In the summer of 1986 I joined the United States Army Reserve. I was 19 years old and had no inkling of the nature of my upcoming journey. I was young and naive with high expectations and childlike dreams.
I required money for college; that was my primary reason for joining. I wanted to become a lawyer. Serving my country was an afterthought. The GI Bill was my road to higher education and a better future. I had initially walked into the Air Force recruiters’ office, college and jets on my mind. My scores were insufficient, so I could not join to become a pilot. I had to choose from jobs within my test range. Dejected, I ambled down the hall to the Army recruiters and officially joined the Army Reserve as 71L (Administrative Specialist), my MOS (Military Occupational Specialties). I don’t fully recall why I wanted to change, but felt compelled to do so.
Basic training and AIT (Advanced Individual Training) were at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. At the time, Fort Jackson was said to be one of the most grueling basic training forts in the United States. I was unable to confirm this at the time, but it certainly felt like the truth. AIT was not as challenging, but still intense and demanding.
I left Fort Jackson and headed back to the North Bronx, now officially a private and reservist. My monthly duty station was Fort Totten in Queens, built in 1862 (named Fort at Willets Point) and renamed Fort Totten in 1898. Each month I made the long trip to Queens to spend two days conducting military business. It was unimpressive and uneventful. Once per year we went away for two weeks, with my first two week trip landing me in Colorado, knee deep in sidewinders and what felt like twin suns.
After nearly two years and incessant indecisiveness regarding what I wanted to study in college, I decided to join the Army full time. Becoming a lawyer no longer felt like a fit. I imagined defending the guilty and immediately became disinterested. I then decided to become a computer programmer and began learning C, C++, FORTRAN, COBOL and Pascal. While I enjoyed learning the many programming languages, I didn’t envision myself programming day in and day out at a corporation. Pre-lawyer dreams of becoming a singer, model and actress had long been dashed to the wind due to lack of support. I needed to get away. The Army was my escape. Silly, I know this now.
My first duty station as a full-time soldier was West Germany, Deutschland, winter 1988, Christmas week. I learned to stick shift in Deutschland and drove on the Autobahn (Bundesautobahn), speed limits be damned, within two days of learning manual transmission. I rode on the U-Bahn, the railway system with no booth clerk at many stops. A small ticket machine stole their jobs and left the honor system as a replacement. Some days I purchased my ticket, other days I took a chance, hoping a conductor wouldn’t float through to check tickets and give tickets to the dishonorable. I was caught once without a ticket, but that did not deter me from periodically rolling the dice like some Germans. My adventures in Deutschland are extensive and will find their way in other stories on another day. Of all the stories, however, there is one more I will share here. I was there when the Wall came down and many East Germans left what some would consider their prison and others would call their home. Small cars I called shoes, all piled high with luggage sometimes twice the height of the tiny cars, moved along narrow streets in West Germany. Droves of East Germans, excited to reunited with Westside family members, flowed like a stream over unfamiliar asphalt. The influx, although expected, was still a shock to the system in the West. I witnessed it. Got a piece of the wall and a cut of the original fence that remained before the wall went up. It was surreal to be there, a witness to transformative history.
I gave birth to my first daughter in Frankfurt, West Germany, October 1990, then decided it was time to extricate myself from an environment I had slowly realized was not conducive to the life I wanted for my child. After a bit of research, I found a loophole that allowed me to leave the military. I was tempted to remain in Germany given that I had fallen in love with the land and the people. But youth and inexperience planted fear in me, so I left.
I learned many valuable lessons while in the military. It is an experience I cherish. I am not a “patriot” like many of my veteran friends. The military did, however, provide me with opportunities. I have been asked many times over the years if I would do it over, would I join again? No, never again. I would definitely not do it again. I believe the universe repeatedly attempts to provide us with lessons. If we avoid a lesson one way, we are given the lesson another way. I believe I would have received whatever lessons I learned in the military through some other means or method.
I remember all that I’ve gained. I also realize all that I’ve lost by joining. In the end, it balances out. I suppose. It is what it is. I had an experience. It was valuable. It is over. I honor it and would never wish to do it again. I do not believe anything but bullying is solved by war. Death always follows. For a moment in time, I was a part of that as I out-processed soldiers for the Gulf War, Operation Desert Shield. The hands of time cannot be reversed. And that is ok. I am here and I know something I did not know yesterday.