered about her mentally for she called this ugly building a dormitory. The walls and little windows which you couldn’t see out of was more instant depression for all of us.  That first night they took our suitcases and checked through our clothes

and told us they would be stored until we graduated. All medications were flushed down the toilets.  We each had a side locker and at the end of our cot was a foot locker.  Other airmen came in and added more noise in all our confusion by ordering us to line up for clothing issue after they finished with our suitcases.                               

 

Ha!  The supply personnel would eye you once and decide which size you wore.  They took the worry of how we looked in these uniforms, and threw whatever they figured.  I got size 12 mainly and I complained and said that they were too large and that I wore an 8.  Boy, did they get mad at me for being the first to speak up.  “You think you are special and you are a piece of trash to us.”  I hurriedly grabbed my new clothing and rushed through the line.

I was told that if you are in the military, you will be marching most of

the time.  So your shoes were of the upmost importance.  When they tossed the shoes at my back as I moved away, I saw that they were a size 8 and I needed a 7 .  I paid for this error in my shoe size later in the training and I mean error brought on terrific pain from shin splints.

Finally, we had time for chow.  We were allowed 15 minutes for a meal. It normally takes most people a lot longer.  Of course, we didn’t talk, we just ate like it was our last meal.  When we returned to our “dorm” we were only allowed a few minutes to get in our cot.  If you had to go, you had to hold it.  I laid there on my cot which was one bunk from the entry area so I had the lights over our locked door in my face all the night.  Luckily, the airmen in charge of us, was being kind to me and a few others who needed the toilet.  I laid back down on this cot and felt that this was the lowest ebb of my life.  I heard all the young girls crying. There were 50 women jammed in these quarters and we all were strangers to each other. We asked for one phone call; we thought we were entitled by the law.  The Air Force says “No and you’re not in prison. You made your choice.”

  As I laid on that awful cot that first night, I tried to figure out how to get through this maze of rules, regulations, and not get gigs or errors.  After being weighed, registered, and tagged at CQ (Command Quarters) I had begun to feel like I was being led to my slaughter.  After one day I wanted to get out of there.  I really was “brash” and thought this training would be a piece of cake and  already I knew that it is really a hard-crusted pie in the eye.

  

Before I was released to my cot, SSGT Hairston called me into her office. She asked, “Wiitala, what are you doing here?”  I explained that I would only be part-time military and full-time civil service with the Personnel job after I graduated Basic and Specialty training at the 180th TAC Fighter Group, Toledo, Ohio.  Then she released me and this little attention from her helped somewhat on my plan to get out of here.  The next morning she announced she had a special training scheduled and she would be gone for two weeks and that Sgt. Bowen would be in charge of us. Well, Bowen proved to be what I thought and that was just plain mean and shouldn’t be in a leadership role anywhere.

   She’d greet us in the morning at 5:00 a.m. with “Hustle up, you guys and girls! Do we still like men, candy bars, gum, TV, and a cup of coffee with a smoke”  We’d  reply, “No. Maam!” And then she’d repeat it to us to slow us down from dressing because she would question us.

 

For 3 days we felt like cows to the slaughter when we were indoctrinated with shots, giving specimens, tagging all our clothing, gear, and duffle bag.  Marching to each place and standing for hours in position became “old” quickly.  My tired feet or shall I say tired “dogs.” I began to worry about my physical state lasting through the marching, being timed in running and sharing this time with 49 other women who had to pass the obstacle course, too.

 

We decided to get organized and choose leaders.  I voiced my opinion for I was qualified because I potty trained 3 kids, coped with pups who could never hit the paper, and ran a fairly organized home!  In deciding duties, they made me the Latrine Queen, the hardest job.  We knew we couldn’t keep having “gigs”.  We needed personal items at the Base Exchange.

So many week-ends we spent doing chores like using our tooth brushes to clean the tile floor and re-measure our clothing in the lockers along with measuring even where our extra shoes were laid. And having to work in the Chow Hall was absolutely the worst with doing clean-up after each meal. I watched the cooks throw or give away food each night really made me wonder where it all went in those trucks. I was hoping to the poor people. 

