Why I joined the Army and what happened after…

My final reenlistment in 2008 - I would be out of the Army less than a year later.
My final reenlistment in 2008 – I would be out of the Army less than a year later.

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.

Me...in high school - Don't judge too much.
Me…in high school – Don’t judge too much.

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):

  1. Become a Non-Commissioned Officer
  2. Attend and graduate Sniper School
  3. 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.

I am on the right - smiling - taken immediately after a non-enemy accident
I am on the right – smiling – taken immediately after a non-enemy accident

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!

Army Infantry Reboot

Post 8 - PTSD
Me in Iraq, circa 2008

I was scrolling through my LinkedIn account yesterday and ran across an interesting article detailing changes coming to the training regiment for new infantry soldiers. Though I have been out of the Army for 10 years, I still feel a personal sense of responsibility to remain aware of current trends in the army. In the past decade, a focus on drone capabilities, developing and introducing new technology to all facets of the force, and what the next war will entail typically hold headlines. However, a vital flaw in our army’s readiness and capacity to fight wars began to form while I was still in uniform: poor training and preparedness of new enlisted infantry soldiers.

In the article, Brigadier General Christopher T. Donahue (Infantry School Commandant) mentions the need to ensure ” that the right people are being selected for the Infantry Branch”. They need to be intelligent and capable of handling austere conditions at their worst and for long periods of time. Many assume that only those who failed to get a high score on their entrance exam (ASVAB) join the infantry, but this has always been a misconception. “The right people” should not simply refer to intelligence, but also the ability to assimilate into the army structure without losing their ability to critically think.

Donahue mentions that infantry soldiers need to be able to continue the fight even when everything goes sideways with or without guidance from superiors. Just because the radio was shot or pierced by shrapnel does not mean you pack it up and go home – you have to complete the mission objective. To do this, you must have good on-the-ground leadership as well as soldiers capable of (and willing to) think critically.

Due to the need for boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan too many waivers were issued for individuals who had no right being in the army, let alone the infantry, in the early to mid-2000s. Felons, no diploma/GED, assault charges, and other waivers permitted young men to enter the army without any real dedication or commitment to the organization or its mission. This permeated the army with undisciplined, rebellious, dangerous individuals – some would go on to great careers that changed their lives while others refused to grow up. These individuals took away from those who joined to serve, fight, and close with the enemy with honor.

As a leader for a majority of my service, I regularly received new soldiers who were straight out of Basic Training. As the years in Iraq and Afghanistan ticked by, I noticed a significant decrease in these soldier’s professionalism, basic soldier skill sets, and general discipline. These new soldiers could barely fire a weapon or execute basic fire drills (infantry maneuvers) safely – it was mind blowing to me.

Donahue is experimenting with a significant increase in the amount of time new infantry soldiers remain at One Station Unit Training (OSUT – the combination of Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training). More time in a strictly training environment will do these new soldiers some good and take some of the burden off of regular units upon receipt of these soldiers. The most difficult thing to do is get a new soldier, straight out of Basic Training, ready for a deployment – I hope these changes help.

Another major improvement will be to marksmanship qualification and training. Moving from the out-dated model of foxhole and prone firing positions to a more realistic prone supported, prone unsupported, kneeling, standing approach is long over due. In the real world (i.e. war), you don’t get to choose the best position to fire from every time and practicing different positions does help.

The next thing that needs to happen is the line units (regular infantry, not Rangers or SF) need more advanced and regular marksmanship training. This should include situational awareness training (shoot/don’t shoot scenarios) as well as advanced tactics and firing positions. It’s a misconception by the general public that regular infantry soldiers simply sit on a firing range and plink away for hours on end with an endless supply of ammunition. I can count on one hand how many times I had more than 40 live-rounds of ammunition for live-fire exercises (not qualification ranges) in the 6+ years I was in the army.

A final point that should be addressed (though it is not included in the article) is soldiers of the 21st century still need to learn how to do things without technology. A GPS is great until the batteries die or the screen is shattered and unreadable. Personal computers and future exoskeletons are wonderful until sand and grit break the CPU or lock up a joint. Soldiers will always need to know how to navigate with a paper map and a compass. They should know how to shoot their weapons accurately with iron sights. They need to know basic first aid when they don’t have an expanding bandage or Quikclot at their disposal. Knowing how to accomplish the mission when you don’t have modern conveniences is a very important skill set to maintain.

I applaud the army for its efforts to improve soldier readiness through training and a better selection process. I hope those who are currently serving in war zones around the world see a positive impact from these changes.

Did you serve in the infantry? What did you observe as some of the greatest weaknesses or things of greatest importance to be improved? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments and don’t forget to like, share, and follow this blog!

