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On The Everlasting Value Of Military Service

by Chris Chichester on 08/28/17

On August 28, 1985 I flew from LaGuardia Airport to El Paso International Airport in Texas for the first day of U.S. Army Basic Training at Ft. Bliss.  It is the beginning of a life-changing, life-affirming experience.  It is verification that actions have consequences. I was 20.

Five months earlier I dropped out of the State University of New York at Fredonia.  This decision to leave mid-semester sophomore year is an immediate humiliation.  My father picked me up at a bus station in Islip.  He said not a single word.  The disgust and disappointment is evident.

I didn't understand its totality and gravity until I saw my father. I did not comprehend the pathetic reality.  I did not yet accept my failure and its ramifications for the future. The future promises nothing.  The future is intimidation.  The future is a wasteland.

The obvious move is: Find employment.  I had one previous job.  I worked in a Service Merchandise warehouse during the summer between freshman and sophomore years at Fredonia.  I placed customer orders on the conveyor belt, and this responsibility does not qualify one for Mensa membership.

A week after I left Fredonia I am hired at the $3.35 an hour minimum wage to flip hamburgers at Roy Rogers. I peddled my bike to the franchise near the Smith Haven Mall.  I am working with 15- and 16-year-old high school students.  After the store closed I washed dishes, mopped floors and cleaned the dining room.  I'd leave at 1:30 a.m.  Back on my bike I was morose: What am I doing with my life?

A track-and-field teammate from high school contacted me.  He is a U.S. Army solider on a temporary duty assignment with a recruiter in Lake Ronkonkoma.  He asked: Have you thought about the Army?  I told him it was never a consideration.  He said it is the best option and persisted in explaining the benefits.  I agreed to visit the recruiter, and I expected a hustle.

My recruiter didn't talk at me for ten minutes and present the paperwork for my signature.  He was averse to instant gratification: Get. Them. To. Sign. On. The. Line. Which. Is. Dotted.  This is the next two, three or four years of my young life.  It appears an eternity when you are recently graduated from high school.

The main enticement is the Army G.I. Bill at $10,800 and the full payment of my student loans.  I wanted a debt-free status if I enlisted.  I negotiated the loan payment and if any one informed me I was negotiating I'd reply: This is negotiating? 

On June 18 I raised my hand and swore the oath at Ft. Hamilton, Brooklyn. My term of service is scheduled from August 28, 1985 to August 27, 1988.  My military occupational specialty is 75B or personnel administration specialist.   I entered as a PFC/E-3 due to my SUNY credits.

The first week of basic training is an alien experience designed to exterminate every last trace of your civilian identity.  When my bus arrived at the barracks after a two-day administrative in-processing the drill sergeants are waiting. Like cobras.  They ordered us to stand at attention.  An hour of Full Metal Jacket profanity, ridicule and intimidation ensues.  It is constant screaming.  One DI told a recruit he had disgusting teeth and bad breath and asked him if he ever brushed.  Another DI screamed at a recruit with such ferocity that he cried.

I luckily escaped this necessary rhetorical ambush.  The DI's don't have time for an Algonquin Round Table of abuse for 100+ recruits.  They ordered us to our barracks.  I discovered the barracks are a bleak reality lined with bunk beds, lockers and a latrine from hell.   I last slept on a bunk bed with my brother Stephen when I was ten.

With my newly bald head, I learned how to march.  How to fire the M-16.  How to throw a grenade.  How to clean the toilet.  How to make hospital corners.  How to spit shine boots. How to run PT.  How to eat a delicious MRE. How to wear MOPP gear. How to avoid an Article 15. How to exist on five hours sleep. How to do an atomic sit-up. How to exceed your expectations. And how to respect authority. 

In the U.S. Army once the contract is signed than you are bound to honor its provisions.  There is no equivalent to my SUNY-Fredonia exit/drop-out.  I signed the paperwork at a campus office and left.  It took five minutes. There is no such office at Basic Training. My platoon had a weak recruit desperate to leave and our DI told him: You can visit our Fuck You Office.

