When I was ending my time in service in the Army, I had a moment of clarity on my final day of active duty. When you finish your time in service, you go through about a month long process of clearing- it’s a bunch of paperwork, confirming you turned in gear, attended a few transition classes and are ready to finish out your days. I was stationed at Fort Drum, NY and on the last day you head to a place called Clark Hall where you pick up your DD214, sign a few more pieces of paper and are generally free to ride off into the sunset.
I cleared post in early May, when it was still a bit chilly in Upstate NY. I remember driving to Clark Hall and feeling apprehensive about my decision to get out of the Army. I had spent the majority of my twenties serving in the Infantry. It was a great experience, and to this day I’m glad I had the opportunity to serve. But after attending a military college, and then enlisting in the Army, the soldier life was the only thing that I knew. My whole adult life had been spent in combat, the military, or training for one of the two.
I wasn’t a Marine so I didn’t have to fight and kill a volcano monster with a sword just to get a uniform top.
I knew what was at risk though. I was comfortable in the service, and it was an easy life once you were adjusted to it. But is it what I wanted to do? Get out of the Army with a nice retirement at age 41, and then spend the rest of my days waiting to die? But with a pregnant wife and little in the way of the job prospects outside of manual labor, was I foolish for getting out of the Army and the security it provided? As I walked into Clark Hall that final day, I was still anxious about my decision and had reservations on choosing to leave the Army.
There were quite a few reasons for why I was leaving the Army but it basically boiled down to one thing: The war, and combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were mainly over and I would spend the next 10 years in administrative positions, as a recruiter, organizing training events or a combination of all three. None of that appealed to me. I’m not some sort of adrenaline junkie, or fiend for combat, but I was used to the cycle of deployment, train-up, block leave, then another deployment. As a soldier, we were apart of something bigger, and as an Infantryman we were able to actually do our jobs when we were overseas. War was an opportunity to test yourself, and test your soldiers in the ultimate challenge. Everything else we did in the Army would be a false derivative, a sham act compared to fighting in a war with your boys.
The drive to Clark Hall was the usual drive I had made the past eight months, since the end of our last deployment. We weren’t on the radar to be going overseas for combat anytime soon, and I would likely be selected as a recruiter. Northern New York is actually a beautiful area; rolling hills, farm country, gorgeous architecture and rivers and lakes dotting the countryside. I lived off-post, about twenty minutes away in a small town called East Carthage. It was a standard small town, walkable, pleasant neighbors and a few good restaurants. The ride in was along a New York state highway with farms and a few rolling hills.
During that final drive, I was apprehensive the whole way about whether or not I was making the right decision. Technically speaking, I had already made the decision so it was too late anyway, but the apprehension, anxiety and general uneasiness remained. Thankfully, all my fears and doubts were answered the second I walked into the Clark Hall meeting room.
Most of my issues I had in the Army boiled down to the fact that I was too much of a free spirit, a bit of a bohemian, to be in the military for a long term lifestyle. As a Squad Leader I would get handed all sorts of asinine tasks (“Hey Sergeant Davis, can you write a briefing for the First Sergeant?” “No, why is the Army promoting illiterate people? I’m going to lift weights with my soldiers instead”), and if it didn’t impact me, my soldiers or the unit I was in directly… I just wouldn’t do them. I’d replace cleaning out the Commander’s humvee with practicing battle drills, or counseling my soldiers. Still productive and useful, just not what you need to do if you want the Commander to look favorably upon your next promotion.
That is not a long term model for success in the military, and now that I’ve been a civilian for a few years, I can say the minuscule and absurd tasks required in both corporate jobs and manual labor jobs are few and far between compared to what was handed down in the Army. I knew that was just the nature of the beast of the Army though. To be truly successful, you need to balance the menial, sometimes even demeaning tasks, with purposeful daily items. Too often though, the guy who gets promoted is “recognized as an outstanding performer and hereby promoted because of his discipline to duty and attention to detail when performing vehicle maintenance checks”.
I met who was probably the number one guy for vehicle maintenance checks when I walked into Clark Hall my final morning, and my brief interaction with him confirmed my decision to leave the Army. He was an E8, a Master Sergeant, a decently high rank among enlisted folks and someone who is generally well respected. Despite my laissez-faire attitude, I always stayed on point with my uniform appearance, grooming standards, physical training scores, and basic professionalism. In other words, outside of the fact that I was lower-ranking than him, there was no excuse for this guy to have a problem with me and for our interaction to be nothing but pleasant.
Of course it didn’t go that way. We were the only two in the conference room at the top of Clark Hall, as I had made the mistake of arriving 30 minutes early, clearly something only a retiring Senior Non-Commissioned Officer would do. He asked me a few questions about what I did during my time in, and then proceeded to talk to me for 15 minutes about how great he was, and how great his career was. He used words like “mis-orientated, directoried, robouster, navigationer” and then told me he that he was “too smart to stay in the Army any longer”. I laughed at that and said “yeah, judging by your word choice, you were also too busy to look at a dictionary the past 23 years as well.”
Failing to register the joke, he then went on to tell me about how as a young soldier he “had to polish black boots” and “iron his uniform everyday” so now “soldiers ain’t shit anymore”. He went on for a little while longer and then I looked at his paperwork and saw his first name.
“Listen Kyle, thanks for your cute little stories. But I’m just going to sit down until this kicks off.”
It was not appreciated by the Master Sergeant, but I had had enough of his types. Career Army types who’s last unit was always better, the soldiers in the 90’s were better, and they were always smarter. But they never have any combat awards and never did anything remarkable. Just a 20 year bureaucrat who liked to pick on people with a lower rank than him.
We were both still in the Army technically for the next four hours, so he tried to pull the rank card and all that fun stuff. Then he made some comment about “In the old days, I would tune you up”…
“Just sit down Kyle, you’re embarrassing yourself”. I’m not Mr. Tough Guy, but unless Kyle was some sort of karate master, simple physics were against him. I was about a 8 inches than him, and had about 75 pounds on him, so he sat down and apologized. I looked at my personnel file and for a moment had a brief glimmer of pride: Combat Infantryman Badge, Bronze Star Medal with Valor for Heroism under fire, Afghanistan Campaign medal and a few others. It was one of the only times I sat and thought about everything, and then it was gone.
I knew the real work was starting now. For the next three months I was on terminal leave, where I would receive my full pay and benefits. Good men like my Platoon Sergeant had taught me the way to navigate big time organizations like the Army while still maintaining the focus on what’s important. Good men like one of my Company Commanders had taught me that if you screw up, but fix the mistake and learn from it, you’re better off in the long run. And good men like one of my buddies from my first deployment had taught me that regardless of whatever situation you find yourself in, it generally works out.
If not, working the same number of hours I worked in the Army at minimum wage would actually pay more than what I made in the Army! Run the numbers, they don’t lie. Thankfully, it never came to that and I ended up working in the engineering section of a big time chemical company, and then left that job for even greener pastures a few years later.
The Army is filled with people, and many of these people are characters in their own right, both good and bad. I had the pleasure of meeting lots of good people when I was in, but I also had the chance to recognize bad people and bad leadership. I knew that if I stuck with applying myself to the fundamentals and to the things that mattered, I would be fine in the civilian world. So far, it seems to be working out…