Soldiering 101, in a nut shell, is about completing the mission at hand. The Army vigorously indoctrinates the idiom “Intestinal Fortitude” into soldiers facing chaos-induced internal conflict during these missions. “Finding courage” is the common terminology.
What they fail to teach, however, is how to find that courage. Their instruction repetitively drills the proper use of weapons and equipment along with tactical techniques of application. This breeds a natural comfort and reliance upon using those weapons and equipment. They also teach military dress and ceremony, branch specific history, survival basics, hand to hand combat skills and an introduction to land navigation. All of their introductory level instruction (Basic Training) is done under a “combat reality” which includes constant movement, sleep deprivation, eliminating weakness – all under the setting of physical exhaustion. Then, they teach you a military occupational specialty (M.O.S.); aka a job.
At eighteen years of age, finding that place of internal bravery – by one’s self – is inconceivable for the most part. Yet, young American soldiers are capable of producing acts of “uncommon valor” almost as frequently as Leghorn Hens lay eggs.
I had learned, early on in my instruction, not to ask specific questions – or reply to the rhetorical one’s. “How do I find courage?”, without doubt, was a set up question that would be painful in its learning. It resembled the question my Drill Sergeant asked me, during week two of Basic Training. DS Darling (what an ironic name for this particular DS) directly inquired where I had learned how to fold clothes after inspecting my foot locker. He dumped all of it’s contents onto the floor before quizzing me. “What the f*ck is wrong with you, Private? Does your mama have square nipples and eat grass with her coffee?”
My response, ironically, is what attracted his true wrath. Spoken softly, to show a sincere reflection, I returned, “I’ve not seen Mama’s nipples, Drill Sergeant…”.
I wasn’t allowed time to finish my answer.
The rest of that day was spent doing push ups, flutter kicks and holding an M16A1 rifle over my head.
Gallantry/grit/guts; courage, or lack there of, was purposely left out of our training. It was highlighted in the soldiers we learned about during our history lessons, and pointed out as absent when we moved cautiously through a schooling objective, but it was never shown how to specifically obtain it. Its elusiveness is what hung eerily over our entire ten week re-education into becoming soldiers. I graduated and brought that same question with me to Combat Medic School in Ft. Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas.
They failed to cover “Obtaining Courage” there, too.
It was the very question that “we” – me along with all of my friends – brought with us on our deployment, almost two years later, as well.
And, it was there that we finally found our answer.
I walked through the dread of flying home on leave by looking forward to sitting in the Airport bar, with Papa, enjoying a beer. I was not old enough, legally, to be served alcohol in the United States yet I was only four months shy of being twenty-one. I anticipated no real problems with being served spirits even though I refused to fly home in uniform. I purposely dressed more like a returning American college student, studying abroad in Europe, than a soldier returning from war. The airport was filled with traveling soldiers in uniform; they sat congregated in the airport bars in both Europe and the United States. I traveled completely unnoticed.
I imagined sitting with my father, drinking an iced cold American draft, while relishing in his palpable pride over me. Surely, this separation and what I had just lived through would be enough to set our relationship on track. I wondered how he would greet me, how I would reciprocate his approval and how this would grow into a relationship between two men with equal adoration for each other.
His obvious disgust, when I offered to buy him a beer at the bar, cut through to my core. He hastily explained, displaying the disapproving look that some folks offer to panhandlers on the street, how Mama was waiting for us near the airport’s exit. Then, he went to grab my duffel bag. I prevented him from touching it with a swipe of my arm. “I got it, man. Let’s just go.”
I was completely devastated, in addition to the deep shame for feeling that way. How could I have set myself up like this? How stupid could I be?
A bubbling rage emanated from deep inside my psyche. Like a pressure cooker, I needed to release it somehow. Fear, of exploding, consumed me. The three minute journey through the airport was the absolute longest walk of my entire life. It took every ounce of courage that I had left not to turn around and return to Germany with my round trip ticket. I longed for an alcoholic, or chemically, produced numbing of my emotions – no matter the cost. I wanted to hurt someone.
At the airport’s exit, Mama had organized a mid-sized “Welcome Home” party that included custom made t-shirts, hand held signs and the frantic cheering from two dozen of my high school friends and my little sister. How I faced them, without running away and never returning, I will never fully understand. Nevertheless, the thirty day’s leave that I spent with those friends turned into an alcohol/drug fueled binge of violence that ruined most of those relationships for good.
Thirty days later, I returned to my unit in Germany.
What I had failed to realize, until many years later, was the possibility that Mama had done only what she thought would mean a lot to me. And, that Papa’s real role was to serve his wife by escorting me promptly to her surprise at the airport’s exit.
Just as men had been figuring out since the first time soldiers went to war against each other, the soldiers that I served with learned that courage comes mostly from the collective whole; we absorbed it from each other. The principal of “You go – We go” or wherever you are sent – I will be beside you, is the answer we had been searching for. Soldiers live together, sometimes die together and always find courage because of each other. It, quite simply is their faith; faith in one another.
Six months after my leave had ended and I returned to my unit, The United States Army disbanded the 12th Evacuation Hospital – the oldest deployable Army Hospital in its history and the first fully operational Evacuation Hospital of Operations Desert Shield/Storm. Over the course of a single week, we received orders assigning us to new duty stations back in “the States” or releasing us from active duty.
My final two and a half years of active duty were spent as a (front)line medic in an infantry Brigade, assigned under the rapid deployment umbrella of the notorious 18th Airborne Corp., while stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia. We trained, feverishly, to return to the middle eastern theater of operations, however I never deployed to combat again.
I was honorably discharged yet barred from re-enlistment due to “fighting” and “violent tendencies”.
Twenty-three years later, after struggling with addiction that entire time, I found myself living in a homeless shelter two and a half hours outside of Chicago. I was alone, having destroyed everything that I had laid my hands upon, and without hope.
One Sunday morning, in search of a hot meal and some fresh coffee, I made my way to a Church service – less than forty-eight hours after a crack binge. There, right in the middle of the congregation and for no explainable reason in that moment, I began to hysterically sob. Uncontrollably. It was humiliating compounded by the fact that little old ladies kept handing me their tissues to wipe my face with. I had the overwhelming urge to run out of there and keep going until my body gave out.
But, God had other plans for me.