On August 23rd of 2000, I boarded a plane in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and made my first trip east of the Mississippi River. I remembered when I stepped off the aircraft at the Atlanta airport and received my first face full of what I could only describe as “wet hot.” A feeling unfamiliar to a kid raised in the southwest. I made my way through the busiest airport in the world with wide-eyed anticipation. I remember saying to myself, “Yuma, you are not in Kansas anymore.” 20 or so other recruits and I made our way from the baggage carousel to the bus destined for Fort Benning, Georgia. It was dark, and aside from the city lights of Atlanta, I could not see any of the surrounding landscape. Our bus ride in the hot night lasted for about 90-minutes, coming to a stop in the parking lot of the 30th AG battalion. Soon our bus was boarded by a man in a stiff brown hat. I knew from pictures and stories that this was a Drill Sergeant, and he did not look pleased to be dealing with a busload of recruits at this time of night. The next couple of hours passed in a flash. We hurriedly unloaded the bus, formed lines, and went through a series of processing stations. After completing several administrative actions, the Drill Sergeant spoke with an unimpressed-looking civilian clerk. They spoke quietly for a few minutes and ended with head nods of agreement. The Drill Sergeant had us file by a linen closet, secure sheets, a pillow, and blanket. He escorted us to the barracks, left us with some profane advice and instructions for the morning, and then departed. No shaved heads tonight. That would wait until morning.
A new group of Drill Sergeants entered the barracks early the following morning. We received some more profane-laden instructions. I only caught the last part of their instructions, be outside at 0530. We stood in the dark parking lot for what seemed like hours. As the dawn light began to break, I caught my first glimpse of the Georgia terrain. Trees, trees, and more trees I had never seen so many pine trees in my life. The Georgia pines dominated the landscape, not a mountain in sight, only green and trees. Accompanied by more “wet-hot.”
Over the following weeks, months, and years the Georgia pine and I became well acquainted. I have used the pine tree in many ways—cover and concealment for a machine gun team, Ranger games, seeing who could flip upside down and cling to the bark like a Koala Bear, aptly named Koalafing. I used the pines to rest my back and my head while eating MRE’s, during long movements, and during the time between live-fire training exercises. I have used the pine trees to construct shelters and build fires on cold Georgia nights. Like a loyal dog, the Georgia pine tree has always been there when I needed it.
I miss the mountain views of the southwest but have gained a fondness for the pine forests of the southeast. The density and sheer size of some of the trees I have encountered and leaned on still amazes me. Although I will remember the pine tree, I know the pine tree will not remember me. I will always cherish my time in the pine forests of Georgia, and I know they will be here long after I am gone. Providing rest, shade, and warmth to the next generation.