An essay by M.L. Doyle
For 17 years, I faced the transition from military to civilian life each and every month. I served in the U.S. Army Reserve. At work, with family, friends, or with strangers, putting on a uniform one weekend a month and two weeks each year required constant explanation.
One Sunday after weekend drill, I took my mother to the grocery store. I was still wearing my BDUs and boots when I wrote a check to cash at the customer service counter. It probably wasn’t for a lot of money … maybe $60 or so. The clerk behind the counter asked to see my ID, so I handed over my driver’s license. She looked at me funny and then called the manager.
The manager looked at my license, then looked at me, then back down at my license again. In my civilian life and in my ID photo, I wore my curly black hair down to my shoulders. In uniform, my hair was pulled back tightly, French braided, and neat. Still, the photo was obviously me.
“That’s not you,” the manager said as he threw my ID at me with a flick of his wrist.
“What do you mean? Of course it’s me.” I pulled out my Reserve ID, my credit cards, my library card. He stood behind the counter, his arms crossed, looking at me as if I were a thief.
To be fair, as a black woman living in Minnesota, I had no idea if his attitude was about the uniform or my race. All I knew at the time was that this was my grocery store; I’d shopped there every week for years. I’d cashed checks there and used checks to pay for cartloads of groceries. The only thing different that time was that I was in uniform.
He refused to cash the check.
It wasn’t always like that, though. In the early years of my Reserve service, I had several jobs in the insurance industry. For someone without a college degree, the jobs paid well and at first, I thought I’d make a career of the work. I often hunted for new positions because that was the best path to career advancement. For one job, I interviewed with the vice president of the company. He was a serious-looking, fiftyish white man who seemed completely unimpressed with me. He’d asked me several questions while staring at my resume, and I responded as best I could.
To be frank, I didn’t have the experience the job required. I’d applied anyway and kept returning to the fact that I was a quick study, which was the truth. I’d need lots of training, but if I got lucky and was offered the job, I would make a serious jump in salary, the kind of jump that would change my life. That extra money would allow me to get a better apartment, buy a car, have an expense account, maybe even travel. I’d be a junior executive and finally feel as if I were getting somewhere. But this guy was unyielding. Until he turned my resume over.
“You’re in the Army Reserve?” he asked.
At this point, with the surprise in his voice, I figured that was it. Few employers wanted to take on a reservist who would use their three weeks of military leave in addition to their two weeks of vacation every year.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“No shit? Where’d you go to basic?”
“Fort McClellan, Alabama.”
“No shit? I went there too.”
We exchanged a few war stories and he gave me the job on the spot.
While working at the same job, suits were my usual attire. One Friday, I had to report to the reserve center for an evening drill. I’d taken my uniform with me to work that day and changed in the restroom. I stopped by my desk on the way out, and two of my female co-workers stared at me with their mouths open.
“I didn’t even recognize you,” one said.
“Wow,” said the other, “you look so … butch.”
As I left, I heard them chant behind my back, “Hey, Private Benjamin!” Damn that movie. It was always either “Private Benjamin” or “G.I. Jane.” Neither nicknames were intended as compliments.
Eventually, I switched careers to broadcasting both in uniform and out. I was lucky to get a job at a local NBC affiliate, where the shift work fit my reserve service well. It was especially since I’d also switched my military career to public affairs. To this day, I’ll tell anyone willing to listen that being a public affairs broadcaster is the best job in the Army.
I was working in master control at the TV station on December 20, 1989, when the United States invaded Panama for Operation Just Cause. It was startling, not just because the invasion was playing out on TV right in front of us, but also because my reserve unit was scheduled to go to Panama in two months. I’d been looking forward to the trip.
My co-worker, a middle-aged woman who had taken to mothering me a bit at work, knew of my reserve unit’s plans.
“They won’t make you go now, will they?” she asked.
“Of course we’ll still go.”
“But won’t it be dangerous?” she asked.
“I’m a soldier,” I said.
She paused, her mouth hanging open. “Oh,” she said.
Of course, by the time we arrived in Panama, the conflict was over. The burned out shells of cars and pockmarked buildings we saw that had yet to be cleaned up said plenty about the violence that had taken place there.
Summer time was always the most difficult time to have reserve duty. It seemed as if every street fair I wanted to attend, every party, every barbeque happened on my drill weekend. My friends would tell me to call in sick.
“Just skip it this time.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” I’d say.
