Word Count: 910
Summary: Welcome to Fort Jackson, South Carolina…
“Welcome to Fort Jackson, South Carolina,” the Drill Sergeant boomed. “I am your Drill Sergeant for the entire duration of your Basic Training! For the next eight weeks, I will be your Mommy and Daddy, and this will be your new home!”
Week One was a blur of initiation into the military way of life. Weeks Two through Five were lost in a haze of soggy heat and torrential rain, compounded by total sleep deprivation. Weeks Six and Seven were an endless round of weapons qualifications, combat skills testing and parade reviews. A lot of marching was involved.
Week Eight, however, seemed to bring time to a slow crawl. During Week Eight, we turned in our weapons (which by this point seemed more an extension of our arms than the foreign piece of metal we’d been given back in Week Two) and prepared the barracks for a new set of trainees. Since we were no longer marching to the firing range at three a.m., some of the shadows had disappeared from beneath our eyes. In Week Eight, we counted down the days until we could shake the sandy dirt of Fort Jackson from our boots and get the hell out. We just wanted to go home.
The Drill Sergeant said Fort Jackson would be our new home, but he lied. We forgave him, because that lie didn’t begin to compare to the ones our recruiters had told to us. Besides, the man probably thought he was telling the truth. Fort Jackson was his home, so why wouldn’t it be ours?
But home was more than a place to sleep, more than a sagging bunk in the middle of an open bay shared by 48 women. Home was more than a wall locker crammed full of combat gear, sweat-stained brown t-shirts and uniforms that would be washed just as soon as you had time, which would probably be next year. Home was more than eight open showers, which you shared without thinking because you didn’t care who saw you naked when you had five minutes to get clean before lights out. And home was certainly more than a chow hall packed with barking Drill Sergeants and three hundred troops, all of whom needed to be fed quickly and moved out in order to complete their training.
Home was different things to different beings. To Private Amanda Mandy, home was a one-bedroom apartment in Jacksonville that she shared with her infant daughter and the aging mother who had given her such an odd name. To Private Teresa Buford, home was an upper middle-class neighborhood in Orange County, where her friends called her ‘Boo’ and her father was the only African-American lawyer she knew. To Private Melissa Sanford, home was a mansion in Georgia, where a maid took care of the laundry and made the bed.
I wasn’t sure where home was, because I’d left it. Two days before graduating from high school at the age of seventeen, I’d signed a lease to an apartment and moved out of my parent’s house in Idaho. I’d given up the apartment when I went to Army Basic Training, so I really didn’t have a place to go.
By all rights, I should have been able to return to my parent’s house, the house built by my great-grandfather in a tiny farming community in Idaho. I’d left on friendly terms, and my parents wouldn’t hesitate to welcome me back. But the pink bricks and huge front porch no longer appealed to me, nor did my father’s rose bushes flowering out front. The steep driveway didn’t lead to my home; instead it had become a memory of spending a bitterly-cold New Year’s Day busting ice from its surface with a pick-axe so the cars could climb up it. The raspberry patch in the back garden wasn’t mine, it was a memory of hot summer days spent caning the overgrowth and popping the sweet, ripened berries into my mouth as I worked. The drafty room where I had slept as a teenager, waking up to frost on the inside of the windows, wasn’t mine anymore, either. It belonged to my younger sister, claimed by her before I had finished moving into my apartment.
Ever since the day I moved out, I had become a guest in my parent’s home. That house would never be home for me again, for it represented my childhood, a part of me that I had left behind forever. Like my pioneer ancestors who had crossed the plains and forced the cold mountain desert to blossom, I was fiercely independent. I would make my own home.
As the bus pulled away from the terminal, I didn’t even bother to look out the window. There was nothing for me to miss about that place. I still didn’t know where home was; I just knew it sure as hell wasn’t in the steaming pits of Fort Jackson. But I was young then, barely eighteen years old, and I didn’t know then what I know now: home is never a place.
More than somewhere to hang a tacky poster or kick off your shoes, home is a feeling inside of you, a knowledge that you’re somewhere where you can be comfortable wearing your own skin. Some people never reach that place, and remain forever homeless because of it. Others, like myself, wander for years in search of it, only to discover it was there all along.