In the last few days, pictures have been circulating on social media of members of the National Guard sleeping on the floor of the Capitol building. Of course, civilians with no understanding of what military life is like gasped and fainted,
“Oh my God!! Those poor pitiful soldiers are sleeping on the floor!”
Meanwhile, those of us who are veterans and familiar with what life can be in the service knew exactly what these National Guard troops sleeping in the Capitol were really thinking,
“This is pretty sweet! We’re indoors and it’s warm!”
The outpouring of civilian angst about the Guardsmen sleeping on the Capitol’s floor got so bad the National Guard actually had to put out a statement asking people to stop trying to donated beds, cots, and blankets, promising that the troops are being looked after and adding that they don’t have the logistics to run a donation center.
What most civilians don’t realize is that the military often sucks on purpose. The leaders of our military know that you cannot win wars with troops that have had no experience of material deprivation, loss of sleep, and physical discomfort. So while you are serving you will find yourself frequently being “hardened,” so to speak, by circumstances where you don’t get enough sleep, don’t get enough to eat, don’t get enough leisure time, and any number of other things. That’s the way it works. Hard soldiers win hard fights. And we laugh about “Embracing the Suck” of military life and telling ourselves that if we can’t cut it in peacetime, we certainly won’t be able to cut it when our country is at war.
I’m sure the commander of that guard unit had no problem with his men being in “Hurry Up and Wait” mode and sacked out on the floor of the Capitol while a bivouac with more proper facilities was being prepared for them someplace else. It will probably be a warehouse or auditorium at some school in the area. They will have cots, showers, latrines, and a chow line. It will still kinda suck, but if you’ve seasoned your people enough by depriving them of comforts and convenience, they will have a frame of reference that has them thinking, “Well, at least we’re sleeping inside this time and it’s warm.” In any event, the National Guard troops aren’t even sleeping there. It’s just an assigned rest area between their guard shifts.
There is a funny story about this. I went to SAR School in 1983 at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida. In the dead of summer, July and August. Naval Search and Rescue Swimmer School at the time had a rather fearsome reputation for being demanding, punishing, and misery-inducing. And for good reason. You aren’t going to get a guy to jump out of a helicopter into a freezing sea at night to rescue a complete stranger unless they have some other miserable frame of reference to make that jump seem like another day at the office. Our mornings started with PT just after a muster at 0630hrs (and God help you if you weren’t on your “spot” when the instructors came out. Most of the PT instructors, I later found out, were SAR guys with orders to BUDs and the SEAL training pipeline. A couple of months stashed at SAR school grinding us into dust was good prep for them for when they got to Coronado.
Anyway, Jax had something we used to call the “Par Course.” It was about a two-mile running trail that had all these exercise stations and obstacles along the way. We’d sprint from station to station doing pull-ups, sit-ups, rope climbs, crawls under netting, balance beams, and monkey bars. And it was a timed run that got shorter and shorter each week. It wrecked you, cut you up, bruised, and bashed you every day. And in the first few days of SAR training, we were doing it in 87-degree temps with humidity in the 90s. Did I mention this was Florida in the summer?
As is common, none of us in the class knew each other and there is always a period where everyone kinda gets everyone else’s story about how they joined the Navy and ended up in God-forsaken SAR school. We were all lying in the sand at the end of the run exhausted. We were all soaked in sweat, panting, covered in sand that chaffed raw every crease and fold in our skin, especially our crotch and underarms. The instructors would leave us alone for a few minutes before we would then sprint to the pool for about three hours of swimming before lunch.
I noted that pretty much everyone in SAR had the same kind of story. They had grown up in the suburbs, had a girl back home named Kathy, mom and Dad were great, and they missed their dog.
We had this one quiet guy in the class that didn’t say much to anyone. Let’s call him Gaskins. Once, a guy asked Gaskins what he was doing here. Gaskins waited several seconds and then started talking. We all listened in rapt horror as he told us his parents had died in a car accident when he and his sister were toddlers. The state had placed them with an aunt and uncle. They were both drinkers and he and his sister had been physically abused for years until finally the state removed them, separated them, and they both bounced to several foster homes. Gaskins had gotten into a little trouble with the law, minor juvie stuff. He had managed to graduate high school but had lost track of his baby sister. The day he turned 18 he walked eight miles to an Armed Forces Recruitment Center and enlisted in the Navy. He spent the next three months pretty much homeless in the Delayed Entry Program until he signed his final paperwork, took the oath, and shipped out to Great Lakes and Boot Camp. He said they fed them on the flight that night to Illinois and it was the first meal he had eaten in three days.
Nobody said a word. His story was so completely different than those of all other middle-class kids from the “burbs” who had joined the Navy for some adventure in their lives. We really didn’t have any frame of reference that allowed us to relate to a story so full of suffering and loss. The awkward moments of silence continued to tick off, then… from off to my left I heard someone say,
“Jeez! And you gave up all that? For this?”
Everyone, including Gaskins, laughed. And when I say laughed, we had tears coming out of our eyes. Of course, our instructors heard all this mirth and merriment and of course, nothing can be fun in SAR School by God. So in a moment we were all in a formation again, sandy and looking like a bunch of cat turds for a mile run to the pool. But along the way, for the entire mile, for seemingly no reason at all, someone would crack up for a moment and stifle it. Then it would be someone else, then another guy. Snickering and giggles. Unlike boot camp where the tall guys tail the formation, in SAR school the tall guys run up front and set the run’s pace. So I heard all the laughter behind me and smiled without cracking because I was too close to one of the instructors to get away with it.
Gaskins did finish SAR school and went into the Fleet somewhere to some squadron. He was a good guy. SAR school was a piece of cake for him. He’d known far worse things just trying to grow up.
And many of these Guardsmen in DC probably do too. So don’t worry about them catching some rack-time on the Capitol’s floor. They have days of work in front of them outside in the cold and, possibly, bad weather. If it really sucks, these National Guard troops will mention sleeping on that floor in the Capitol building and another guy may say, “Yeah, we never had it so good, did we?”
And they will laugh.