“Vulnerability was not an option, but a requirement.”
CHAPTER 3 – ANCHORS “AWAY”
It was “decon chamber” day, in boot camp. If there was a chemical attack on a ship, this is the decontamination training we would need to go through to know how to respond. The chamber itself was basically a steel closet. Once the doors close, we’d be drenched with very cold sea/ocean water to decontaminate and chemical/biological agents. Being the divisions Master at Arms had it’s perks and disadvantages. I was usually the first recruit to go through training evolutions before the rest of my shipmates. Although I enjoyed being in a leadership position, the element of mystery and what I would be the first to experience, could be scary.
The bootcamp RDC (Recruit Division Commander – drill sergeant), Petty Officer McGuinnes, calls me to the front of the line and says, “Babirad, you’re up first. Sound off your name, rank, and rate (job) when the water hits you”. Okay, that’s easy, I thought. That is, until freezing cold water shocks your body! With a quivering voice: “Fireeemmaaannn Baaab-eerr-add, one three zerooooo…” Oh my goodness that water was so painfully cold. Before I could finish stating my social security number, my brain had an idea. I thought, I’m going to sing. Yep, I’m going to sing. Loudly and boldly I begin… “It’s rainin’ men… Hallelujah, it’s rainin’ men…” The RDC and my fellow recruits couldn’t help but laugh, and neither could I. All military training is serious business, but the military is also full of human beings with personality and emotion. It’s important to keeps ALL aspects of a person, healthy. (Yes, I’m totally justifying actin’ a fool during training.) The ice cold water had finally commenced but the teeth chattering didn’t. I was freezing and had to stay and wait for the rest of my shipmates to go through the decon chamber before I could use a towel or run off to get changed. Every shipmate was also instructed to sing a song after sounding off their rank, rate and social security number. It eased the nerves and provided a fun (yet safe and controlled) learning environment. My favorite.
Boot camp was incredible. If I could selectively go through a few weeks of boot camp each year, I’d sign up without hesitation. The intake process, after arriving to Naval Station Great Lakes, was not so enjoyable. I could write an entire book just on the first seventy-two hours. It was intense. Between sacrificing any and all of my personal items, to drug-test peeing in a room full of toilets with no stalls. From uniform sizing and physical training gear to our first experience showering with 20-30 strangers at once. Vulnerability was not an option, but a requirement. Learning how to fold and stow away our clothes to forty-five degree angle bed making and boot shining, to learning and memorizing rank recognition, marching, cadence, formations, and commands. The first week was challenging but also, so awesome.
Each division was made up of male and female ship mates and a few of us were given leadership roles within the division. Initially, I was tasked as the LPO – Laundry Petty Officer. Go me! I was responsible for washing my divisions (females) clothes in their ditty bags every evening. I absolutely hated that job. It’s not like I could put in a request for a different position. You did what you were told. The RDC’s noticed that our higher ranking MA (Master at Arms) wasn’t able to fulfill the responsibilities due to health concerns that eventually removed her from the military. I was called into the RDC’s office and was promoted to Master at Arms. Keeping quiet and washing stinky clothes, without complaining, had paid off. Being the second highest ranking individual (female) in my division was honor that came with great responsibility. I had to keep my shipmates in order, or else I would pay for not only my own mistakes but theirs as well. I was even tasked with designing our divisions flag, that I was able to keep, but gave to a girl who had to leave the NAVY due to medical reasons. She needed the encouragement more than I needed the flag. Division 194, 2005.
I haven’t mentioned much about my medical struggles to you, yet. Hindsight, I recognize how Myasthenia Gravis had affected me back in boot camp. I struggled with running the mile and a half. (I was a triathlete all through high school and college so struggling with anything athletic related, was difficult for me.) In the middle of the training day, I also needed naps. Now, the NAVY does not allow naps. We did, however, receive eight hours of sleep each night. It was required, believe it or not. But, I was able to sneak away once in a while and would take a twenty-minute nap in the bathroom (the head), on the shower bench. My shipmates never turned me in. I never got caught. Someone from my division would go to the bathroom to wake me up if I was gone for more than twenty minutes. Without a nap, I truly struggled. The mile and a half almost knocked me out of the recruiting process, also. I could do all the push up’s and sit ups in the world but any long distance running, was so difficult for me. I almost didn’t qualify for the military because of it. I would visit the recruiting office regularly, where the recruiters would train me and push me to completing the mile and a half. Thankfully, because I was going in a tad bit older, I was given an extra few minutes to complete the mile and a half. Without the “handicap”, I can’t say I would have ever made it to boot camp.
