This story is by Mary Patrick and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The Parachute Filler
I woke not recognizing my surroundings. Evidently, I’d slept soundly based on the amount of drool left on the couch’s throw pillow. A weariness still pressed against me. Fully dressed in civilian clothes, the memories rushed back. The prospect of an Article 15 or dishonorable discharge hung over my head.
Sitting up, I rubbed my hand over my close-cropped hair. Several months ago, thinking about my possible engagement, I’d determined to make the military a career. Last weekend I asked Sharon to marry me. Today, I allowed emotions and mental exhaustion to rob me of my future.
The chaplain stuck his head in the door. “Oh good, you’re awake.” He walked into his office and sat in the hardback chair in front of me. “You’ve slept for several hours. Do you want to talk about what brought you here?”
I barely remembered the split-second decision to duck into Wood Memorial Chapel instead of going AWOL. “Thanks for giving me time to sort things out.” I stood and stretched my cramped muscles. God and the chaplain might be my last hope not to lose Sharon and our future together. I sat down and told him my story.
Yesterday at zero dark thirty, Dumfries, Taylor and I walked off the cattle truck and got rigged with parachutes at Pope Air Force Base. We were parachute fillers for the Bold Eagle military exercise. The soldiers ahead of us waddled into the waiting C-130 loaded down with a thirty-pound parachute, forty-pound rucksack, and weapons.
Sitting on the plane, we resembled turtles flipped on their shells squeezed shoulder to shoulder and toe to toe. No one knew how many hours we’d stay in flight over the Atlantic or when we’d get to the drop zone at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
After the plane had taken off, we dosed off and on using the lumpy rucksack as a pillow. Usually, when there are forty to fifty 82nd Airborne Division soldiers together, our enthusiasm would run out the local bar patrons. But not before a jump, the hum of the aircraft is about all you’d hear.
Five hours into the flight the jumpmaster shouted, “TWO-MINUTE WARNING!”
We struggled to our feet, glad to have something to do. It was time to get off this bird. My body had mapped the location of each buckle and strap poking and jabbing into my skin. I was ready to get this over.
The plane livened up with the clanging of metal and boots stomping. The man doors on both sides of the plane opened for the jumpmaster to inspect the drop zone. It’s also his responsibility to stagger the paratrooper’s exit, keeping the chutes from getting tangled. I double checked my rigging.
I grabbed the static line and hooked it on the cable keeping it on the outside of my arm.
“SHUFFLE TO THE DOOR!”
The soldier in front of me had my rucksack pressed into the back of his legs. The soldier behind me had his rucksack pressed against mine, and on it goes. We were a single entity.
“STAND IN THE DOOR!”
The first paratroopers advanced to the exit waiting for the signal to go. With a solid hit on their backsides, the troopers jumped. After that, it’s ‘GO, GO, GO’ every second. You’re pushed hard from the back as you shuffle toward the door.
A second at the exit and then I plummeted toward the ground. I glanced above my head to see where the plane was and the next trooper. It’s not just the chutes from my flight I’m concerned with, but the ten or more airplanes in a pattern over the drop zone. Parachutes filled the air as far as I can see.
After hours of airplane noise and clanging, I welcomed the silence before my training kicked in. I checked the lines. The ground rushed to meet me. I went through the five points of contact: balls of your feet, heels of your feet, thighs, ass, and shoulder blades.
Hundreds of others fell from the sky. Those of us on the ground cleared the drop zone and turned in the chutes. Finished with the jump, I’m still a Bold Eagle participant until I get back to Bragg.
I headed toward camp, marching in single file. The last rays of the setting sun lit the bottom of a few wispy clouds turning them a golden hue. Arriving at camp in the dark meant sleeping on the ground, under the stars. At this point, I don’t care where I’m told to rest my head.
“Hey, Specialist Patterson. What are you doing here?” It’s one of the sergeant’s from Alpha Company. His jeep kept pace with me.
“I’m filling the gap like I always do.”
“I can’t have clerks getting their hands dirty. There’s a truck at the rear collecting everyone going back to Bragg. If there are more from your company pull them from the march.” The jeep sped past, leaving me in a cloud of dust.
“Thanks, Sergeant.” Dead on my feet, I headed in the opposite direction in search of my ride.
It wasn’t until I got to the runway that I saw Dumfries and Taylor sitting on the grass. I joined them, happy to remove the weight of the rucksack and to get off my feet.
“It’s like we won the lottery.” Dumfries laughed. “Those poor bums will be playing soldier for a month.”
Taylor slapped me on the back. “Loverboy here gets to see his sweetheart this weekend after all.”
A wide grin broke out across my face. There’s no hiding how I felt. Embarrassed, I change the subject. “Any idea when we’ll get back to Bragg?”
“Nope, we were told to sit here. They’ll call us when it’s time to board,” Dumfries answered.
