I started my military career in June of <garbled> on Sand Hill at Fort Benning. I can still tell you the unit I was in for Infantry OSUT (One Station Unit Training), and the names of my Drill Sergeants . . . this knowledge is embedded in my DNA, it's like a cheap tattoo etched inside my eyelids. I will know I'm senile when I can't pop out those details at the drop of a hat.
It was in my 13 weeks of Basic Training and Infantry AIT where I first got acquainted with the wide range of colorful people I'd encounter in the Army. In my platoon we had delinquents who could barely get moral waivers that were battle-buddied with college boys who'd lived charmed lives; we had "old men" of 30 wanting to do their patriotic duty that were battle-buddied with kids so young and green they shaved twice a week whether they needed to or not. We had Active Duty, National Guard, Reserves and even a couple of MOS reclasses.
On top of all that, we had Waters.
Private Waters was born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). His mom simply could not turn off the tap while she was pregnant with him - he carried that burden throughout his life. Folks with severe FAS have a look about them. Just as you can unfailingly recognize a person with Down Syndrome, you can look at a person with severe FAS and know it immediately.
Go ahead, take a minute to do a google image search on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome - you'll see what I mean.
♫ . . . . . the girl from Ipanema goes walking . . . . . . . ♫ . . .
Welcome back. See any features you recognize on someone you know? Explains a lot, doesn't it?
Severe FAS can result in problems with learning, memory, attention span, communication, vision, or hearing, among other things. Waters definitely had issues with the first four on that list.
Here's the thing, though: Waters wanted to be there at Infantry school. He volunteered to join the Army. He mustered enough concentration to take - and at least minimally pass - the ASVAB. I don't know what his score was, but it was enough.
Whenever someone gives me shit about soldiers being brainless, I have a canned response that's based in bitter personal experience: Yep, soldiers can be stupid, but you have to pass a test to get into the military. Any dumbass motherfucker can be a civilian.
We all knew that Waters needed some extra guardrails, and all of us in that basic training platoon stepped up to help him through. This could be a problem sometimes. For example, Private Tentpeg would walk past Waters in the morning and remind him to make his bunk before heading to formation. So Waters would start making his bunk. Then Private Snuffy would walk past, see Waters was making his bunk (and think to himself "Yay! Waters remembered to make his bunk today!") - then he'd remind Waters to square away his wall locker before heading down to formation.
Do you see where this is going?
Hearing Snuffy, Waters would go start to square away his wall locker. If you asked him in that moment if his bunk was good to go, he'd tell you it was, because he remembered that he had started to make it. He just couldn't remember if he had remembered to finish it. If he was then distracted by something else while working on his wall locker, he'd also insist that his wall locker was squared away, and for the same reason. If he looked at any of those items again, he might realize he needed to finish them, but he didn't operate well without either a really obvious visual cue or someone directing him. The latter usually produced better results.
He wasn't much better physically. To see Waters run, do pushup or situps, try jumping ja- . . . er, "side straddle hop" - or even march, tbh - the only phrase that came to mind was "like a monkey fucking a football." So. Much. Uncoordination. The final PT test almost sank his timely graduation.
In one instance, Waters came to me complaining that he was missing a button from his BDU blouse (BDU's? Fuck, I'm old). It wouldn't button up correctly, and could I give him a hand? I looked at it for a couple seconds and could see that he'd started with the wrong button in the bottom button hole. I calmly explained this to him and helped him correct his mistake. I'd learned early on it didn't do any good to get upset at Waters - he couldn't help it and yelling didn't fix the problem. He got a sheepish look on his face as I adjusted his buttons, was a little embarrassed, and said simply "I'm sorry, I get like that sometimes."
Me: I know, Waters. It's okay, we've got your back.
And that's just the thing - he knew. All his life, Waters knew he was a little short upstairs. But that didn't stop him from trying. He asked for help, he accepted the help, and he worked hard to overcome his limitations. On top of that he was a team player and he didn't shirk hard work. It was because of his attitude and commitment that the rest of us helped him along. We pushed, and pulled, and coached, and looked after him all the way through 13 weeks of Infantry training. In the end Waters met the standards - on his own and just barely - but goddamnit he graduated with the rest of us and didn't get recycled.
We weren't thinking about it at the time, just being fresh in the Army ourselves, but looking back I'm pretty sure there was a Squad Leader, a Platoon Sergeant, and a First Sergeant who were cursing us and our Drill Sergeants when Waters showed up at his first assignment. I never knew if, or how long, he lasted on active duty.
Sure, he was about as sharp as a box of doorknobs, and definitely frustrating sometimes, but he was our teammate and as long as he kept trying we weren't going to let him fail. That lesson of teamwork and cohesion stuck with me through 27 years of service, and I carry it still. I've known a lot smarter people who can't be bothered to put in half the effort that Waters did. I don't have time for them, but I will always help someone who is working hard to help themselves.