One soldier’s reflections on his time in the service.
As I write this, the clock winds down on my military career. I will have spent a little over 11 years in the United States Army. The sum total of my adult life. All of it, ending at midnight. These past few weeks I’ve been struggling to process what it means. I’ve run the gamut of emotions: guilt, relief, anxiety, happiness, and nostalgia. It’s also a lot to reconcile.
To give order to my thoughts, and this essay, I’ve tried to answer some of the most common questions people have asked over the years. These have come from family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. Of the multitude of variations- I’ve distilled them down to four basic questions:
· What made you join?
· Was it hard?
· What’s it like over there?
· Why did you get out?
I want to answer these questions to help me understand not only where I’ve been, but maybe where I’m going next.
What made you join?
This is the most common question. Often, it’s borne of genuine curiosity. I might be the first service member a person has met. This is especially true in academic settings, or back home on the East Coast. Threats to national sovereignty can seem like abstractions in these enclaves, so the motives for service are equally foreign. I think it’s natural to wonder what drives a person to fight for their country in this more “civilized” era we live in.
Other times it can feel like an indictment. As if to say: given all the other options, why military service? While I try to value everyone’s opinion, these people generally rub me the wrong way. I’ll be the first to admit that the armed forces are far from perfect. We should be scrutinized by the public, and some of our actions definitely warrant skepticism. But when did serving your nation become a lesser occupation? And to imply that a person is ignorant for doing so? In my book, that’s a pretty classless thing to do.
But I digress. Back to the point at hand- why did I join?
To be frank, mine was always an unlikely road to the army. I was a skinny kid at a magnet high school in the Bronx. My peers were all aspiring to careers in finance, law, or medicine. Everyone was fixated on getting into top colleges; pipelines to the aforementioned industries. All that mattered was scholastic achievement. Needless to say, we were a fun bunch at parties.
In this academic pressure cooker the Army wasn’t even on my horizon. And why would it be? I already had a game plan. Get into an ivy league school. Then do my four years and graduate with a challenging degree. Only then could I advance to work in finance (emphasis on the ‘fin’, not to be confused with the more pedestrian fine-nance), or maybe technology which was just starting to blow up. That’s what society was telling me to do. That’s certainly what my teachers were advocating for. I took them at their word. And why not? I didn’t know any better at the time. Were it not for a masterstroke of providence, I probably would have stuck to the script.
In my junior year, for reasons that are now lost to time, I was stacking books in the school library. During this mundane task, I came across a book by Norman Schwarzkopf. I’m not sure what drew me to this particular tome but I was intrigued. Intrigued enough to borrow it and read the whole thing in a few days. In those pages and prose, I saw it. A new road. A new possibility. General Schwarzkopf wrote at length about military service and commitment to the nation. He touted the ideals he’d learned at West Point. To his credit, he didn’t sugarcoat it either. He gave a sober accounting of some of the darker moments of his career. Either way, my curiosity was piqued. At the very least, I thought I should do some more research. It didn’t take long until I was hooked.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were in full swing during this time. Reports from field correspondents half-a-world away were being broadcast into American households every evening. The narrative was inspiring. Brave men and women, not much older than myself, risking it all for constitution and country. Or spreading US hegemony if the cynics are to be believed. History was being made before my eyes. Here was my opportunity to forge my own path. It seemed more exciting than being a glorified excel jockey on a trading desk. Not to mention the added bonus of avenging the attacks on my hometown. The wounds of September 11th were still raw in the city. We hadn’t shaken the trauma of that dark day yet. To my teenage mind it seemed to make sense, resonating with me on an intrinsic level. To take part in something bigger and better than my petty desires. To sacrifice. To serve.
And so, at the ripe young age of 17, I wrapped myself into the folds of old glory and dove into the fray with reckless abandon.
Was it hard?
Inquisitive minds always want to know if the mythologized version of the military experience marries up to the real one. Hollywood sells the public a pretty good story. It’s natural to want to know what’s fact and what’s fiction. Is it as crazy as it appears in the movies? Is it really that difficult?
In a word: Yes.
But things are usually more nuanced than that. Because 11 years is too much time to cover concisely, I’ll focus on my entry to the service. Specifically, my time as a new cadet.
Shortly after I was accepted into the United States Military Academy, I was scheduled to attend the aptly named Beast Barracks. Beast, as it’s called in shorthand, is the seminal training event at West Point. All new cadets must pass through this gauntlet just to make it to the first day of the academic school year. As I was about to find out, it is an experience unlike any other.
