Tag Archives: Tango

A Day in the Life: Surveyors at BIAP

Me at Breaktime

On a survey mission, 2003.

” A 51 Tango is a hell of a soldier…!” was part of a cadence we sang at survey school in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  And it’s true.  51 Tangos are a unique breed of perceptive, eccentric, innovative soldiers who must be kept busy or else we will mastermind elaborate pranks to terrorize each other.  Luckily we were busy with many survey projects during OIF 1!  Sadly, I do not have detailed notes about the projects from my deployment, but I remember enough to piece together the image of a typical day for a surveyor at BIAP.  When my company arrived in the summer of 2003, my survey team of 3 was absorbed by the Battalion’s much larger team, and we became part of a great adventure.

The Battalion surveyors were not the only Tangos we encountered; there were also surveyors at the Brigade and Group level (the corresponding levels of hierarchy for Army units).  More surveyors lived across the road in neighboring engineer battalions, so the potential for collaboration on engineering projects was tremendous.  We were only limited by the hours of the day, our own energy levels, and the parameters given by our OICs (Officers in Charge).  We were very lucky because the OICs had clear foresight of missions that needed to be accomplished and they trusted us to do our jobs without micromanaging us.  To that end, we were free to roam around BIAP unsupervised and explore areas in which most other soldiers had never set foot.

My beautiful picture

A surveyor on top of rubble in a bombed palace.

A typical day for a 51T would start after breakfast with a pow-wow in the Battalion survey office.  We would receive our mission for the day or simply plan to continue a mission that had not yet been completed.  After packing up necessary equipment and MREs (because we would likely be out all day) and checking the vehicle for operational readiness, it was time to load up and leave camp.  The early days of deployment included many topographic surveys and blueprint development for new camps, roads and such.  Surveying is tedious work under often strenuous environmental conditions, so we welcomed distractions such as fields full of unexploded ordinance or bombed out palaces that demanded further exploration.  We took every opportunity to walk through the abandoned palaces, assessing the damage and puzzling over the immense luxury of the interiors and the bizarre murals painted on the walls.  Saddam with a mermaid?  Okay.

Lunch

Surveyors had the best view at lunch time: high up on a palace ledge!

Lunch breaks were an opportunity for adventure too.  At one remote camp we took a cool dip in a broken water bladder, which could no longer store water, but was a perfect mini swimming pool!  We packed our PT uniforms at the direction of our NCOIC and when lunch time came around we hopped into the “pool” to cool down and wash the day’s worth of grime off our arms and faces.  After we dried off it was back to work.

We also “crossed the wire” on occasion, or left the secure area of BIAP, and ventured out into what was sometimes referred to as the Wild West, to buy things other Tangos (who weren’t on the mission that day) had requested: cigarettes, soda, ice, even Black Market items.  This errand was usually run at the end of the survey mission, especially if we needed ice.  The kibosh was put on our errand running a few weeks into the deployment when it was deemed far too dangerous for soldiers to be crossing the wire and buying items from the roadside stands.  Before that happened, we could get funny cigarettes and even smoke apple flavored tobacco from hookahs with the Iraqi market people before heading back to camp!

Roadside stands selling all kinds of items outside the wire.

Roadside stands selling all kinds of items outside the wire.

KozakWe spent as much time as possible exploring, and we could brag that we stepped into palaces and abandoned buildings that most soldiers never set foot in.  We climbed over rubble heaps and perched on majestic window ledges to get the best views.  But survey missions weren’t all fun and games.  We worked very hard, standing in the unforgiving sun, sweat dripping into our underwear, shooting points and pounding stakes as fast as we could to prepare sites for the earth movers.  It wasn’t funny when the tripod refused to level and it was 120 degrees in the shade; then by the time we did get it leveled the Geodimeter experienced a malfunction wouldn’t work for the rest of the day.  Or there were days when we would go out to a site where we had smashed fingers pounding in a half mile of stakes for a new road only to discover that an equipment operator had run them all over because he thought that the stakes indicated, “that was where I was supposed to drive”.

