What the Army Taught Me
When discussing the skills the US Army teaches its Soldiers, civilians would probably think of the “techniques, tactics, and procedures” described in Army doctrine. These TTPs, as the Army calls them, are the euphemisms used to describe the sometimes violent and logistical skills employed to maintain our Nation’s war fighting capacity. After all, how could any rational individual not be slightly horrified by the knowledge of how to inflict death and violence on those deemed to be our enemies? It is not enough to just stab an enemy, but make sure you twist the knife to ensure incapacitation. Don’t bother shooting for the head; a bullet is more likely to hit the chest as it is a bigger target, and there are plenty of vitals there anyways. Keep at least five meters between vehicles, Soldiers, and other equipment so that if you are hit by artillery your organization only loses one asset on a direct hit.
These are the very skills that have been seared into my memory, and such is the fundamental brutality of many aspects of Army knowledge. But these do not comprise the skills I have learned the most from in my three short years as an Active Duty Army Officer. Rather, the Army has taught me something far more fundamental towards my own humanity: empathy.
I had a remarkably privileged and wonderful childhood. My family was solid as a rock. Sure we had ups and downs, but what family doesn’t? Money was never an issue, as both my parents were successful attorneys. I went to a superb private college preparatory in Bradenton, Florida; played football, and worked hard. A combination of talent, resources, love, luck, and hard work landed me in Princeton University as a ROTC Cadet. ROTC wasn’t a must. My parents could have afforded to pay for college, but I wanted to serve the nation that had given me so much and prove that I could independently fund my university experience. At Princeton, I met many students with diverse backgrounds, but even those who had difficult childhoods often had good families and were so beyond talented that it was hard to see them as anything but privileged in some way or another. No matter what background, a Princeton student was still a Princeton student.
In the Army I had my first professional failure. I was removed from Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) School — a mission I was intensely passionate about. Due to the downsizing of the Army following the Budget Control Act of 2011, EOD found itself over strength on officers. In order to meet their smaller personnel quota, the school decided to grade more harshly and remove officers for errors on tests that the program had previously seen as minor. I made one of these errors. The harshest aspect of this to me was its arbitrariness. After all, my buddy at the school had passed the same test only a week prior having made the same exact mistake. I was removed 11 months into a 12 month training program, and placed into Army logistics.
This failure made me confront for the first time some of the struggles I had heard about but never understood. How a person, with limited fault of their own, could end up stuck in a place with fewer opportunities. I had been pigeon-holed into a job and career path I did not want. Luckily, this was just a professional setback. But it caused me to reflect on my own life and of that of those around me: what if my bad luck had been to be born without access to a good school or good parents? It hit me, for the first time, that this feeling was the same one people who were significantly less fortunate than I experienced on a daily basis. It is how cycles of various bad outcomes are created.
Then — once I started leading Soldiers in earnest — I met the great diversity of America. Like at Princeton, I met Soldiers who had dreadful backgrounds, but unlike my Princeton friends, they were not all smart. Their life prospects were limited. In the cases of the least talented, I feared for them after the Army. How would they survive if in a very structured environment, with many high quality and caring leaders, they found it impossible to find success?
Even good Soldiers made perplexing life choices. In one case, a young female Soldier married another Soldier without looking into his credit. She ended up marrying into almost $20,000 worth of video gaming debt, presumably issued by payday lenders. She then got caught on a random drug test having used MDMA. The Soldier revealed to me later that her own mother had pressured her into taking the party drug when she visited. We kicked her out of the Army with a General Discharge Under Less than Honorable Conditions — standard procedure for a drug violation. She and her new husband left the Army without a job or full VA benefits, and mired in $20,000 of debt.
I have had many other experiences like this, from disposing of property after a suicide to celebrating the birth of a Soldier’s child. I have come to feel for these young men and women. When I partake in the political debates about inequality today, I often think back on my own experience of failure and the challenges I have heard and seen with the Soldiers I have been privileged to lead. Often, I find both the very ‘liberal’ and the very ‘conservative’ politicians and pundits proposing potential solutions that would do absolutely nothing to help the most vulnerable in our society. I find it particularly irritating when I hear those who advocate social mobility also pushing an anti-military agenda. Besides simply being ill-advised in our violent modern world, those very people would be destroying one of the best vehicles for young men and women of quality out of poverty into the middle class. If you work hard in the Army and use your resources wisely, you are assured to leave the institution with free college, some money in the bank, and — for those who serve a career — a pension tied to their final salary. The benefits created by the Army for the underprivileged cannot and would not be replaced by another institution.
I am proud of our Army, and in the words of my mother, an anti-war 1960’s baby: “I thought I would never say this, but you have become a much better human-being because of the military.” I have been given experiences I would not change. I have gained empathy and love for people I never knew and experiences I had formally not understood. In a world of hardening ideologies and a failure to effectively communicate, I wish more people had experienced the military as I had. We would live in a much more caring society if we all, especially our elected leaders, encountered people who are so remarkably different from our friends and ourselves.