Army Brat: Growing Up Military

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High school was officially over and I was adamantly opposed to being affiliated with the military, any longer. Then again, I was adamantly opposed to anything my parents were involved with. This included the military, going to college, and of course, Republicans. It did not help that I had been an Army brat the last 17 years of my life, toted across the US like a carry-on bag. I was sick of all the moving and sick of all the extra mandates that came with being in the military. Being a military brat meant there were certain household rules the family had to abide by, ones that normal families might think strange. There was the no painting or wallpapering of walls rule, no digging up the yard rule, and no purchases of anything permanent or long-term rule. Having pets was based on our housing situation. So for several years, they too were shipped around to various relatives for safe-keeping. Having friends longer than a few years was a joke and I became quite adept at making the obligatory promise of keeping in touch with a straight face. Thus, when the time came for me to make my first life decision as an adult, something on the civilian side was my only requirement.

The parents were given orders for a new location within weeks of my high school graduation. It being no longer necessary for me to stay tied to the family, I used the opportunity for freedom from them, begging to stay in Texas where all my friends were. After much deliberation, the parents agreed to my begging, on a certain condition: I must attend college. Convinced that at any moment, my acting career was set to take off, I had no real intention of ever going to college. But if that was what it took to get away from the parents and their military lifestyle, I was in.

The other condition for my staying in Texas was to live in an apartment with a friend that the parents trusted. I would receive no financial support other than education purposes so I would have to pay my own any rent and utility fees. This would be no issue. I had recently accepted the job of ‘stocker’ at the nearby PetsMart and figured I would make more than enough to cover all of my expenses. My only real problem was that at 17 no apartment complex could rent to me legally. Nor was there a friend willing to sign for sole custody of an apartment we would share (I was not well known for my fiscal responsibility at the time). My workaround was to lie to the parents by sending them photos of a random apartment I located on the internet and moving into a double-wide trailer with a few co-workers.

My two, new roommates were a lot older than me but in the same dire, circumstances. None of us had bank accounts, tangible goals, or real futures. Chavez, who was closest in age, was a 25 year old, prior military Hispanic guy, finally enjoying freedom from his stint in the Army. He was more of a big brother to me, taking on the responsibility from my parents to keeping me alive throughout my mishaps and adventures. In return, I provided him a source of entertainment in our less than menial lives.

Then there was John: a 40 year old with no aspiration in life other than to care for his 9 cats. That’s right, 9…in our 3-bedroom, double-wide trailer. John pretty much stuck to himself, coming out of his hovel of a room either for more cat food or to watch big-screen in the living room.

I selected aviation for my major after registering at the local college. The decision to become a pilot had come to me earlier in the summer, during a return flight from visiting with family. The job seemed simple enough. And it seemed pilots were given a great amount of respect. Plus, a few of my friends were also pursuing aviation as a degree making the decision that much easier. At this point, I knew nothing about flying planes and had little vested interest other than thinking it was a ’cool’ job. What knowledge on the subject I DID retain was from a few weeks of simulated flight training at Space Camp, as a child. But as anyone who has known me longer than a few hours can vouch for, I am a quick learner if I find the topic interesting.

I would estimate that it took me about 2 months to make the decision that ‘no, aviation was NOT interesting.’ Not that it was boring. In fact, there were frequent occasions when I was having the time of my life while up in the air, though most of those times consisted of my instructor doing the actual flying while I sat along for the ride. But flying (especially flying in the morning) interfered with the rest of my life. And it was the rest of my life that was finally taking off. I was the one deciding my bedtimes and where/when my meals were taken. Though my college was small, there were several others like it in the area, allowing for quite a burgeoning social life. The minimum wage I earned at PetsMart meant working 50-55 hours a week to keep up on rent and utilities (and pay for my social activities). With such a hectic schedule, I was bound to begin lagging behind in some areas. Unfortunately, it was being a pilot that was given the lowest priority. And the flight academy could not have agreed more.

It was springtime and around month 8 of my flight instruction when I was pulled into the dean’s office for a ‘conversation’. According to the dean, with the amount of flight hours I had put in, I should have received my Private Pilot’s License already. Yet I was nowhere close to being prepared for the required examination. A private pilot’s license would have allowed me to fly any small-wing aircraft single-handedly, for the rest of my life. And frankly, the aviation department just did not trust me in skies by myself, let alone in one of their aircraft. To make matters worse, as I prepared to leave the meeting, the Dean stated that in all his time as a flight instructor, I was the worst pilot he had ever witnessed. Noted.

