You're in the Army Now

or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Military

I am a 33-year-old female law professor with a doctorate in philosophy. In June, I was one of the 59 "civic leaders" invited by the secretary of defense to attend the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC), an annual eight-day tour of the five branches of the armed services.

JCOC is a large-scale assault on the public's assumptions: convinced that an up-close view of the armed forces can combat preconceptions formed by news of defense contract scams and sex scandals, the Department of Defense invites a sampling of civilians to visit bases across the country. (Each attendee pays $2,200 for the privilege.)

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This year's group contained eight journalists, publishers, and producers (including PBS commentator Mark Shields and one reporter, Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), seven academics, two judges, three lawyers, three mayors, 28 businesspeople, five current or former state or municipal governmental officers or advisers, one state first lady (Arkansas), one psychotherapist, and one clergyman.

June 21 From the Pentagon to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida

At breakfast, I sit next to a staff photographer from the Air Force, and ask him why he joined. "It was better than working at the 7-11," he replies. He tells me his favorite part of the job is prepping new senior Air Force officers for media scrutiny with mock press conferences and "ambush" interviews. "It's fun to see the bigwigs sweat," he says.

At MacDill Air Force Base, Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, Central Command's commander in chief, discusses with us his (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to persuade Pakistan to refrain from responding to India's nuclear tests. "I visit them, and I bring my wife," he says. "In that part of the world, trust is everything, and it means something when you bring your family."

He explains that Central Command has jurisdiction over Pakistan and not India because the commander in chief needs to be able to form good working relationships with his counterparts in the relevant countries. By not working with a country's enemy, Zinni says, he gains credibility with the indigenous forces.

June 22 St. Petersburg, Florida

We visit the Coast Guard.

For organizational purposes, we have been divided into five teams, each representing one of the services. And, much as in the real military, our sample-sized portion of military life inspires a surprising amount of loyalty.

Assigned to the Army team, I find myself periodically crying "Hoo-yah!" -- the Army's all-purpose exclamation and comment. (Think Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.) I am not the only one so overcome. Skip Rimsza, the mayor of Phoenix, Arizona, is on the Coast Guard team. At the close of Rear Adm. Norman Saunders' after-dinner remarks, Rimsza leaps to his feet and shouts the Coast Guard slogan, "Semper paratus!"

June 23 Fort Bragg, North Carolina

It's our Army tour. We observe a live-fire night exercise, going up in planes with paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne. They jump out and the planes land on dirt fields. The JCOC participants get out and ride in army trucks to a spot where we prepare to see the soldiers take a small hill, under the cover of live ammunition fired both from the ground and the sky.

The exercise starts at least an hour late. Some paratroopers have landed in trees in the live-fire zone, thus delaying the exercise until the commanders can be sure the paratroopers will not get accidentally shot.

I use the spare time to see how the sky looks through night-vision goggles. You can see so many stars that the sky looks more white than black.

June 24 Camp Lejeune, North Carolina

Maj. Gen. Wayne Rollings (Navy Cross recipient and 1981 world-record holder for performing 40,000 sit-ups in 16 hours), Maj. Gen. Emil "Buck" Bedard, and Brig. Gen. Harold Mashburn Jr. ride buses with us as we watch the Marines simulate a takeover of a small island, with battle sites nicknamed San Fidel, Dos Tacos, Cerveza Negro, and San Batista.

One of my favorite exchanges during JCOC takes place here:

Me to Mashburn: General, what do you personally think about "Don't ask, don't tell"?

Mashburn: Don't ask, and I won't tell. [Much guffawing from the bus.]

Me: Seriously, what do you think?

Mashburn: I've lost three people because of the policy. I'll tell you about one of them. He got back from being deployed on a ship and came to me to tell me he was homosexual. [Nobody in the armed forces ever says "gay"; they always say "homosexual."]

Me: Why did he tell you?

Mashburn: Well, on a ship there are a lot of dirty jokes and Playboy magazines, and he just didn't want to try to fit into that environment anymore.

Me [off on a new scent]: Given the difficulties of making the ships good working environments for women, do you discourage Playboy magazine on board?

Mashburn: Not Playboy, but we do discourage girlie pictures -- er, and mannie pictures, too, for that matter.

Me: General, I believe the correct term would be "boyie pictures" to go with "girlie."

June 25 Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada

I overhear a pilot saying that he and other pilots disliked "babysitting" the no-fly zone in Iraq. In his opinion, "boring" missions like this -- not the lure of higher salaries -- account for the Air Force's loss of pilots to commercial airlines.

I ask him to explain, and he says, "Monitoring no-fly zones or flying for the United Nations in Yugoslavia isn't my job." Still a bit puzzled, I say, "But I thought your job was to do whatever the president and the Congress decide it is." His response: "I'll do whatever they tell me to, but it isn't my job."

June 26 San Diego Naval Base, California

Rear Adm. Veronica Froman, commander of the base, meets us upon our arrival. Froman is the only woman of high rank I see on the trip.

On the USS Benfold, a destroyer, Cmdr. D. Michael Abrashoff tells us that it is the Navy's "first ship built from the keel up to accommodate women."

Abrashoff, a 16-year veteran of the Navy, says the Benfold is also the first mixed-gender ship that he's served on. The captain and crew share fantastic enthusiasm and loyalty to the ship, even telling us about a show they put on in Acapulco for other crews. Abrashoff says, "People don't believe me -- they think I'm blowing smoke -- but I will never volunteer to serve on an all-male ship again."

One of the sailors I meet tells me she joined the Navy "to get out of Idaho." She is a single mother, with two daughters who stay with her parents when she is deployed. "My daughters are proud of me," she says.

That night we dine aboard the USS Boxer. I chat with a Marine who mentions The Citadel, the South Carolina military academy required in 1994 to admit women. The Marine says he graduated from there "before it became a girls' school."

June 27 San Diego Naval Base, California

We fly to the USS Carl Vinson, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that cost about $3.9 billion to build. Earlier in the trip, fellow JCOCer Patsy Hilliard, mayor of East Point, Georgia, told me she had just fought for a $58 million budget that included a tax hike to rebuild the city's electric and water systems.

We arrive on the Carl Vinson in "carrier onboard delivery" planes, which are "trapped" by the landing wire as they hit the flight deck. We go from approximately 140 to zero mph in just under two seconds, the most profound stop I've ever felt. For one of those seconds, at least, the world seemed completely frozen in place -- I had time to wonder if things would ever move again.

Aftermath Home

JCOC felt like a trip to another country. I came away thinking that the natives were mostly friendly but still somewhat alien. And it would take much more than an eight-day crash course for 59 handpicked civilians to close the culture gap.

For while the service members impressed me with their earnestness and obvious dedication, the U.S. armed forces still seem radically detached from the rest of us. Military men sport buzz cuts without irony. Odd bits of sexism creep in and pop up. And some service members cannot appreciate why many civilians do not feel sympathetic to their boredom with peace.