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  • Why I Decided to Rejoin the Army

    It was May, 1984, I was 17 and graduating High School in a year. My father pulled me aside and asked me what I was going to do after graduation. I thought about it awhile and then uttered.."Um…I dunno.". He decided we should have a discussion about it. "Well, you ain't smart enough to go to college, and seeing how you did in school anyway, I don't think you would apply yourself if you DID go, so I sure ain't spending any money on you anyway, to see if you would.”

    I agreed. I had waited 12 years to get out of the horrible Arkansas school system, and going right back in was not on my agenda. He said; "Well, I guess you're goin' to have to get a job then." Again, I agreed. I turned to walk away. He grabbed me by my collar of my Members Only jacket, also catching my stylish 80's rat-tail and yanked me back.

    "I ain't done talkin' to you jest yet. Okay, you're gonna' get a job. I'm glad we agreed on that! So, where you gonna’ work? Where you gonna’ live?" I told him I had assumed I would live there with him and mom. After he finished laughing and picked himself up off the floor, he pulled me aside, put his arm across my shoulder, and said:

    "Boy, you turned 18 a couple a'months ago, and when you graduate next week, I'm no longer obligated to take care of you. I'm gonna do you the favor of a lifetime and do what my old man did to me; kick your ass out! I’m almost 60 years old, raised 5 kids with one more younger than you, and I’m tired. I don't care what you do or where you go, but you ain't gonna’ to do it here!" He then slapped me on the back and walked off laughing, and I could hear him saying; "live here with you and mom!", and that would set him off laughing again and slapping his knee.

    After a deep and resigned "sigh", I weighed my options. I was 18, naïve, generally stupid, unskilled at any job other than picking blueberries or helping my old man out at construction jobs. I had no money, and within a year I would be out on the street. Plus, after enduring several years of beatings and taunting by bullies at school, I was chronically depressed, shy, a social outcast with few friends and a nervous wreck. Sadly, most of the few friends I did have were in the same boat; we never really thought we would live through High School, so we didn't plan for what we would do if we did.

    Then I remembered that earlier in the week I had seen a guy in an Army uniform sitting at a table in the lobby at school. I went up into my room and found the brochure I picked up on a whim. Desperate, I called him up to hear what he had to say. "Well, come on down, take a few tests, and if you pass we'll give you a job, room and board, plus a $5000 signing bonus. Hell, we'll send you to Europe if you want." So I once again I tried weighed my options, and seeing that I had none, went to the recruiting station. He showed me a video of young idiots like myself running through the woods, shooting anything that moved. They were jumping out of airplanes, rappelling down cliffs, zip-lining through the woods…it looked awesome! It looked like a summer camp, except a really cool one, not the Catholic one my parents sent me to, Camp Subiaco in Arkansas, where the biggest thing that happened was a 90 year-old monk trying to teach me the accordion. Really. (http://www.campsubiaco.org)

    I signed up for the Delayed Entry Program, which meant I would go in next year after graduation and hopefully keep my father off my back in the meantime.

    Within a few weeks of my graduation in May of 1985, I was in Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, fighting fire ants and Drill Sergeants, in that order. One of the my Drill Sergeants was a Vietnamese soldier who had fought in the South Vietnamese Army for over a decade, and had made it to the US after the war and had signed up with the US Army. This guy had seen it all; he had lived in the jungle for years, fighting the Viet Cong, and he trained us as if we would be doing the same. He wasn’t shy about grabbing the nearest stick or branch and whack you with it if you didn’t do what he said.

    One time on a patrol, he threw a fake grenade in our direction, and I dropped, but failed to “drop behind cover”, which meant hide behind a log or a stump, something that would protect me from shrapnel or a sniper. He saw me lying there in the open, and, since he already was holding a large stick, started beating me with it, all the while yelling; “What I say? I say drop behind cover! What you do? You drop in open! You wanna die! You stupid! Stupid! You no soldier! You jap bait! You commie bait! You die soon! I go tell you mama you die ‘cause you stupid!”

    Ah, memories. But you know what? I never dropped in the open before. This was in the days of what us older soldier like to call “the old army”, when Drill Sergeants were allowed to get physical. I don’t mean, harm us; but through us around, slap us, etc. Believe me, many of us needed it. I can’t imagine how they train recruits these days, not being allowed to touch them.

    One time I forgot the sweep my assigned area, and I got called into the DI’s office and was yelled at and thrown around for a few minutes. I never forgot to sweep my area again, I can tell you. Another time I didn’t shave before an accountability formation, and the DI carried an old Bic razor, just for that purpose. He made an example out of me, dry-shaving me in front of the whole company, with blood all over my face. Again, I never forgot to shave again.

    From what I hear, they aren’t allowed to do any of this anymore, and I think this generation needs it more than ever. On the final day of training, 4 months later, they had a big formation, and the DI’s called out everyone’s name and where he was going, then each individual had to run up to the DI and receive his paperwork, or orders.

