By Kate McCorkle
On another cloudless September morning of perfect, temperate weather, Jason and I, both twenty-four, drove the canvas-top Jeep to Fort Campbell to have our wills written. That was something the Army strongly recommended—having Jason’s will drawn up—because everyone knew the guys were soon heading somewhere that would likely kill them. Sunburned, unwashed hair twisted into a sloppy bun, and wrung-out, I was going since we figured it made sense to do the wills together. After all, we were married now. Twelve days.
Getting on post, the Fort Campbell Army base in Clarksville, Tennessee, was straightforward in theory. Flash your identity card to the MP (military police) on duty at the gate, then drive through. Only post, like the whole country, was on high alert from the 9/11 terrorist attacks twenty-four hours ago. Life itself was in a horrified lockdown. And Jason and I had a problem. I didn’t have a military ID.
Initially, in the other lifetime that was yesterday, I didn’t understand the big deal about not having my ID yet. Couldn’t my driver’s license get me on post? I had a grad school ID, a credit card with my name. I knew who I was.
Wasn’t that what I was always trying to prove, some way or another? With each new school, team, or move—proving myself to people who underestimated me—who called me a dumb blond. Or assumed the hair made me easy, somehow. People who thought introvert meant docile, or bookish meant passive, or blond hair and blue eyes excused smirking insinuations, made a blank canvas for unkind projections. By now I had developed a fuck you muscle and an obstinate self-sufficiency. I might be married but I wasn’t taking my husband’s name. That’s not me. Yet Jason and I were in this marriage, this new endeavor, together. We’d figure it out. Just like we were bumping along a back road in a Jeep that felt every rock, figuring out how to get through that gate without a mandatory ID.
Apparently a driver’s license wouldn’t work because it only proved I was who I claimed to be. It confirmed my Kate-ness. The driver’s license didn’t reveal I had any link to Jason, therefore any association with the Army—ergo, any permission to access that life.
And, as a newly minted officer’s wife, life now hinged on the United States Uniformed Services Identification and Privilege Card. I couldn’t register for medical, dental, or auto insurance, couldn’t obtain our housing or salary information, couldn’t buy groceries or go to the gym, and certainly couldn’t get on post to ferry Jason to and from work without that card. I was also barred from the emergency family meetings that had erupted in the past twenty-four hours. (Ironically, I would have eagerly attended: my ignorance and fear around Jason’s job was that high. By the time I finally did get my military ID, I resented being told what to do and chaffed under the groupthink.) Cristy, another officer’s wife, volunteered to fill me in on anything important. The towers fell. Planes were weapons. Isn’t it all important?
After waiting in a two-hour car line (in which I nearly peed myself), it was our turn at the gate. The rifle-wielding MP ping-ponged between me and my license, reconciling the husk in the passenger seat with the smiling college girl in the photo. He eyed me warily, waved another MP over to confer, shifted his rifle on his hips—Why’s a civilian with no military ID trying to get onto Fort Campbell?—but Jason assured them we had a JAG (Judge Advocate General) appointment, and a proper ID was forthcoming. Satisfied (or suckered), the MP returned our cards and waved us forward. As Jason drove through the gate, another rifle-toting guard yelled, “Balls!”
I looked at Jason. “Did he just yell balls at me?”
Jason snickered. “Yeah. Balls of the eagle.”
“Their unit is the balls of the eagle. Like we’re the talons.”
“Our emblem. The battalion insignia. The eagle is the symbol of the Hundred and First, right? The different battalions have different symbols—”
“And someone took the balls? What the—”
“Canon balls,” Jason laughed. “Canon balls. We’re talons, the Rakassans are a winged sword—”
I closed my eyes and leaned against the plastic window as Jason elaborated on Army insignia. We were on post now, driving toward the JAG office, and the uncanny scene both resembled a town and not. It was my first time there, and what was normal for Jason seemed profoundly strange to me. I tried to peg the dissonance.
Identical buildings clustered together, like a dump truck spilled whatever material was handy in a designated area and they built one model until supplies ran out. Some areas, like the barracks, looked like they came from a ’40s movie. Nothing was higher than two stories, save for the red brick Continuing Education Center and the massive scaffolding towers used to monitor maneuvers and parachute jumps.
The scene unsettled me, especially after living in Chicago for the past two years. I smiled recalling the energy that expanded in every direction in the city—cars and buses and the El and bikes zigzagging, intersecting, skyscrapers shooting vertical, parks and bike paths—the river—creating their own swirling vibe. The stones in the buildings seemed to sing, tell of their varied origins. Beautiful polyglot people, with their music and smells and color, were everywhere.