At sunrise, we arrived back at Pope more than twenty-four hours since we’d left. Tired, we stood for a couple of minutes to see if a truck was sent to retrieve us.
“I’m sure no one is expecting us.” I hoisted the rucksack back into place. “Might as well get started. All I want is some sleep.”
Tired, dirty, and sweaty, we limped through the quiet streets. With most of the Division in Florida, Bragg was a ghost town.
With the mess hall in sight, I asked, “What’s first? Sleeping, eating, or taking a shower?” Getting sleep was at the top of my list, though carrying a weapon meant finding the armorer first.
Dumfries answered. “I’m going to eat. The way I see it, we can’t turn in our weapons until later. The mess will open within the next half hour.”
“Two glasses of chocolate milk, a plate of bacon, scrambled eggs and toast. That’s what I’m having,” said Taylor.
At the table, I scooped up some hash browns mixed with runny egg yolk when I caught sight of Deputy Dawg, also known as Sargent Richardson, my boss.
“Glad you made it back Patterson. I expect you to return to work this morning. We’re already a day behind because of yesterday. Division needs those reports.”
I clamped down on my fork, glad my mouth was full of food. The cuss word that popped into my mind stayed a thought. I didn’t care what Deputy Dawg said, sleep came first. The other two gave me sympathetic shaking of their heads.
Before reporting to work, I’d have to shower, shave, and get into a clean uniform. It would take hours to produce the report. All I needed was a couple of hours of sleep. “Come on, let’s get these weapons turned in.”
In the Day room, I stripped down to my t-shirt and underwear and put on my P.T. shorts. We were out in the open with hardly any privacy. Our barracks locked with so many men away. I relaxed on the cot nodding out.
“Specialist Patterson. I ordered you to get to work. I need that report done now.” Deputy Dawg stood over me.
“I’m getting some sleep first.” Anger poured into me. Exhausted, I wasn’t thinking straight.
“I’ll write you up for insubordination so fast you won’t know what hit you.”
I rolled out of the cot. If I couldn’t sleep here, I’d go somewhere else. Instead of putting on my uniform, I dressed in civilian clothes. All the while, Deputy Dawg shouted threats. I don’t know what he said until he ordered me to report to Lieutenant Miller, the S1 Adjutant, Deputy Dawg’s boss.
“That’s like going from one moron to another,” I shouted back. Seeing my backpack with most of my personal belongings, I swung it across my shoulder and left. At that second, I had every intention of leaving the Fort.
Ashamed of my actions, I gave the chaplain a sidewise glance to see what he thought. His face didn’t give me any clues. “Then, I saw the chapel. The walk gave me a chance to cool down. I don’t want to jeopardize my career or lose Sharon.”
“Who’s Sharon?” The chaplain asked.
“She’s my fiancé,” I replied. “Her parents aren’t thrilled she’s marrying a soldier. I don’t want to give them any reasons to doubt my ability to support their daughter.”
“Congratulations on your engagement. I wish you two the best. That’s a significant change in your life. Being in love is wonderful and stressful.” The chaplain paused. His brow lines increased as if he were weighing his next words. “I was an army medic, years ago. Did you know exhaustion exhibits the same behaviors of intoxication?”
“No, I had no idea.”
“When you arrived here, it was after nine. So, you hadn’t slept for over thirty hours. That’s when people get highly emotional, experience memory loss, and a host of other side effects.” The chaplain walked over to his desk and flipped through a small notepad. “Well, I can see God’s working in your life and guided your feet here. I’ll call Lt. Miller and tell him you’re on your way to his office, just like Richardson asked you to.” His warm smile and handshake gave me a little hope.
Rear detachment commander Miller sat alone in the office. Feeling slightly underdressed in my jeans and polo shirt, I closed the door behind me quietly and approached his desk in time for him to hang up the phone.
“Specialist Patterson, if everyone didn’t know you before today, they do now. The military police searched every inch of this fort for you. No one thought to look in the chapel.” He leaned back in his chair. “You’ve caused enough of a distraction for one day. Return to work and report to the Sargent.” He sat upright and picked up a document from his desk, dismissing me.
Back at the shop. I found Sargent Richardson after I showered, shaved, and put on a clean uniform.
He got straight to business, picking up a folder and pulling out typed pages. “Patterson, I’ve written a recommendation that you receive an Article 15 for insubordination. What you did today is not befitting a soldier in the United States Army. What are you going to do in combat? Tell the enemy you need eight hours of rest before you can protect your country?” He crossed his arms and waited.
With Sharon fixed squarely in my mind, I set about undoing the damage I caused. “Sargent, I deserve the Article 15. I shouldn’t have addressed you using that tone. I’m sorry and won’t let it happen again. Can I return to work?”
After a long pause, Richardson held up the recommendation and ripped it into quarters. “Yeah, get back to work. You’ve got a report to finish.”