Kracker in Hole2

Although we did have a few run-ins with equipment operators who did not understand our use of stakes, a few patient explanations (and a few screaming fits) set things straight and our rapport with the earth movers was quite copasetic.  Aside from traditional survey, we also squeezed in quality control of concrete at the BIAP airport on occasion.  This meant a rare treat: a visit to the gorgeous airport and a chance to work with Iraqi civilian engineers, both a challenge and a learning opportunity.  On top of all this we had the soils lab for our geotechnical team.  Surveyors who exhibited a particular interest in working with soils were given the opportunity to spend time in the lab testing soil characteristics, sometimes late into the night depending on the nature of the tests.  We collected a wide variety of soil from BIAP sample zones and ran as many different tests as we could in the lab to make determinations about the cantankerous soil underfoot.  Working in the soils lab gave us the chance to get dirtier than we had ever anticipated, and there were many spontaneous mud fights when nerves got a little frayed…

Me and 'Kraker Jack' trying to kill each other with mud.

Me and ‘Kraker Jack’ trying to kill each other with mud.

As the typical survey day drew to an end we would return to the office and drop off equipment, recharge batteries, do PMCS on the vehicle, and sit around to BS before dinner chow.  Conversation would take the same turns.  What did we miss about home?  Who were our significant others back home and what did we miss most about them?  What kind of food were we craving?  Who deserved the latest prank and what kind of prank should it be?  Did we have time to do a prank before dinner?  We passed around a cigarette or a bottle of soda before chow time, talked a little about nothing, and tried not to think about the fact that we were all just a bunch of scared kids in the desert.  Just a typical day for a team of surveyors, some 51 Tangos.  A 51 Tango is a hell of a solider…

Napping

It was a good day of surveying…

Copyright 2014.  All photographs are the property of Georgeann Van Delist and http://www.bloggingpioneer.com.  Use and/or duplication of any material from this site is strictly prohibited without express permission from the site owner and author.

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To The One, Who Waited For Me

This story is dedicated to The One.

Me up Close

When I signed up for the National Guard, my recruiter showed me a list of occupations and told me to choose one.  The MOS, or Military Occupational Specialty, is the job a soldier performs during time of service.  As I scanned the list, the title 51T, or 51 Tango, was described as something like ‘technical engineer specialist, surveyor’.  I knew absolutely nothing about surveying, but something drew me to the words on that paper.  Although they were as ordinary in appearance as all the other words on the list, it was as though they had been highlighted by some benevolent force.  It would be this MOS and none other for me.  My recruiter advised me that to become a 51T was not easy; I would have to score quite well on my ASVAB, or Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a multiple choice test measuring a candidate’s potential to succeed in various military jobs.  Not only did I score high enough to perform many occupations in the Army, I scored high enough to become a surveyor, and so I was on my way!  Advanced Individual Training, known as AIT, where I attended survey school, was located at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  I spent five months there learning the exhaustive methodology behind 51T work ethic.  But that is not what this story is about.  It was at AIT where I met a boy.  He was a boy who became the one I wished for, and the one who waited for me, and well…I don’t want to end the story at the beginning, now do I?

I noticed this boy one day during break time at Brown Hall, our big school for engineers at For Leonard Wood.  When classes let out for short breaks, Tangos would clamor into the Break Room and noisily let off as much steam as possible before the next round of classes were to begin.  We had access to soda and candy machines as well as a traveling concessions cart affectionately coined the Gut Truck, and we were unsupervised during this time, so just about anything could happen.  So on this day, as I was listening to two Marines argue about the theory of relativity (Marines are highly intelligent), I looked over at a table and noticed a boy sitting there quietly reading a newspaper and drinking coffee.  He was wearing glasses and intently scanning the paper, occasionally taking a sip of the coffee, and nothing going on around him invited distraction.  He stood out from everyone else, just like the words 51T, technical engineer specialist, surveyor on my MOS roster.  I thought to myself as I watched him, that looks like the kind of person I would like get to know. 

I did get to know the boy soon after first noticing him, on a weekend break from training.  Male and female trainees were forbidden from fraternizing off post, but it was too difficult to resist.  We were all hardwired to interact and inevitably I found myself in a conversation with this boy about where we were from and where we were going after AIT.  This conversation led to many more: what kind of wild game hunts we had been on, what kind of foods we liked to eat, and what kind of books we liked to read.  We discovered we both had similar tastes in musicians (Led Zeppelin) and authors (Ken Kesey) and the more time we spent together, the more attached we became.  He was in the class ahead of me, which meant he would graduate and leave two weeks before I would.  I dreaded the day.  When it came, I handed him a card with a message inside predicting that we would meet again.  Neither of us knew exactly when or if this would happen, but I never stopped wishing for a miracle.