Alongside the Jeep units ran en masse, buzz-cut men wearing light-refracting safety belts across their chests, even at midday. Lock-step. Uniform. Precise. Everything was so organized and regulated. Like someone took nail clippers to blades of grass. The speed limit was twenty-five miles an hour. Most people wore uniforms labeled with their names. Houses were identified with family name plates by the front doors. Every building had signage visible from the road. Labeled. Categorized. Neat. A twinge of irritability kicked in.
“Why are those playgrounds so crappy?” I asked, tapping my plastic window in the direction of a splintered see-saw and rusty jungle gym.
“Enlisted housing,” Jason answered, eyes on the road.
“You mean all the enlisted guys live together?”
“And the officers are separate?”
“Yep. Single guys are in the barracks. No one likes living there. Some guys get married, you figure it’s just to get out of the barracks.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” I said, still thinking of the segregated housing.
“Well, they’re eighteen. They meet some local girl or have someone back home—”
“No. The housing,” I said. “Why do the enlisted kids have a junk playground?”
“Kate,” Jason sighed. “Don’t start.”
“I’m serious,” I said, turning toward him. “Don’t you think it’s a problem to have housing segregated by rank? And one group’s children get the shit playground?”
“That’s just the way the Army is,” he said, eyes on the road. “You don’t—you don’t get it. There’s a reason for it that makes sense—”
“There’s a reason for an enlisted guy’s kid to get splinters from a broken see-saw?”
“There’s a reason for the separate housing areas. No one wants to run into their boss or their men outside work—struggle with a lawnmower in front of their men—go outside with a beer and your boss is there. Look, we’re almost at the office. Can you not do this with the lawyer?”
“I’m not doing anything. I simply asked why you treat children like shit.” I waited for him to react to the you, to take the bait—Why had I even said it like that?—but he was unfazed.
“Okey-doke,” Jason muttered, turning the Jeep from the road and sliding into one of the three spots beside the signage marked JAG. The office didn’t look any different, any more imposing or judicial, from the other buildings in this stretch labeled LAUNDROMAT or some indecipherable acronym like JXZQKY.
I followed Jason into the office: him in drab green camo, black combat boots, and that super-short hair I hated under a cloth hat, called a cover, that was removed indoors. Until I saw the JAG lawyer in his uniform, I thought I was dressed okay. But now the surfer shorts, t-shirt with belle époque illustration, and flip-flops felt childish.
I don’t know what I expected from a lawyer’s office but it wasn’t this. The space was basically a wood-paneled trailer colonized by a civilization of paper towers on every surface, including the floor. An office supply (like a stapler or three-hole punch) topped each stack since a large, oscillating fan in the corner created enough wind to tornado the papers. The undulating buzz from the fan and the trembling documents created a kind of call-and-response orchestra. When the lawyer jumped up to shake our hands, I was struck by how young he looked. Lawyers were my parents’ age, not mine.
Nodding to the paperwork enveloping his desk, the stacks overflowing onto the floor, he apologized for his office being so messy. It wasn’t normally like that, he said, clearing off a second chair so I could sit. The attacks hung in the air. He set the fan to a lower speed; picked his way back to the desk through the minefield of paper towers. Married twelve days, twenty-four years old, and we’re drafting wills with a baby-faced Army lawyer. I cringed catching sight of my flip-flops, but least my toenails were done—robin’s-egg blue (my something blue for the wedding). I had been happy my feet weren’t calloused for once, but blue toes felt asinine now.
Jason’s living will was written first—in case he came home a vegetable from wherever he was going.
The final wills weren’t that complicated since we didn’t own anything and we’d leave that nothing to each other anyway. I snorted when we came to the language around “future issue”—the idea of motherhood, of me capably caring for another, seemed ridiculous in light of the world ending—but Jason let out a deep sigh. Dark circles puffed under his eyes. I reached for his hand. He leaned forward and asked the lawyer if there was anything we could do about my lack of military ID. The lawyer pushed from the desk, tipped in his chair—“How’d y’all even get on post if she doesn’t have an ID?”
Jason explained that he started the process of obtaining my military ID yesterday morning—his first work task after returning from the honeymoon. He needed to submit our marriage license—currently housed in the Worcester, Massachusetts, city hall—as validation that I was a dependent under him. (I grimaced; Jason and the lawyer each instinctively raised a hand to quell any protest.) Jason’s request was filed and the license was scheduled to arrive in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, via air mail forty-eight hours later. Only all flights were grounded indefinitely by 9:30 after the terrorist attacks.
