Lost In The Woods

I remember lying in my bunk the first night of basic training listening to the platoons calling out cadence as the soldiers marched on the hills behind our barracks. I arrived in Fort Leonard wood Missouri on December 15th in 1983. I joined the Army for all the wrong reasons. The main one being that I just had no where else to go. Only in “An Officer or a gentleman” I was not. I had been staying at a friends house when I graduated high school. That friend was enrolled in the military and was being sent off right after graduation. I felt I just had no other options. Most of my friends had enlisted and it just seemed to be the best way survive.


I knew I should have cut my hair before I got on that plane. The night before our flight took off I was staying in a hotel in Hollywood with three other recruits. The other guys were shaving their heads down and when it became my turn I just couldn’t do it. My first mistake in my military life.

When we arrived at the fort the next day we were issued our uniforms and given a laundry bag. We were assigned lockers and barracks. After turning in my ripped Levi’s and Slayer t-shirt I was sent to the barber. My hair was fairly long at the time, about five inches passed my shoulders. When it was my turn in the chair the man with the shears began cutting locks of hair from my head. I cringed at the sight of my hair hitting the ground. Then he stopped half way through. He tapped his electric razor a few times on the palm of his hand and said to me “Well son, your hair clogged up my sheers. Your going to have to go to chow now and come back tomorrow so I can have time to clean out all the hair and get it running again”.

So that’s how I spent my first evening in the Army. With half a shaved head. Yet I still had a good outlook on things. I could hear those soldiers marching and I couldn’t wait to be up there on that hill with them. Three days of processing first however. A kind of preparation for the nightmare to come.

The next night when I got back from chow I found my bunk tossed out into the hallway. I asked what was going on and the Sargent in charge told me that only queers came from California and queers were not fit to sleep in the same room as the other men. So that’s where I slept for the next two nights. In the cold hard confines of that stairwell. But still I heard the marching and it kept my spirits high.


I had never seen snow before. Not real snow. Growing up in Southern California the only snow I saw was on the white capped mountains that were set off in the distance. we would go skiing but the snow machines produced most of the powder. We would ski in shorts and windbreakers and work on our tans while we slid down the slush. The furthest east I had ever been up to that point was Arizona, where I would visit my aunt and uncle out in Tucson.

So when I had to line up and stand at attention in 10 degree weather with snow coming down so thick you couldn’t see the man standing in front of you, it was a huge shock for me. I shivered and shook, my bones rattled non stop. Warmth would become something I use to take for granted in a life long passed. I decided right then and there that the Ozark mountains and me would always be on opposite sides of the fence.


I had a California slang to my language. I used the words, “Dude” and “Man” a lot. Something that really pissed those drill sergeants off something fierce. Every time they heard me say one of them I would be required to do push ups. And in numbers I was not physically able to do. So they made a chart of how many I owed them. Push ups I would have to complete before graduation. By the end of the first week alone I would have racked up hundreds of them. They would also accumulate interest by the way.

The week before Christmas we were given the option to go home and see our families for the holidays. The camp would go into a week long break. I however had no family to go home to so I took the option to stay on. It was nice and quiet in the empty barracks and they gave me full run of the post. On Christmas morning I put on my dress greens and heading off down the road in the falling snow to go to mass. I wasn’t really a religious man at that point in my life but I was growing bored and felt like being around other people.


I was walking with a couple of other guys who stayed behind and I think I must have called one of them dude just as a drill instructor was walking by. He heard me and told me to drop in the wet freezing snow that was plowed into the corner of the street. In full dress greens, on Christmas morning on my was to church. I refused. He then called to a near by officer so he could order me to get down. I still refused. So the Sargent grabbed me from behind and pushed me to the ground. The two men ordered me to stand back up. I refused. So they grabbed my arms and dragged my down the road. They then proceeded to dragged me around in circles on the pavement. They continued to drag me so long that the heals of my boots were worn down and filled with snow. My left boot came off and my foot was torn open and bleeding, leaving a red strip across the white snow.

Eventually they dropped me on the ground and told me that when I was ready to stand up again I could walk myself to the nurses quarters. I stayed in bed for the remainder of the week, my foot bandaged and my toes purple. I hated the Army. I hated every single second of it after that. While in gas chamber training I recited my social security number and date of birth and when I exited the room I grabbed a hand full of snow and put it on my face to stop the burn. They made me do it again, where I failed to say the year of my birth, so I did it a third time. The marches following the holidays were the worst. My foot still in a lot of pain and the boots with worn heals were hard to walk in. I would jump out of line and hide in the bushes right after roll call and rejoin the troop on their way back down the hill. I did this several times before finally being caught. Where they issued me an article 15. This went along with my article 30 for disobeying a direct order from an officer for not doing the push ups. It basically meant that I would not be getting paid for my time in training.


I would continue to have arguments and get into trouble. I hopped the fence one night and went into town with some other guys. I would be the one to take the fall for everyone. I would fall asleep in the warming tent when I should have been on patrol. The hall way was very hard for me to sleep comfortably in. I would be pushed into walls, tossed into doors and tripped on the sidewalks. My drill Sargent was relentless in is quest for humiliation.

One day right after morning chow I walked out of the mess hall, walked passed the barracks, down the back field, and just kept walking. I never planned it out or thought it through. I just walked. I walked through the mountains, passed the neighboring town, through the back end of the Show Me State and kept right on going. I walked all the way back to California. It took me a little over a month. When I arrived back home I realized the reason why I had joined the Army to begin with. I had no other options. So I walked into El Toro Marine base and went up to the main gate and simply said, “Private Dahlman reporting back from AWOL”.


I spent two days on that base and three days in San Diego Naval base before being transferred to fort Ord in the northern part of the state. From there I was put on an airplane and sent back to Fort Lost In The Woods. When I got back I would be told I was being resigned to a new battalion. My old drill Sargent had been relieved of his duties due to a mental condition which caused him to crush in the skull of a kid under his command with a baseball bat. I couldn’t help but think if I had not kept walking that morning that that kid very well could have been me.

I finished out my training in Missouri and was sent to Fort Lee Virginia for my A.I.T. I never would warm up to the Army. I would not keep from getting into trouble. But looking back I don’t regret any of it. I learned a lot and experienced quite a bit. I developed skills I still use well into my adult life. The military certainly is not for everyone, it wasn’t really for me. But when you have little options you make do with what you have. But trust you instincts always. When your gut tells you to walk, walk.



About paulsdahlman

Born in Southern California, raised on the road and now growing roots in New England. I am on the journey of my lifetime. May the footprints I leave behind form the words to my story.
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3 Responses to Lost In The Woods

  1. coastalmom says:

    Wow! This brings tears to a mother’s eyes. YOU are a hero! You write so well! I hope you are doing something with your talents!?


  2. Wowza! This is so moving and realistic. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. I love how you still found something positive out of your experience. Amazing story…thank you for sharing.


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