I was bummed because I wouldn’t see combat. I served during the Reagan years, when there were no conflicts. You’d think that’d be a good thing, but not for me. I later met a police officer in Palo Alto, California. When I asked him how great it was to be a cop in such a calm, wealthy town, he said, “Sucks, man. No action.” See, he was a cop because he wanted to catch bad guys, and I became an infantryman because I wanted to go to war. Of course, today I understand the insanity of my yearning. I had something to prove to myself regarding my masculinity; I still wanted the combat anecdotes, plus I still had some magical thinking, believing that nothing bad could happen to me. But even if there’d been a hot conflict instead of merely a Cold War, it was unlikely that I’d see combat.
You see, while in basic training, recruiters approached me to change my orders from West Germany to the Old Guard at Fort Myer, Virginia. Recall that when I was a road racer, I’d lived just a few blocks from the fort and was impressed by the soldiers. So I changed my orders. Someone had to bury the fallen warriors, and if they were buried in Arlington National Cemetery, then I might’ve done it. As a member of the Presidential Honor Guard, my job was to present a good impression of the United States. At the Tomb of the Unknowns, tourists watched from behind velvet ropes as we marched up the white marble steps and presented arms as some bigwig laid a wreath. Blue-pressed and perfect, we were chosen because we were the brightest tall, thin infantry soldiers at the time, and we appeared homogeneously neat and fit. We functioned as a single entity, flawless in our appearance, with impeccably timed and choreographed routines. It was the opposite of the unique individual I’d struggled to be for most of my life, so yeah, another irony. Personalities and personal desires were set aside for uniformity. It was overt impression management taken to an absurd extreme. Still, for me to be a part of something larger than myself, excellent and observed, was cool for…like, two months. Even at the time, I saw value in what I did; it was just that I thought I had more to offer than being a cog in a company- or battalion-sized slick machine. I’d become exactly what my running and writing heroes resisted.
I began to stand out again when I resumed winning road races around Northern Virginia. Afterward, I showed my trophies to my commanding officer as self-promotion. My captain was impressed and called company formations to present those trophies back to me. The troops began to resent these unnecessary formations, and I endured yet another round of ostracism—number four if you’re counting my early home life, the “Pigeth” episode, the “Colorado Six-Pack” fiasco, and now the army SNAFU.
And there it was; a clear pattern had emerged by the time I was twenty-five years old. My reaction to my woundedness—whether it was my snarky mouth or my addict-like drive to win races—alienated groups of people from me. My anxious style of attachment made me fear that I couldn’t trust people to be there for me, so I defended myself by pushing them away, and then the thing I feared the most—social ostracism—manifested, and the cycle continued.
I made rank quickly, but inside I felt turmoil. I was so bored, standing around and waiting, which was mostly what the army wanted from me. But Maslow’s press toward self-actualization was a stronger drive for me than fitting in was. I habitually sought a balance between individualism and joining with the collective, but the army didn’t care about me as an individual; it only wanted me to fit into the mission goal. At the time, it just felt like oppression that I couldn’t escape, or they’d send me to Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary. Sometimes I needed to be alone to regroup and take a breath. I needed to get away from the other soldiers. But that wasn’t the way it was done in the infantry; it was just the opposite. It was all about teamwork, which, as you can imagine, was especially challenging for me, having been raised to think that it was every dog for himself and having specialized in the solitary pursuits of distance running, reading, and writing.
But yeah, I figured that too much uniformity wasted my life, except when we did funerals in “the boneyard.” Eight of us, all identical, walked beside a casket set upon an exact replica of the caisson that carried JFK’s body. It reminded me of my own mortality and how badly I needed to get on with my life. I felt stalled out. I was conflicted; I was proud to do what we did, but all the inefficiency stressed me out. I just wanted out of their army. It made me wonder about people who worked civilian jobs that they hated but wouldn’t quit. They are scared to change, whereas I’ve always been more afraid of wasting my life than switching jobs.
When I carried my first casket that contained a corpse, I was shocked by the added heft. We trained with empty, government-issue, silver caskets on the back porch of our barrack, so to move from the mock-up to the real thing was profound for me. Am I too ghoulish? I’m starting to worry. I prefer to think of myself as very existential. All I’m saying is that the first few times I felt the weight of dead human meat, it unsettled me. Still, you would’ve only seen me standing still as a robot, waiting to run the next program.
Adding to my angst was that I didn’t have enough time to run. The training necessary to be a subelite distance runner was incongruent with military life. I missed weeks of training when I humped the bush, aggressing the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. We orienteered and did other tasks to earn our EIBs, expert infantryman’s badges. I didn’t earn my EIB, which was a big deal to me at the time. But what we all coveted was a CIB, a combat infantryman’s badge. Only one man in our entire company had a CIB. He’d fought in Granada, and although he was only a corporal, he had mad respect—exactly what I wanted.
Today I wonder what it’d be like if I’d earned all the medals and badges I’d wanted, even a CIB. I’ve concluded that nothing would be different. In thirty years, nobody has ever asked about accolades from my service, which military schools I attended, or what my experience was like. I wanted to impress everyone, but in retrospect, I see that we only impressed other soldiers: EIB, a Ranger tab, Air Assault…Before the carnage of Iraq and Afghanistan, civilians didn’t care, except in some hypothetical “thank-you-for-your-service” way, which nobody except old people said back then. Many Georgetown bars wouldn’t even allow us inside. They saw our high-and-tight haircuts and said they didn’t want trouble. When I said, “I have to whiz,” they said, “There’s the alley.”
Of course, today I realize that I was way too self-involved and overly impressed by my own supposed importance. But at the time, I was blind to it. I suspect the people who earn CIBs and Olympic medals experience a general unconcern regarding their accolades. I think they discover that those things bring them less attention than the rest of us imagine they receive.