“We don’t know how long the paperwork’s going to take now,” Jason concluded, twisting his cover.
“She needs to be in the system,” the lawyer murmured. He and Jason exchanged a look, then averted their eyes.
I sat in my chair. Quiet. I was a dependent, a problem to be figured out by the men. I wanted to jump in, clean this mess myself, but I had no idea where to even start. There was basic stuff about the Army I didn’t know—like the difference between companies, battalions, and units. I tried to reassure myself that quiet was okay. Quiet did not mean weak. I took in the framed diploma hanging on wood behind the desk, the audible rhythm of the oscillating fan.
I had made a promise to the boy sitting beside me and that changed things. A broken world is imploding. I don’t know who I am.
The lawyer thought for a moment. “A power of attorney might work,” he said. He strode from behind his desk to search a ream of papers on the floor (weighed down by a book), eventually standing with a document in hand.
“A power of attorney,” he said, delicately making his way in combat boots through the stacks back to his chair, “isn’t going to solve your problem. But it could help.”
He explained that the power of attorney would allow me to legally sign Jason’s name on documents when he was gone. Which was happening any day now.
Once we notarized that paperwork, I was legally Second Lieutenant Jason Voight, United States Army, at the same time I couldn’t prove my own identity to the Army’s satisfaction.
We’d been up since six, and I was starving when we left JAG, even though it was only ten. I fantasized about a rare hamburger and onion rings chased by a black-and-white milkshake. Writing your will as a newlywed makes a girl hungry. Jason said breakfast hours were over, and nothing on post would open for lunch for another hour since everyone was at work. As we drove to our next errand at the housing office, I saw this was true. No one was on the road. There was no need for any food service to be open. The Burger King would open at eleven, Jason said, so if I wanted to swing by after I dropped him off at work—
Forget it, I said, dreaming of the Chicago restaurants that perfumed the street with grilled onions and peppers, sautéed garlic, deep-dish pizza, Montreal-seasoned steak, even caramel corn and hot chocolate—scents that physically turned your head and transported you, fed you, even at 9:30 in the morning. Maybe, 460 miles north, my friend Lyra was chasing a spinach and feta omelet with coffee.
Lost in my gastronomic fantasy, I realized we’d arrived at the housing office only when Jason threw the car in park. The building had an actual foundation—unlike the glorified trailer that was JAG—but still managed to resemble something thrown together from leftover material.
Every soldier receives a basic allowance for housing (BAH) as part of their pay. Now that Jason had a dependent (moi), his BAH increased. It’s how he could go from splitting rent with two other guys to shouldering a place on his income alone. Our rent was due but he was still pulling a bachelor’s BAH because I wasn’t in the system yet.
Despite being at Campbell for mere days, I knew the housing office to be both the DMV and Ellis Island of post. Along with the mind-numbing red tape and paperwork associated with the place, it was also an active social experiment: how long before tedium and the absence of logic makes a human snap?
Every minute in the waiting area, Jason grew more restless. He played with his new ring, loosened and tightened his watch, pumped his heels. He was supposed to be at work—it was already one—not chaperoning me and our paperwork. My legs suctioned to the chair. Everyone else was in uniform; I was the only dumbass in shorts. I felt like I should be popping gum or wadding spitballs, even though I’d never do either in a waiting room.
“One of these things is not like the other,” I sang to Jason, leaning close so no one else could hear. “One of these things just isn’t the same.”
Jason looked at me blankly, shrugged.
“Can you guess which kid is doing his own thing?” I sang in a slightly different tune, waiting for recognition. Jason rolled his eyes, scooted his chair away.
“You never watched Sesame Street?” I asked.
“I guess not.” He turned away, hooking and unhooking his watch.
A minute later I leaned in again and moaned, haaaaamburger. A few days ago, on our honeymoon, he would’ve rolled his eyes or at least smiled. He might have admitted he was hungry too. Now he waved me off, pointed at his watch. I have to get to work.
I pried my sweaty legs from the chair and, holding the power of attorney like a shield, approached the intake area that resembled a bank from the Old West (plywood, divots that could be bullet holes).
“Kate,” Jason hissed as I caught the eye of the soldier/administrator behind the bar, a large-chested woman who looked old but probably wasn’t.
I presented my freshly minted power of attorney, thinking I could do this and let Jason get to work.That brought an already lurching process to a screeching halt. From my periphery I saw Jason wince and fold his face into his hands.
“What’s this?” the intake soldier asked. She said it like, Whazzis.