Bataan 2018…The Day After – Part 2

Pre-Opening Ceremony - Bataan Memorial Death March 2018
Final prep before the opening ceremony – Photo courtesy of Bud Cordova (The Husband)

I wanted to write a post right after finishing the march, but found myself a bit on the tired side and opted for sleep instead. This is part two of a multi-part (number to be determined) postmortem of the Bataan Memorial Death march 2018. Don’t forget to get caught up on how we did by reading Part 1

Regrettably, the husband and I were unable to complete the full 26.2 mile march. At mile marker 8 (Checkpoint 3/9), we each performed a medical self-assessment which resulted in the very difficult decision to merely complete the 14.2 mile Honorary Route. The husband twisted his already tender knee coming up the 2-mile sand pit that started at mile marker 6 and was fairly certain the much steeper (and sandier) march up the hill between mile markers 12 and 15 would result in serious injury. Meanwhile, my own review resulted with mild dehydration setting in and light bruising on my feet. Since it was only 10 AM and I was already showing signs of dehydration (despite regular water intake interspersed with electrolyte-rich drinks) it was unlikely I was going to make it around the hill and to the finish line without suffering from heat stroke. Together, we concluded our lack of preparation in similar conditions as the route and our general unwillingness to severely or permanently injure ourselves meant we wouldn’t finish the full route.

But not all was lost!

Each of us came out of this experience with some hefty lessons learned that we plan on applying to next year’s event. Hopefully, some of these lessons will help any of you readers planning on participating properly prepare for this arduous event.

LESSONS LEARNED

  1. PREPARATION IS KEY – If you are a serious competitor and are not simply doing this march for the fun of it all, this lesson goes without saying. For those of you simply completing the march to check it off your bucket list, pay homage to those who have sacrificed their lives for this country, or because you have nothing better to do in mid to late March, pay attention! The organizers have provided a fairly detailed 20-week training plan (especially important for those entering a Heavy Division) which looks very promising and will be used next year to properly prepare for this event.
  2. TRAIN IN COMPARABLE ENVIRONMENTS – We don’t all live in a desert environment (I mean, I do, but not all of you) and don’t have regular access to 6 inch deep coarse sand with tiny pieces of gravel throughout it. Not everyone is in an environment of high-70’s to low-80’s dry heat with direct sun exposure for miles on end. Some of you don’t have 5-20 mph wind gusts at the ready to pelt you with small rocks and cloud your vision with dust. However, if you want to make it through this march, it would behoove you to find these conditions, ruck up, and start walking. The husband and I have already found several areas around Albuquerque that match this description and we will be burning holes in our boots over the next year so we can finish the full route.
  3. DON’T COUNT ON YOUR OWN PACE – 8,400+ people walked, marched, or ran the course this year. Each category (Military Heavy, Military Light, Civilian Light, Runner, etc.) was released onto the course one right after the other. The civilian categories were let loose last. The husband and I had 8,000 people ahead of us, all going at a different pace with different goals and motivations. The first two miles weren’t bad because we were on a four-lane road with plenty of room from side to side. However, Starting mile 3 you find yourself in sand (get used to that word) on a barely improved (more like used) dirt road that is only 10 feet wide at its widest. Many of the people are not paying attention to their surroundings so slower walkers/marchers in the center of the path can force you to slow down until there are a few inches on the side to pass them. Getting stuck behind a larger gaggle of people may force you to slow to an uncomfortably slow pace until you break through. This can cause pain! be ready for the varying pace and inattention of your fellow marchers.
  4. THE (CIVILIAN) START TIME IS NOT 7:00 AM – Based on all of the published schedules, it looked like the start time was going to be 7:00 AM with the Runners starting it off followed by Military Heavy and all the other categories. However, the Civilian Heavy category did not get released from its respective corral until 8:10 AM (leaving one hour less than planned for to complete the course). What does this mean? Well, if you followed the instructions and were in the corrals by 6:00 AM then it means you have been standing, sitting, or laying in chilly conditions for at least 2 hours before you take your first step towards the start line. This leads to tense muscles, potentially sore feet, and a bit of frustration. Now, I get it, all 8,000 marchers can’t be released at the same moment due to traffic build up on the route and by doing staged releases you allow the field to spread out more. Unfortunately, this timing was never communicated which led to a lot of uncertainty the day of the march which isn’t the best way to start 14.2 or 26.2 miles.
  5. IT’S UNUSUALLY COLD WHILE YOU WAIT TO START – This one hurt the husband more than me (I like to think of myself as more of a polar bear than a lizard), but it was still more uncomfortable than I expected. This lesson ties back to Lesson #4, but more specifically points to wearing a sweater, jacket, or bringing a blanket to stave off the chill of the desert morning. The husband was shivering and leaning against me for hours in an attempt to stay warm (not comfortable, just not freezing) which did not help his mood at the start of the march. This is something the organizers communicate to the participants and should be listened to in all seriousness.

I hope that some of this information helps fill in the knowledge gaps for anyone who hasn’t participated in this event in the past. I know we will be remembering these facts as we prepare for the Bataan Memorial Death March 2019. Check out Part 1 to learn more about the course and event execution!

