Editor's note: This series of columns is based on the author's experiences in the Army between April of 2001 and May 2005.
Training to become a photographer/videographer -- or a combat documentation specialist, as the Army prefers to call it -- requires six to eight weeks of training, perhaps the longest schools for advanced initial training the military offers.
If you sign up for active duty, you pretty much rely on luck of the draw and you really don't know what unit you'll be assigned to until you complete training. But I had signed up for the Reserves, so I knew the unit I had been assigned to was based in Fort Aberdeen, which wasn't too far from Fort Meade, and thanks to Mapquest, a couple of Internet searches and phone calls and asking the guard at the gate for directions, I found out fairly easily when and approximately where my unit met for drill. Even though I wasn't technically ordered to do so yet, I figured I'd drop in an hour before drill and see what I was getting into.
It never occurred to me that because I was assigned to a military intelligence unit, that dropping in unannounced might not be such a good idea.
At that time, most Reserve units meet for drill at an armory built during or shortly after WWII. But the 203rd MI Battalion was no ordinary Reserve unit. I would learn later that was originally an active duty unit but because of cutbacks, they cased their colors. At some point, the powers that be decided that was a terrible idea, because the 203rd was the Army's only intelligence unit that exclusively and specifically focused on foreign weapons -- most intelligence units had more of a generalized mission of reconnaissance on the battlefield.
At some point the 203rd was reconstituted as one with both active duty and reserve components, and the new facility that was built to house them was massive and impressive -- and also restricted. I got no further than a foyer at the entrance meant for visitors that housed a tank, a piece of artillery and other foreign weapons that had been seized in previous conflicts. After finding a few locked doors that appeared to require a key card to get through, I came a across a soldier with "Hill" on his name tape and PFC rocker on his collar who was polishing his boots.
"You're new, aren't you?" PFC Hill asked. I didn't answer, figuring that if pristine fatigues and lack of a patch on my shoulder didn't clue him in, then surely the lost look on my face did. "We weren't expecting anyone new."
"That's because I haven't been ordered to report here yet," I said. "I'm still in training at Fort Meade." I offered my hand for him to shake and introduced myself, but Hill ignored it and continued to polish his boots.
"I didn't think we needed another photographer. They hardly have a use for me," Hill said. "What are you doing here? This could land you in hot water. Go back to Fort Meade."
But I hadn't come all this way to be blown off by a private with an attitude. "I guess I'd like to talk to someone in charge before I go."
By now Hill had finished polishing his boots and was lacing them up. He pointed to a locked door I had already tried. "Headquarters is that way," he said. "But you don't want to go there." He tied his boots, stood and motioned for me to follow him. "Come on, I'll take you to the Chief. He'll know what to do with you."
"Thanks," I said, and Hill responded, "Don't thank me yet." As I followed him through a door he unlocked by entering a code into a keypad, Hill warned me, "The chief, he can be a little intense."
We went through what appeared to be a dayroom with a couple of offices attached to it. The much older soldier we approached had his back to us, and he didn't turn around when he said, "Private Hill, I thought I told you you're not supposed to be back here."
"I know, Chief," Hill said. "But we've got another live one." The chief turned, looked at me with surprise and said, "Another new soldier?"
I introduced myself and explained what I was doing there. But the chief wasn't satisfied with that. "How in the world did you find your way here?" he asked.
I looked at him like he was joking, because surely this wasn't a serious question. "You do know there's this new thing called the Internet, right?" I asked.
The Chief shook his head, and "I guess we're going to have to have a talk to the Reservists about operational security," he said.
He stepped closer and I saw from his name tape that we shared the same last name. "Where are you from, specialist?" he asked.
"Kansas, originally, but I moved to Maryland a few months before I joined." I could tell from his accent that he wasn't from Maryland either and when I asked what brought him from the South, he said he came from one of the Carolinas. The Army transferred him here to fill up a few vacant slots, because this unit had first priority.
"Things are coming together," the Chief said. "Say, you don't think there's any possibility we could be related?"
"I highly doubt it," I said. "But what makes you think that we are?"
He explained that following the Civil War, part of his family migrated west to Kansas, but they had long since lost touch with that part of the family. I told him my family had been in Kansas since the late 1800's and we didn't know where we came from before settling there. The Chief said that fighting on the wrong side of the Civil War might have something to do with that. When I asked him if he knew where in Kansas his family had migrated to, the town he named is very close to the farm I grew up on -- just a couple of miles away.
Ever since then, he called me cousin -- and he made sure that even though the 203rd really didn't need another photographer, the unit still found a use for me. I took part in training that was normally reserved for intelligence analysts, such as firing and cleaning an AK-47 -- which shoots better and isn't as prone to jamming up like its M-16 counterpart. Because of him I fired an Russian RPG, which has a lot more kick than our grenade launchers, and drove a T-55 tank, which handles a lot like an cab-less tractor -- a little slow, but you can abuse the clutch like you wouldn't believe.
By the way, there's nothing more empowering than driving a Russian tank. It's a freaking tank. Even parked cars get out of your way when you drive a freaking tank.
Because of the Chief, I saw a lot more in the deployment to Iraq than I would have otherwise, but that's another column.
In this universe, family have a way of showing up where you least expect them, and I don't mean just the ones you're related to.