PFC Cassini and I stood on the steps of the battalion building, chatting while he finished smoking a cigarette. Just twenty-two years old and recently back from deployment, he shook his head and said, “Damn. I don’t like being in the Army.” Then he told me he was going to re-up when his contract ended in the next month.
When I asked why he would re-enlist, he said, “It’s for my mom, ma’am. She’s not doing too well back home – she’s sick a lot. My dad was never in the picture, so I send her part of every paycheck.”
He dropped his cigarette on the ground, smashed it with his boot, then picked it up and put it in his pocket. His shoulders slumped with the burdens he carried as he walked back into the building.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In the shade of a huge oak tree, forty or more soldiers waited for their parachute jump. PVT Davidson and I stood off to the side of the group, talking about how he had found his way into the Army after growing up in a tiny town on the plains of Montana.
“I didn’t have a very good upbringing, ma’am. Even when I was four or five, my parents didn’t care whether I was home or not. They didn’t do much parenting at all, to be honest with you. I eventually got involved with drugs. I thought the Army could teach me how to grow up, how to be a man.”
“You’ve been in three years now – is it working out?”
“Oh, definitely. You wouldn’t believe how much I’ve changed. I always wanted this kind of structure and focus.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
CPT O’Brien was a Special Forces medic, as tough and dedicated as they come. After we chatted for a minute, I asked him about his accent. He laughed.
“I guess you can tell – I’m from Ireland. I’ve been in this country almost fifteen years, but I still have the accent, don’t I?”
When I asked him how he’d landed in the military, he replied, “9/11, ma’am. This country had given me so much, when those planes hit, it was time I gave something back.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“I’m fourth generation military, ma’am. Proud to carry on the tradition.” LTC Markham and I were standing just outside his office and I’d asked him how he’d come to be in the military. If there was a warrior archetype, LTC Markham embodied that spirit: tough, sharp-minded and exceedingly involved with his troops, he was one of the finest leaders I met during my years working on bases. His men looked up to him, trusted him and were happy to serve under him.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I stood behind a soldier in the line in the dining facility. He was from Nepal, and he told me he’d signed up because he would get his U.S. citizenship after serving. I met folks from at least seventeen different countries who joined for the same reason.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“There’s no jobs back home,” said one private from the inner city. “At least this is a steady paycheck, a way to get to college, and some training I can use to get a job when I get out.” I spoke with a sergeant who was excited his military training as an avionics technician would get him a high-paying job when he left the Army. A young specialist from Texas was happy he was learning to work on the engines of huge trucks and armored vehicles – he had plans for being a big-rig mechanic when he got out. Another soldier hoped his training would (one day) get him a position on the detail serving in the White House.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Contrary to what some people might assume, in all my conversations with service members, I never met a single one who signed up because they had a passion for combat. They had innumerable reasons for agreeing to military service; most had to do with improving their life circumstances. I have a suggestion: next time you meet a service member, sit down and ask them why they signed up. Might be an interesting conversation.
These really opened my eyes. Especially your comment that NO ONE ever said combat appealed to them.
Elizabeth, these responses are truly enlightening. It is sad to think that so many men and women see military service as their only hope for a decent future.
every one of us had a different reason in the beginning, mine was because I was flunking out of college, too much drinking and galavanting around...got loaded one weekend and ended up in Miami...when I finally made it home again, my dad invited me to hit the highway, so I ended up at the recruiter's office, and been on the highway ever since...wouldn't trade it for anything.
Thanks for sharing these, Elizabeth. The variety is eye opening for sure.
Thanks so much - the journey of telling the stories is similar to the journey of meeting all these moments in the military work I did: it just keeps coming.
Thank you thank you thank you for this.
Elizabeth Heaney - Author
Clinical Psychologist, teacher, private counselor. She speaks and writes about her work with service members.