Friday, March 27, 2009

The Path We Walk

We were all trying to hold back laughter as we stood by our cots as stiff and straight as we possibly could while avoiding eye contact with each other. A few seconds before we were busting each others balls and trying to get a few minutes of rest before our next hard time. Some of the guys were talking about our up coming graduation and the insane amounts of booze and nicotine they were going to consume or the pornographic things they were going to do to their girlfriends or wives that first night out of here. All I could think of was sleep, a shower and the rest of the day's training. Call me short sighted but the Army indoctrination process had worked; get your head out of the game and you were dead. Here it was a game but we all knew that someday, soon, the blanks would be replaced with live ammo and we would be keeping score.
We were all just a bunch of Joes with different reasons for being here. Some of us had a duty to our country, some needed college money, but most of us needed a steady paycheck. There was even one guy who claimed to be the classic, “go to war or go to jail” case. Regardless of each persons reason for enlisting we had all joined the less than one percent of the population that is American Armed Services. Today however, we were biting our tongue’s trying to hide the hilarity of one of the Drill Sergeant’s antic’s.
The circumstances that led to the scene that was unfolding were unknown to us, but at the time it felt like we were the supporting cast in a movie staring Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn. The only thing that was certain was that the Drill Sergeant had busted a private doing something he was not supposed to be doing, perhaps his head wasn't in the game. That, in basic training terms meant that the unfortunate soul was "smoked", or told to do push-ups, sit-ups and other exercises to the point of having an out of body experience, all this before being ordered to become the center of our attention.
The unknown Private was laying on an aid litter and covered with Old Glory as he was marched around the makeshift Forward Operating Base while some of the guys carried him. As the soldier was marched by our 40 man tent, I remember looking around and everyone looked as if they were about to piss their pants in laughter. A few moments later the entire platoon burst into a loud roar of profanity and laughter as we heard a twenty-one gun salute honor our fallen battle buddy. The Drill had made the Private play dead to teach us a lesson, we later concluded the he had fallen asleep out on an Observation Point, but the intended effect was a distant thought. We were not keeping score.

A few months before we were a ragtag bunch of guys that George Washington himself would not lead into battle, even if it meant surrendering the American cause to the British. Some of us had no idea what we were doing here but I am sure it all made sense one night over a case of beer right before being dared to drink the bong water.
Regardless of the insane story leading up to signing the dotted line, the crossing of our path’s had been triggered by different events in each of our lives that somehow converged at Kilo Troop’s front doors. Kilo Troop, also known as Killer Troop would be our home for the next 17 weeks, as we were broken down, some reduced to tears, then rebuilt, reprogrammed, slapped on the ass and sent off into the world as U.S. army Cavalry Scouts.
My path to those front doors began September 12, 2001. Ok, so this does sound like line out of a movie but it is the truth. After the events of the days before, I was still a little shell shocked, not knowing how our world had changed in the blink of an eye. The day before I was eating my breakfast in the University cafeteria with a few other classmates and one of my best friends when reports of the first plane slamming into the World trade center came in via the radio playing over the cafeteria’s overhead speaker system. My initial thoughts were that of a small plane striking the tower after its inexperienced pilot came to close. No one seemed to care until the reporter over the radio announced that the plane was a commercial airliner. I don't recall the conversation at the breakfast table but I don't think that anyone even thought of it being a terrorist attack. We all thought it was just a bad accident.
As my buddy and I arrived at our first class that morning our professor came in, tears on her face and her heart on her sleeve, canceled class and told us to find a television. Not knowing the severity of the situation, we made a beeline to the big screen on the second floor of the cafeteria we had just left. We made it a few minutes before the second plane changed our lives forever.
I was two weeks into my freshman year of college and I was in over my head. I did not know what I wanted or where I was going in life but I did know I wanted the animals responsible for our generations defining moment to pay. I did not want justice with its lawyers and jurors to decide their fate, I wanted these assholes dead. I wanted to tie the persons responsible to the nose of a jet plane and pilot the plane that was going fly his ass into the ground.
The morning of the 12th, as I walked to the same cafeteria where I sat the morning before, I walked passed a couple of Army recruiters who had set up a table at the doors on the north end of the building. I took one look at them, one look at recruiting literature on the table and without hesitation, kept walking. Why hadn’t I stopped? Till this day I could not answer that question. That moment replayed itself several times in my head over the next couple of years; haunting me, mocking me, flipping me the finger, making a fool of me and my inability to act on the feelings I had had inside. I was like the other ninety-nine percent.

