Not long after 9/11, I got it in my mind that I wanted to join the Army. It shocked my friends and family. They thought I was kidding, like most enlistees' families do who aren't military families. Seeing the images on TV of NYC and DC, while my trading screens were frozen because Wall Street had shut down immediately, I felt like I'd be well-suited towards tracking those terrorists down. I felt like I had to take care of fellow Americans, and that I was hurting my country by not volunteering to help. I felt like I had a meaningful purpose in life. The world opened up to me.
This was a calling; I think I just wanted to become a professional in something that really mattered, and was gravely important. Sure, I'd love to become a teacher, but what do I know yet? Or I could become a writer, but what would I write about when I hadn't experienced anything? How about going into business? Well, I'd already realized that most of business was a soul-less grind unless I was one of the lucky few to become successful entrepreneurs. An artist? No aptitude for it. Lawyer? Doctor? Are you kidding me?
Hunting terrorists, studying foreign policy, and protecting the weak seemed like a career I could really dedicate myself to. My condition for enlistment was that I would be guaranteed to learn a language. I got what I wanted in my contract and I signed up. As it turned out, I was given much more than I expected; the Army life fit my work ethic also. I felt like I could be useful for once. And grow up a lot in the process. The no-bullshit, direct leadership and can-do attitude were appealing. The esprit de corps was inspiring. At the same time, I felt intellectually challenged by the field of international relations, a feeling I didn't have academically in other fields.
I went to basic training, then learned Arabic for over a year at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. I realized it was the best thing I'd ever done. It was my college experience. I've grown up a lot, been exposed to different ways of life, and am doing something rewarding. The friends I've met in the Army are friends for life. And they come from all backgrounds as the military is the most diverse institution in the entire country. I've traveled a lot in my life, mostly to Europe, so seeing different people was nothing new. But living with them in the barracks? Seeing 17-year olds already married with kids on the way? Consoling a 21-year old buddy whose wife just filed for divorce and custody of their three kids while there was nothing he could do about it at basic training? Culture shock. The military churns out babies and marriage certificates, all paid for by the taxpayer. It's just normal in the military. And, in my opinion, it works out pretty well.
As I began comparing myself to the more respected soldiers, I realized that I was in good shape and am competent for battle. I volunteered for airborne school to become a paratrooper, and then I went to 5th Special Forces Group, where just about everyone is senior-ranked and has over 10-15 years of experience with many combat tours. I got to use the best equipment, and went to the best schools. I served with the best.
I was happy, proud of my unit. I worked hard, raising my athletic, linguistic, and technical achievements. No one ever pushed me into this way of life. In fact, most everyone discouraged me from this, just like they have with web design, learning about computers, and trading stocks. Some friends didn't want to talk to me after I joined the military. It weirded out members of my family. My parents were very supportive, I must add. They were just concerned for my safety.
I had a blast. And I've met some of the strongest friends I've ever had. I haven't really been around so many young people who felt confident and content with their lives. People here are happy with what they've done, and, in one way or another, try to improve themselves and help others. It's a far cry from the cutthroat trading world, or the envious, sarcastic tech industry.
I deployed to Iraq in 2005 to 2006. I got to travel quite a bit and managed to head north and west, but mainly stayed in Baghdad. I served with Marines and Iraqi Special Forces. I participatd in foot patrols, raids, burned down an Al-Qaeda propaganda center and emptied an IED factory. Iraqis called me their brother and gave me gifts. I saw the streets of Baghdad, the small towns in the desert. I saw violence, I saw politics, I saw a vast military machine at work. Luckily no one I knew has died or been injured. The experience didn't change my life, but it DID give it a lot more substance. I was glad to return home but in some respects I wish I were in Afghanistan or Yemen or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia -- I joined to hunt Al-Qaeda and it's what motivates me. I am flabberghasted at the ignorance exhibited in pushing for the occupation of Iraq in order to stop Al-Qaeda, when AQ's base of operations is in Pakistan/Afghanistan!
I also got in trouble. I had an online diary and posted photos of my time in Iraq, but my command found out through dubious circumstances and I was pulled from my team and given shit duties for the remainder of my tour. I returned home and continued being the bad apple, but I made the best of it and eventually became a good sergeant for the headquarters company and was honorably discharged from the Army to the dismay of my co-workers. I like to think that I thrived through adversity and proved to my fellow soldiers that I was worth a damn to them. There is a lot I learned as a result of working at a headquarters level as opposed to a battalion level (which is insulated but closer to what's actually going on in war), so it wasn't all bad. I got to see a lot more in my career than most junior enlisted soldiers do. I must admit, however, that I was left with a very bad taste in my mouth towards those involved in my blogging/photo trouble. I was pretty pissed about how the episode was handled, despite my understanding of operational security regulations, which continue to be vague and which continue to ruin peoples' careers and severely stifle soldiers' desires to blog and contribute to national debate as citizens.
I certainly learned who my friends are. Those who stood up for me I will be eternally grateful to. One of them, my boss's boss, eventually recommended me for graduate school. I want to stay in touch with him because he's one of the most competent people I've ever met.
To add insult to injury, some of the things I wrote in my journal offended people close to me also. I hurt an ex (who endured a deployment long-distance with me) by saying that she was adding stress to my situation. I hurt my dad because I criticized some of the things he said. I drew the ire of another ex. All at the same time.
That was a great month for me. I did make up with the ex and my dad, and I think we were stronger as a result.
I am an INTJ personality type. I think my main flaws used to be that I didn't always project confidence and I felt uncomfortable around groups of
people. But five years in the Army bred that out of me. I take initiative and am not afraid to put myself out there. I have learned that a lack of leadership disappoints people, because some people have innate leadership and when they don't bring it out, then the entire group suffers.
I find myself less nice and thankful to my parents than I should be. I want to correct that. They do everything they can for me, and I'll usually return in kind with some sarcastic remark (they're still too nosy sometimes!) or something else dumb. I feel like I owe something to my parents, and that I can't pay them back yet.
But I'm trying.