A topic of discussion that sometimes arises in the Army – especially among younger troops – is that of why you signed up in the first place. As grizzled old SGT Delobius, with the big fat 1st Cav patch on my right shoulder, I was asked this question by a private (a real private in the Signal Corps! a rare sight indeed). I gave him the same answer that I’ve given since before I joined: extra money, something different and interesting to do, get myself in shape, serve the nation. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that while those were my reasons for joining, they were different from my reasons for staying.
After returning from Iraq, we were festooned with decorations, medals, coins, and other hardware. Some was official Army stuff (AAM, GWOT-E, Army Reserve Medal with M device…), while some was in various ways unofficial (commander’s coins and the like). Most of those items, though, don’t see the light of day (save perhaps the ribbons on our rarely-worn dress uniforms). The only piece of that hardware that is consistently on display in the homes of the half-dozen or so friends that I’ve since visited is the American flag, folded in a triangle in a wooden display box. I don’t know if this pattern is repeated throughout the veterans of B company or the Army in general, but I suspect it might be.
That fact is interesting to me because at least among the members of the Signal Battalion, patriotism or service to country wasn’t a major topic of discussion. Our nights in Iraq weren’t filled with tearful exhortations about our great nation and its role in the world – it was mostly bitching about one thing or another. And yet the consistent, simple display of the American flag is a symbol of that unspoken bond, that shared pride, something that was rarely (if ever) discussed but apparently universally understood.
There’s another common thread that unites us as soldiers, one that’s harder to elucidate; it’s the sense of purpose and duty that one has by serving. Not in a stricly patriotic sense as discussed above, but rather in a more existential way. There’s a certain mindset that’s attracted to the military, one that craves decisiveness, order, and a “grand plan.” It’s a mindset that finds belonging to Big Green not dehumanizing, but somehow comforting in its structure and order. (Off the wall question: are military personnel disproportionately fans of tactical RPGs like Disgaea and Final Fantasy Tactics because of their emphasis on endlessly organizing and codifying things?)
Speaking of RPGs, it’s still amazing to me how many dorks there are in the Army – it seems like you can’t have a single squad without at least one guy who plays Dungeons & Dragons, or is an otaku, or plays Magic: The Gathering, or engages in some other equally geeky activity. Equally strange is how many people you meet who are socially inept; every company has at least one of “those guys.” (The concept is hard to explain, but those of you who know, know.)
My last two paragraphs don’t seem particularly related, but there’s a connection in there somewhere. One reason for joining the military is for the sense of belonging and camaraderie; it’s an environment where, paradoxically, everyone is equal, with the same haircuts, same clothes, same background of training. So perhaps it’s not unusual for so many dorks and geeks and weirdos to sign up – no one knows how weird you really are until you open your mouth, or until they find your midget-porn collection under your bunk.
If my thoughts seem unfocused, it’s because they are – it’s a topic that’s been on my mind of late, with the publishing of the book, my new job (working full-time for the Guard), and talking to JoKur and The Pontiff (both of whom are somewhat regretting leaving the Army). The Pontiff seems particularly disturbed by the lack of purpose in his life after leaving the military, and it’s discussions with him that largely prompted this post. JoKur’s regrets, on the other hand, are largely social and financial in nature. I’m also looking ahead at my career – it’s quite likely that I could be Staff Sergeant Delobius by the end of my first term of enlistment. Hilarious! And then what? For that, I have no answer – so I guess I’ll find out when I get there.