Don Dahler
Author, Journalist
Airborne For Life

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March 26, 2003 

His cot is across the tent from mine.

As I look at it now, every camouflage green bag containing Army-issue clothes and Army-issue ammunition and Army-issue gadgets is neatly zipped, strapped and stacked. His towel hangs perfectly straight from a cord stretched overhead. His sleeping bag is rolled up to keep the scorpions out.

Sgt. Maj. Jim Clinton's billet is, as he would say, squared away.

Roger that.

His life has been the Army. Ask to see a picture of his wife and he pulls out a frayed photograph from when he made First Sergeant. He's in dress blues, at attention, arm and chest a crayon-box of colored ribbons and stripes. The pretty woman next to him smiles shyly in contrast to his stern, slightly uncomfortable frown, as if sergeants aren't allowed to smile in public.

The face in the picture is a little less crinkly than the one I see now. The scalp a little more covered. His face reminds me of the WWII cartoons by Bill Mauldin, the ones about the two GIs. Tough, haggard, all ears and jaw and stubble.

Letters From Home

They got married the day before he joined up. Twenty-five years ago. He still shouts with joy when he gets a letter from her, like yesterday. He leaned over and waved it in my face playfully.

"She wants my body," he growls in a voice made sandpaper rough from decades of Marlboros and shouting at grunts. He points to the printed address label. "Made up a hundred of these before I left. Put a hundred stamps on 'em. Now all she has to do is jot down 'I love you' on a piece of paper, stick it in the mail, and she's made my day."

The fact that he was busy reading that letter for 20 minutes makes me think she wrote a little more than that.

The Stuff of Sergeants

Sgt. Clinton will take the time to patiently describe in detail to a novice how to field-strip an M-4 rifle. He will tell big, long, circuitous war stories that don't always end up where they started off for. He will make sure you're drinking enough water and brushing your teeth, because after a few dozen years of not being so diligent himself, the Army had to fit him with quite a few new ones.

And with a frightful blast of spittle and roar he will pin back the ears of any enlisted man who doesn't jump to his "gentle" suggestions.

In the morning he moves like his joints are put on backwards. A life of sleeping on the ground and jumping over things and diving under things and hauling twice your body weight over distant miles will do that to you. He unfolds slowly, like an origami figure coming apart.

For Mom and Freedom

His mother was a Czechoslovakian who came to America with no money and no contacts after her father had been forcibly conscripted into the German Army during WWII and sent to the Russian front. He didn't survive long. Somehow, she made it out of Europe. Somehow, she learned English on her own and learned a skill and built a family.

The sergeant-major says he thinks of her often, especially now, out here, because she's one of the reasons he joined the Army. One of the reasons he loves the Army.

"I guess because of what she went through," he says, struggling for words. "What America meant to her, and what we are here to protect. Freedom."

Clinton has a weakness for Pringles. He washes his clothes in a garbage bag rather than wait for the four-day camp laundry service. The Bowie-knife angles of his craggy face are dulled a bit by the bifocals he's now forced to wear.

And inside his Army-issue flak jacket, wrapped around the ceramic plate that protects his heart, is a full-sized American flag.

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