FIRST PERSON : Bunking Down and Fitting In on the Slow Train to Bosnia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I opened my first Army-issue MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) aboard a train with troops headed to Bosnia. Hoping to fit right in, I didn't confess that I was clueless. But I think everyone knew once I opened the cracker packet, spraying the contents over the soldiers in my vicinity.

While the guys wolfed down envelopes of dehydrated spaghetti, pork chow mein and Vienna sausages, I struggled to swallow the pasty chicken and rice. (Ever eaten glue?) The soldiers say that Meals Ready to Eat are three lies in one name.

I'm accompanying combat engineers from the 16th Engineer Battalion into Bosnia-Herzegovina on a train from Germany that stops for hours at a stretch, at times without heat and lights. The journey, dubbed the trip from hell, has taken six days on a zigzagging, 600-mile route that would take one long day by bus.

Perhaps the worst thing about the ride has been shuttling across Hungary and Croatia like human cattle, never knowing exactly where we are going or how long we are stopping. For all of us, there's a sense of having lost control. We are not allowed off the train. We go where it takes us.

In the jargon of the Army, I'm "embedded" with the troops: I go where they go, share their quarters, eat their meals. The first time a soldier used that phrase to describe my stint, my eyebrows arched involuntarily.

Before the trip, Army officials said only a small number of reporters were being allowed to "embed": "There won't be any puffballs." Those like me were to be the only civilians in a group of soldiers.

I was outfitted like a soldier. At an Army post in Germany, I was issued a camouflage Gore-Tex jacket, a flak vest, pants and black combat boots. I swim in the jacket, and the boots extend several inches beyond my toes. Women's sizes? None available. I was to be the only woman on the train.

I drove to the headquarters of the 1st Armored Division in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, to get my unit assignment. After logistic arrangements were settled, there was one more detail--rank. I drew a blank.

"You've been accorded the rank of major," I was told.

Maj. Zamichow. It had a nice ring.

I immediately set about learning a new vocabulary. ROE are not fish eggs, they're Rules Of Engagement. UXO? Unexploded Ordnance. Like it could be anything else? MSR? Main Supply Route. Obviously.

And there was other stuff to learn that was not in any handbook. Driving an armored vehicle? Remember to crack the hatch when possible.

"I'd rather be blown out the hatch than through the hatch," Staff Sgt. Ronald Polk told me before I left Germany.

When I first met the combat engineers to whom I'd been assigned, the soldiers were surprised, if not mortified, to have a woman along. But trouncing Capt. Carlos Perez, company commander, at a card game of spades the first evening broke the ice. I lost some ground, however, when I told 1st Sgt. Carl Curtice to "mix the cards." At that point, the former drill sergeant looked at me and said dryly, "I supposed you mean shuffle?"

Perez and Curtice operate as a good cop/bad cop team. Curtice, a San Bernardino native, teasingly calls himself "Satan."

Though the combat engineers had been told they would have a sleeper car, it was a regular passenger car that showed up. I have been sharing my sleeping compartment with Sgt. Dan "Mac" McClure, a native of Sandusky, Ohio. He has taken one bench of seats and I the other. We've been lucky. Some soldiers have been crammed three to a compartment--an uncomfortable fit for anyone over 5 feet 8 inches.

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Our first night, I opened the window over my berth after McClure gamely said he liked the bracing evening air. Midway through the night, as the temperature plummeted to well below freezing, McClure woke me up and asked me to shut the window. An hour later, I woke him and asked him to stop snoring.

In addition to spades, I've learned to play dominoes and gin rummy. I, in turn, have taught the combat engineers how to play "spit." OK, it's a juvenile card game, but it's the only one I knew besides "war."

We've shared Gummy Bear candies and German chocolates, exchanged tales about colleagues and family members. Late at night, with a flashlight dangling from a cord tied to the ceiling, Perez, McClure, Curtice and I played cards as Curtice, with Robin Williams-like delivery, unleashed a series of jokes about West Virginians or dumb blonds (I'm brunet). Too embarrassed to tell a truly racy joke in mixed company, Curtice wrote it down, handing the paper to me.

Despite his initial gruffness, since the first day Curtice has made sure to select what he considers the better MREs for me (spaghetti and the ham omelet). Rather than warm the MREs in the customary hydrogen heaters, which emit strong fumes, he leaves the packets on the heater in the rail compartment. When we have heat, it warms the food within 15 minutes.

Asked about the Bert and Ernie Band-Aid on his finger, Curtice melted into a proud father. The Band-Aid, which he clearly treasures, was placed on his cut finger by his toddler, who announced: "Daddy has an owee."

The days have become consumed with what would ordinarily be the small details of living. Sleep. Games. Food. Everyone shares recipes on how to improve the MREs. If, for instance, you crumble the crackers into the beef stew and douse the mixture with Tabasco sauce, it's a tad more palatable. Or if you combine the dried fruit packet with water and cocoa, you create a pudding-like concoction. Or if you empty the cheese tube into the spaghetti, it makes an almost tasty pasta mush.

In this fishbowl-like world of the train, my gear has been a source of amusement. When I recently pulled out my Swiss army knife, Spc. Charles Davis of San Antonio rolled his eyes.

"Is that all you got?" he asked. He pulled out his bayonet and said, "Didn't you get one of these?"

After I pointed out that my parka, despite my recent promotion, was bereft of any insignia, Curtice gave me a green combat leadership tab.

I'm in the Army now.

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