    “Smith! Korea!”

    “Jones! Korea!”

    “Hogwallop! Korea!”

    “Klenc!.......Germany?”

    Private Klenc, how in God’s name did you get Germany?! Private Klenc, how come every one of your fellow soldiers is going to Korea to fight commies and defend democracy, but YOU are going to Germany, to drink beer!? Private Klenc, did you give your recruiter a hand job or a blow job, because that’s the only way you could have got Germany! Private Klenc, since you are obviously a faggot, drop and give me 50 push-ups for deserting your fellow soldiers and going to Germany!”

    “Saunders! Korea!”

    “Hodges! Korea!”

    It turns out I was the only individual in the entire company who had Germany in his contract; everyone else was headed for the DMZ. It also turned out that the DI who was upset about me going to Germany had been trying for years to go there himself, which is why he was pissed! It’s funny how life works; I had chose Germany on nothing more than a whim. I would easily had gone to Korea if the recruiter had asked me to. As a result of going to Germany, I met a German girl in within 5 years would have 2 kids; a boy and a girl. It is as if my children owe their very existence to an Army recruiter in Arkansas who offered me Germany. If I had gone to Korea, who knew where I’d be today. I sure wouldn’t have two German kids.

    Anyway, by the end of October, 1985, I was stationed at Warner Barracks in Bamberg, Germany making $600.00 a month! $600 a month! Hell, to a single, 18 year-old boy in 1985, that was a fortune! Think of all the "Members Only" jackets I could buy! I was assigned to E Company, 1st Battalion, 54th Infantry Division; a Mechanized Infantry unit, meaning I rode around in the back of an armored personnel carrier (APC).

    Well, in theory, this is what I was supposed to have done. Actually, we spent most of our days in the parking area working on our APC's, coming in at 3am to start the engines so they wouldn't freeze, and trying to get the heaters working so we wouldn't freeze either! I spent 5 years doing this, and in that time, as I mentioned, I married a German girl, had two children, got divorced due to the fact that we got married so young and didn’t like each other once we matured. I got out of the Army in 1991 and went back to the US, but returned to Europe to give the marriage another chance. In the time I had been gone, my ex had become an overweight smoker and drinker, and although she was the mother of my kids, couldn’t live with her.

    So began my life as a euro-wanderer, photo-journalist, hippie-artist. I traveled around Europe for a few years, held a few odd jobs, and even attended the University of Maryland's European Campus for a few semesters before returning to the US in July of 1995.

    I drifted around the US for a while, spent a year in Vegas, and eventually followed a girl out to San Francisco; a girl whom I thought was the girl of my dreams, and “The One”. Unfortunately, nightmares are also considered dreams. She was all caught up in the greed and materialism of Silicon Valley in the middle to late 90's, and dumped me on my 30th birthday for a yuppie dot com guy who worked at Excite.com

    I used my GI Bill to attend art school from 1997 to 2002, and at the age of 34, the whole dot.com market collapsed and pretty much erased the need for web designers such as what I had now become. So there I was; 34 years old, renting a small room in an apartment with three other people. I was $50,000 in debt with a worthless degree in "New Media" from the Academy of Art College, which covered web design, digital video and traditional art.

    Needless to say, I never had a job in any of those fields, ever, and the way things were going; I didn't see myself doing so anytime soon. I finally found a job at a law firm where I delivered faxes, made sure the break-room was clean, and the refrigerator was stocked with drinks. I also moved boxes of files around and occasionally sat at the front desk when the receptionist was on break. A real masculine, respectable job; let me tell you. A 15 year-old kid could have performed it as well as I, and ironically, the boy they put in my place when they fired me was, in fact, a 15 year-old kid; one of the partner's son. How nice.

    When I was in the Army I drove an armored vehicle near the East German border. I had been there when the wall came down. I had fired an AK-47. I had the respect of my fellow soldiers and was treated like a man. When I lost the job at the law firm, I had to go to temp agencies and beg a 22 year-old, community college dropout, snotty-nosed yuppie-princess for a shitty minimum-wage temp job at a company where they treat you like a loser and you end up feeling like a loser because even the secretaries feel "above" you.

    The Army I remembered had problems, like any organization, but at least I didn't have to deal with freaks and psychos and homeless people and egos as big as their SUV's and hearts as small as their pricks. On the outside, it is all about "Number 1" and boy, you better get out of their way. In the military, I remembered there was camaraderie; you are all in the same boat, looking out for each other. At least that is how it was supposed to be, and how I remembered it. If you got in a fight in a bar, your buddies were right behind you. You were given a job and you did it, and if you did it well you were respected.

