You want $20,000? asked a smug young private as I strolled past Coffman Union. His superior soon sauntered over to my right. Yeah kid you want your college paid for?
In most cases I would have offered a quick no thanks and continued on, but their tone and air of superiority was a bit too familiar and too much to ignore.
You can call me sergeant! I replied with a degree of authority that my prior rank provides me.
Immediately their posture transposed and at once we began exchanging acronyms and Army lingo. The moment had all the dressings of insignificance and was of no consequence, at least not at this time. As I walked away I thought, I sure hope no one else stops to talk to them.
After all, years ago it was a moment just like this one, equally fleeting and unceremonious, that would ultimately shape my entire life. If not for that slight moment, captured by pure chance and unknowing providence, I would not be writing this column today.
Such is life. I often imagine what I might tell myself if I could travel back to that instant. What advice I might offer the younger me? With what I know now, or perhaps more aptly put, what I regret I know now, I would surely deter myself from enlisting. But I recognize my own eagerness to project my personal experience onto others.
Somewhere between the sensationalized Army commercials and my own jaded perspective lies the truth. The Army is not the ads on TV and its not quite the vile, detestable organization that I would describe. As with most anything, objective truth lies between two extremes.
What the Army is: an armed bureaucracy. Make no mistake, when you take away the guns n ammo and all the wonderful things that go boom, the Army suffers from all the same failings that any bureaucracy does. Because of its sheer size (the worlds third largest bureaucracy, second to only China and Koreas armies) red tape is insufferably snarling, and efficiency is often the first causality. As such, there is often a stark contrast between what the Army preaches (attention to detail, competence, victory, etc.) and its day-to-day practices.
What the Army is not: a rehab center for the irresolute. Service can build character, but the Army is not going to transform anyone from an aimless weakling into some type of chiseled, brawny chieftain type you see on the billboards. Any young person with delusions that enlistment in the Army will somehow cure their indecision or make their diffidence disappear should think again. Structure does not change personality; it only mends it to fit its own composition.
Army life is not all jumping out of airplanes and shoot em up G.I. Joe fantasies. These events are more likely to be punctuation in a long and monotonous trail of repetition and mind-numbing conforming behaviors. There is a reason why hurry up and wait is an unofficial Army motto.
Still, service does act as a conduit for extraordinary experience. If you can tolerate the boredom between events, the payoff can grant exposure to things few have the chance to ever witness.
The Army, for better or worse, is an everlasting American institution and will continue to attract scores of young people hoping to find their purpose and place in the world. I only wish there was a bit more congruence between the picture that is painted through the media and the reality of what enlistment entails.
So if you find yourself trapped in a moment, between an assuring recruiter and one of the most important decisions you can make, resist being swept up in the romanticism of Army allure and choose carefully.