“It just doesn’t”
If weekend drills ate into my social life, it became worse when I decided to get my degree. I’d taken a bunch of classes at a community college and benefited from several credits earned through my military training (most from the nine months I spent attending language school). For three years, I worked full time, went to school in the evenings and served in the Reserve. It was a grueling schedule, but worth it.
My reserve unit usually traveled for our two weeks of annual training, sometimes to the field to places like Fort McCoy, Wisconsin and Camp Ripley, Minnesota. Most often, our orders took us to places like Puerto Rico, Honduras, Guatemala, Thailand, and Panama. My civilian co-workers thought of my annual training as a hardship. They pictured me sleeping in a barracks, eating rotten chow, rolling around in the mud, and being yelled at by angry sergeants. I tried to explain that I was a sergeant, but the clichéd views were hard to shake.
I didn’t tell them about the five-star hotel in Bangkok, or the G5 that took us from Panama to Honduras. I didn’t talk about the frequent trips on helicopters, the fantastic shopping at little village markets, or the tours of hidden ancient landmarks. Annual training was always something to look forward to, but since the people I worked with had to pick up the slack while I was gone, it was better not to brag.
In the late 90s, my unit was set to deploy to the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. We used our two weeks of annual training to prepare for the deployment. At the time, I was working the graveyard shift at the TV station. Because I was soon going to be leaving on a nine-month deployment, I felt guilty and didn’t want to add another two weeks to the damage.
For the next fourteen days, I worked at the station from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., then went to the reserve center from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. After a quick trip home to crash, I did the same thing all over again. Aside from the two days off I had from the station, I continued that schedule until the pace made my head spin.
When I left my home, one freeway entrance took me to work; the entrance in the opposite direction took me to the reserve center. Nearing the end of those 14 days, I was so confused that I had to look down to see if I was in uniform or not to figure out which freeway entrance to take.
It turned out that ridiculous schedule helped condition me for life in Bosnia. I deployed as the non-commissioned officer in charge of my public affairs team. One day, I met a couple of Italian officers who liked to stop by our basecamp for coffee. One of them, a captain from Rome, always talked about how Americans had a different attitude about military service than Italians. He described spending Christmas at a USO in Sarajevo and receiving a care package.
“Inside was shaving cream, soap, candy and homemade cookies. And there was a card,” he paused as if needing to gather himself. “A beautiful card. It said, ‘we support you!’ We support you,” he said, his hands thrown up in the air. “It was magnificent!”
Each time I returned home from annual training, it was difficult to go back to work, much like it’s difficult to return to routine after being on vacation for weeks at a time. Returning to the states after Bosnia was even more difficult than I thought it would be. We’d been in the middle of world events, had seen the aftermath of war, and had worked shoulder to shoulder with active duty troops. I’d watched Madeline Albright chastise Bosnian and Serbian leadership for their inability to make peace and had interviewed senators and four-star generals. Going home felt like the ending of something life changing.
I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d been working 16-hour days, hadn’t been alone from morning to night and rarely had an idle moment. I didn’t think I’d ever get used to being back home.
It took me almost ten years to finally write about wearing a uniform, traveling to remote places for duty, and deploying to Bosnia. Once I began using former mission sites as backdrops for my mystery series, my family and friends had a better chance of understanding what my duty had been like. In The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, I describe our living conditions on Camp McGovern, Bosnia, painting pictures of where we ate, the country, the people, the destruction we saw, and the difference we made. In The Sapper’s Plot, the focus is on Honduras, the mountain villages we lived in and the people who flocked to receive medical treatment. And in, The General’s Ambition, the setting is a large training exercise in Hohenfels, Germany. There’s a mock press conference, training sites, dirt and dust, and a keen desire from the characters to finish the exercise and go home. In the book, it’s when “end-X” is called, that the story begins.
In the Army Reserve I forever had one foot in the military world and the other in a civilian world that didn’t understand what happened once I shrugged on a uniform and laced up my boots. One would think the frequency of transition would eventually make things easier, smoother, less likely to trip you up. After all, I had plenty of practice.
For me, transition means being able to write about military service, to get it recorded, to share it with those who might never otherwise know what wearing a military uniform is like.
M.L. Doyle has served in the US Army at home and abroad for more than three decades as both a soldier and civilian. She calls on those experiences in her award-winning Master Sergeant Harper mystery series, her Desert Goddess urban fantasy series, erotic romance writing, and co-authored memoirs — all of which feature women who wear combat boots.