Authors: Eric Fair
At this time, there are a number of threatening organizations in the world that speak at least some Arabic, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Even portions of the Taliban in Afghanistan speak Arabic. And then there's always Iraq. But in early 2000, they all seem either well contained or simply not worth the trouble. It doesn't seem that bombings and terrorist attacks will lead us to war. We may rely on airstrikes from time to time, but it's not as if we're going to conduct a full-scale invasion. No one needs the Army. I don't pray for war, but I'm bored. Life in the Army is dull and monotonous. I'm tired of playing war games in Louisiana. I'm tired of living in the barracks. It's time to move on.
As I near the end of my five-year contract, my commander encourages me to consider reenlistment. I tell him about my desire to become a police officer and the possibility of a career in the ministry. He laughs. He says, “Fair, you're a soldier, a good one, don't get fucking religious on me.” He encourages me to transfer to a more specialized unit called the tactical support team. He says the mission is classified. He can't tell me much about it. I think he says this to make it sound more interesting. It will require another five-year contract. It includes a $15,000 reenlistment bonus. He enrolls me in a prisoner-of-war training program. He says, “This will give you a taste of the kind of thing you'll get to do.”
In early 2000, I report to the prisoner-of-war training program. It's the Army's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program (SERE), designed for soldiers in positions where there is considerable risk of capture. Each phase of the course is designed to simulate the plight of soldiers caught behind enemy lines. Our first goal is to survive on limited resources. The trainers teach us how to build traps and snares to catch wildlife. But when it comes time to learn how to prepare food in the wild, no one has captured any wildlife.
The trainers buy white rabbits from a local pet store. Each student is taught how to kill the pet rabbit. The rabbit should be relaxed when it dies in order to prevent the meat from toughening up. One of the students on my team kneels down and rests the rabbit on his leg. He pets it to keep it calm before striking it on the head with his fist. He misses. The rabbit isn't relaxed anymore. He swings again, but lands only a glancing blow. One of the officers takes the rabbit from him and slams it up against a tree. He says, “Now it's dead.” He skins it. He stretches the skin from the back and cuts it open with a knife. There is a scream. It is pitiful and terrifying. We are terrified. The rabbit is screaming. He throws it to the ground and stomps and stomps until the head pops and a squirt of blood stains the grass. Someone says, “Holy shit, it's Barry Winchell the rabbit!” Everyone on the team laughs. I do, too. I'll need to drink heavily to forget about that.
The final phase of SERE school requires students to evade capture. We crawl through the woods and build hide sites. An observer from the school travels with us. When we've evaded capture long enough, he radios in our position. Simulated enemy troops arrive and force us to surrender. Once captured, we are taken to a detention facility. The trainers pretend to be enemy interrogators. They have our personnel files. They know everything about us. They threaten our families by name. At night, they play loud music. One of the guards brings in a recording of his infant son crying at night. He plays it over and over. He also plays the opening portion of Ozzy Osbourne's “Crazy Train.” We strip naked and stand out in the cold. Army doctors take our pulse. During interrogation, we are promised warm meals and warm beds if we cooperate. We get slapped and shoved. They say everyone breaks down under duress. They tell us torture works. It always has. It always will. It just takes time.
In the 1990s, the Army, like the rest of the federal government, was getting smaller. Even so, it was a struggle to maintain suitable numbers of midlevel sergeants. The Army pushed hard to retain soldiers nearing the end of their first contract, because it cost too much to train replacements. They were offered lucrative reenlistment bonuses and granted requests for special postings. There were mandatory briefings about reenlistment options.
In the summer of 2000, I attend a mandatory reenlistment briefing at Fort Campbell. The sergeant major gives a PowerPoint presentation. He shows us a video: soldiers jump out of airplanes and conduct urban combat operations. Lee Greenwood sings “God Bless the USA.” Bonnie Tyler sings “Holding Out for a Hero.” Most of the footage is from 101st training missions at JRTC.
