Every time the first snow falls, I am reminded of why I hate it. It’s not the cold, or the wetness; the shoveling, or loss of traction. No. I hate it because it reminds me of a similar stark environment with a climate drastically different than a north-eastern winter.  A climate full of dust, decay, and ruin. The Middle East. Iraq.

I found out I would be visiting Iraq before I turned 19.  I turned 21 in a country I wasn’t born in.  I couldn’t enjoy the occasion. In the time since I’ve been back home, rescued from the most memorable part of my life, I’ve seen children turn 21; still children, but able to legally consume alcohol.  They still wonder what they should do with the rest of their lives. I was a child, once.

In my childhood, I had a puppy whom I loved dearly. He is gone now. I have a service dog, Toby. He will be gone one day, and I will miss him dearly. Animals come and go; like people; like most things.

We build ourselves upon finite memories.  Thus, they have the capacity to become infinite. We pass them on before we die in order to preserve their infinity.  Pain is temporary, but can last forever. Love can last forever, or end abruptly.  As with my random ramblings…



Reality is the burn on your skin from the 120 degree sun.

Reality is the sweat dripping down your back after a long day.

Reality is the black metal within your grasp.

Reality is the car driving up to your checkpoint;

not yielding to your signals to “stop!”

Reality is the chemical coursing through your body;

increasing your heart rate;

breathing heavier and faster;

muscles tightening.

Reality is the reaction of your fingers on the trigger.

Reality is the car rolling to a stop;

empty hands sticking up out of the window

begging for you to stop shooting.

Reality is the wounded passenger

stepping out of the car door;

a kid!

Blood dripping down his leg;

scared out of his mind.

Reality is the sun;

blocking the driver’s view

from seeing your warning.

Reality hurts.

Toby – My Service Dog in Training

I would like to introduce to the blog, Toby, my Service Dog in Training whom I’ve had since August, 2012.  Thanks to Clear Path For Veterans for helping Toby achieve his Canine Good Citizenship and qualify to begin public access training.  We’ve already attended our first public access training at The Hearth on James Street and we will be going to the Shoppingtown mall this evening (12/17/12).

Here are some pictures after his CGC test up at the Clear Path facility – Pictures taken by John Ready (

Two dogs, Two owners.

Two dogs, Two owners.

Steve and Toby

Fort Irwin Road

Fort Irwin Road

By Steven Wantz

I remember my first ride out to Fort Irwin, California like it was yesterday. The weather was pretty normal for that area of the state; sunny, a few clouds, and a slight, cool breeze coming in from the north-west.  As we turned off highway 15 and started the long drive down Fort Irwin Road, I remember the resounding feelings of excitement and fear while thinking of how close I was to the place I would live for the next 3 ½ years.  I just finished basic training a couple weeks before my trip out to California, and I felt good being back in the state where I was born.  I thought back to the day I was walking through my school during one of our lunch periods, two military guys stood behind a decorated table set up in the main foyer.

Fort Irwin Road Sign

Fort Irwin Road Sign

The uniformed men stood and smiled while greeting the other students as they walked by.  The men were wearing military dress uniforms; dark green dress coats and pants that were slim fitted, meant to adhere to the shape of their bodies. The fronts of the coats were papered with insignia, apparently showing the experience and rank the two men earned throughout their years of service.  Both had large rainbow-colored patches painting the left side of their chest.  As I walked closer to the table, it became obvious that the rainbow-colored patches were really large clumps of ribbons and medals the two soldiers earned over years of service. I noticed that one of the men wore a few extra pieces of “decoration” on his uniform, including a light-blue, braided rope that hooked over his left shoulder and a small metal pin centered above his clump of ribbons.  The pin had what looked like a chrome-colored, World War Two-era rifle within a light-blue rectangle, both in front of a chrome-colored wreath that hung from just about the tip of the rifle to about the same distance towards the back.  As I stood in front of the table, the soldiers, distracted answering questions for other students and handing out the pamphlets that were spread out on the table in front of them, I started to examine the contents on the table and noticed, besides the pamphlets, there were pens, keychains, and a few other “goodies” for students to grab and take with them.  Each item had one thing in common, the brand, “U.S. Army”.  I wondered if, one day, I would carry the same brand on my chest.


Shortly after I completed basic training, or more specifically, One Station Unit Training (OSUT), I was able to return home on leave for a few days before flying out to California to report to my assigned duty station.  My mom and brother drove down from Syracuse, NY to watch me graduate then take me back home.  Prior to graduation, we were allowed a few hours off-base to visit with family. I went back to the hotel room with my family to change into civilian clothes.  The drive out of the base was strange and surreal.  I grew so familiar with seeing men and the occasional women in camouflage on a day-to-day basis; it was as-if I was seeing the outside world for the first time. Everything on base was generally the same set of mundane colors; dark green, gray, tan, black, and not much else.  Once we exited the front gate and drove to the nearby town, my eyes were hit by an explosion of color. Everything looked new and interesting and all I could do was sit in silence and take it all in.  After a short fifteen minute drive, we arrived at the small motel room.  Over three months had passed since I left home for basic training and changed almost completely, both mentally and physically.  Not only did I lose weight, my muscles were more refined and I presented myself with more confidence than I’d ever thought possible.  As I started to undress my uniform to change into civilian clothes, the look of shock on my family’s face confirmed my feelings.