    Now that I look back on it...at this point I had been a civilian for 10 years, working menial jobs I was realizing I would never escape. I saw my time in the Army as some of the best times of my life! I had many exciting adventures; I didn't have to worry about many of the common everyday things people worried about as a civilians. I had money, I was living in Europe, I dated beautiful girls with accents, I met cool people; it was great.

    But now? As an unemployed student in San Francisco? I had hit bottom; I had no self-respect, no money, and the only “work” I could get related to my "degree" was maintaining the web site for the San Francisco Herald. Which I did for free because the editor, Gene Mahoney, didn't have any money and I felt worse for him than I did for myself. I was unemployed for 6 months; I had to go on unemployment just to pay the rent, and even then had to borrow money from my girlfriend to pay my bills. I sold my prized motorcycle, a beautiful Suzuki Intruder, and we stopped eating out so much. In a few months I would have to start paying back my college loans, and I was freaking out.

    I always walked past the San Francisco Army Recruiting office on the way to my old job, but I never gave them a thought until now. Once I was unemployed and broke, I often stood outside when I was in the area, gazing in at the guys in their uniforms. Sigh. I missed the "good ol' days" when I didn't have to worry about rent, electric bills, parking tickets, job security, or asshole yuppies running me down in crosswalks in their SUV's. I missed being respected; I missed feeling like a man. Damn it; I did what I thought was expected of me! I did 6 years in the Infantry so I could go to college, and I did it! Where was MY American Dream? Hell, where was the ROAD to the American Dream? All I wanted was a decent job so I have a decent existence and start paying back my student loans. I was willing to start at the bottom and work my way to a better paycheck!

    The city was now flooded with unemployed tech workers, most of which had years of experience and couldn’t get a job, so I knew I didn’t have a chance.
    I knew that I just couldn't keep going like this; so I walked to the recruiter's office and went inside. They were blunt; they told me that if I signed up full-time, regular Army, I would get my old rank as a Specialist 4 back because of my college degree. Finally, I got some use out of it, I thought sarcastically to myself.

    But, because I was re-enlisting, they told me that I would have to go back into my previous job, “Mechanized Infantry – Guided Missile Systems” until they discovered that it didn't exist anymore, so I would get to choose a new one. I decided to go in as a 31F, or in Army lingo, a “Computer Network Switching Systems Specialist”, which was basically a communication tech. This meant I would have to go to Fort Gordon, in Georgia, for 4 months where I would be trained and certified, and then sent to a permanent duty station to be determined.

    At the time, I thought (and they told me) that in 4 months they would teach and train me in what in the civilian world would take years and untold thousands of dollars in (more) school fees.

    I would be paid as an “Enlisted 4” with 6 years of previous active duty, which was about $1950 a month after taxes, or $1950 more than I was making at the time. I wouldn't have to worry about rent, bills, or having to cook anymore, and I would be working in the field in which I was schooled. The recruiter also sold me on benefits, the biggest being that they would pay off one third of my school loan for every year I served, hence one third of $50,000 is almost $17,000 the first year alone! That would knock it down to $33,000, and the second year would be down to $21,000, and by the end of the third year, I would owe only $7,000! If I stayed in for 4 years, I would only end up owing $4667.

    $1950 a month may not sound like all that much to some people, but when you factor in the rent I wouldn't be paying, the food I wouldn't need to buy, all the bills I would no longer have to pay, all the clothing I would no longer need to buy, it sounded like a pretty good deal!

    To top it off, he also said I would also get a signing bonus of $5000.00 when I signed the papers. Other benefits include 30 days of paid vacation a year, full medical and dental benefits, and free or greatly reduced education in private schools on base. At the time I was laid off, I was making $1800 a month after taxes, less than I would in the Army. But subtract rent and food and insurance and gas and clothing and all the other crap I had to pay for, and I was almost broke. So you can see why I really didn’t have much choice. I had already served 6 years, so Army like wasn’t new to me, and besides, I was older at the time; smarter, more mature. II thought it would certainly be easier.

    There was something about military life that appealed to my personality. I wanted order; I demanded order. I didn't let my girlfriend fold my socks because she always mixed different colored socks together. All my CD's and LP's were organized by musical category; then broken down further by artist. All the movies on my hard drive are in alphabetically arranged folders, as in A, B, C. Despite all the faults in the military, for some people it’s a preferred lifestyle, and at the time I was one of them.

