While I was at my Transportation Officer Basic Course at Fort Eustis, Virginia, it was the prime of my life. 22 years old – wearing the country’s uniform every day – training with other young hopefuls. I enjoyed Army training (most of you are looking at me now with that “He does need therapy” look) for several reasons.
I think one of the major reasons I enjoyed it so much at the time – it was almost always a learning experience. Spending the bulk of our 5-month course in classroom training, we were challenged every day with new information. We did spend time out the field, and that was great, too. Digging a foxhole is not the way I enjoy spending my time but getting the opportunity to do it that time was fulfilling. I slept in it, for an hour at a time, and then another lieutenant would sleep for an hour while I stayed awake looking for the “enemy.” We focused on camouflaging ourselves and our position, on noise and light discipline, and on being ready to correctly challenge anyone who came near. Our trainers were merciless, taking great joy in telling us we were dead.
Other field training was less infantry and more transportation: leading convoys, night driving (with no headlights!), hanging cargo onto suspended helicopters, …and also the mundane arena of motor pool management and preventative maintenance checks. But it was all new to me – I didn’t get bored.
It was a great 5 months. I was paid more than I had ever made up to that point in my life. I graduated with respect and felt that I had accomplished something. I got to know some great people – the camaraderie was off the charts. One incident still haunts me though, and I am increasingly chalking it up to an autistic lack of healthy executive function.
We had a day of snow on post, and I had to drive my personal car from my quarters to an atypical training site. My ’78 Fiat Brava had been neglected while I was focused on Army training…and spending the holidays with my family. I wasn’t getting good defrost action on the windshield; the wipers weren’t helping remove the ice that was building up. The further I drove, the worse my visibility got through that glass. I finally said, “I’m going to have to pull over and scrape the windshield again.” I didn’t see any good places to pull over on the right-hand side of the road, so I picked an intersection on the left to drive into and start scraping.
Boom! Something nailed my front left bumper, and I realized it had been an oncoming car. The white subcompact that I had hit skidded off the road and stopped. I got out, as did 4 Army privates heading to their last day of their advanced transportation training. “Why did you pull in front of me?!?” I think I would have heard more yelling and complaining from the driver – perhaps justified – if I didn’t outrank the whole carful.
My car was only slightly dented, but their car was pretty torn up. It’s the worst car accident I’ve ever caused. I was rear-ended once a decade later, and that car was totaled, but the other driver was completely at fault. This time, it was all me, and I felt awful. Why DID I drive a car with an obstructed view through my windshield? Why DID I steer across the left lane, oblivious to the possibility of oncoming traffic? I wasn’t speeding, but there were several other foolish decisions that I made to cause this bad Army day.
No one had cellphones back then, but someone nearby must have alerted the Military Police. I went back to the MP station, answered all their questions, and was issued two tickets (driving with obstructed vision, and failure to yield) with a summons to appear in US Magistrate’s court in Newport News about two months later. Because my course was finished prior to that court date, I had to drive back to Newport News from Richmond to appear.
My dad, without malice, removed me from our family car insurance policy after the accident, forcing me to find my own policy. I began to see how my bad decision on post that day was bad for many more people other than myself. One private had a wrecked car. Several privates were late for a military graduation; usually no excuses hold any water in the Army. They more than likely made other leaders look bad with their absence. My dad’s insurance was affected. And me – I was going before a judge – out of town — who is used to military cases. There went my ticketless streak. Plus, my Fiat was looking a little shabby.
The good news: there were two important people who didn’t show up that day in court. A guest magistrate was filling in for the regular one, and the MP sergeant who had written my tickets was on temporary duty. The Army had sent him somewhere else instead of being in court as scheduled. This guest magistrate repeated his mantra all morning long to other alleged offenders: “I’m a believer in ‘Innocent until proven guilty,’ and there is no one here to present evidence towards your guilt.”
I decided to plead guilty to one count, and not guilty to the other. That was also probably a bad decision, but the magistrate heard my pleas, and decided to repeat himself – as if I hadn’t been listening. “Lieutenant, there is no one here to prove you guilty; are you sure that is how you want to plea?” I figured it out, and said, “No, sir, not guilty on both counts.” Case dismissed. I walked out with a load of both guilt and relief.
When I’m not sleepy, I believe I’m a safe driver. Sometimes I miss an exit, or get caught in a “wolfpack” when I get lost in conversation with another passenger. I think this incident on that snowy day at Fort Eustis was a huge factor in how I now drive, and how I prepare for driving in the elements today. We have had a little snow on the ground recently, and the Mini seems to be doing fine. Fortunately, I’ve got newer tires, rated for mud and snow, and the defrosters work exceptionally well. I also use a frost cover overnight on the windshield in the winter. I’m not going to push it, though. Those Army lessons were valuable, even that painful one that cost others more than it cost me.
It’s still embarrassing to think about. A transportation officer, whose training included vehicle maintenance checks and safety, continued to drive a vehicle in unsafe conditions, and then made an anxiety-ridden, poor decision to try to correct the situation. This “Army training” was painful, and I can remember other situations later in life where I also responded poorly in similar conditions.
It’s hard to say how much is due to being on the spectrum, or how much is simply my character. Either way, I must live with the decisions I make.
I am learning to make better decisions by recognizing the anxiety signals within myself. A few deep breaths, maybe a glass of water, a change of venue – these all seem to help. Preparation is key, but one cannot prepare for everything. Trusting the Lord, and thinking of the welfare of others first are probably the best emergency tools for better decision making – when those decisions need to be made in an instant. I’ll keep an eye on my personal internal tachometer, and make sure I don’t let the engine get too hot. My autism-mobile needs regular maintenance, too. If I only could regularly think back to even earlier training – Driver’s Ed in high school – where they taught us to Identify, Predict, Decide, and then Execute. Maybe that’s good training for us all – spectrum or not.