A question I used to get asked a lot was “why did you join the army?” Over the years my answer has evolved into a succinct one liner: I didn’t have a lot of options and the army seemed like the best thing to do at the time. However, this is only a small part of the truth. The real answer is a bit more complex than my default response.
In February 2002, I decided to move out of my parent’s house in the middle of the night after a verbal altercation with my step-dad. I was 18 years old and thought I knew everything I needed to know about the real world. Within the course of the following month I bounced around from one friend’s couch to another, quit my job, and dropped out of high school. That final point was a sticking point for me since I had a perfect GPA and, by all accounts, was on a fast track to a four year degree. My life was falling apart before I really got it started.
Some time in March I found myself in my best friend’s house with her then husband and his family. The days were short and the nights were long as I tried to figure out what I was going to do next. How was I going to support myself? What could be done about my destroyed education? Why had I taken such a menial dispute with my step-dad so seriously? Had I ruined my life?
While drinking Smirnoff Ice (yeah, there’s a blast from the past for all of you) one night, I listed out my potential options:
- Work a dead end job while working to get my GED and hope to make it through community college within the next 5 years.
- Get my GED and apply to the local police academy with fingers crossed.
- Get my GED, join the army, serve the minimum number of required years, walkaway with the GI Bill, and forget it ever happened.
That same night I talked it over with a small group of friends. This resulted in the immediate dismissal of the police academy since I would have to arrest all of them for a variety of charges. The appeal of working a dead end job never sat well with me so I crossed that off the list. This left the Army. This left an organization I had protested against throughout my rebellious teenage years for a number of reasons.
The next day, I went to the local recruiting station in Midland, Texas. The attacks of 9/11 were very fresh in everyone’s minds and the war in Afghanistan was still being fought primarily by irregular forces supplied by Special Forces and the CIA. Recruiters were hard pressed to meet their quotas but the graduating class of 2002 hadn’t finished high school yet so the recruiters were under pressure. I walked into the office dressed in all black, wallet chain, and spiked hair – likely the picture of a problem child. Three pairs of eyes quickly settled on me and almost immediately rolled into the back of their owner’s heads.
“How can I help you?” one of them asked without standing up.
“Yeah, where do I sign?” was my slightly enthusiastic response.
Three grown men nearly climbed over their desks to be the first to reach me, apparently Midland wasn’t supplying them with enough interested bodies to meet their quotas.
“Come here son,” said a gruff voice from the back of the office. The Sergeant First Class in charge of the recruiting office was standing in front of the only closed room in the space.
I grinned (as I often did back then) and headed back to the mid-30 something man holding his office’s door open. The room was cramped, but I took a seat without it being offered. Arrogance masked as confidence. I knew I needed the Army as much as it needed me at that moment, but it didn’t deflate my ego one bit.
“What’s wrong with you?” the SFC asked.
Taken aback by the direct question, I hesitated, before sheepishly responding, “I don’t have a diploma…but I’m getting my GED as soon as possible.”
He simply nodded, picked up the phone, and scheduled an appointment for me with a local charter school. At no cost to me, the charter school evaluated my school records and determined what would be needed for them to issue me a diploma. Within a week I had graduated from high school.
Throughout the recruiting process I maintained that I would only go in as infantry. At the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), the officer in charge of my first contract offered me an Intelligence Analyst Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) with a signing bonus, secret clearance, duty station of choice, and 4 year contract, but I stuck to my guns. If I was going to serve in the Army, I was going to fight. I was going to do the most difficult job in the entire organization to prove to myself and others that I could do it. Pride stood in the way of what would have been a more beneficial job once I gout out of the Army.
In the end, I got what I wanted: a 3-year contract as an 11X (unassigned infantry MOS – assignment occurs during One Station Unit Training OSUT) with no duty station of choice, clearance, or signing bonus. I couldn’t be happier at the time. I was proud that I stuck to my guns for the job I thought I wanted. I stuck it to the man!
However, my mindset had yet to change towards the Army as an organization. I was convinced I would serve my 3 years, get out, and forget it ever happened. Remember, this was a year before Operation Iraqi Freedom began so the chances of seeing combat were minimal at best.
Fast forward one year and I am soon to be promoted to PFC (E-3, Private First Class) while stationed in Korea. I would soon earn my Expert Infantryman’s Badge (EIB) and was the model of a young soldier. It was likely that people thought I was born in the uniform since I never seemed to take it off.
Sometime in Basic Training I decided I liked the Army. It was structured, disciplined, rigid yet flexible, and rewarded results instead of effort. The core functions of the infantry job made sense to me (close with the enemy and destroy them) and I found I was fairly good at all of them. I was hooked and happy for it.
During my leave after Basic Training I had decided I wanted to accomplish three things in the three years I was planning on being in the Army (yeah, still hadn’t adjusted that target):
- Become a Non-Commissioned Officer
- Attend and graduate Sniper School
- Experience combat
I ended up accomplishing two of the three goals in my first three years in the Army and letting go of the dream for Sniper School over the next few years. Once I experienced combat it was all I felt I needed in my life – but that’s a series of posts for later.
I reveled in the physical pain of the training. I longed for the mental and emotional roller coaster of training and, later, combat. I was able to push myself without boundaries. I was pushed to the edge by my leadership and fellow soldiers. Everyday was a challenge. Everyday proved I could do more than the day before.
Over the years in the wet woods of Korea, dry desert of Iraq, and army-friendly Clarksville, my opinions of the Army changed. I loved the Army. I loved the infantry. I loved the experience I gained at such a young age. I loved the soldiers I was responsible for training and leading into combat. There was nothing more important than the soldiers I led – nothing.
I learned and experienced the brotherhood of the Army infantry. I lived for it.
Six years was shorter than I intended to stay in the service, but it was long enough to know I will likely never find anything else that is as fulfilling as the Army was for me.
Did you serve in the military? Why did you join? Why did you stay in or get out? Leave it all in the comments and don’t forget to like, share, and follow this blog!