There are also graphs and charts and statistics. PowerPoint says that a significant majority of soldiers who return to civilian life do not find jobs that pay enough to support their standard of living. I make $18,000 a year. The sergeant major shows us a chart that adds in housing, food, uniform allowances, professional development, and a column labeled “miscellaneous.” The chart says someone with my rank and experience makes the equivalent of $75,000 a year. The sergeant major tells all of us that we'll never match our salaries in the civilian world. He also shows us evidence that our educational benefits will not enable us to afford college. He laughs and says, “None of you are college material, anyway.” When I was a civilian, the Army told me I needed military experience to succeed in the civilian world. Now that I'm a soldier, the Army tells me my military experience will make that all but impossible.
In September 2000, I am honorably discharged from the Army. I return home to Bethlehem. In October, in the Gulf of Aden, men load a medium-sized boat full of explosives. This one doesn't sink. It explodes and tears a hole in the Navy's U.S.S.
killing seventeen U.S. sailors. Al-Qaeda is getting better.
I go back to the First Presbyterian Church, where my friends have spent the last five years becoming teachers, doctors, architects, and engineers. They have cars and houses and 401ks. The law-enforcement recruiters from a job fair at Fort Campbell talk about hiring freezes and budget cuts. They say, “Be patient, things will pick up soon.”
Don is no longer the youth pastor at First Presbyterian in Bethlehem. He has taken another position, at a Presbyterian church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Lancaster isn't far, but there's no direct route. You have to drive through towns like Reading and travel on roads like 222 that go from being highways to residential streets in a matter of miles. It's an awkward drive. Or at least this is what I say to Don when I apologize for not visiting.
I take a job as a security guard at KidsPeace. KidsPeace is a kids' prison. It houses kids who can't live with other kids. The kids have been abused or raped or abandoned. There are buildings for sexual trauma, physical trauma, and substance abuse where the kids are locked inside. I patrol the grounds to make sure they don't escape. When the kids attack staff, I arrive on scene and hold the kids down. I wear khaki pants and a white polo shirt with “KidsPeace” embroidered over the graphic of a kid's handprint.
At Christmas I reconnect with an old friend from Liberty High School. Karin Sawyers is a chemical engineer with a car, a house, a 401k, and runner's legs. She attended church as a kid, but doesn't go as frequently as she once did. She wants to find a way to get back. So on Sundays we attend the early service at First Presbyterian in Bethlehem.
First Presbyterian offers a contemporary worship service now; it takes place in the church gym, where a praise band belts out songs with drums and guitars. But the early service is still held in the sanctuary, with hymns and an organ. The pastor still wears a robe and stole, and the congregants wear suits and ties and dresses. Like me, Karin is more comfortable at this service. We sit next to my grandmother, who asks Karin questions about her family and learns things about her that I didn't know. After church, my grandmother pulls me aside and tells me how much she likes Karin. And she says, “I'm so happy she comes to church.”
The kind, handsome pastor from my youth is retired now. The new senior pastor is known as a good preacher, but he doesn't walk through the pews and greet us by name. My grandmother doesn't say much about him. She would never admit to it, but I know this means she doesn't like him.
The new senior pastor preaches a sermon designed to address the issue of how the Presbyterian Church should respond to the issue of homosexuality. The General Assembly, the governing body of the church, is considering changes in the church's ordination standards, which would allow gay men and women to become pastors. Karin and I sit next to my grandmother and listen as the new pastor insists that First Presbyterian is a “big tent church.” This means that people from all walks of life, including gays, are welcome at our church. He says that God welcomes all sinners, including gays, into his tent. But sinnersârapists, thieves, murderers, gaysâmust first confess and repent before being called to leadership. When he says this, there is applause in the sanctuary. It is not tepid and reserved. It is thunderous and aggressive. And instead of the church I remember, a church where someone might be made to feel ashamed for applauding, there's a sense of shame for those who don't. My grandmother, Karin, and I are the only ones in our pew who do not applaud.
