At various times during my military career, I’ve been in one training or another where we had either a staff ride or a museum visit, or just the opportunity as an individual to explore local military history on our own. There’s something that resonates when you walk through the same halls and fields that those who wore the uniform before you walked. Or when you take a look at the old kit and see echoes of your modern gear. When you read of stories of training, hardships, and bureaucracy and know that the soldiers who came before you would probably laugh to hear of some of the same issues that still exist … although they would probably also be astonished to hear of some of the changes that have occurred.
We are currently living in a community that, while still military, has been mostly divested of its training areas and military buildings. I’m speaking of the Fort Ord Military Community, a bounded area of military housing and amenities for families of servicemembers who train and work in the military facilities in Monterey. Since I began biking and running regularly in the area, it seems that everywhere I go there is a reminder of the old saying … old soldiers don’t die, they just fade away.
As you bike along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, the path takes you past some of the old training areas, dating back to WWII. Having spent just a bit of time attending and, later, running ranges, in all types of weather and in many different places, I smiled when the bike path took me past the old Fort Ord rifle ranges. In particular, this one sign made me laugh. Soldiers recounting which was the best duty to get to find a safe place to smoke and joke out of the weather … nothing really changes.
Even if one doesn’t believe in manifestations of the supernatural, I think someone could be forgiven if they hastened their steps through this area as dusk settled around the old buildings. They may not be haunted with actual ghosts, but … was that the scuff of boots on wooden floors? Did I … catch a glimpse of a tall man in a pressed khaki uniform, disappearing around the corner of one of the buildings, now graffitied and decrepit? As you drift past the old training grounds, you can almost hear an old sergeant shouting to his troops … or maybe it’s just the wind.
There is a connection one feels to the soldiers who have worn the uniform in the past … and that connection continues. From time to time, I wonder what it will be like sixty, seventy years in the future. Will the buildings I used to work and train in become fodder for spraypaint and dystopia LARPers?
A few weeks ago, I stopped by the 720th MP Battalion memorial at Fort Hood. There was a good deal of construction going on, and even though I’d spent three years working in that small battalion footprint, at first I drove right by it. I’ve had this same experience when returning to military posts–sometimes just enough has changed that everything is different. What will it be like someday when every record of my service is buried in some old building somewhere, when the experience of deploying to Iraq is something that you have to learn from a book, that your grandparents might have told you about once or twice before you were old enough to care? Will there be new uniforms? New wars? New MRE flavors? Probably.
For me, I’ll keep visiting these areas. You never know who will be reaching out to you from the ghosts of the past.