Thursday, April 28, 2011

Soldier of the Month

Actually, I was Soldier of the Month twice. What is Soldier of the Month? Well, in Army units (at least when I was in), they used to have these supposed morale-raising bogus contests to see who was the sharpest soldier in the unit. In my unit at Fort Leonard Wood, it wasn't a contest. A candidate for SOM was drafted. I was permanent party in a training unit, and only perm. party were "eligible" for this "honor." No trainees were permitted to "compete." The SOM deal was kind of a pet project of the Sergeants Major, and therefore of the First Sergeants of the companies. Most of the permanent party cadre were jaded Vietnam veterans who had utterly no interest in such things, and probably would have told the first sergeant to stuff SOM.

In my unit at Fort Leonard Wood, when I arrived I was "fresh meat." My fatigues were stiff with starch, I still played the discipline game, and as company clerk, that meant at least I could read. My first sergeant saw in me a possibility for being his pet Soldier of the Month.

I should say, in his words, "Sojer o' da Munt." My first sergeant was Elijah Ralls. He was an older black soldier, and since he was born in 1927, he must have joined the Army as a young fellow around the end of WW2. Back in the Vietnam war era, E-8's weren't required to be all that educated, and First Sergeant Ralls wasn't. He never could get my name right, and referred to me as "Swatley." What he lacked in education, he made up for in common sense, experience, and discipline. He wasn't without humor, as sometimes I would glance up from my desk and see that he was slying laughing at someone or something. He was a very tall, erect soldier. While in Germany, he had met and married a German woman. I must say, she was without doubt one of the homeliest women I have ever seen; tall, with a long neck like a goose that placed her head somewhat forward. She was polite in the extreme; on those rare occasions when she came around the company area, she would knock on the door of the orderly room, ask for Sergeant Ralls, and speak to him outside without ever coming in. Maybe that's how they used to do it at German Army orderly rooms, for all I know. First Sergeant Ralls was retirement eligible, and I once overheard another cadre member ask him what he was considering after retirement. He answered, "Oh, Ah speck Ah'll get a job wuckin f' da pote office." I don't know if he ever did; he died in 1997.

At Fort Leonard Wood, my company had the appearance of being an exclusive destination for black cadre members in my battalion. The battalion personnel sergeant was apparently practicing defacto segregation; remember, this was only five years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, so some of those things died slowly. First Sergeant Ralls was probably used to being crapped on, so he may have felt he could make the company sparkle a little bit if he could come up with a good prospective Soldier of the Month.

I hadn't been in the company long when 1SG Ralls came over to me and told me I was going to be his Sojer o' da Munt. He outlined the program to me, and gave me some tips on doing well. Soldiers of the Month went before boards of First Sergeants and Sergeants Major, competing first at battalion level, next at brigade level, then finally at post level. These boards would look the soldier over to see how well he was turned out as to uniform and personal appearance, and then grill him with questions about military knowledge. Since these men were mostly engineer soldiers, their questions were centered on that specialty. I didn't know squat about engineering; I was a clerk. It didn't matter; 1SG Ralls gave me a copy of FM 5-34, the Engineer Soldier's Field Data handbook. He told me to read it and gave me some tips about what kinds of questions that I would almost certainly be asked. No, they weren't going to ask me questions about the Morning Report or the Army Functional Files System, things I knew about. They were going to ask me questions like, "What is the burning rate of det cord?" (Answer: 20,000 to 24,000 feet per second), or, "What kind of knot is used to secure separate lengths of det cord?" (Answer: girth hitch).

So, I went up two times as SOM, and was crowned 3rd Battalion, 4th Brigade Soldier of the Month both times. When I went on to the Brigade SOM competition, I won that once and went on to Post SOM competition where I lost. Never mind, I made First Sergeant Ralls very happy with my limited accomplishments. For once, B Company had a feather in its hat. My efforts earned me several three day passes which at the time were well received. I also was given a little wood and brass plaque by the battalion sergeant major, SGM Gonzales. I still have the silly little thing; after I was made battalion SOM the first time, I sent the trinkent home with some other things. When I did the same thing months later, SGM Gonzales came around to congratulate me, then asked where my plaque was. I told him I had sent it home, and he told me to get it back so they could engrave the data for the second event on the original plaque. I guess he wanted to economize on plaques.

I'd completely forgotten about this thing. It spent over 30 years in my mother's attic with some other stuff from that time. A number years ago when I was visiting, my mother asked me clean out her attic and I found it there.

These many years later, I wish I'd gotten to know 1SG Ralls better on a personal level. At the time, I was only 19 years old and you know how it is at that age. I was living in my own little world, and wasn't paying much attention to the older people around me whom I was working with. I was focused on my own amusements in my rare time off when I could have been getting to know this interesting soldier better.