Their expressions alone confirmed I was not the same person that left for basic training just 14 weeks prior.  For me, the changes were gradual, but I took pride out of their expressions and couldn’t help but grin.  At that moment, I knew I made the right decision to join the military.  Once I saw Fort Irwin for the first time, my resolve faltered.

The drive down Fort Irwin Road seemed to take longer than it actually did.  Before that day, I’d never seen a road so desolate and lonely.  The words, dry, dusty, rocky and hot, melted together the landscape as it passed by the car window.  You could look into the distance and see jagged cliffs and smooth hills dotted with meek vegetation and rolling crevices.  With a tree in one place, a cactus in another and tiny holes puncturing the earth throughout, I wondered what creatures could possibly live in this dead place. Minor feelings of panic and worry drifted through my psyche as we continued down the path of black pavement and white spotted lines. I remember coming around the last curve of many and seeing nothing but black-top and desert stretched for miles.  As we started our 20 mile journey down a section of the road named “ten-mile stretch”, we passed a single, white cross stuck into the ground near the side of the road, then another, then a group of 3 crosses passed by our 60-mile-per-hour projectile and I wondered, “Someone must have died on this road, what a lonely and wasteful way to die.”



As dark and foreboding the trail seemed during the day, I later found, driving on Fort Irwin road at night, without the light from the sun and nothing but yours and other vehicles’ headlights, proved to be a much greater challenge. I wondered if those white crosses were forged on the night.

As we neared the next curve at the end of the 10-mile stretch of straight, something interesting came into view up ahead on the right.  A very large clump of boulders painted with a rainbow of colors.  The closer we came, the more defined the painted images became.  I realized they were insignia from the many forces of warriors who’ve once visited this desolate place.  They came to be trained, and left happy, simply because they didn’t have to be there anymore.  Man, did I find out how that felt.

Painted Rock

Painted Rock

We stopped to take some pictures in front of what is better known as “Painted Rock”; the only true landmark between Fort Irwin and the turn-off from Highway 15; the only true sign of civilization for endless miles.

As we drove away from Painted Rock, I knew we were getting close to Fort Irwin, and I was eager to see where I was going to be living during the next 4 years.  Back in basic training, I remember seeing the look of surprise and intrigue on my drill sergeant’s face when he found out where I was going after basic. He asked why the hell I wanted to go there and I couldn’t help but grin. At the time I thought I was going to some paradise duty station in the heart of California. I couldn’t have been further away from the truth.  As we crested the final hill overlooking beautiful Fort Irwin, California, it hit me on the side of the head like a 10-pound hammer.

NTC Sign

NTC Sign

My excited grin quickly faded to utter disbelief as I first laid eyes on what appeared to be Fort Irwin. “There must be a mistake,” I thought, “This can’t really be Fort Irwin.”

Quietly nestled inside a large, high-desert valley, in the middle of the Mojave Desert sat Fort Irwin, California, the National Training Center.  I spared only a second to peel my eyes away from the shocking view in time to see the same look of despair and disbelief on my grandmother’s face.  I couldn’t do anything but state the obvious, “Well, it’s smaller than I thought it would be.”

Fort Irwin

Fort Irwin

Tan-colored buildings of varying sizes littered the valley below like boxes scattered on the floor of a shipping warehouse.  It was hard to tell what anything was from a distance, but at the time, it didn’t really seem to matter.  The outer-most road circled the outside of the compound; intersections and turns breaking through groups of buildings.  In an area off to the left, I could make out what appeared to be residential housing, while larger dorm-style barracks, for single (not married, no children) soldiers.  I couldn’t really tell what the rest of the buildings were, but I assumed I would soon find out.  It seemed we found the high-desert version of so-called civilization.

I showed my identification and orders to the gate guard and soon found I needed more in order to gain access to the National Training Center.  The guard sent us back a few hundred feet to the welcome center; a small building off to the side used for guests of soldiers and anyone else who might need temporary access to Fort Irwin.  It was a small, one-story building with a matching parking lot in front of the entrance.  The words “Fort Irwin Welcome Center” painted the glass entry-way. Walking in, I noticed a couple employees behind the front teller-style desk and two lines to choose from leading up to the desk.  As I entered one of the lines and was called up to show my paper-work and identification, I thought, “Couldn’t the guard at the front gate have done the same thing?”

Armed with a temporary vehicle pass, a military I.D. and orders to report to my duty station, we left the welcome center and attempted entry once again, this time, with more success.  After showing the guard the requested documents, we drove through the front gate, passing by the guard post and cement barriers and continuing down the remainder of Fort Irwin Road.  Although the base itself seemed meek and disheartening at best, the view of the entire “Fort Irwin Valley” on a day like that one, took my breath away.  Two large hills stood on the opposite side of the base with a dirt road leading out to the desert between them.  With few clouds and the sun shining, it seemed like an oasis in the desert.  In truth, it was the only civilization for many miles which transformed the “oasis” into something like a prison with no walls.

We finished the final stretch of Fort Irwin Road and turned down the road leading to where I would report for my “prison sentence”.  One perilous journey down Fort Irwin Road was complete, but many more were still to come.

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