On a particularly sweltering June day in 2007; I arrived at an imposing granite fortress on the banks of the Hudson river. I was not sure what to expect. Up till that point, I’d lived at home with my parents. The longest I’d been on my own was maybe a few months. I’d never really lived anywhere except New York City. I was, for all intents and purposes, still a kid. I was so young in fact, I had to be legally emancipated by a pair of JAG lawyers in order to take my oath of service and sign my enlistment contract. I had graduated high school a mere five days before reporting to the academy. Five days. Let that sink in for a minute.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have a minute. The moment the ink on my service contract was dry, I was thrown into a crucible honed by more than two centuries of martial science. Beast was a series of increasingly difficult trials designed to break and then remake you. You come in a soft lump of meat and if you survive, you become toughened leather. New cadets are the eponymous beasts; unrefined animals who have to be domesticated into military society. If you can’t hack it, you’re on the next train home.
I found myself in a whirlwind of bellowing, calisthenics, and wholesale chaos. I got yelled at for not knowing something. I was made to recite military factoids at the top of my lungs. I was continuously running to and fro. At one point I was ushered into a deathly quiet room to fill out paperwork. Without provocation, I was dragged out into a raucous hallway and subsequently punished for some imagined infraction. If I looked the wrong way or said the wrong thing- punishment was meted out expeditiously and with extreme prejudice.
It was a very humbling and jarring world to be thrown into. Nothing made sense, and I quickly realized that the world did not revolve around me. In fact, there was a new hierarchy; with yours truly squarely at the bottom. But I was determined to stick it out. So I managed to survive the first day. And the second day. And the one following that. And on, and on, for four years.
In fairness to my alma mater not all days were as rough as those first few. But taken as a whole, it was still no walk in the park. Sparta on the Hudson had certainly lived up to its brutal nickname. For better or worse I made it through to became a full-fledged soldier, and an officer to boot. It wouldn’t be the last challenge I’d face in my career. Not by a long shot. But it was a good sampling of what was to come. With the benefit of time and experience, I realized the barrier to entry was high to ensure we would be a good crop of officers. We were put through punishing conditions so when facing the rigors of service, we’d be ready. I don’t envy anyone who has to go through it, but I recognize its value.
So, to answer the question: Yes, it was hard. But it was also worth it.
What’s it like over “there”?
This is the question that most are too afraid or perhaps too apathetic, to ask. There’s been a number of great pieces written on how the public exculpates itself of asking more thoughtful questions about America’s war, by simply parroting “Thank you for your service”. It’s embedded in the cultural zeitgeist. So much so, there’s even a recent movie that features the phrase on its masthead. Clearly, the civil-military divide can use some work.
I don’t know why we as a culture don’t want to talk about the conflicts our armed forces are engaged in. I’ve had friends and family dance around the subject. There’s usually a tacit understanding that it’s not something to be discussed. War is taboo. People have seen and heard enough over the last 18 years to know the broad strokes. And as far as society has progressed; war has obstinately remained the same bloody business it has always been. Not always the best conversation for cocktail parties. So we all try and avoid that unpleasantness as much as we can.
But what is it like, really?
In truth it’s hard to articulate. Partly due to my inadequacy as a writer, but also because it’s impossible to capture just how unnatural war really is. How do you explain maintaining the peace in a place where everyone, given the chance, would kill you without hesitation? The intense feelings of pride after winning a firefight? The terror of being woken up by rockets in the dead of night? The perplexity of subsidizing an international narcotics operation because the alternative is having farmers drop plowshares and pick up AK-47's? How do I really share the depth of heartbreak over troopers who lost life or limb out there? Or the mindset of a 23-year-old who accepts that he’s already dead just so he can muster the resolve to lead the next dangerous mission? These are unpleasant realities, and most people just don’t want to hear them.
But it’s not always such a grim prospect. Strange as it might sound, there are moments to be cherished. For one- the camaraderie. The fraternity between soldiers who serve together. I struggle to think of another line of work where strangers can become closer than family over the course of several months. Perhaps I’m not far enough along in my civilian career, but I suspect I won’t form bonds like the ones my platoon had. For another- the trust. The implicit and explicit trust between warriors. Because out there, you have no one else to count on. Your unit is your family. You live together, eat together, sleep together, and if the time comes, sacrifice together. It’s an extreme reaction to extreme conditions.
And lastly- the pure, unadulterated adventure. Armed conflict is not a game. I don’t want to make light of that fact. In spite of that seriousness, there’s still something uniquely exhilarating about ranging out to the edges of the frontier. Dueling wits and wills with the enemy. Awesome displays of firepower that rattle the Earth. Helping downtrodden people. Witnessing things no foreigner may ever see again. Laying down to rest under an unfamiliar constellation and knowing that the armies of Genghis, Alexander, and Salah ad-Din bivouacked under the very same stars. In its own bizarre way, war can be a remarkable experience.
