If I’m being honest—and I am—I felt small and vulnerable, so I sought to be part of something bigger and tougher than myself. Dad swore into the army a dozen young men plus me. I went in as an enlisted man because I wanted to be one of the guys, to fit in with Everyman and learn from the inside what infantry life was all about, as Tim O’Brien or Colonel David Hackworth had done. I didn’t have the self-esteem to be an officer and assume the responsibility of commanding other soldiers. Also, I didn’t wish to make a six-year commitment; I didn’t know if I’d be a career soldier, as Dad was. I just hoped.
Dad was always very poised, especially while in uniform, but he wasn’t a Great Santini type of military father. I was very proud of him, of his rank, his reputation, and his manliness. I thought he’d make a great subject for an oil painting. I pictured him standing in one of those open WWII-era jeeps with a white star on the hood. No, wait, even better: sitting astride a white stallion and holding a chrome helmet. Of course, he was more than a two-dimensional character, but that was all I saw and all he showed me back then. See, people intermittently approached me over the years and said how Dad had saved their lives during the Vietnam War. He was the guy who decided which men got into the New Mexico Army National Guard and which men did not. Those who didn’t get in risked being drafted into the regular army as infantry soldiers, shipped to Vietnam, and sent back to the Land of Enchantment in a body bag. Which meant that when Dad’s son volunteered for the regular army as a grunt, it was ironic as all get out.
I dug how weird it was for me to join as a private first class, at twenty-four-years old, with a college degree. It made me unpredictable. I liked to think of myself as a nonconformist even to the nonconformists. Basic training was about conformity, but I thought I’d hunker down inside their camouflage box and check it out for a while. It’ll be an adventure to write about, I said.
As a boy, I was never immunized, so I got my first shots at Fort Benning, Georgia. There were many firsts for me there, such as the first time I heard a person openly admit that he wanted to kill someone. Our drill sergeant had seated us in a circle and asked why we’d joined his army. A seventeen-year-old sociopath said, “I just want to kill somebody and get away with it.” His statement was well received; everyone grinned and nodded because we were all there to be lethal—no cooks, clerks, or rear echelon motherfuckers. We were killers in training.
I, too, wondered what it’d be like to kill somebody, preferably a communist, because then it wouldn’t be murder; it’d be heroic and make me a badass, I imagined. Who’d mess with a killer? But when my turn came, I said, “To serve my country.” The words, although partially true, sounded corny back then. Remember, this was only eleven years after America dragged herself out of the Vietnam quagmire and still seventeen years before the revived patriotism from 9/11. The other trainees—most of whom were just months out of high school with no better options than to join the army and no higher intelligence than to qualify for the infantry—furrowed their brows. Apparently, the sociopath had the right answer, so I didn’t mention my other reasons: support for my running and anecdotes for my writing. Those reasons sounded too limp-wristed to say aloud in this massive green machine that I had placed myself into.
I shouted, “Argh!” during bayonet training but felt silly. The other trainees seemed genuinely into it, though. I saluted the way you see in movies and walked the same way everybody else did—you know, marching—and then stood closely behind the other trainees in the chow line as the drills shouted, “Tighten it up! Make your buddy smile!” All the bloodlust and formality would feel natural at some point, I predicted. It never did; for the next two years, I felt inauthentic playing the soldier and killer and going through the rituals demanded in the military. I was an olive-drab chameleon. I even wore contact lenses through basic because I couldn’t stand how geeky those military-issue, black, horn-rimmed glasses made me look. Remember, I parodied as best I could the real soldiers I’d respected while growing up, and they didn’t wear thick, birth-control glasses. Can you imagine Vic Morrow, John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood wearing those glasses? I was always pretending; other guys seemed to embrace the silliness, but it didn’t feel natural to me. It felt like we parodied real soldiers, but I could never really be one. I didn’t like the abuse or the phoniness, and I hoped I’d like the army better after I got to my unit, but it never got better for me; it was never a good fit. Everybody I knew complained as much as I did, but then those same guys later reupped, which totally flabbergasted me. I was ready to get out of the army even as I nodded sleepily in the lecture halls while instructors droned on about the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Claymore mines, and how courageous we were expected to be. When a drill shouted, “All trainees, on your feet!” we leaped up or they leaned over us and growled, “Stay alert, stay alive, scumbag! Drop and give me twenty!” and you either did push-ups and asked permission to recover, or things got a whole lot worse. As the weeks wore on, the drills modified their pay-attention ploy with, “All queers, on your meat!” (Back then, in this subculture, it was encouraged to disparage gays). If, half-asleep, I shot to my feet as conditioned, the drills descended: “You queer, boy? Ain’t no faggots in my army, trainee! Pay attention to details! Just drop and start knockin’ ’em the fuck out! Go!” So I got into the front-lean-and-rest position, and my skinny, quivering distance-guy arms pumped out more push-ups.
They invited us to quit, to go ahead and join Jody back on the block (who, they assured us, was diddling our girlfriends). They dared anyone who didn’t wish to be a hardcore US Army infantry soldier to stand and get kicked out of their army. They didn’t want any “homos” or “good-for-nothing flat dicks.” I was concerned about getting injured and then recycled, which would prolong basic training. Or even worse, if I washed out, the humiliation would be overwhelming. After all, when my drill heard that I was the son of a (by this time) full-bird colonel, he dropped and did push-ups for me!
It really was as you see in movies, except in movies, you get to leave after a couple hours. I had to get through an excruciating thirteen weeks. I wondered if the movies reflected us, or if we all aped what we saw in the movies. I saw one guy cleaning the latrine with a toothbrush, even though nobody told him to do it that way. Do you think he was collecting anecdotes, too?
One day, when they again asked who wanted out of their army, a pale teenager stood and said that in fact, he did not wish to be in their army.
Oh, how the drills descended on him. But he stared straight ahead at the position of attention and took the onslaught. They degraded him, screamed in both of his ears, and made him do mountain climbers. The pale teen endured it, and each time they asked who wanted to quit, he again stood. At every lecture, in the chow hall, and while standing in formation, they talked about his cowardice, they questioned his manhood, they said what a “faggot” he was, and they talked about the sexually deviant things they were going to do to his mama.
And still, he endured it.
I didn’t respect him because he wasn’t honoring his commitment—and as I toughed it out, he should tough it out too—but I respected how he withstood the abuse. Even though I viewed him as a quitter with poor integrity, I thought that he had awesome fortitude. He was courageous to endure so much hostility; I wasn’t sure that I could have.
The pale teen marched with us at graduation. Seems he didn’t really want out of their army; he just wanted out to go home to work things out with his new wife. He was allowed to make a long phone call to his wife, somehow fixed his problem, stayed, and the hazing ceased. Maybe he had his priorities straight. I do a bit of marriage counseling in my practice, and I’ve been married thirty years. I see who has my back and who doesn’t. My wife does. The army never had my back, but I had some buddies who did. Ironically, the pale kid might’ve been the most courageous and honorable of us all, at least from his wife’s point of view. The problem, I suppose, is that if everybody were as honorable as he was, where would we find the heroes to do the fighting, killing, and dying for the rest of us? Who would keep us safe and free to become chameleons or authentic or anything in between?