Over the next three years we cultivated a close long distance friendship.  We chatted on instant message and over the phone.  We called each other after bad dates to make fun of the people we had just gone out with and describe the hilarious debacles.  We discovered that we both hated the smell of vanilla, the taste of water chestnuts, and the sound of Van Halen.  The more I talked to him the more I wished for a miracle.  Then my unit was activated and I broke the news to him.  He told me he would come visit me at Fort Carson.  My heart stopped.  I had just given up on him and had resigned myself to being his friend and secretly pining after him for the rest of my life.  Would it be too much to start hoping again?

My beautiful picture

He visited on a long weekend.  It was just like we had never been separated by distance and time; we picked up right where we had left off.  We squeezed every bit of fun out of every second of that weekend, and we did everything we could possibly think of.  When the time came to say goodbye it was so fitting that rain was pouring down because we were both sad.  He dropped me off in front of my barracks, and I ran through the downpour, grateful for the camouflage to hide the tears running down my cheeks.  I wondered if there were tears running down his cheeks as he drove away.  There were still a couple of weeks of training left before deploying from Fort Carson, and I still had my cell phone, so we called each other constantly when I had free time.  We talked as much as possible, about the San Antonio Spurs’ amazing season, going to Mexico together when I came home, and how much fun we’d had in Colorado Springs.  Then, much too quickly the day arrived when I had to put my phone in a box to send to my folks so they could keep it for me.  I recently found a journal entry from our last conversation before I had to put the phone in the box:

…we were both having a hard time letting go, and thinking of the right words to say to each other was impossible.  An hour later he called back.  “I hang up the phone and think of ten million things I want to say to you” he said.  “Then say it!  Spit it out! Don’t be afraid.  I won’t laugh at you.”  I said.  I already knew what he wanted to say.  “I’m being a wuss.”  was his answer.  He told me how much I mean to him, how wonderful a friend I am, and how he wants a relationship with me when I get home.  He said he had never had such good feelings about a girl before, and he can’t believe how amazing I am!  The whole time I waited for him to say the phrase that had been on his lips since we met again after all these years, and finally he said it, “I love you, girl.”  The world stopped.  Everything faded into the background.  I’d been standing in a line to draw my weapon and when he said that, all the clattering of rifles and chattering of soldiers ceased.  I melted.  “You don’t know how long I’ve waited to hear those words, ” I said breathlessly, “I love you too!”

My beautiful picture

He waited for me during the deployment.  He was patient, supportive, and kind.  I cannot claim my deployment was all beer and skittles and we had a great long distance relationship and then at the end we reunited happily.  In reality, the pressures of deployment were too overwhelming and I balked at the life that my boy back home was fabricating for us.  I didn’t think I could live up to his ideals and be the perfect Army wife he was envisioning.  With every letter that arrived from him, I felt more convinced that I would hold him back, and if he had to wait for me now, well what if he would spend his whole life waiting for me?  What if I was never going to be available because I was never going to be good enough?  So in order to spare him the embarrassment of having a sub standard partner, I gave him the cold shoulder and broke his heart.  I was such a bitch.  But I wanted to let him go so he could find someone better than me.  He deserved so much more than a train wreck who couldn’t figure out what she wanted in life.  And I think he still waited, because after I had been home for a few months he wanted me to come to Texas for a visit.  As soon as I stepped through the security gate at the airport and took one look at his handsome face and felt his arms around me, I realized what a fool I had been.

Nine years of marriage later, he is still the patient, supportive, and kind man who waits for me when I need him to slow down a little so I can figure things out for myself.  But I finally got over feeling like I was holding him back because he told me that he loves me exactly as I am, the girl from AIT, and Fort Carson, and now.  We take life a day at a time, as a team, moving together, side by side.  Maybe that is part of being in a relationship with someone you are meant to be with, someone who truly complements you and makes you feel like a whole person.  All those years ago when I first noticed him, he stood out to me because he was The One, and no matter how hard I tried to tell myself that I didn’t deserve him or couldn’t have a boy like him, he waited for me, even if he didn’t realize that it was me he was waiting for all along.  Remember the card I mentioned giving to him the day he left AIT?  As he was reading it on the bus ride home, another soldier leaned over and said “You know, you’re going to marry that girl.”  The universe has funny ways of hinting, doesn’t it? — G

My beautiful picture

Soul mates, ten years ago.