Honored to Serve My Country
Honored to Serve My Country
When I was a kid, I never thought that to join the military meant to “serve.” I would put on random hats in our house, grab a broom pretending it was a rifle, and would stand at attention – just like I saw in the movies.
The first “Army” movie I saw when I learned enough English to understand what was going on was “Private Benjamin” with Goldie Hawn. I knew nothing about the military, but I loved the uniforms, discipline, and the eventual choice the character made to walk away from her obnoxiously privileged life, showing how the military changed her for the better.
I tried to join the Army straight out of high school. A recruiter came to my house to convince me to enlist straight out of high school. We got along really well, and I – still with the movie version of military service in my head – told him I wanted to serve, although I still had no concept of what the word meant.
My parents put the kebosh on the idea of my enlisting to serve in the Army right after high school graduation because I had an academic scholarship to one of the country’s most prestigious colleges. I hated school, and I had no desire to go to college. I still had this idea that I wanted to serve my country in the Armed Forces.
I thought about ROTC, but the kids in that program all seemed spoiled and annoying, so I occupied myself with booze and games, while studying just enough not to lose my scholarship.
A year after college graduation, I stumbled around various jobs for a while, but nothing really appealed to me. I couldn’t get the idea that I wanted to serve out of my head. I still didn’t comprehend the meaning of the term, but I was beginning to understand just how many opportunities America had provided – opportunities I would never have had in the country of my birth.
I woke up one morning, picked up the phone, and called the local Army recruiter.
“Hey! So I just graduated from *INSERT UNIVERSITY NAME HERE* and I’m wondering about the opportunities the Army has for someone like me.”
There was a silence on the other end of the line just long enough for me to think that maybe we got disconnected, and then the voice calmly said, “Where are you located?”
I gave him my address, and he said, “I’ll be right there.”
Those of you who have served know the process: MEPS, ASVAB, choosing your job, medical, dental, swearing in… It all seemed like an endless maze of irritating bureaucracy. I had scored a 95 on my ASVAB – high enough to qualify for any job I wanted. The Sergeant at MEPS tried to get me to do something with tanks – I can’t remember what. I looked at him like he was insane and demanded computers.
I remember getting off the bus at Ft. Jackson with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” blaring from the speakers in the breezeway in the middle of four brick buildings, and I remember tearing up. Something in me had cracked, and tears flowed down my face. It was a touching moment… until a Drill Sergeant materialized in my face, yelling and screaming that I shouldn’t have E-4 rank, that I was nothing, and didn’t deserve to wear that rank on my collar. I remember trying not to laugh. Remember that basic training scene in “Starship Troopers,” in which the kid giggles as Sergeant Zim (played by the inimitable Clancy Brown) gives his “welcoming speech” and winds up running laps around base?
That was sort of me. I know you’re all shocked.
Note for those about to jump down my throat: I didn’t enjoy Starship Troopers as a movie based on Robert Heinlein’s novel. That movie was pure camp and had nothing to do with the classic book. But as pure camp and empty entertainment go, I will watch that goofy flick again and again. Don’t judge me.
As basic combat training progressed, and we were drilled endlessly in everything from drill and ceremony to basic rifle marksmanship to the laws of war, the chain of command, illegal orders, physical fitness, and everything in between, I began having earnest conversations with our Drill Sergeants about what it meant to them to serve. When I was put in charge of KP for the day, I wound up having a long conversation with the company commander during one of our rare breaks. He asked me why I joined the Army when I could have done anything I wanted with my degree. I replied that I was doing what I wanted, and I wanted to serve.
I began to realize that these men who were teaching me signed up for more than uniforms, guns, and grenades. There was an determination in their faces and a desire to serve their country and the people of the United States. They wanted to protect. They wanted the honor of serving. They wanted to train the next generation of Soldiers to serve.
They understood most of these kids would probably do one enlistment and get out, but those on whom they had an indelible effect – those few, those happy few, that band of brothers (and sisters) – who were inspired to serve, would be impacted by the lessons they learned for the rest of their lives. And these Drill Sergeants and other NCOs took their charge seriously.
I learned what it was to serve in Basic Training by learning what it was like to lead and chatting with the men who were charged with teaching us. By the last few weeks, we were no longer unworthy maggots, but young Soldiers, ready to stand on that wall and defend our nation.
If you had asked me what the meaning of “to serve” was when I first graduated college, I would have said something snarky about my job tending bar. By the time Basic Training was winding down, the pride and joy I felt in my accomplishments, the way my crisp, stiff uniform felt on my body, and my knowledge that I was one of those few who make the commitment to serve our nation was threatening to burst through my chest.
The gratitude I feel for my country – the land that gave me shelter as a refugee, the nation that allowed me to achieve, accomplish, and have every opportunity to earn and succeed that I did not have in the place of my birth – is what called me to serve, to protect the fundamental values on which this country was built, to defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to give at least something of myself back to a country that gave me so much!
I learned the meaning of “serve” during those sweaty days at Ft. Jackson, and I continue to serve today because I am to this day endlessly grateful.
Happy Veterans Day.
Featured image courtesy of: Petty Officer 2nd Class Lisa Ferdinando, Coast Guard