“A power of attorney.”
“Why you giving me that? What number are you?”
“It’s for my housing—”
“ID,” she demanded, extending her hand.
“That’s what this is. It’s—”
“No. It’s not. Where’s your ID?”
“I don’t have an ID yet. We were just married.” I nodded toward Jason, my heart involuntarily swelling a bit. Days ago we’d say that and people—usually older women—would sigh and coo their congratulations. It annoyed me then, mostly because I found it schmaltzy. Here, though, in the Old West/DMV/Ellis Island, some cooing would have meant I was dealing with a human.
“If you’re married, you have ID. No ID, no marriage.” She looked past me, as if anyone else was dumb enough to get in line.
“But this is acting for that.” I tapped the paper between us. “The lawyer said the power of attorney could act as my ID—”
“Wait. How’d you get power of attorney if you’re not married?”
“I am married. We just don’t have the license because planes are grounded.”
“What do planes have to do with anything?”
“We got married in Massachusetts. The license is up there. We filed the paperwork yesterday morning, but flights were grounded two hours later.”
“Why didn’t you bring a copy with you?”
“I didn’t know I’d need my wedding license for anything.”
“You didn’t know you were marrying someone in the Army?” She took a step back, like the stupidity radiating from me literally repelled her.
“Look—the point is—we don’t have the license yet. It’s on its way and we need to get our BAH adjusted—”
“You don’t have a marriage license. So how’d you get that power of attorney?”
“Here? On this post?”
“What other JAG—”
“There is no need for surliness.” She lurched forward and leaned over the intake counter, the power of attorney crinkling under her abdomen. I backed up.
Jason approached the counter twirling his cover. The administrator turned to him.
“Where’s her ID?” she demanded.
Jason sighed. “I’m trying to adjust my BAH—”
“You need a valid marriage license for that.”
The exchange continued for a while, entertaining our fellow yearning masses in the waiting area. They were probably having a good laugh at the girl with blue toes. Eventually the intake soldier got her boss, and after quintuple-checking and many raised eyebrows (I waited for her to yell balls at me), she signed off on our BAH form. Now we could pay rent.
The process might have been messy, but I was proud I kind of got something done, greased some wheels. When I suggested this to Jason en route to his office, he shrugged. You can’t make your own rules, he said, the corners of his mouth turned down. When I’m gone—this isn’t a joke.
I know that.
Leaning my head against the plastic window, I watched identical buildings blur into a white wave. The germ of a thought that had sprouted in the JAG office, as I sat very still, returned. Two thoughts, together. One: My presence is a difficulty, a complication. I am intrinsically wrong for Jason or at least wrong for a military environment. Two: The bureaucracy is the problem, not me. Maybe if I fix it, things will be okay.
In this way, I will never fit became both a fear and a hope that was itself complicated by the boy. Fitting in meant I was a good wife but a little dead inside. A middle finger to the system granted me sanity but made for a shaky marriage. The careening pendulum swings between these poles would plague me most of the time Jason served in the Army. I hadn’t yet learned to hold my breath and dive under the wave. I still thought my willpower could stop it.
A few days later we bought a new car—an American-made Pontiac Grand Prix. We hadn’t planned on buying a second car so soon, but we needed one if I couldn’t get on post, and the dealerships were offering huge discounts. I wondered if this was happening across the country or just around military bases. Guys got a bump in pay for hazardous duty, and everyone expected them to deploy soon. It was good timing for a new vehicle.
Less than a week after buying the Pontiac, the dealership called because there was some confusion with the paperwork—forms they were just now processing due to high volume. I’d have to return and resubmit the information, re-sign the documents. Jason was gone by this point—on a mystery assignment. The car salesman said to come anyway. The forms, which had to do with the title, had to be filed. You can sign your name, can’t you, honey?
At the dealership I signed papers attesting that I was legally Mrs. Voight and not some rogue impersonator. (Although, legally, I’m not Mrs. Voight. I’m Ms. McCorkle.) I used the power of attorney to do this because the affidavit required Jason’s signature. So, in effect, I signed Jason’s name to a document vouching that I was his wife.
Until the flight ban lifted and our marriage license arrived, I was a non-person.
About The Author:
Kate McCorkle’s stories and essays have appeared in several publications, including Barely South Review, r.kv.r.y Quarterly, Marathon Literary Review, and Penmen Review. A Pushcart nominee, she writes with the Greater Philadelphia Workshop Studio. Kate is currently working on a book-length thing about her time as a 9/11 infantry wife. A mother of four young children, she swims to keep insanity at bay.