Today I made a big decision.
I decided that I would not re-enlist in the US Army when my contract expires. I made the decision while standing in morning formation. The impetus for this decision, or, more accurately the straw that broke the camel’s back, occurred at approximately 0710 hours, this morning.
Our entire unit was told that our formation would convene in a location different from the norm, and that it was at the directive of the Sergeant Major. Everyone thought that something was wrong, that we were in for some type of punishment (or, corrective training, the code word the Army likes to use for punishment not approved by a Commander). There were rumors that the barracks had been found an unkempt abode and so the NCOs may have to mop floors while the soldiers looked on, all as a way of teaching mid-level leaders to do their job of supervision.
But then the 1st Sergeant stepped to the front of the formation with an award folder in his hands. Still, we were wary until the award for a departing NCO was read, and the order to commence physical training was given.
I will grant that the last 4 months have been some of the most trying of my Army career. The 10th Mountain Division has been a large part of the War on Terror since 9/11 and the operational tempo is extremely high. Additionally, I was placed in an E7 position, though I only held the rank of E5 for most of that time (I’m an E6 now). This has been extremely demanding. And let’s not forget, that due to military draw-downs, my entire Brigade is only 70% manned, and will continue to be so until Brigades in Europe are dissolved.
But what really hit me this morning was the realization that I live in a constant state of fear. I do not fear the enemies of the United States. I fear the Army. I walk around all day fearing, at a subliminal level, that I have done something wrong. Did I walk on the grass? is my patrol cap properly situated on my head? Is it past the date on which we are allowed to wear fleece caps?
If I were to write a book about my time in the Army, I would title it, “Sweating the Small Stuff.” The Army gives this the noble title: “Attention to Detail.” The way the Army ensures attention to detail is by cultivating an atmosphere of fear. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that every morning meeting I’ve gone to in the last 2 months contained accusations of dereliction of duty by NCOs. All of it hyperbolic. I have many tasks during the day, and frankly I don’t have the psychological energy to worry about ankle-biting regulations. I avoid walking on the grass at all costs.
I fear the grass. A Sergeant Major may be lurking in it.
I miss my freedom. I have to fill out DA 31 leave forms to travel beyond a certain distance from home. I want to be able to wake up on a Saturday and drive where ever a grown man in America is allowed to drive. I don’t want to worry that being 10 minutes late for morning formation could result in legal actions against me, as it can in the Army.
While in Afghanistan, I rarely felt fear for the Taliban. Most days, I only feared my chain of command. I swear this is not an exaggeration.
All of this has led me to question the necessity of rank and to wonder how other systems that are not nearly as heirarchal as the military manage to work so well, and yet the inefficiency and communication problems are greater in the Army then in any other place I’ve worked. I’ve seen bullying by people of rank that astounded me. At my core, despite being a cop for 8 years, and now being an NCO in the Army, I’m anti-authoritarian. Or, more to the point, I need to tell someone to fuck off when they need to hear it. And the amount of bureacracy cannot be described. I’ll just say that I find it maddening.
I do not know how I have managed to succeed in the Army, but I have. Despite never feeling comfortable for more than a couple days in a row for years, on paper, I seem to be thriving. I reached the rank of Staff Sergeant in the quickest possible time. I was Solider of the Year for my unit in Germany.
As a police officer, I felt alive, energized. I felt like I really made a difference. Kent Anderson, in his great novel, Night Dogs, says that all a good cop needs is compassion and common sense. So much of both seem to be lacking in the Army.
I am not at all denigrating others who serve, or who choose to make a career out of the Army. Quite the opposite. I’m amazed that some can do it. That there are people who have the will to mind the little things and the big. However, there is a fine line between minding details and pettiness.
My artistic side has suffered greatly since I came to my new unit. I have little time or energy to read or write; both things are a joy to me. While at the law enforcement academy, we had a class on stress management. The main point made by the instructor was to keep on doing the things that you liked doing before you got into law enforcement. Many cops simply start living only their jobs. Not me. While I was a cop I always did all the things I loved, like hiking, playing softball, going to movies, reading. I wasn’t physically and mentally depleted like I am now.
My job needs to draw my interest and create motivation. I’m not all that great at creating motivation within myself over creating Power Point slides, which is mostly what I do all day.
But mostly my choice is about the atmosphere in the Army. There is always a sense of foreboding. As the specter of the “Garrison Army” looms with the winding down of the wars, it seems sure that the pettiness will only get worse.
I feel like a great burden has lifted from my shoulders. I have about 15 months left, and I’ve already begun to count the days. I burned my candle down to a nub and there’s simply nothing left to burn.
But mostly, I just don’t want to be afraid of the grass.
Good-bye to all that.