Mom remarried sometime around this point of time and with the new husband came the new kids. They were about the same age as my sister and I so the expectation was that we would get along well. And we did…at least to each other’s faces. My new step-brother was a straight ‘A’, top-notch student type, with a full-ride scholarship to college right out of high school. He was gung-ho about being in the US Army like his father and as such, had signed on for a 4-year Army ROTC scholarship at the University of Tennessee. When school was completed, his aim was to become an Army Ranger and an all-around bad ass (I only know this because he frequently mentioned it in EVERY conversation that we had). Even with all of my years as an Army brat, I had no clue as to what a ‘Ranger’ was. Whenever my step-brother stated his career goal, an image of Yogi-Bear being chased by Ranger Rick came to mind. And I was most definitely not interested in that. It is probably needless to say that my step-brother and I had very little in common.

A month after the parent’s wedding when I received a random phone call from my mother, sometime in the late evening. Her anger was thinly veiled behind tears as she berated me from the get-go on my current choices in life and the direction that I was headed. Apparently, a little bird (namely my step-brother) mentioned in passing conversation to my parents about what a hard partier I was and how he could not imagine doing some of the things that I did. This comment alone was enough to send my mother into the mad frenzy she was in and to question my activities and values. The final piece of our phone conversation was on how my step-brother was the shining image of what a perfect son should be and how I should strive to be more like him.

I was livid. How was it that this new guy could come waltzing into my life and steal away my hard-earned title of ‘darling’? I had been pulling the wool over my mother’s eyes for so many years long I did not know how to respond when I was finally being called out on it. I plotted for days on how I would earn her trust back (and in by doing so get back my title of ‘favorite child’). In the end, I did what any sane being in my shoes and not thinking clearly would do. Without telling anyone my plan, I applied to the same school and scholarship that my step-brother had.

My interview for the Army 4-year scholarship should probably not have been so simple. Though I was nervous when I first arrived for my appointment, after sizing up the person that was to interview me, I quickly realized just how easy I was about to have it. The Lieutenant assigned to my interview was a few years older and about as excited as I was to be there. I did my best to distract him with various stories of my extracurricular activities in high school such as marching band, team sports, and film acting, hoping he would not notice the sub-par grades I earned in my mandatory courses. The Lieutenant had also been in the marching band in high school and was very much interested in acting in film. In fact, he was even so kind as to provide me with both his headshot and resume in case I happened upon an acting role he might be suited for. I had this cat in the bag.

When I made my announcement that I was accepted by both the University of Tennessee AND the Army ROTC program on a full scholarship, my family was stunned (just the reaction I was going for). They pelted me with questions as to my motives, to which I assured them I had only matured and come to my senses in the direction for my life.

“Are you sure?” my stepfather asked one day.

“Of course! Why would I not be?!” I returned (in my best attempt to sound incredulous).

“I don’t know,” he responded. “Maybe because until now you’ve been very explicit on your thoughts about the military.”

I laughed off his statement, reminding him that I was a kid then and way more mature now. I can only guess at how believable I came across.

Having spent the year before already in college, I was not new to the campus social scene, unlike many of my ROTC peers. Therefore, I did my best to act as their experienced guide into the college realm. In return, they kept me straight-edged and narrow, ensuring I did not get TOO wild (and that I did not sleep through my classes). It was a good balance that allowed my new cadet buddies and me to bond quickly. My brother on the other hand, did not feel the need to associate with our cadet class as much as I. A few of his high school classmates were also going to Tennessee so he took to spending most of his free time with them instead. Every once in awhile, my step-brother would come out with our military group and socialize for a day or so, before venturing back to his own crowd.

The military world of ‘cadet-land’ was a total surprise to me. I had convinced myself years ago that my rebellious nature would never work in such a rigid environment. I could not dream of ever allowing someone to berate me while I stood at attention, forced to take it in quiet acquiescence. But what I was quickly learning from my experiences was that the military was nothing like I had imagined. Yes, there was a code of conduct based on a ranking order, but I found it allowed for meaningful conversations no matter what one’s rank. There was no confusion as to who would lead in decision making or action. That was decided by on the ranking structure built upon meritorious service and earned experience. But it did not mean that everyone involved would not play a significant part. In fact, the leadership structure seemed to streamline the decision making process by adjoining the best of what everyone involved had to offer. And from this, one could rise rapidly in respect and prestige by both adhering to tasks AND applying leadership. My old rhetoric had turned upon itself, unable to withstand the fact that I might appreciate the structure of an organization I had been so against. From that moment on I decided I would do everything in my power to be the best. Besides, I had a step-brother to beat out, right?

