Saturday, July 26, 2008

Citizen, Soldier

I promised a blog post about what I have learned during my six years in the Army, so here it is. I'll try my best to keep my own political opinions out of it concerning war policy and such. What I want to do is just write a little about what the military has taught me and what my experience was like. I'm sure each individual has a different experience, so don't presume that mine is necessarily typical. Then again, it just may be. I'll leave that up to you to decide in the comments section at the bottom of the post.

I joined the West Virginia Army National Guard in 2002 as a 17-year-old senior in high school with my parents' consent. I enlisted as a 19 Delta Cavalry Scout, and I drilled one weekend a month during my senior year, earning a little extra gas money (back then, I could run my car the whole month off my drill pay).

Seven days after high school graduation, I went to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) for the second time — this time to ship to U.S. Army basic training at Ft. Knox, Ky. Upon arrival, my recruiter told me that my slot as a scout had been taken by the active Army, and if I wanted to go to basic training that summer, I'd have to go instead as a 19 Kilo Abrams Armor Crewman (a tanker). I enlisted using the split-option enlistment, so I could go to basic training that summer and my advanced training the next summer, so as not to miss any college. This would be the first of many screwups by the Army, but I didn't know that yet and went on to Knox.

I spent about three days in the reception battalion, getting clothing issued and such, before shipping down range to the 2-81 Armor Battalion's Bravo Company and being assigned to drill sergeants Wiley (or it may be Willey, I don't remember now) and Pollard. Basic training wasn't too bad, really. It's mostly mental, and as long as you are willing to push yourself further each day and to follow all of the rules, surviving it is relatively doable. I made it through with relative ease, though I did get the flu (and still qualified as a sharpshooter with my M-4 rifle that same week). I went from 180 to 155 pounds, a number that seems unrealistic (yet so good) to me now. I ran two miles in about 14 minutes then and did more than 80 sit-ups in two minutes. Yeesh.

I enrolled in ROTC while attending Marshall University my freshman year of college. It was all pretty much a watered-down version of basic training, thus one of the reasons I eventually would leave ROTC. I found out that my advanced training date had been scheduled for the fall of 2004, meaning I would have the summer free but miss my third semester of college. It was not until this time that I was told split-option soldiers were not guaranteed to do their training during the summers. I'd take 18-plus hours every semester when I returned in the spring of 2005 because of this, plus some summer school. I still worked hard and graduated in four years, regardless of the Army's great scheduling skills.

I've got to admit, the Army National Guard's money came in handy during college. I had earned an academic scholarship, so I was using the 100 percent tuition reimbursement from the Army to cover my room and board. However, it took them until halfway through each semester to finally get me the check (after multiple times of losing grade records I sent them and other delays), so I ended up taking out student loans and then paying those back with the Army money. The extra approximately $500 I got each month on top of drill pay and tuition assistance, just for being in a critical skill job, was definitely nice as well. I definitely feel I saved some of that money, and what I didn't, I spent well — unlike the Army's money spent on my advanced training (that I had to miss that semester of college for). One week after I returned from Ft. Knox for the second time, I was called and told I was now to be reclassified as a scout (the job I originally had enlisted for).

Strangely enough, my unit had deployed to Iraq while I had been at basic training the previous year. I didn't get deployed with them because my advanced training hadn't been completed, though ironically, they didn't deploy in their actual jobs as tankers. Nope, they didn't even take tanks... they all deployed as infantrymen on HMMWVs. So, I was left in the rear detachment, taking training to become a scout.

It wasn't long after I was fully qualified as a scout that my unit returned from Iraq and we moved into a newly built armory and Mother Army once again decided our jobs weren't quite what She wanted. Once we were all HMMWV (wheeled) scouts, they decided we needed to go through a year of new equipment transition training on Bradley Fighting Vehicles. At this point, instead of a Saturday and Sunday each month and two weeks in the summer, we were doing 3-5 day drills and month-long annual training sessions. (Though the Army National Guard still advertised one weekend a month, two weeks a year to recruits.)