On the way home, Karin says, “Does everyone in your church think of homosexuals as rapists and thieves?” Karin and I talk about a close friend from high school who is gay. I mention the murder of Barry Winchell at Fort Campbell and the things they said at the church in Clarksville. We agree that our gay friends are not rapists, thieves, or addicts. We agree that we may no longer feel welcome at First Presbyterian Church.
We both love watching minor league baseball games in Reading. We both like to run. We like to watch movies together and we like to sit in the same room together and read books. We like to take road trips to New England and we like to go to the museums in New York. Karin likes to hear about the Army. I like to hear about her time at Lehigh University. Karin and I have much in common, but I fell in love with her in the pew at First Presbyterian Church when she refused to applaud during the sermon about homosexuals and rapists.
In April 2001, Karin agrees to marry me. There are terrible days ahead of us. We will survive them because of Karin.
At KidsPeace there is an orchard. In July, the kids pick peaches and sell them at a local stand. I work the overnight shift. In the evenings, I park the security vehicle in the orchard and listen to the Philadelphia Phillies on the radio. I get a call to help restrain a kid who is acting out. It's from the sexual abuse house. I think about grabbing small arms and legs and pinning them to the ground. I don't want to do this. I feel nauseated. I hide in the orchard and ignore the calls on the radio. I work on an application for the City of Bethlehem Police Department.
In August 2001, I attend a panel interview with the City of Bethlehem. They ask me about my strengths and weaknesses, my skills and experience, and my education and training. One of the panel members says, “I wish you'd studied Spanish instead of Arabic.” They ask me why I left the Army. I tell them about all the time wasted training for a war in the swamps and forests of Tennessee and Louisiana. They hire me. In September, Al-Qaeda flies planes into buildings.
The day after 9/11, I meet with our wedding coordinator. She says the chairs in the fellowship hall are old and unattractive. Slipcovers will fix this. I don't think it's worth the money. Karin does. Her mom does, too. Karin's father insists we rent a limousine to deliver us to the reception but I think that's too fancy. In the wake of 9/11, when Al-Qaeda has finally figured out how to start a war, when there is finally a reason to be a soldier and an Arabic linguist, when there are people to protect, I find myself talking about limousines and seating arrangements.
In January 2002, I begin a six-month training course at the police academy. We receive training on handguns and shotguns, and we talk about the proper use of force. We learn how to use handcuffs, Tasers, and extendable batons. We dress up in big red padded suits and take turns resisting arrest.
But much of the time at the academy is spent fulfilling state training requirements. The state requires that every police officer in Pennsylvania be familiar with the vehicle code. The vehicle code is thousands of pages long. It looks and reads like a phone book. State training standards require us to read significant portions of it. The windowless, wood-paneled classroom is adorned with the class photos of the students who have come before. There are pictures from the 1950s. In the pictures, the students are sitting in the same desks, their heads down, their books opened. We sit in the desks and take turns reading aloud about taillights, stop signs, and exhaust manifolds. When we fall asleep, the lead instructor at the academy, who served in the Marines, puts us in the electric chair.
At night, I fill out applications for other law-enforcement agencies. The mind-numbing monotony of the police academy has convinced me that local law enforcement may not be my calling after all. There is a war in Afghanistan. There are weapons inspectors in Iraq. I could be there, too. I could be using my Arabic.
I speak with a friend of mine from the Army about the long days at the police academy. He's heard about a new program at the CIA. They're looking for prior military with language training and security clearances. He sends me a link to the CIA employment website. I check the boxes that designate military training, foreign-language proficiency, security clearance, and experience in the Middle East. The CIA calls the next week to schedule an initial interview in Reston, Virginia.
In June 2002, I graduate from the police academy and begin a probationary period as a police officer in Bethlehem. My first assignment is a prisoner transfer from a neighboring county. We meet another police officer in the parking lot of a strip mall and take custody of a man with an arrest warrant for felony assault. The man is tall, thin, and hard. I place my hand on the back of his arm. I drop my handcuffs. The felon reaches down and picks them up for me. I continue to struggle with the handcuffs. He says, “Relax, kid, I'm not going to hurt you.” My training officer gives me a poor performance review.