There were times when my shipmates would struggle emotionally. Boot camp is not for the weary or faint of heart. When I enlisted, I was approaching my mid twenties. The majority of enlisting recruits were fresh out of high school. I had already lived more life and brought experiences and lessons with me. I was able to identify those who needed a bit more TLC than others and I would do anything I could, to encourage and bring them cheer. The compartment we stayed in was a giant room of strategically placed bunk beds. I would stand at one end of the compartment, and running as fast as I could, I’d slide like a seal across the floor as far as I could. It brought laughter, which brought me joy. I would sneak out of bed at night and visit my shipmates bedside, to check in on them, to offer encouraging words (and sometimes, gentle correction). I knew where the RDC’s kept contraband chocolate and candies in one of the lockers. I’d sneak in the office to grab the key, open the locker, and “borrow” candy. I’d break off pieces of chocolate and hand them to any shipmate who desperately needed a “pick-me-up”. Not one recruit ever snitched on me. Petty Officer Martinez kept strawberry candies in his desk drawer. I’d sneak a few and would hand them out to shipmates who were stellar that day, too. Could I have gotten into trouble? Absolutely. But, I never did.
The rule about mail and family/friends sending snacks was that there had to be enough for the entire division. I contacted my parents and asked them to send hundreds of fortune cookies. They did. It was time for mail call. PO Martinez yelled “Babirad”. “Moving Petty Officer!” This is what we had to respond with, loudly, when called on by any RDC. Not only did we sound off “Moving Petty Officer” but your walk needed to be brisk. PO Martinez handed me the box and commented about needing to confiscate it had the contents not included enough for everyone. I just smiled. I opened the box, counted the fortune cookies and said “well, look at that. There’s enough for the entire compartment AND for the RDC’s”. I swear, it killed the RDC to allow to distribution of those cookies but hey, I followed the rules! There were a lot of satisfied shipmates that day.
Of all the training I went through, firefighting and the gas chamber were my favorite. The gas chamber was obnoxious and frightening but absolutely necessary to experience. Between boot camp and A-school, I went through the gas chamber three times. Each time got a little easier and the nerves calmer. The first experience was terrifying because I had no idea what to expect. The initial fear burned more than the skin and eyes did. In groups of thirty, we went into the gas chamber with our masks on. Two tablets were dropped on a hotplate and the room filled with CS (tear) gas. We were then told to remove the mask and sound off our rate, rank and social security number. We weren’t allowed to don and purge our mask until we completed that sound off. I got to the first number in my social security number, before I couldn’t speak any further. Mucus and saliva just poured out of my face like Niagara Falls. We all coughed and gagged, some even vomited. It wasn’t until my mask was back on my face and I was able to purge the gas out of the mask, that it become a bit more tolerable. Once we were outside, breathing clean/fresh air, the burning subsided. Pro tip: do NOT wipe your eyes.
The second time I experienced the gas chamber was in A-school. I thought it would be a good idea to eat an entire tuna sub BEFORE hand. Unfortunately, It did NOT stay in my stomach. It was then, that the trainer made me stay inside the chamber until it was all cleaned up. I had to clean my mess without wearing a mask, making it exceptionally difficult to even see what I was doing. The third experience, was a piece of cake. They do say it gets easier as your body tolerates the gas more and more. From my experience, the gas chamber has been the most effective mode of sinus relief.
