Not All Soldiers Are the Same

Having just finished reading a personal story in the “Washington Post” about why he enlisted in the military and stayed to make it a career, I feel compelled to agree with author Sean Patrick Hughes that enlistment does not mean those who do so are knowingly writing a “blank check” to America that can be cashed in for up to and including loss of their very lives.

Like the former naval officer Mr. Hughes, I believe the reasons for joining the military are many and varied according to the person signing up and at what period in time they do so.

My personal reasons involved an escape from the life I was living in a small, Indiana town and a hopeful escape to a broader life by earning the rights to a G.I. education to college.

Even at 16, when considering which university I might like to attend, I dreamt of places far away from where I lived, like Boston.  However, after becoming entranced by a picture of its college library and a curriculum where I could dictate my own course of study, I applied instead to what was then called Barat College of the Sacred Heart in Illinois.

But at $4,000 a year in tuition in 1971, there was no way I could afford to attend this college to which I had been accepted.  My family couldn’t afford $4 a year, let alone that amount.  And the $500 scholarship I received wouldn’t begin to cut it, either.  So instead I opted for a couple of classes per semester at the regional Fort Wayne campus of IU/Purdue, registered as an Indiana University student.

At the time, I also was working as a bus girl and a lunch time waitress at a cocktail bar/supper club located on the I-69 freeway in Angola, IN.  One of the women I worked with had been a dental tech in the Navy and had had a wonderful experience there, including meeting her husband.

As I was by then recovering from my first major heartbreak in my first ever relationship, it sounded like a good way to get out of town and get my education to boot.  So I drove into downtown Fort Wayne, walked into the Naval Recruiters office, took some tests and was told I was eligible to serve.

As my major at the time was Comparative Literature and I knew I wanted to write, I asked for a guaranteed Journalism school.  But they would not offer it to me, and I didn’t want to “take a chance” on an enlistment where I didn’t know for sure what I would be called upon to do.  That is how I became a “Yeoman,” or secretary/clerk in civilian parlance.

Ever the romantic, I requested postings for Europe and Hawaii as my first and second choices as duty stations after Yeoman’s school in Orlando.  San Francisco was my third option.  I had read a story as a young girl about a mystery involving a jade cat set in that scenic local, and it sounded like a pretty place.  (In fact, I consider it the most beautiful city in the world to this day.)

I ended up in Vallejo, about 45 minutes away.  It was close enough for weekend jaunts that would include drives down the famously crooked Lombard Street, across the Golden Gate Bridge into Tiburon, walks on Fisherman’s wharf eating fresh shrimp cocktail, viewing the Bay from Coit Tower and more.

Since I wrote about my experiences serving in an earlier blog, I will not repeat them here other than to say they were not even close to as fun as my friend had experienced.  But, I did have the chance to attend Community College in the evenings, racking up some credit hours towards a degree.  Eventually I did use my G.I. benefits to matriculate from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo with a degree in journalism.

As a disabled veteran, I still enjoy benefits for which I am entirely grateful to have.  On balance, in my case, I possibly got the better end of the bargain as the outcome, though it didn’t seem like it at the time.

But the point Mr. Hughes was making, that I was making, is that assuming all military personnel sign up in knowing acknowledgement they are literally giving their lives is not a true statement.  People join up for many different reasons.  A long-time service veteran, he says they stay for each other and because the life they are taught to live cannot be duplicated by other experiences.

I wasn’t in the military long enough or in a situation that developed that sort of camaraderie that I can speak to that subject.

But, what he wrote, what I am saying, does speak to the fact that though it was certainly most unintentional, the “condolences” offered by our government this week to the families who lost loved ones in Niger were tone deaf.  I don’t know for sure why La David Johnson joined the Army, but I can guess.

He was a young black man living in a country where that very fact put him at a disadvantage.   He may or may not have had some college.  His obituary says he was an employee of Walmart in the produce department.  He most certainly had a young family to support and wanted to do so to the best of his ability.  As a member of the Special Forces, he obtained both training, experience and pay that would be above that paid to a “regular” soldier.

I am sure he served out of love for his country.  I loved my country – still do.

But to see his life and its affect through the singular lens of soldierly duty to give his life for his country – I doubt that is what La David Johnson was completely about. And there is where President Trump and General Kelly went wrong on the condolence call.

In fact, it is what is wrong about the way we as a nation talk about those whose lives are sacrificed on our military altar, like Sgt. Johnson and his compatriots:  Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright and Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson.  We talk about it as if the sacrifice were what defined them, rather than the lives they led and the lives they will lead no longer.

We should honor them for being human, for having fuller selves – not just for being soldiers.


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