The Air Force can’t have food but only one day per orders from the Food and Drug Administration. Every time we were in a class or physical education, THEY WOULD COME AND INSPECT US.  We were not allowed to go out at all until we passed.

 God was good to us, we didn’t “gig” anymore so we

 could walk around the base. At the BX, we bought new toothbrushes  right away and hid extra ones. I couldn’t understand our government (military) was paying for training around 2,000 Arabians when I was there.  All they ever did was harass us at the street corners with, “Be my wife, you so pretty.” What a waste of government funding on these non-citizens who did nothing but walk on and off the base.     

  

About the last 3 weeks we all pulled together and tried so hard to be  “spic and span.” We trained for the obstacle course and the 2 mile run which we had to pass to graduate.  We were all in uniform; we didn’t need to worry about what to wear the next day for we were all in the same color and style and we kept our hair up or cut short to not touch the collars of our blouses.  We quit being girls and became women airmen. Sgt Bowen was a menace to society and the military with her unfair actions and her terrible verbal abuse. I even hated her more than my recruiter.                         

  

Consequently, she almost broke me down.  I knew she’d choose me to

harass for I was the oldest and I would stare her down when she gave orders.

Sgt Bowen brought another T. I. into our dorm who was dressed like

“Smokey the Bear” in those fire safety commercials.  She planned some “fun” for me using this very large man who had to be 250 lbs and over 6' tall. Quickly she pointed at me and Smokey went right for my locker. He messed up my clean and neat blouses and uniforms and even got into my underwear drawer.  He was yelling at me and continued to spittle on my face and uniform.  Sgt Bowen grabbed his arm and they left laughing about what they had done to me.  And I was still standing at “parade rest” and saying “Yes, Sir” over and over. One woman brought me a washcloth to clean up

my face and uniform.  Most of them didn’t realize I was crying.  They

thought my tears were more spittle.  I never told them. Smokey was another  creep that infiltrates into our military.  We heard that one girl had committed suicide from all of the verbal abuse and knowing she had failed basic training was too ashamed to face her family.

  

 Sgt Bowen told me that I couldn’t run the 2 miles or the course for I    had to go to the hospital to get leg dressing on my shins, but I did do 

 it! On the day of the obstacle course my ladies cheered me on with, “Come on, Mom. You can do it. Go for it.  Show her!” We all made the  run and was so happy!                                                  

                                                     

  On the day of the obstacle course they cheered me on

  with,”Come on, Mom, you can make it; just one more to go, you will     make it and finish! Just do it!! Despite my painful legs, I did do it!

The last night there we were graduates and free for awhile.  We

 just tore up the dorm for the next Flight coming in.

 I sat on my rumpled cot and enjoyed the letters from family and friends that I didn’t have time to read. One friend asked if they kept my pool clean and not crowded? One friend asked if the weather was good for swimming?

 

The letters from friends that I didn’t have a chance to read due to all our chores.  One friend asked if the weather was good for swimming and how was my tan?  I was so happy to read these letters from my friends.  I had no family to congratulate and celebrate with when we marched in formation in front of the Reviewing Stand.  We heard some officers say we were the best Flight to march and drill, but I didn’t care. I wanted my kids here to celebrate with me.

 

 The pictures and letters from my kids just made me cry for joy because I  had missed them so much. One friend of mine asked if I had seen a certain “soap”or “60 Minutes” on last Sunday.  Other then the letters from my family, this letter just made me laugh and laugh more. This girl wanted to know that she was “rooting” for me.  They didn’t realize I did not have the use of a tennis court and had no TV set.  One kind friend remarked, “You can do it. You have good, strong legs.”  The joy of it all was when Sgt Bowen stopped by my cot and I was eating candy and smoking a cigarette I really didn’t want.  She asked me to go out with her and have a beer together.  I looked her full in the face and answered her with, “You know exactly where you can go!

 

                                                                                

Written by:

Janice Henry (Wiitala) Westwood


                        

 

 

                              

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 


 

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