Freshman year flew by. I ended the year with a tight-knit group of friends with similar goals and with the realization that the Army may not be what I expected. Having come into the ROTC program in not the best of shape and not at all career oriented, a few PT sessions and pats on the back after great grades and I was in the forefront of being one of the top and upcoming cadets. And with the friends I had bonded with right along beside me, I was surer than ever on where my life was going to take me. It was my brother that was having his doubts. Though we were not officially in the military yet, life as a cadet was not what he had expected. My step-brother no longer spoke of being the super, hardcore, Army Ranger, he had once envisioned. Our first year of paid-by-scholarship tuition was free with no military obligation. But the day we returned for our second year of college, all cadets would be required to sign an official contract with the Army. From that moment forward, if one of us were to fail out of college or change our minds on serving, we would be obligated to pay back the scholarship in full OR serve as an enlisted Soldier for the amount of time owed. Unwilling to take the risk, my brother backed out.

Junior year in the Army ROTC program requires that a cadet make their decision on whether to serve their obligated commissioned time on active duty, the National Guard, or the Reserve. All require the same time commitment. The difference was in whether the military would be a full-time career or a requirement for a weekend drill every month for the same time period. Going Reserve or National Guard also gave opportunities to pursue a career in the civilian sector. At this particular time, the gloss of being the military juggernaut that I was aiming for had begun to wear off. Not that I considered being in the Army a bad decision, but that the requirements put upon me at the time were monotonous and keeping me away from my other pursuits. Namely, the girl I had fallen for. It was halfway into the semester before I noticed her in my Astronomy lab. I had stumbled into class late one day, only to realize I had left my required reading material at home. I sat down in the seat next to her and asked if I could look onto her book. She obliged and for the rest of the 2-hour period we were lost in conversation on various subjects (not Astronomy, unfortunately). She had the most infectious laugh and I found myself craving more of her attention as the lab continued. When class was over, I followed along beside her across campus, pestering her for a phone number. My persistence paid off and we set a date for later that week. One year later, we were planning a marriage.

It was a Thursday and I probably should have chosen another time to go into the ROTC building for paperwork. I overslept that morning and been berated by the cadet cadre for it. The girlfriend and I had been bickering over nonsense for the past few days. And I had just been assigned the bullshit task of babysitting some freshman cadets on one of their field trips. So when the time came to choose which service I was about to dedicate my life to, full-time employment with the US Army was last on my list for career choices. It was a tough decision. I spent the better part of an hour staring at the blank space I was to write my answer in, weighing out the constraints. For the past 3 years of my life, I had committed myself to daily morning workouts, extra military courses, and additional duties. While I had performed well in every area, my motivation was waning. It did not help that my girlfriend was dead-set on her career path. After completing her Bachelors in Urban Planning, she would continue with her Masters in the same field. Afterward, she planned to move to Louisiana (where all the Urban Planning jobs were, apparently) for a job in the public sector. I realized that her plan sounded a lot better than anything I could come up with and was the exit strategy I needed for escape from my doldrums life in the Army. That was it! I would select Army Reserve for my branch of duty and follow the girlfriend to Louisiana! I would fulfill my weekend drill requirements with whatever unit I found while seeking a teaching job at one of the local colleges. Fate decided, I bubbled in my selections and exited stage right for my new future.

The girlfriend and I were broken up only a few months later but it took a few more months after that to realize what the break-up really meant. My plan for moving to Louisiana and teaching were shot. And I was soon to join a service I neither knew nor cared anything about. What was I to do now, career-wise? I was graduating with a Bachelors of Science in Politics (which I loved). The problem was, without a PhD in the field, a political scientist’s opinions mean next to nothing and good job in the craft is hard to come by. I was at my wit’s end on what to do. Graduation for me was not a happy moment.

I left Tennessee for my Army training a few months after graduation. The last year of my life had been a sobering one as I was forced to come to terms with the realities presented before me. Both the superstardom and house-husband options were out. And that meant if I was ever going to be anything, I was going to have to start from scratch and do it myself. I devoted myself to the Army education I was receiving during the day and getting my act together at night. From paying off debt, finally starting a savings account, to calling family members I had not spoken with in years, I was on a mission to get my life in order. It was one of these nights that I reached a conclusion I had been denying all along: I needed the military and it was a good thing. The military had chosen me even as the wild, rebellious child in my teens and molded me into the man I was today. And even after I turned my back on it to look for happiness elsewhere, here I was in my rarest and best form, fully inculcated into the US Army. I decided that night to go active duty.
I was halfway through my Army training at the Army Signal School when I received a phone call from the unit I had just been assigned to. It was the Battalion Commander congratulating me on my educational successes and upcoming graduation from the Signal Officer Basic Course. He also called for another reason: the unit was deploying to Iraq in a few months and was in desperate need of a Signal officer.

“What do you think?” the Battalion Commander asked me.

“To be honest sir”, I started, “I’m more interested in going active duty. I don’t intend to be a Reservist for much longer.”

“But what if you don’t like it?” he replied.

I paused. I had not thought about regretting my decision once I was in, but I had to keep in mind that it was a possibility. I mean, I had “not liked” it before; it could happen again, right?