Just as I learned the ins and outs of being a Bradley gunner, I had two drills left. So, my Army career seemed to end before I ever really got to do any one job at all. My official separation date is Oct. 7, 2008, though my last drill was a couple of weeks ago. My unit is deploying again later this year, but I'm told as of right now the stop-loss date will miss me. However, the military can still call me back until 2010. That's another thing the recruiter failed to tell me, and something everyone out there should know about before they join the military. EVERY military commitment, regardless of how many years you sign for, is eight years long. Because I opted to do six years actively drilling, I have two in the individual ready reserve (IRR). The IRR is supposed to be used in national emergencies and such, but the Iraq War has changed all of that.

As of right now, I'm still owed pay from three months ago from the Army. This is one of many pay problems I've had since being in the military. Hopefully, I'll see that sometime soon. It's just one of the many frustrations I've had with the Army, but I'm glad that I had the experiences of the past six years anyway. I've learned a lot about how government organizations work, physical and mental discipline and work ethic. I've fired virtually every weapon available to combat arms soldiers in the modern military, a feat very few can say they have done, even in the military. Most of all though, I've met some of the best (and worst) people in the world.

That's the number one thing I'll take away from it all — those brothers in arms I've come across who understand what no one else I'll ever meet outside the military understands. I've met some real idiots in the military (my drill sergeant would call them "shitbags"), but I've met some of the most genuinely good-hearted people in the country as well. I think about Luke, my battle buddy from basic training, who is a big kid on the inside and is always smiling. Or Benjamin, another Ft. Knox friend who I helped practice what he would say to his high school sweetheart back home when he finished basic training. Then there's Ian, the kid from out west who I recently got back in contact with... he now has a debilitating disease, but there's no guy I have ever met with such a kind heart toward his friends. There's Seth, Joey and Jonathan, three guys I got to know really well through training sessions and late nights on the river at Camp Dawson just goofing off. There's the sergeant who taught me how to take apart an M-16 for the first time. There's the lieutenant who gave me a leadership role as a young soldier. There's the sergeant who is a good father, a man of God, and an even better Bradley commander. It's all about the people; even when the military sucks, you know you have some friends to complain with at least.

Here are some specific things I have learned:

  • Always be prepared. Carry the items you think you may never need — because you will.
  • Work harder than everyone else. When someone else works as hard as you, put that person on your team.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Be ready to close in and fight if you have to. Never take the same route twice. Sometimes, it pays to be a silent professional.
  • The KILL! KILL! KILL! mentality doesn't fit in to real life very well.
  • Military benefits and pay are pretty good, but no one is going to just give it to you. You have to fight tooth-and-nail to get what they agreed to. But, if you don't uphold your end of the deal immediately when told to, they'll notice immediately.
  • The military doesn't promote the best and brightest to be its leaders. It promotes those who check the boxes without question and who affirm those above them regularly.
  • Respect your flag and your country. Put your hand over your heart and shut up when you should. It's not that difficult, just do it.
  • Those in the military are primarily conservative. You'll be looked at as a sort of traitor if you voice more moderate or liberal ideals.
  • Chicks dig the uniform. They don't dig your military schedule or attitude.
Well, those are just some things I can think of. Perhaps I'll follow up in the future. All in all, the military has been a bittersweet thing for me. It's had plenty of benefits, but also it's had plenty of disadvantages. I think it's a good time to be getting out, though. You may as well go active duty if you join the military now because it's getting out of hand in the National Guard and Reserves with longer drills and annual training periods. If you want to have a long-term career, forget it, unless you work for the government or something (which, most of our guys are prison guards and cops). Our unit is also deploying again soon, and this is a pivotal, unsure time in the War on Terror. Plus, I've been told that there will be a change of command coming (in my opinion, at a very bad time) to the unit soon because of civilian law trouble involving the current command. There is a lot of uncertainty in the military now, and I personally don't support the War in Iraq, so I'm happy to (hopefully) be missing out on that upcoming deployment.

So what about you? Have you had experiences with the miliary? Leave some comments!


NavyCS said...

"Chicks dig the uniform. They don't dig your military schedule or attitude."

Ahh, but the good ones will adapt :)

JD said...

True enough. Mine did, but it wasn't always easy. Military significant others really need to understand what they are getting in to. If they do, and they still stick around, then you've got yourself a keeper. :)

NavyCS said...

I found my keeper, 25 years and counting - 24 of which was while I was in the Navy!

btw, this retirement stuff is NICE! :)