Back in October (2019) I was asked to speak at an event called “Pink Hatters”, a dinner/celebration of Breast Cancer survivors. We also celebrated those who battled the cancer until the very end. It was my first speaking engagement since the early 2000’s. I shared a story about boot camp that is still, by far, one of my most favorite memories. One of the RDC’s told us ladies that we weren’t allowed to sneak brownies or rice crispy treats up to the barracks anymore. We did bring them up to our bunks after meals so we’d have a midnight snack. Well, I wanted to test the waters a bit. Even though we were told to NOT sneak the snacks up, I decided to anyway. I grabbed the rice crispy treat and shoved it down the front of my pants. I thought, there’s no way the RDC is going to find it. We made it back up to the compartment and within seconds we hear “GENERAL QUARTERS”. This means we stand at attention in front of our racks and wait for the next instruction. The RDC says “Ladies, when I approach you, you will do these four things; remove your ball cap, remove the canteen from the guard belt, remove the guard belt, and lift your pant legs. He wanted to search all the possible hiding places. It just so happened, the RDC saved me for last. He approaches me and says “Fireman Babirad, ball cap” – I removed the ball cap. “Canteen” – I removed the canteen. “Guard belt” – I unclipped the guard belt and let it fall to the floor. “Pant legs” – I bent over to lift the pant legs. Well, in the process of bending over, the sullofane makes this loud crunching sound as I moved my body. Needless to say, I was in the RDC’s office in push up position. He had me take a bite of the rice crispy treat every time I went “down”. If you want to burn calories while consuming your favorite dessert, I highly recommend the push-up method.
Like I said, I absolutely loved boot camp. I’d go through it again and again. Being the Master at Arms in boot camp was an honor. Being able to encourage and work alongside my shipmates, was an honor. I was considered for Honorary Sailor. It’s an award given to one recruit out of five divisions. The sailor who received it, though, was an incredible human. He was/is a submarine nuke (aka. a very smart submariner).
The final test to becoming a sailor, versus a recruit, happened during Battle Stations. Battle Stations tested every fiber of our being, it pushed us beyond what we thought our bodies and minds were ever capable of. It was a long, a very long, day – evening – night, of testing everything we had been trained in. We were challenged physically, emotionally and mentally. It is my opinion that compared to other branches of the military, the NAVY challenges you more mentally. We are on a ship, in the middle of an ocean, for six months at a time. The ball cap ceremony, once we finished battle stations was very emotional. It is when we switched our “RECRUIT” ball caps to “NAVY” ball caps; we were then actual Sailors and no longer recruits. Gosh, did we sleep good that night.
The next day, one of the RDC’s opened the floor to “last moment of truth”. I raised my hand and asked “Hey, PO Martinez, do you have anymore chocolate or strawberry candies?” The entire room busted out laughing. Martinez said, “I knew it was you, Babirad!” We all had a good laugh. He let me open up the locker that contained the box of endless chocolate and he allowed me to hand them out to us sailors.
We were able to spend time with our families for a couple of days. I do remember sleeping a lot, though. One of my shipmates and I rented a hotel room and fell asleep while sunbathing beside the pool. We woke up looking like lobsters. Did you know that sunburn is considered “damage of government property?” We were both at risk of getting into trouble, if the soreness of our sunburn prevented us from working at all. It was in that moment, that I truly understood what signing your life away to the government, meant.
After boot camp graduation, it was off to A-school we went. Some people flew out to Texas and Florida. I, on the other hand, walked across the street and was stuck in Chicago for my training. I did fall in love with the city, though!
One of my most vivid (and favorite) memories was with a drunk shipmate, Aften. She was at the bar across from the barracks and came back to the barracks happily hammered. All she wanted was to get to her rack, to sleep it off. And trust me, she needed to go to bed. But returning to the barracks drunk had it’s own challenge. Every time we entered the barracks, we had to salute while holding our ID card, and ask permission to come aboard. There was NO way that Aften could spell her first name, let alone get passed the quarterdeck. As a good shipmate would, I had to devise a plan to sneak her in. I assigned two shipmates to distract the barracks duty officers and the quarterdeck Petty Officer of the watch, so I could sneak Aften into the barracks. I picked her up and threw her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes and sprinted across the quarterdeck when the timing was right. I carried her up two flights of stairs and hoisted her up into the top rack. I remember telling her to be quiet but she just hummed the entire time. Seriously, Aften… it was not a good time to make noises. The mission proved successful. Neither one of us got into trouble.
The same night, while spending time in the barracks with a few other friends (sober), we decided to have a little fun of our own. We thought it would be fun to snort powdered kool-aid and blow our noses just to see our snot in different colors. Yes, seriously. I was purple, the first time. Then, blue. That was the first AND last time I ever put anything up my nose (accept for the time the NAVY made us snort the flu vaccine – imagine a hanger bay full of sailors making one unified nose-inhale sound – It was magical). Since then, I can’t even fathom snorting anything.
