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The Generation

The Generation

A Story by Robert Guttersohn

Here is an excerpt from the first draft of my manuscript "When Medals Fade." I set this up as a short story for Veteran's Day.


Rain pitter-pattered on the red sand that covered most of the Sand Hill section of Fort Benning, Georgia. The red ants fled for their holes. The snakes slithered for cover. The drops thinned but fell at a faster pace. The sand gave way, carried off by water creating blood-red streams. A black leather boot penetrated the stream. The water splashed up to the ankle before beading and sliding from the trainee’s polished boot. The trainee was one of 53 marching through the sludge. They, with their sweat-hardened pants rolled outside of their boots due to the Georgia heat, carried M-16s and 50-pound rucksacks. Out-dated Kevlar helmets sat cricked on their young, bald heads. The camouflage they had rubbed onto one another’s faces earlier that morning was mostly washed away. Only remnants remained in the cracks of their faces and eyebrows. The young soldiers were tired. But the barracks weren’t far. Halfway through their infantry training, they memorized landmarks close to their home on Sand Hill.

In the late afternoon, the rain continued to fall. The individual drops tapped lightly on the windows of the open bay the platoon of trainees had lived in for seven weeks. In the barracks lobby, they sat talking, knocking the clumps of red mud from their boots, scrubbing them clean and shining them. They chatted about home, about lovers, about high school sports - about home in general. Each tried relating to one another, whether it was a boy from Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon.

The boys from Texas had the most pride. They’d often cuss and holler at the slightest insult to their state. On several occasions, the Civil War almost replayed itself in the open bay when one New York trainee made fun of another’s Georgian accent.

Some were black; many were Hispanic, but most were white. Cliques formed. Religions were started. Rumors spread. A handful of trainees were labeled as homosexuals and blacklisted. Fights started. Punches were thrown. Some cried. Some laughed. They made cards and chess pieces out of anything they could find. They made sports. A roll of toilet paper was their football and held Olympic events like racing from one end of the bay to the other while going over and under the bunks. Some trainees were older. They’d watch the young, fresh-out-of-high-school trainees like they were rambunctious teenagers outside a gas station. Naturally, the young trainees would often look up to the older ones.

The trainees would sing because it was the only form of music they heard. They’d sing ballads; they’d sing Garth Brooks; they’d sing cadences that they discovered stuck in their heads faster than pop music. When they walked together, they walked in unison unconsciously. They’d try on their green Class A uniform and imagine the day they wore it across the parade grounds on graduation day. They imagined the rank that’d be sewn on the sleeve. For that second, it was the first time several of them felt self respect.

At night, they’d tell stories because there was nothing to read. They’d sit in groups of four or five - one bouncing a story off another. Mostly, the stories involved sex. The virgins with their heads nodding hoped their cheeks weren’t too red from embarrassment. If the weather permitted, the storytelling would move outside on a set of bleachers. The trainees would talk about high school sports, drunken feats or times where they just sat around with their folks on Sunday afternoon. But it was no use. Home couldn’t be described - at least not with their vocabulary. Modifiers like f**k’en and s****y couldn’t possibly draw a proper picture in someone’s mind.

These were the boys of the Army. The trainee was no different from others their age but steadily - and perhaps without their notice - they were slowly turning into soldiers okay with killing. They didn’t notice, but they became willing to run towards the bullets instead of running away. Death became an afterthought.

They enlisted for various reasons. Some needed to pay for college. They sought to skate buy, scoring the minimal on each test throughout infantry school. Some had something to prove - either to themselves or others. They would overtly try to lead, getting on the nerves of the other trainees. Some were in love with the aura, the adventure of being a soldier. Those trainees envisioned themselves dying out on the battlefield. They envisioned one last declaration of love and one last, large exhale before death. They envisioned this until they saw what death on a battlefield really looked like: the way bodies slump to the ground suddenly lifeless, the way a person continues to run until they realized it was them that was shot, the way a person just wants to breathe when a bullet-sized hole is in each lung.

Most signed up because of September 11.

Joey, 18 and fresh from high school, was somewhere between all of that. He had not landed in a clique. He was not deemed a homosexual. He was not a leader or a habitual nuisance to the platoon. Because Joey had bounced homes between Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, he had pride neither in a state nor the North or South. His father worked at one chemical plant not too far from Maysville, Kentucky but that closed. He moved his family and young Joey to the other side of the river into Ohio at another processing plant. That closed. His father finally settled as a coal miner in West Virginia. That mine collapsed, killing Joey’s father and widowing his mother, Loretta. Joey spent most of his time working rather than paying attention to his grades. As a result, college was not an option. After 9/11, he focused even less on school. Joey graduated barely and left for Georgia only a month later.

