Reflections on Time in the Army

David Thompson
Aug 5, 2016 · 7 min read

I’m with mixed emotions recognizing that this is my last day on active duty in the U.S. Army. The past 8.5 years went by quicker than I ever thought they would. It seems that just a few weeks ago I raised my hand to swear allegiance to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States; however, it also feels as if it’s been forever. As I reflect on my time in the military I’ve had more opportunities than I thought imaginable when I entered. The ability to lead soldiers, protect the innocent, build communities, serve the country, and enhance U.S. foreign policy are just a few of the outstanding opportunities that I’ll cherish forever.

First, I must reflect on why I joined. Growing up, I always admired military members. A service member speaking at my school or waving while passing by put joy in my heart. I looked up to my Uncle Jimmy, who was a warrant officer in the Army at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I wanted to be that person that served and inspired others as so many service members inspired me — the one they can depend on in a time of trouble. I looked up to my uncle and wanted to be someone that was a role model for others. Nonetheless, I knew that being a soldier was only part of the calling, and one day it would have to come to an end.

The greatest experience provided to me was the opportunity to lead fellow soldiers. In retrospect there are many times where I came up short or responded in a manner that I would like to change. Fortunately, I had a quality group of non-commissioned officers, soldiers, peers, and commanders that helped guide and educate me. I know that despite occasional shortcomings I always maintained the best of intentions. Hopefully, I got it right enough times that the majority of those I served alongside will have positive recollections.

Undoubtedly, the best part about serving in the military is the people and relationships. I could reflect on those outstanding subordinates, peers, and superiors that inspired, mentored, and assisted me along the way; however, this post would be longer than anyone would want to read. The Army is a people organization in a different way than the Navy and Air Force (granted, I’m also biased). The primary doers in the Army are the non-commissioned officer (NCOs) and enlisted. Without NCOs and enlisted soldiers, it’d just be a bunch of officers sitting around e-mailing each other. Fortunately, I had some of the best NCOs and hardest working enlisted soldiers. They made coming to work a pleasurable, rewarding experience.

Deployments provided some of the greatest experiences of my time in the military. One of my most cherished memories comes from my first deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. After some fighting we drove the Taliban out of one village and established a security checkpoint; however, to ensure lasting support for the government we needed to expand services. Through a series of negotiations we built a co-ed school. While visiting the village I saw two girls walking down the street with pink bookbags having finished day 2 of school. By the time we left, over 800 kids attended that school. When I went back a few years later, enrollment reached 1,000 boys and girls.

Admittedly, prior to this first deployment I was angry. I didn’t see the common humanity that we shared until about a month through the deployment. As I visited the guard towers in our base I watched a man tend to his garden while his children came out to play with him. He picked them up and swung them around, as my dad would do to me when I was their age. After a few minutes he scurried them off so that he could continue working. In that moment I realized that he was not interested in the Taliban, al Qaeda, or the United States. He may not have even known about the attack on the World Trade Center. All he wanted was to live in peace and raise a family. My prior viewpoints were naïve and wrong.

Initially, I planned to serve 4 years then attend law school; however, as I approached 3 years in the military I didn’t feel as if I had enough yet. The first deployment proved incredibly rewarding as I felt it was the first time I was truly able to make the world a better place. After a discussion with my mentor I decided to try out for Special Operations Civil Affairs. I had the opportunity to work alongside them in Afghanistan and found the experience very favorable.

The second time to Afghanistan provided some great opportunities to help expand government services, partner with development, mentor the Afghan Army, and see the achievements since the last deployment. Additionally, I got to work with some of the best units in the Army and Navy. Unfortunately, a few people I encountered during this time were more focused on personal gain rather than mission success. Sadly a lot of our partners lacked the desire to fight once we left. Many of the areas we tried to push security were undone within days of us leaving. While it’s disheartening to see an area regress where we spent a lot of time and effort, the people living there have to want it for themselves as bad as we want it for them.

The time I spent working in Jordan was the best 6 months of my life. I was sad to leave. In addition to having a great team, I worked from the U.S. Embassy with some of the smartest and most pleasant people to help alleviate tensions on host-communities due to the refugee crisis. The Jordanians are some of the most welcoming, kind people. I will be forever thankful for the hospitality and generosity bestowed on me by some of my closest friends. My heart continues to go out to the people suffering — particularly the refugees and disenfranchised communities.

Of course no time in any organization is going to be without challenges; however, as I reflect on the time in the Army there is definitely a net positive. As I move from active duty to law school and the Army Reserves, I plan to take the experiences, skills, and lessons learned with me recognizing that my undertakings are no better or worse than anyone’s — they’re simply just different. I’m grateful for the men and women that continue to put on the uniform, yet I recognize that the military is one part of the U.S. foreign policy, which is further just one part of America as a whole. It takes skilled diplomats, volunteers, analysts, and soldiers working together to enhance foreign policy. Additionally, we need business leaders, teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, and politicians working together domestically. It’s time for me to begin another chapter and serve in a different capacity, which is why I joined Veterans4Diplomacy, Service2Schools, and U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.

Veterans4Diplomacy helps connect veterans that wish to continue in public service through foreign affairs and policy officials. It helps veterans continue a path of development to be global leaders. Service2School helps veterans transition and be accepted to top academic institutions across America. U.S. Global Leadership Coalition advocates for the use of smart power, acknowledging that military intervention should not be the default option in U.S. foreign affairs. All of these organizations help continue along public service.

So why get out? Why not stay in and continue to progress through the ranks and retire in 11.5 more years with a comfortable pension? There’s a certain risk and unfamiliarity with getting out of the military that I assess keeps a lot of people in the Army that may otherwise wish to depart. The military gets comfortable in the same way that avoiding change and stepping into uncertainty provides comfort for anyone. Service members are paid well with good medical and educational benefits, tax-free housing, food stipends, and other incentives. I never intended to stay for a career. While there are plenty of jobs in the Army that remain appealing, I feel as if I’ve been fortunate enough to do what I needed to move onto another chapter in life.

The divisiveness in domestic politics today is perhaps most disheartening to a soldier, which is why I support #VetsVsHate. In the military we put aside our political differences to work together and achieve results. We’ve seen the best of humanity as well as the worst. In combat we share a common enemy only to come home and be told that the enemy is here. The demonization of others’ political views needs to stop so that we can have logical discussions based on reason and morality. We do things because they’re right and they get results — not because it’s politically expedient. Politicians are not going to change without pressure from their constituents; therefore, we must peacefully come together to demand a political process that we deserve. Ending with a few lines from Abraham Lincoln:

“The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”