The Battalion Commander waited to let the words sink in before starting again. “Grant, if you deploy with my unit as our Signal officer, I will do everything in my power upon our return to make sure you go active duty. This will give you the opportunity to try it out and if you don’t like it, fine. At least you know before you commit.”

I was sold.

Frank Walkup died from wounds received from an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blast while on a dismounted patrol in Iraq. As the leader of his unit, he felt it was important to show that officer’s share the same responsibilities as their subordinates. The shared task this time was to check whether or not a piece of debris on the road was actually an IED. According to the rotational order he included himself on, it was Walkup’s turn. The object was an IED. Walkup’s death was a shock to my tight-knit group of friends. Until then, none of us had any real exposure to the deaths of friends and loved ones on the battlefield. Walkup had been one of the best positive motivators in our crowd. A year ahead of most of us in the ROTC program, he went out of his way to encourage us to always do better. I remember times when he would finish smoking a cigarette he had lit a few minutes before and then lap us on the track as we struggled to keep up. He was smart, kind, and gave a damn about his comrades and his duty. I will always remember Frank Walkup and the profound effect he had on me towards the military.

I think my reoccurring lesson in life is that nothing is ever what I expect it to be. Before deploying, the thought of being in a Middle Eastern nation (let alone a war-ravaged one), was daunting. My first few weeks in Iraq, I scurried to cover after hearing any sort of loud noise. And I was much too afraid to even think about adventuring off of the base like other Soldiers. Quick walks to the nearby dining facility were enough of an excursion for me. My communications section consisted of 9 Soldiers including myself. 6 of them were barely out of high school and under my care. The other 2 were more than twice my age…and under my care. Somehow, I earned their respect as leader (though I am sure I fumbled through my first few months). Together, we burned hour after hour of midnight oil to learn the various communications systems used in theater and the intricacies of military operations. Before long, we were functioning like a well oiled machine. Our days consisted of managing the computer networks of over a thousand Soldiers, encrypting radios for use outside the ‘wire’, and wiring and connecting buildings with communications capabilities that we occupied on the base. I was again hit with the revelation that I was nowhere close to the life I had dreamt up for myself, yet here I was having the best time of my life!

A few months into my deployment, I learned that Darryn Andrews, a Lieutenant I had trained with only months before, died from wounds sustained from small arms fire while in combat with militants in Afghanistan. Andrews was an asshole through and through but I liked him for it. When I first arrived to Fort Benning for my military training (shortly after college), I was dismissed by most in my platoon as a tool. My beret was not shaved down as required, my uniform was ill-fitting from coming right off the racks, and my boots were already scuffed up. Unlike the others, Andrews took the time to mentor me on being a good officer (and not looking so jacked up). For that (and unlike the others), I was willing to forgive him when his slights and critiques were sometimes a bit too harsh. When I met Andrews, he was returning to the Army as an officer, having served as an enlisted Infantryman years before. Before his arrival at our military training, he taught high school math in Texas to students who adored him and would call just to talk, years later. I remember Andrews brought his newborn baby boy and wife to Fort Benning with him, not knowing where else to put them while he trained. The loss of Andrews was the loss of a friend to me and a loss of an asset to the Army.

The year in Iraq seemed to pass by overnight and yet my team had done so much! By the end of the tour, my Soldiers and I were not only doing our regular jobs, but training the Iraqis to do the same. I was now not only venturing forth into the Iraqi countryside, I was spanning the entire nation, from Syria to Iran, Turkey to Kuwait. My Soldiers were a well respected team throughout the military bases, known as the ‘go-to’ guys for any communications support. As for myself, I had grown not only as an officer in the United States military, but as an adult man making adult decisions. I was debt-free, world travelled, and well experienced in my field craft. Deploying to Iraq not only reaffirmed my decision to serve my country, full-time, it confirmed for me what I had somehow innately known all along: the military was in my blood.

In my transfer over from the Army Reserve service to the active duty side, I cannot help but to look back at where the past few years have taken me. From a stubborn teenager bent on escaping the reach of the military to a college kid unsure of his direction, to an Army officer in the best military the world has ever seen, I can only think, “what a ride!” I look forward to my continued service with the US military. The honor and respect that this career field holds is well deserved. Every morning, the American Soldier wakes up and makes the decision to serve his country and that his/her life is worth the sacrifice for a greater good. As we win the conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan, many of those great men and women do ultimately make that sacrifice. And too few of the American people fully realize just how much of a price our Soldiers have to pay. As I grow in my own maturity and the wisdom that comes with age, I value every second that I get to stand proud and should-to-shoulder, with truly the greatest Americans I have ever known.

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Author of the BramList blog, COO of theBlueWarrior LLC, US Army officer

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