War is a study in extremes. It’s a Dickensian paradox; being both the best and worst of times. Like all the poor schmucks who fight in it, it’s got layers. There’s deeper meaning to be found in the experience. It gives you a renewed appreciation for peace. And a true understanding of the costs of freedom.
Why did you get out?
As I’ve stated before- my entire adult life up till this point has been spent in the army. Some of my best years, gone, in service to the republic. I don’t regret it. Not for one second.
The army is a great organization. It provides order, discipline, and a set of skills that allow you survive anywhere; be it the battlefield or the boardroom. It molds unsure recruits into resolute leaders. It takes truants and turns them into true professionals. And regardless of your station in life, privileged or poor, you can make your own way. With hard work and a little luck- you can rise up the ranks to earn the respect of your comrades and countrymen. I am immensely proud to have served. But as fulfilling as it’s been, it has its limits.
This point hit home for me during my last deployment. I joined my unit halfway through their tour in the Middle East. Already we were preparing to come back again in 10 months. At that point, I’d lived in three different countries in as many years. I had engineered my life to accommodate this blistering pace. My worldly possessions could be put into consignment in a cool three hours or less. I kept myself personally unencumbered as much as possible. I was perpetually on the move trying to keep up with the mission tempo. Always gearing up for the next big adventure. Because that’s what I’d been trained to do.
Any young officer worth their salt, was angling to get the next competitive assignment. Inhospitable conditions? Great. Guaranteed danger? Perfect. Never been done before? Sign me up Coach. And I won’t lie, I lived for it. I was professionally hungry and Uncle Sam was doling out bigger and bigger bites for my peers and I to cut our teeth on. There are some friends who I have never spent time with in America. We would catch up between missions in dusty souks or over sumptuous gogi-gui, trading intel and gossip about the latest and greatest. Then we’d bid each other farewell until our next rendezvous in some far flung locale. If it sounds like great fun, believe me- it certainly was for a time.
But that doesn’t make it any less exhausting. To borrow from everyone’s favorite hobbit- I felt thin. The usual thrill of embarking on a new journey or challenging assignment was starting to wane. I was just going through the same motions in different places, alongside different faces. In hindsight, this was a classic case of burnout. The telltale symptoms were there: exhaustion, disillusionment, and apathy. But what could be done? I wasn’t special. I had a job to do just like everyone else. And if I couldn’t do my job, someone else might have to pay a price. One that I couldn’t live with. My choices at that point were becoming fairly binary; either get with the program or get out.
So I opted to leave. Leave the life I knew and was, presumably, good at. I steeled myself and talked to one my senior officers about my decision. I explained that it was time for me to move on, among other things. Once I was done stating my position (read: bellyaching), the colonel gave me some candid advice. He explained that the army would benefit by keeping officers like me. On the other hand, he said that I needed to do what was best for me irrespective of the army’s needs. To use his words, “we all get out eventually”. He suggested that I take some time to figure out what that was before giving him my final answer.
While I’m flattered at the thought that my contributions were worthy of note, I knew then what I know now- I’m just another set of boots on the battlefield. The wars will be fought (and hopefully won) with or without me. I know many capable officers, noncoms, and soldiers who will carry the flag into future fights. Just like the lyrics of our song, the army keeps rolling along. And to my boss’s latter point; was this the best thing for me? There was really only one way to find out. Not without some internal strife, I turned in my papers.
That was almost a year ago. Today I’m in North Carolina at legendary Fort Bragg. Home of the Airborne and Special Forces. A good a place as any to cap off my uniformed career. Doesn’t make it any less difficult. Seeing my fellow paratroopers marching by fills me with an odd mix of pride and sadness. Sentiment has never been my strong suit but I’m overcome by it now. I reminisce about days past; adventures and misadventures alike. What a journey it has been.
The road behind me is littered with mental keepsakes. Treasured moments that plumb the depths of grief, and crest the heights of glory. I can look back fondly, but I can’t go back. The die has been cast. I have to cross this Rubicon.
On the road ahead of me is a new life. The chance to explore and grow. Try something different. Something better. And I think that’s what I really want. A new kind of adventure; to find my own promised lands. Not just greener pastures, but a whole new landscape.
I hope I find it.
To all the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guardsmen, other government agencies, coalition partners, and host nation supporters…from the bottom of my heart: thank you. It was a genuine honor.
And to my comrades who fell in the valleys of Mesopotamia and mountains of Afghanistan; I look forward to our next rendezvous in that big drop zone in the sky.