I graduated Basic Training on October 30, 1985.  It was a rewarding, memorable day.  It confirmed that hard work pays that dividend.  But I did understand I was not a special or unique case.  You are supposed to graduate and continue your service.  You are one of millions. 

My Advanced Individual Training (AIT) is at Ft. Benjamin Harrison bordering Indianapolis, Indiana.  AIT is not the intense indoctrination and immersion that defines basic training.  It is conducive to an environment for academic success.  The physical training is still required but I was in the classroom for six-to-eight hours a day.

In AIT you can enjoy the weekend.  While you are not Tony, Double J, Bobby C and Joey at the 2001 Odyssey in Saturday Night Fever there is time to socialize, carouse, and exit the base.  I attended an Indiana Pacers-New York Knicks game at Market Square Arena that featured rookie Patrick Ewing. The Knicks won 80-77.

AIT provides you with skills and training that can last a lifetime.  The skill is irrelevant.  Even an 11B infantryman has acquired skills that are valued by employers who don't require you to capture a mountain, control an airfield or destroy a bridge.

AIT exposes the soldier to the pursuit of perfection. It is a pursuit with history that dates to General George Washington.  The goal is not always attainable but its apex is your honor, your rectitude, your devotion, your dedication, your unwavering commitment to detail and precision.

I arrived at the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Ft. Campbell, Kentucky on January 2, 1986.  I was first assigned to the 159 Aviation Battalion.  This unit is anchored by the CH-47 Chinook.  A Chinook is an amazing tandem-rotor aircraft primarily used for troop and supply movement.  It's a flying tank.

Three months after I arrived I asked my First Sergeant to attend Air Assault School.  From "Air Assault School: Ten Toughest Days In The Army" at CNN by Brian Cabell on September 20, 2001:

BRIAN CABELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good afternoon, Daryn. Air Assault School, day number nine.  It is a ten-day course, this is one of the final tests here.  A Blackhawk helicopter goes up with one of the four students. They have to repel down 90 feet. As I say, this is the second-to-last day they have.  It is one of the most daunting tasks, two helicopters here.

They have already repelled down a 34-foot tower, and they just got their briefing a little while ago, and some of their faces, I'll tell you looked -- they had a little bit of anxiety on their faces.

Tomorrow they'll have a 12-hour (sic) road race. They have to complete that within three hours or fail the course. We've been told by a number of military officials that this is truly one of the most difficult military courses in the entire U.S. Army.

A minor correction to this language is the final day is a ten-mile rucksack march with your M-16.  To cross the finish line is an exhilarating reward. Every graduate is entitled to wear the Air Assault Badge for his uniform.

Throughout the ten-day training there is no separation between officers and enlisted.  A West Point captain is a candidate no different than a PFC college dropout.  This social leveling is one reason why Army training guarantees that the excellence of your effort always prevails.  The excellence of your effort is paramount.  The excellence of your effort defines your character and fitness.

The United States Army is a beautiful reality. It's the camaraderie.  It's the conversation in the mess hall. It's the willingness to help your fellow soldiers. It's the reliance on your superiors for stellar leadership. It's the satisfaction of risk and reward.  It's a commitment to your country that you can only fulfill once. It's the mutual understanding that every one is deployable in 24 hours.  It's the acceptance of discipline. It's the acknowledgment of responsibility.  It's the opportunity to meet men and women from every state. My 159th roommate Anthony O'Neil is from Redlands, California.  The Army can bring you together when you are first 3,000 miles apart.  

My ETS from the Army is May 27, 1988.  As a Sergeant/E-5 at the 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry.  When I drove the 990 miles home to Lake Grove in Suffolk County it is a sensational feeling of accomplishment. I did it. I'm now a veteran. At 22.  It is a new beginning and a new life as I pass that bus station in Islip on the Long Island Expressway.


Freedom Lies In Being Bold — Robert Frost