    In June 2001, the recruiter took me to San Jose where I started the paperwork necessary to get back in, and little by little, all those benefits the recruiter promised me disappeared. First, they told me that since I had gotten out and was trying to get back in, I was classified as "prior service". Oh, and guess what? Prior service recruits are not eligible for the school repayment benefit. Oh, and that $5000 signing bonus? Not eligible. Basically, they told me that because I was prior service and 35 years old, I would be lucky if they let me come back in, period. They said I was only being allowed to chose a new job because my old one had been phased out. The recruiters now told me that they didn't even care if I enlisted or not, because since I was prior service and 35, they weren’t getting “points” for signing me up, and to hurry-up and pick a job already so they could get some "real" work done. However, exchange for the money, he told me he would make sure I wouldn’t have to go to basic training again, as I was supposed to. I had been out over 10 years, and the rules said I had to go to basic again, but he would get his supervisor to waive it. What could I do? I signed my name on the line on April 1st, 2001. April Fools Day, or at least an April Fool. Five months later 19 Saudi Arabians flew two airline jets into the World Trade Center. Perfect timing.

    Right before graduating from technical school in Georgia, we had some visitors in red berets asking for volunteers to go to Airborne school with a famous football player who had quit the NFL to join the Army. His name was Pat Tillman, I had never heard of him. But being caught up in all the 9/11 chaos and patriotism, I signed up as well.

    I went to Airborne School at age 36, the oldest guy in my class, and had to get a waiver because of it, actually. However, over half the class fell out, all of them younger than me. Because of the media hype surrounding Tillman, they told us not to talk to him nor any of the camera crews hanging around the training area. Fort Benning was an open base; pretty much anyone could enter it, so CNN and everyone else would come by occasionally. It wasn’t a big deal to me, I didn’t even know they guy, and I couldn’t of cared less about the Arizona Cardinals.

    After graduation, I was sent to Fort Bragg, NC in December 2002. I went to Iraq in 2005, for a year. I got out in 2006, 4 years after signing.

    As I wrote this now, 10 years after signing up, and 6 years after getting out, I look back on my decision and stand by it. Things have worked out great for me, and I’m financially stable with a great girlfriend who I’m putting through nursing school. I went to Iraq for a year, and am now a Veteran, which means I can go to the Veterans Administration for pretty much anything, for the rest of my life. Of course, I’ll still get some kind of health insurance, but it’s nice to know I have the VE to fall back on.

    Because of the training, experience, clearance I received in the Army, I was able to get a great job as a military contractor, first in Qatar where I met my girlfriend, and now in Afghanistan, where I am writing this in December, 2011. I miss San Francisco and my friends I left behind, but visit when I can. My college loans have all been paid off, I have no debt, but also no house. Looking back at the past 10 years, I seem to have been the lucky one. I never bought a house, never tried to “flip” a house and got caught when the housing bubble burst. I’ve been gainfully employed since I joined the Army, except for the few months after I got out.

    My first job after getting out was working for a telecom company in Doha, Qatar. All the workers lived in a large villa with a pool, we had our own cars, and we made great money. So, in 5 years, I went from being broke and buried in debt, to living in a villa in the Middle East, having pool parties every weekend. That job gave me 3 weeks of paid vacation a year, and this current job in Afghanistan gives me 6 weeks a year. I've traveled to Vietnam, spent a week in the temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I've slept on the beaches on various islands in Thailand and the Philippines. I've visited Buddhist temples in all four countries.

    Epilogue

    The sad part of this whole story is that it isn’t the same girlfriend that I was with 10 years ago. Not sad for me, but sad for her. I met Holly in 1997 when I first moved to San Francisco, and we lived together for 5 years, until I joined the Army and left. I felt I was in such dire straits that I had to make a decision; either stay with her and look for a job, and even if I found one, school loans and rent would take all my money. Or, leave her and join the Army. It was one of the saddest times of my life, and I still feel bad about it, especially for her. Looking back, if I had told her the truth, and we had stayed together while I was gone, maybe it would have worked out.

    She was Vietnamese, and since we had been together 5 years, assumed we would be getting married. In her mind, we already were. Shamefully, I wasn’t totally honest with her about why I was leaving. I was embarrassed, having to leave for money, but I knew she wouldn’t accept it and want to work together, she had a good job; she could carry us until I got on my feet again…but I knew it wouldn’t work. Even if I DID get a job, all the money would go to rent and loans, leaving nothing for us to save and plan a future with.

    Because I signed right before the attacks on 9/11, I told her I had to go because of them. She knew that I had been a soldier before, and I told her I had to go back in, that my country needed me. I told her I didn’t know what the future held, and that I would probably be back. It was a lie, and I still feel horrible about it today. She deserved so much better than that. I try to make myself feel better about it by saying I was in a terrible place at the time, worried about my loans and my future. I mean, how could I stay with her and bring this crushing debt into her life as well, knowing she would be willing to work all day to help me pay them off? My pride wouldn’t allow me to let her do that to her, and I figured she would be better off with a man with a job. She was healthy and sexy; I didn’t think she’d have trouble finding a new man. Of course, I was thinking like a man, not a traditional-thinking Vietnamese girl. All I’m saying is, that I wish I had handled it better, but I took the coward’s way out; I blamed it on 9/11 and the military.

    ---------------------------------

    email me at jdylan_at_yahoo.com
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