I don’t remember much about the initial invasion of Afghanistan. I vaguely remember the nightly news reports of the battle of Tora Bora which we now know as Operation Anaconda and its attempts to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. I was too busy living the college life, lots of partying, little studying and the weekend greyhound bus trip home to jam with the metal band I was in, I even had the long rock star hair. I was so full of myself that my picture is next to the definition of smug in the dictionary.
Partying, there was enough partying in those first few years in college to last me ten lifetimes. I did not have the support structure back home to keep me grounded. My parents were recently separated and divorced, so as long as a kept to myself I could of formed a cult, convinced my followers to drink the punch and no one back home would have noticed. I was free to do as I pleased. The partying intensified and so did the hangovers, as the hangovers took control of my mornings, my grades began to suffer.
Like I mentioned earlier, I was in over my head. I was the oldest child and I was treading new waters. Who would I turn to if I needed advice or help? My Mother worked hard to help me financially but her pay as a cook at the mexican restaurant in our hometown was not enough to support her, my brother and sister in addition to supplementing what little income I had from student loans, grants and scholarships.
To make matters worst the dorms at our University had been deemed uninhabitable due to structural issues stemming form a tropical storm that battered the coast prior to our arrival. My roommate and I decided that an apartment near campus was the best solution. As money grew tighter I began contemplated leaving school to relieve the financial burden on my family.
If I were going to do this I needed a plan. I did not want to quit school, move back home and become another statistic. I wanted to finish school, receive a degree and land a job that would take me places. Now what? I weighed my option and put together plans of action. Plan A, I could go home, bruised ego and all and start taking classes at the local junior college. It was cheaper and closer to home. Plan B, join the military, serve my time, get the college money and come back to school.
Plan A required little research since I had attended the junior college while I was in high school and knew the nuances of the game. Plan B needed a little more exploration before I made my decision so I called an Air Force recruiter. At this point America was gearing up for round two in Iraq, as a kid I was amazed at the air campaign American pilots flew in the first Gulf War. Those bombing raids were all I could think of when those bomb alarms rang over the school's intercom system and our grade school teacher would run around the classroom making sure we had all made it under our desk. They were just bomb drills but I was young and knew that our bombs were blowing Iraqi buildings overseas, surly theirs could do the same to ours. The televised footage of the bombing raids were the dreams a young impressionable kid’s dreams were made of when he was playing war with he buddies in the back yard. The recruiter told me what I needed to know about education benefits and the enlistment process. After a little thought and a few illegal beers later I decided that Plan A would be the best option.
For the second time in my life I was shunning the military, but somewhere in the twelve pack I swallowed that night I promised that there would not be a third time. First, I had to finish what I has started, I could not be a failure. It was not an option. I had to have a piece of paper with a watermark, fancy font and my name on it to hang on a wall somewhere.

After two years at the junior college, and a little help from a man that would become a dear friend and mentor, I returned to the university where I stared my degree. Now I was a little older a little wiser and no longer full of myself, or so I thought. We were still fighting the war the Bush Administration affectionately called the Global War on Terror, but I was too ambitions to look past the flaws the administrations war strategy, if there ever was one, and put Plan B into motion. Once I entered my final year in college I began to make good on that promise I had made to myself a few years before. This time however, I was eager to go out into the world and put to use the knowledge and wisdom I had gained over the course of my education. The solution: look into joining the Reserves.