He sat in the large atrium of the barracks with his fellow trainees. After changing from their water-logged, woodland uniforms, they wore the black shorts and ash t-shirts that made up their PT uniforms. Joey dipped a water-drenched rag into his black boot polish. Then he pressed the rag against the leather of his boot and with his index finger, massaged the polish into its surface.

“That ‘boy over der Landman, he can shine ‘uh boot,” one of the Georgian boys, the chubby one they called Peach, said of Joey. “Like uh mirra’.”

Joey smirked at the compliment. He felt uncomfortable being seen talking to Peach by others since Peach was one of the trainees labeled as homosexual by another Georgian within the first two weeks of training.

“Yes’m, he looked at my junk when I was showerin’” Berretta, the other taller, slender trainee from Georgia said one night when his own sexual orientation came under question.

“No, I diddun’,” Peach protested. But it didn’t matter. Once you were labeled, there was never going back. The trainee was blacklisted.

“My dad taw’t me,” Joey said to Peach. It was a quick answer. He eyed the handful of other trainees that sat with them. None eyed him. He was safe, he thought.

Greg Travis, a fellow trainee handpicked by one of the drill instructors to act as the platoon leader, walked down the stairs from their bay.

“Hey, Drill Sergeant McMahon wants everyone toeing the line in five,” he told them and sprinted back up the cement stairs. Travis was a football player at a Tennessee high school. He was smart, sturdy and athletic. Unlike most of the trainees, he had the profile of someone who’d make a good soldier some day.

The trainees gathered their rags, boots and tin cans of polish and ran up the stairs. They tossed the items in their wall lockers and stood with the tips of their running shoes on the blue line that wrapped around the floor of the open bay.

“At ease, drill sergeant on the floor!” Travis barked from where McMahon entered. All within snapped to parade rest.

 “Storm the beach,” the drill sergeant ordered. He was a New Yorker and a smoker, leaving his voice scratchy. The trainees ran to the middle of the open bay and sat. McMahon had a piece of paper in his hand and sat on a metal folding chair in front of the trainees.
“The AP’s report’en that Saddam Hussein is movin’ his sol-juhs into cities in preparation fo’ an invasion,” he said while holding up the piece of paper. He was silent, letting the news sink in. “Well?” he asked rhetorically. “Of dose who think it’s still a game, does this mean somet’in’?”

It was becoming a routine. Every night the three sergeants responsible for training second platoon would bring in news about Iraq making war with the country sound imminent. Secretly, the order to do this came from the company commander, but the sergeants would never admit to taking orders from an officer if they felt they didn’t have to. “If some ya’s pull some of the bullshit ya’ been pullin’ in the field in Iraq, your a*s’s going to be dead,” McMahon said, still holding up the piece of paper. “Ya’r goin’ to be carried by six.”

The trainees sat silent. A few shook their heads in agreement. Others looked between their legs at the ceramic-tile flooring. It was what they had signed up to do. But reality is reality. When it hits it can be painful no matter the mindset.

McMahon stood and pinned the latest article to the corkboard by the front entrance to the bay. There it joined six other articles and served as a constant reminder to the trainees of the war that would take the rest of their lives. It would take their limbs. It would claim their souls. They would no longer be the boys that waved goodbye to parents or girlfriends. These young men were impressionable and Iraq would consume them. When they jumped at the slightest noise, it was Iraq. The paranoia was Iraq. When they sat up in their sleep, it was Iraq. The headaches were Iraq. The body aches were Iraq. The tears, the random fits of anger were Iraq. The wives and children they beat and choked were Iraq. This was their future. They would forever be connected to Iraq, and its lingering effects would out live the battles, the ambushes, the raids, the screaming children, the bloodied bodies.

Outside the silent bay, the rain continued to patter. The storm continued to pound northern Georgia.

“Alright, le’s get to the mail,” McMahon said.

© 2011 Robert Guttersohn

Author's Note

Robert Guttersohn
Just a first draft so not concerned about grammar, but let me know what you think

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Added on November 11, 2011
Last Updated on November 11, 2011
Tags: Iraq, war, veterans, literary fiction


Robert Guttersohn
Robert Guttersohn

Niles, OH

I am a journalist currently writing for the Youngstown Vindicator, a self-published author of Bartholemoo Chronicles and a three-tour Iraq War veteran. I am currently finishing a second novel called P.. more..