Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Get to Shoot an M16 and Eat that awesome Army Chow!" (1/4)

Evidently April is a military month for me.  I have another three-day drill coming up, having just finished one yesterday.  And I arrived back from the California mission only four days ago!  Heck, I decided to read The Red Badge of Courage to keep my mind in a military mode.  This morning was a good day.  I was out on the M9 range at Fort Elroy (pseudonym) from 8am until the early afternoon shooting a pistol and helping soldiers get through weapons qualification.  Shooting pop-up targets with a 9mm pistol outside on a perfect April day.  What more could one ask?  It was one of those days when I'm glad I joined the army.  But it's been quite a journey.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you the tale of my decision to enter the military at a late stage in my life.  I enlisted five years ago, April 8 to be exact, two days shy of my 40th birthday.  The Army Reserve had just extended the age limit from 35 to 39 in March of 2005.  (It's now up to 42!)  I found out about this change in policy by happenstance on a news program about a week before my birthday, so I had little time to reflect.  At the time I must have been the oldest guy going through basic training.  What with my education and all, I could have joined as an officer, but I opted to go from the very bottum up, enlisting as a Specialist (the highest rank for a new soldier with a college education).

So there I was: a forty-year-old at basic training.  Once the cattle car opened up, drill sergeants subjected us to a barrage of insults and yelling.  These guys were on average 8 years my junior, but I took it.  It didn't take long for it to slip that I had a college education.  "Well, what do we have here?  A college boy!  You think you're too smart, huh?  Just cuz I have a GED?  Is that it?  Hey, sergeants, come over here.  We got here a smartass.  College boy!"

The nine weeks of basic training are a hardship, no doubt about it.  I would just roll my eyes whenever I heard a young soldier put on his macho voice and say how much he enjoyed it.  Yet, apart from the sleep deprivation and standing for what seemed an eternity in formations, I truly had a good time.  Fort Leonard Wood in June and July is not pleasant.  But I learned how to clean and shoot an M16, got in top physical shape, got in a fight, and learned a host of other skills that I would have learned otherwise.

To my credit, I didn't have any issues with the physical fitness requirements.  I had about seven weeks from before basic training and I used them well.  I took on a strict workout regimen involving weights, running, and swimming.  I did not want my age to be a factor.  My discipline paid off.  I've received high scores for the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) ever since.  Moreover, I have never been on sick call nor have I had a profile.  For the uninitiated, "sick call" is shorthand for skipping out on phystical fitness in the morning or duty in general to visit the physician.  "Profile" is parlance for having a written excuse that absolves from running or working out, depending on one's physical issue.

Needless to say, not a few drill sergeants looked at me warily.  What's this old guy doing here?  I remember kidding around with a couple of them.  I told them I was actually an investigative reporter for 20/20 doing a research on basic training.  They laughed in such a way that I knew they didn't know if I was serious or not.

I'm not a journalist, but I did view my experience through the lens of a historian and sociologist.  For instance, religion is a curious thing.  The military provides various venues for soldier's Like Henry Fleming, the protagonist in The Red Badge of Courage, I also took in my experience as if I was another person looking out.

So why did I join?  That's a good question.  Ever since October 2001 when we sent troops into Afghanistan, deep down I wanted to do my part in defending hearth and home.  So, not to sound sappy or jingoistic, but duty to country was my initial motivation.  Without little luck on the job market, moreover, I figured I've got nothing to lose.  I considered enlisting when I was 21 years old until a friend talked me out of it.

When young soldiers asked me why I joined the army at a late stage in life, I'd give them my quick answer: You get to shoot an M16 and eat that awesome army chow!  Why should I open up to any Tom, Dick or Harry my real reason for joining?  I wanted to serve this great country of ours, pure and simple.