Have you participated in the Bataan Memorial Death March and have a lesson learned not included above? Share with everyone in the comments below!

Arrival at Bataan 2018…

Bataan Bibs - 2018 - EditedAt 3:00 o’clock this morning, the husband and I packed up the car with the large North Face duffel bag, my large Blackhawk Assault pack, and some miscellaneous hydration sized bags. By 3:30 we were off…well, I was off while the husband snoozed/listened to an audio book through his earbuds. After four hours of driving through a pitch black, no moon, overcast night we arrived at White Sands Missile Range for the Bataan Memorial Death March in-processing shenanigans. However, I was a little disappointed when we stood in line for ten minutes before the doors opened only to be out of the building (packets in hand and smiles on our faces) 5 minutes after we were let in. So sad.

There was positive energy among the eclectic gathering of people in line. A woman in her 50’s will be running the marathon; a pair of veterans with their wives laughed about old times in the Army; a veteran behind us met up with an old friend he hadn’t seen in years. For the most part, the husband and I stood quietly, taking it all in and enjoying the atmosphere.

Young ROTC cadets from NMSU standing by the door in slacks and button downs looked cautiously over the people, probably wondering if they would ever measure up to some of the veterans looking back at them. If I could share a morsel of wisdom with them it would be simple: don’t try to be those who came before you, push the limits and set new standards. I look forward to seeing some of these cadets on the route come Sunday.

The base is very clean (as almost all military installations are) with clean rock landscaping in lieu of grass in most places. Civilian contractors roamed in packs of 4 with wee-eaters and hoes making slight improvements to an already exceptional post. The personnel we encountered were polite and courteous, filled with a positive energy that helps up the motivation levels for Sunday.

Now, for the bad news (or at the very least, cautionary news). I registered for the heavy division (35 pound pack minus water or other consumables) with the expectation of a 4 month train-up to this event. However, I fell pray to stress at work, general laziness, and an overall lack of motivation. These are not new things and I believed I had appropriately taken them into account when planning this whole endeavor – unfortunately, I was unsuccessful.

Since the beginning, I have had no intentions of competing in my age group for 1st or 2nd place (the only two positions who receive a medal per age group); I merely wanted to complete the event without crippling myself. When I factor in the lack of training/preparation, I am merely cautiously optimistic that I will 1. finish and 2. not be injured in some way. My plan is to keep a reasonable, steady pace despite 1,100 feet of elevation gain from mile 8 to 15 and deep sand sections. Fortunately, I have the husband beside me in the Light (no pack) Division to help keep pace and feed me protein bars.

Alright, I am going to wrap up this post but intend on writing more about course conditions and weather tomorrow – come back and see! I will leave you with this beautiful picture of White Sands National Park (we stopped in on our way to the hotel after in-processing).

Bataan - Not the Course - White Sands NP
White Sands National Park – Not a part of the Bataan Course

Have you completed the Bataan Memorial Death March? What training tips do you have for the uninitiated? Were you Heavy or Light Division, Military or Civilian? Share your experience in the comments! 

 

 

The End of a Streak

Starting Tuesday night, I developed a fever for the first time in three years. Along with this raised temperature came severe stomach cramps, vertigo inducing nausea, and an unbelievable urge to evacuate my bowels. By 2 in the morning on Wednesday I was groaning in pain and unable to sleep. Five hours later, I was canceling my meetings for the day and hoping to simply pass out until the worst was over. No such luck.

I spent Wednesday shifting from one position to another in a futile attempt to alleviate the pain and get some rest. Whether from pain or simple exhaustion, I managed to remain unconscious for several hours throughout the day. This was little comfort as my Apple Watch continued to tick away the minutes and log the lack of movement and standing I was doing for the day. Sleep continued to grab me and pull me under in fits and rages.

My husband, with his ten years of healthcare experience, watched over me between sessions on his Nintendo DS. Ensuring I was breathing and rolling his eyes with each passive groan I let out. The cats and dog held me in place on the bed, purring and cuddling their way to a perfect day (in their minds at least). My body simply screamed for some sort of relief.

By early evening I was able to stay awake for a couple of hours, but my body had no energy left after beating back the fever and evacuating my bowels. The cramps had sapped me of everything I had remaining in reserves. I was a limp and broken shell sitting in my big purple chair with a 20 pound cat pinning me down while trying to convince me to go back to bed.

It was 9 o’clock when it hit me: my move streak on my Apple Watch was over. I wasn’t going to be able to get the 600 active calories that remained for the day before I collapsed again. I had been defeated 192 days into my self-imposed challenge by a stomach bug I cannot explain. Over 6 months of effort evaporated in an instant. It was at this point my friends knew I was truly ill.

Today is a brand new day and, despite not feeling 100% yet, I have closed all my rings. So ends Day 1 of a brand new streak!

Are you an Apple Watch user who revels in closing your rings? What’s your longest move streak? Do you use another tracker to motivate you to do more than sit at your computer and eat whatever is closest at hand? Share in the comments!