When I originally signed up for the NAVY, I signed up for Seabee. It’s a construction builder, essentially. I wanted to travel the world and build stuff! Your ASVAB score, a test normally taken in high school, determined what rates (jobs) you qualified for. Being my ASVAB score wasn’t exactly high, I had slim pickin’s. I was more than excited that Seabee was an option. Shortly after enlisting, my recruiter called me up and said, “If you go in as an electrician, your ship out date would be in two weeks” (instead of three months). He also promised that I could change my rate in boot camp, back to Seabee. I learned within the first week of boot camp that it was not true. Once you sign up and ship out, you’re stuck with your rate “job”. I was aggravated. This brain of mine was NOT meant for engineering school. This brain of mine also knew that it shouldn’t be playing with electricity. Like, never.
I was selected to be the Class Leader in every engineering school training module. For some reason, the instructors always picked me for every class mod. There were eight mods to complete, to pass, before graduating and joining the fleet. I rocked it, until mod six. Module six had a very high failure rate. There was just way too much information packed into one mod. I failed Mod 6. I was sent to ARB (Academic Review Board) to plead my case to a panel of higher ranking petty officers, warrant officers and senior chiefs, and explain why I deserved to be in NAVY engineering school. Welp, under the stress of standing before higher ranking officers and petty officers, I thought it would be a good idea to say to the Warrant Officer challenging me the most, “I intend on having your rank one day”. Rather than him receiving that as me wanting to strive to be better and earn the rank of warrant officer, he took that as a threat. Instead of sending me to retake mod six, along with more than half of the class, he wanted to send me to third grade level review courses. I told him about my ADHD (which was not disclosed during the application process because I was told to not mention it). I didn’t take the 3rd grade remedial classes very well. My pride got the best of me. I was put up on charges twice, in which both were dismissed by my chain of command. Well, the warrant officer was NOT very happy with my chain of commands decision. The Warrant Officer decided to put me up on two additional charges, which sent me to Captains Mast. This would be when I would stand before the Captain (in a court like setting) and prove to the Captain why I should be able to stay in the NAVY. My chain of command went up to bat for me. “Captain, she’s a: Class Leader, AI (awaiting instruction leader), Section Leader, she has no red marks in her file (disciplinary issues). She’s well respected and admired by her shipmates.” This all sounds good, right? The Warrant Officer had his opportunity to speak. This is when I was called a shit-bag sailor. He told the Captain that he wanted me out of his NAVY.
The Captain says, “You are being dismissed from the United States NAVY with an RE-4 (which means I can’t sign up under any other military branch), you will serve 60 days restriction and l will lose half months pay x 2”. I also, lost rank. I was absolutely devastated.
This is when I learned in life, that politics always win, no matter who you are or what you are. I had a clean record, no disciplinary issues and served in many leadership positions. I stayed out of trouble. I wanted to be a respectful, well respected, shipmate. I wanted my shipmates to know I’d always be there for them. I was proud to have a reputation of encourager, a loyal friend/shipmate, reliable, and leader. The Warrant Officer, making it his personal mission to get me kicked out the NAVY became so discouraging that I went to my barracks chief and asked him how I could get OUT of the NAVY without losing my good reputation. Although I ultimately got what I was asking for, the way it happened and the result of what happened was devastating.
I remember walking from Captains Mast to my barracks completely torn apart. I worked really hard in boot camp and A school. I challenged myself, pushed myself, and learned how to believe in myself while being there for my shipmates. I accepted losing the desired Seabee job that I deeply desired. I still wanted to put 100% into the new job as an electricians mate, because I wanted to be successful. I took the leadership positions seriously, knowing some scenarios on a ship would mean life or death. We were trained, extensively, on how to prevent and react to casualties. My shipmates knowing and believing that I’d lead the way and be there, meant a lot to me. Being kicked out of the NAVY for something so stupid, ripped me in half. Everything I worked for, I lost.
When I got back to the barracks, I had a physical uproar in my room. I was beyond infuriated and hurt. What I would do next… would change my life… forever.
LeeAnn Babirad went to college and never finished. She joined the military and was kicked out. She got married and then divorced. She even failed at attempted suicide and got fired from working at a church.
Lee takes you on a journey through real life rough terrian experiences and leads you to the place where she learned how healthy perspective, radical love and an unyielding hope can squash any trial or tradgedy.
“LOVE BIG” is being released in an untraditional way. A chapter will be released every Monday and Friday evening. There is a group page set up here if you’d like to join the discussion and have live Q&A with the author.