From the Soldier side: When I was a very young Private in the US Army, many,many years ago, I learned how to count backwards. Yeah, I know most people can do this, but we had a good reason that many civilians may not understand.
When I graduated from the US Army Infantry School at Fort Polk, Louisiana in 1975, I was sent to Frankfurt, West Germany. We were actually put in an old German prison. It was dark, cold and strange. After sitting around for a day being told all kinds of stuff in briefings that I can’t recall a word of, we were told to go sit in a room and wait for our names to be called.
Since I always obeyed orders, I waited in the room and waited, and waited, and waited. Some of the other soldiers wondered off in search of bier. I did what I was told and waited, and waited, and waited. We did a lot of waiting in those days. When my name was called, I reported to the Army Clerk and gave him my ID card. He looked at me, my ID and orders and said: “so you’re a grunt and you have no assignment yet. Do you know where you’d like to be stationed?”
I looked at him in total disbelief and said: “you mean I have some kind of choice?”
The clerk told me to go look at the big map an on the wall. Wherever I saw an Army post with BLUE pins, that was where they needed grunts. I walked over and looked at the map. There were a lot of blue pins all over the place. I could have thrown a dart with my eyes closed and hit a camp that needed grunts. Then I looked way over to the east side and saw “BERLIN” with a blue pin.
I went back and told the clerk I wanted to be sent to Berlin. He set it up and I was on the train that night. Now, keep in mind, at this point of my life I was a Private E-2. That meant I had one stripe, but didn’t know nothin’.
When I got to Berlin, the Company Clerk for C-2-6 was at the train station. He asked if I was the new private, and I stood at parade rest and responded with “Yes Specialist.” He told me to relax. When I asked a few questions, he just looked at me and said: “40 days and a wake up.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. When I got to my barracks, I was greeted by some pretty scruffy looking soldiers…their hair was a little too long, the mustaches were a little too bushy, and they looked more like short haired hippies. When I asked one of them where my room was, he pointed then said: “15 days and a wake up.”
I was too confused to ask what the heck he was talking about. I slept for about 1 day, and was woken up the next day by another Specialist four who told me: “get your ass up and get your PT uniform on.” He was my new squad leader.
I was confused, I didn’t know we’d do PT every day for the rest of our lives. As I got into the platoon formation, I was not greeted with what would be normal conversation, but soldiers said things like: “I’m Joe, 76 days and a wake up.”
What I found out later that day is they were telling me how many days they had left in the US Army. You see it didn’t matter how long you had been in, but how much time you had left…kind of like getting out of prison.
When a soldier got down to 90 days of less, they were called a “Short Timer” and pretty much left alone. They would show up for formations and stuff, but they usually were not given any jobs to do unless they wanted to do them.
Fast forward to 2004, Baghdad, Iraq. The day we got to Iraq, I had made a backwards calendar. At first most of the regular Army and National Guard troops I was with didn’t understand it. But it was a way of helping the time go by. It started with 364 days…and counted backwards. When we all were down to 90 days, I announced in company formation that we were all Short Timers.