Once upon a time I joined the Army…
I went to the thick green hills of Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and got my ass kicked in basic training – and loved and hated every minute of it. I earned bruises and sprains and strains, I pushed myself further (physically and emotionally) than I ever had up to that point in my life. I learned what confidence and courage really meant. I realized that I was just one little person, but with the camaraderie of a solid team great things could be accomplished. I learned that sweat and tears equaled accomplishment, and that soldiers really do achieve more by 7am than most humans do all day. I also learned that my Mama was right – it WAS in fact my smart mouth that would get me in the most trouble. After I told one of my Drill Sargents that he wasn’t intimidating, he was just loud, he quickly punished me with push-ups and dubbed me “Trouble”… and the nickname fit and it stayed.
On graduation day my family drove up from South Alabama to hug my neck and remind me why I decided to take this step. Seeing the pride on the faces of my grandparents, my mother, brother and little sister is all I needed to catch the second wind that would carry me through Advanced Individual Training – the next step before I was a real soldier. So we laughed and cried and I got on a bus to San Antonio, Texas – and they piled up and headed back home without me.
In Texas I was deposited at Fort Sam Houston and my education placed in the care of the US Army Academy of Health Sciences. This was a little less offensive and not-quite as terrible as Basic Training – it was more like a brutal fast paced college environment, complete with combat boots and damn-near-impossible physical fitness training every morning before daylight, and before 10 hours in the classroom.
I learned things. I made sweet friends and began to really understand what it was that drove young people to become soldiers. A sense of pride, duty and dedication to one’s homeland. Not the United States necessarily, but to their individual families and communities first. Kids that were aching to get out of their small towns and see the world quickly realized the beauty of their home towns that they had previously overlooked, and did in fact have an aching desire to protect their people and their livelihoods from enemies both foreign and domestic. And with soldiers representing tens of thousands of hometowns throughout the Country, that diligence of spirit encompasses the whole of the Continental United States. Thus an Army is born.
During my training period, the Gulf War was in full swing. Many of my comrades were shipped strait to the Persian Gulf on completion of their training, whereas I was bound for South Korea. Uijongbu, South Korea to be exact – 30 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the communist North Korean Army from the friendly Southlanders.
I arrived in Korea, after an 18 hour flight across the International Date Line, a day ahead of my family and friends back at home. It was a frigid icy night in December when the plane touched down in Seoul and I was cattle herded to the in-processing facility. My first step onto Asian soil was on my butt. Being from the warm gulf shores of South Alabama, I had a pair of feet that were unprepared for a slippery icy snowy ground, so off the plane onto my bootie I bounced. A great big ugly bruise was my first gift from Southeast Asia. I could hear my Granny chuckling in my head “get back on your feet, ‘Grace’, and try again”.
After about a million hours in this huge crazy NOT American airport surrounded by little folks with whom I had no idea how to speak, I finally figured out what I needed to do and where I needed to be. There was a bumpy cobble-stoned trip up north from the Yongsan Garrison (Seoul) to Camp Red Cloud in Uijongbu, and then there was a warm Quonset hut barracks full of other soldiers who would eventually become my friends and help me learn the ropes – but first were set on giving the newbie a hard time. I was frozen and bruised and starving, so when I spotted a soldier lounging in the day room of the barracks with a delicious smelling bowl of food in front of him, I said that it smelled delightful and wanted to know what it was that he was eating. He looked down at the little steamy lump pinched between his chop sticks and with a very serious face said “hamsters”.
“Good God what have I gotten myself into” I wondered. I had had no sleep for about 48 hours, I was exhausted and still very lost – and that’s when I knew exactly what “homesick” felt like. I felt physically sick with the yearning to be home, in warm sunny sweet south Alabama with people who were kind and who loved me and never ever ate hamsters. (I did find out later that those little dumplings were actually called Yaki mandu, and were not made from hamsters, and they actually became one of my favorite Asian treats:)
After a warm shower (in what I was not told, but quickly realized, was a shared bath facility in a co-ed barracks) and a long night’s sleep, I was mostly back to my old enthusiastic self. I was taken for my uniforms and winter gear by my Command Sargent Major (CSM) – who happened to be a beautiful African American woman (Girl Power!). Up to this point I just knew I was a new soldier stationed somewhere in the nether regions of the world and I really had no idea what to expect from the locals or from my new battle buddies.
Then, that’s when it happened. The supply Sargent handed me my new uniforms – complete with an Eighth Army Patch (EUSA) – the very same insignia that my Grandfather wore on his sleeve during his service in the Korean War. That little red and white patch made a scary place seem a little like home to me. Something so simple, yet so profound. Right there in a little supply room in a strange and foreign land, I knew that I could do this job. I knew that whatever I had gotten myself into was exactly the right thing I was supposed to have gotten myself into. If my Pap wore this with pride then so could I.
You see, Korea is a “hazardous duty station”. The Korean War isn’t over. There was a cease fire declared in July 1953, but to this day there has never been a peace treaty signed. This little peninsula in Southeast Asia is still just a hair’s width from reinstating an all-out war against each other and us. Many times during my enlistment we were woken by air raid sirens and hustled to the arsenal to retrieve our weapons. Some of these “alerts” were drills and some were due to tensions reaching a boiling point.
I have been several times to the DMZ and observed the absolute seriousness with which the guards on both sides of the line stand to protect their countries. I have heard with my own ears the propaganda spewing from megaphones about how terrible the United States is, and about how the South Koreans should kick us out of their country. It’s a very hostile and heartbreaking story really. The separation of families and the brute force along with brainwashing techniques used to keep this culture divided.
During the time I spent in Korea I learned many things – good and bad – about politics, patriotism and pride. I learned about different theological ideals, what true spiritual reverence means to people outside of the traditional Christian faith. I saw the ugly side of mixing religious belief systems with political systems – it harms both the religion and the politics… and the people that aren’t preaching either of the two. I also learned who I was. What things I stand for – and what things I will never stand for.
I learned that I am patriotic. But not in the sense that a lot of people are. I believe that patriotism isn’t just watching fireworks on the fourth of July or even saying the pledge of allegiance with your hand over your heart. It is also not the blind following of a political party’s ideals simply because they claim to have God on their side. True patriotism is the love of our Country, loving it so much that you would make personal sacrifices to preserve it and to do your part to uphold the integrity of all who share this land. It is the act of loving one’s country even if it means standing up to those who are profiting from bloodshed and exploiting the allegiance of our soldiers.
I support my troops but I do not support the misuse of them. I do believe in my Country – in protecting my homeland through whatever means possible from our enemies (if those enemies show up here and try to harm us). To do what you can to protect the fundamental rights of everyone in our Country – that is patriotism. I also feel that it is patriotic to help safeguard other cultures in crisis if and when we can – and within moral limits.
I do believe that having a well-trained Military is essential. However, I do not believe in sending soldiers – dedicated men and women – to fight battles over situations that are not anywhere related to protecting our homeland. People use the term “Support our Troops” all over the place in the United States. You see it on billboards, car bumpers and most often in political campaign advertisements. And I say Yes! Support our troops… but do NOT let their dedication, training and love of Country be misused in wars that are unethical and misrepresentative of what our Country should stand for. It is not the job of our troops to go blindly into war with other nations solely for political and/or financial gain. We should not utilize their living, breathing souls to simply take from people what is not ours to have. This is not what these soldiers have trained and sacrificed for.
What kept me going while serving my enlistment was the simple reminders from home that never stopped coming my way. My grandfather bought me a subscription to the Baldwin Times, my little hometown newspaper came all the way to South Korea so I could keep a connection. My grandmother sent banana bread – and sand and rocks and pine cones – anything to keep a smile on my face. My mother wrote hundreds of letters telling me how proud she was of me – although it was obvious that her heart was broken the day I left her home, she kept writing and kept telling me to follow my own heart’s desires, regardless of the ache left in her heart with me so far away. My sister and brother sent video tapes of themselves and our friends, funny good stuff just for me. And my Daddy sent music – the thing that can always keep a tired soul trodding along.
If you truly support your troops, if you have a soldier in your family or your circle of friends, do all you can to help them stay connected to the world they know and love. And then do one better. Pay attention to what’s happening in the world. Do your research and make sure that they are being sent to places that our soldiers should be sent to. Stand up and protest for their sake if they are being misused. Be sure to let your voice be heard loud and clear if their benefits are being taken from them. Do whatever you can to ensure that they have educational opportunities, health care and assistance getting reestablished in civilian society after their enlistments have been served.
Too many people “support” sending our soldiers to war, and they “support” them when they’ve come home to be lowered into the ground. But what about the in-between times? What about after they have served their Country and returned home maimed, wounded, broken or homeless? Where is our support then? What about their families, their babies? Are we giving to them with a supportive heart?
Three out of four homeless people in America have previously served our Country in the military. Three out of four. That is a quarter of a million veterans living on the streets of the Nation that they have served faithfully. 225,000 veterans – that stood up and took their oath and sweated and bled to make sure we have our freedoms – have nowhere to call home. And to add insult to injury, food assistance has just been cut for 170,000 veterans and their families. There is another thing as well, a thing that is hard to even think about much less speak about… the suicide rate for men and women in uniform has just hit a record high. Where was their “support” when they desperately needed it?
There are elephants under our Country’s carpet that need to be dragged out and tended to. For the sake of soldiers past as well as the new generation of men and women who have stepped up to proudly fill their boots, for the sake of one nation under whichever God you have the freedom to choose, let’s please re-evaluate how we are supporting our troops. I want to know that the Country my grandfather believes in truly does exist.
A Veteran’s Day parade will sure make us all feel patriotic, and we all wear little goose bumps when we sing that our flag was still there – a beautiful sentiment, but is it enough? After it’s said and done and the flags wave over deserted city streets littered with candy wrappers, do we walk away truly comfortable in the idea that we have supported our troops?
Are we standing up for them to support legislation that ensures THEIR hard-earned right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Are our votes being dropped in the right ballot boxes? These things matter. Slapping a magnetic ribbon on your SUV is not enough. If you truly support your troops, stand up and petition and protest unjust wars that separate these men and women from their families, damage their bodies and their mental health and send them home as outcasts. THIS is patriotism.
Remember that soldiers are people – living breathing people with mothers and fathers and siblings and children who love them. They are teachers, carpenters, musicians, postmen, boat captains, mayors, nurses, cooks, mechanics, artists, engineers and all sorts of other wonderful things. They are Herb, Gary, Brad, Daniel, Davin, Ben, Butch, Thumper, Brian, Mike, Johnny, Justin, Jonathan, Doug, David, Erica, Jeff, Aaron, Stephen, Michael, Brandon, Danny, Todd, Mark – beautiful, brave, loyal people willing to give their all for a Nation that is somehow losing some of it’s soldiers through the cracks.
These people are real. And a vast majority of these soldiers are just like I was when I joined the ranks – young, enthusiastic people from the streets of Small Town, USA just trying to do right by the world. And yeah, they signed up for it… but let’s all do our part and make sure that what they’re signing up for is worth their devotion – worth their precious lives.
“Blood has been shed for your freedom to speak on political and social issues, don’t waste it by being silent when our Country is gasping for breath.” (Caroline Harris)