By Jay Kirell
If the old expression, “I wish I knew then what I know now” applies to anything in my life, it’s my three and a half years in the Army. Between January, 2010 and May, 2013 I got many lessons on military culture and how soldiers live and interact with each other. Some lessons can be taught from a book, but the best lessons are often learned the hard way.
For those thinking of joining the military, or just those curious, these are 10 of those lessons:
10. Your stuff will get stolen.
There’s a popular phrase that you learn in basic training with respect to your personal property. “There’s only one thief in the Army, everyone else is just trying to get their shit back.” It wasn’t until I got to Afghanistan that I witnessed how true this was. During my 10-month deployment I went through four Gerber multifunction tools, five poncho liners (aka, woobies – small thin blankets that are rather comfortable), more than a dozen pairs of eye-pro (aka, sunglasses or clear-lense glasses), and assorted other minor equipment. Stuff unattended is stuff unwanted, at least in the Army.
9. Nobody says “drop and give me 20”
When someone thinks of punishment in the Army, they think of pushups. It’s the classic de-facto military order: “drop and give me 20,” usually delivered by an angry sergeant. Well, for one thing, nobody says “drop and give me 20” in the Army. They say “start pushing” or simply “push” (sometimes you don’t even get the courtesy of a vocal command and your superior will just make a pushing motion with his hands). The soldier drops and starts doing pushups until they’re either told to stop, or until their arms give out, at which point another punishment will be initiated.
8. There is no limit to the creativity of a soldier’s punishment
Pushups are usually the most innocuous form of punishment a soldier will receive. But when pushups fail to correct a certain behavior, the Army has a longstanding tradition of giving creative leeway to those who seek to make sure a soldier understands they did something wrong. Iron mikes – essentially a walking lunge – is killer on your legs if you do them for more than 20 feet. Flutter-kicks – small scissor kicks while laying on your back – was actually banned by the Army as a basic training exercise for causing back problems. That doesn’t stop it from being used as a corrective punishment tool (often in conjunction with pushups). Other forms of punishment vary by unit – and how sadistic they are depends entirely on the soldier supervising.
I’ve seen punishments range in severity (and creativity) from having 150-lbs of rocks shoved in a ruck-sack and making a soldier patrol an outpost for six hours…to having someone run a 500 meters back and forth to read the words off of a sign. Each time they came back they had to say another word off the sign. On that sign was written: “By orders of the brigade commander, all vehicles are to be parked in the approved parking spaces and not along Tennessee Avenue. Violators will be towed and chain of command notified.” In case you weren’t counting, that’s 31 words.
7. You have to pay to leave.
In order for me to actually leave the Army, in the final few weeks I had to start turning in all my gear and equipment. In a perfect world, everything a soldier was issued would still be with them when they got ready to quit the Army. In this world, however, a soldier should consider themselves fortunate if they can find most of their missing items from extras their buddies have, or perhaps a friend in the supply shop. If they can’t, they have to go down to the surplus store and pay out-of-pocket for whatever items they’re missing. Before I left I had so many missing items (see No. 10 & No. 3) that I ended up paying over $400 to replace them. Not paying isn’t an option, since if all your gear isn’t turned in you can’t clear that portion of the base. And you can’t leave the Army until you’ve cleared all the portions of the base (like dental, medical, housing, armory, ect) that need to see you before you head off to become a civilian again.
6. You will get pink eye in basic training.
I got it twice. Some guys got it four or five times. Everybody got it at least once. That’s what happens when you take 50 guys, shove them in an enclosed space, get them filthy, and don’t let them do laundry for the first two weeks they’re there. Plus, other soldiers will straight up fart on your pillow. It’s really rather disgusting and probably the lamest thing a soldier can go to sick-call for. But hey, it’s sick call.
5. Dog tags aren’t worn around your neck.
I know this isn’t a huge thing, but movies make it seem like soldiers run around, dog tags dangling from their necks as they run into combat. I wore my dog tags around my neck when I first enlisted. Until I had to put on body armor and do pushups, that is. Then I realized a piece of metal pressing against your sternum is uncomfortable. That’s when I did the loop around the belt loop and stuffed it in my side pocket.
4. You will almost forget you have a first name.
Do you know how people refer to you in the Army? By your rank, first, then your last name (and if you’re at a medical appointment, the last four of your social security number). I went almost four years without once hearing my first name uttered by someone addressing me. Even off-duty, you’ll call your friends by their last names. In fact, if it wasn’t for the platoon call roster (which you better have in your pocket), I wouldn’t have known the first names of half the people I served with.
3. Civilians who live near Army bases will prey on you.
If I just came out and wrote that some women are gold-diggers and will look to hook up with a soldier for the benefits that come with either (a) marriage or (b) a child – you might believe I was stating my opinion. Well, not exactly. That was the actual summation of a company-wide briefing I received in basic training. And based on personal experience…yeah, it’s true. I did exactly what the brief said and hooked up with a woman who lived near Fort Campbell during the month between when I graduated basic and when I deployed to Afghanistan. In that month she (a) managed to convince me to buy a car; (b) give her power of attorney on the car; and (c) started making plans for our wedding…even though I had never proposed to her. I was literally in Afghanistan and would check my email to find updates on her search for a wedding dress. The story of how I escaped that mess is both hysterical and educational. Long story short – make sure you get all your gear back before you break up.
In addition to those who entice soldiers with offers of companionship, there are also those who entice them with money. Go around to any Army post in the nation and you’ll find three things: payday loan offices, used car dealerships, and surplus stores. The payday loan places will make you go through your chain of command before you get a loan (because it’s required by law), and that loan will come with a 23% interest rate (because that’s the most they can charge). The used car dealerships will entice newly arrived soldiers with discounts if they get their buddies to come down too. Then they’ll finance their new used cars (for some reason usually a Dodge Charger) at the same 23% rate. The surplus stores are a little different. They’ll sell you used equipment for $10 cheaper than what you would get at the PX, but when it comes time to sell your used stuff back to them, they’re worse than pawn shops. You might come in with $300 worth of gear you don’t need anymore and walk out with less than $25 in your pocket.
2. Running is worse than walking, but standing is worse than running.
I hate to run. I’ll be honest. I despise it. It’s not the motion or the fact that I’m doing something physical, because while I never really enjoyed all the PT I did in the army, I was pretty good at pushups and sit-ups. No, I hated to run because I always got tired about halfway through, and when you get tired at mile six of a 12-mile run you just want it to be over, but you can’t just stop what you’re doing because you’re still six miles from your company and you have to make it back if you want to have enough time to eat or shower and change before second formation (first formation is before PT where everyone is accounted for). But as much as I hated running, I hated standing even more.
Specifically, standing at attention (or parade rest – where you arms are crossed behind your back) during division-wide ceremonies. Why is this so bad? Let’s count the reasons: (a) these division-wide ceremonies seem to always occur during the hottest part of summer if you’re in the south or the coldest part of winter if you’re in the north; (b) They tend to last over an hour and consist of nothing but speeches by officers you’ll never meet (unless you’re really in trouble); (c) you have to remain perfectly still or else the NCO’s walking between the columns will notice and chew you out; (d) standing perfectly still sometimes means soldiers lock their knees to keep straight, which then results in the soldier passing out from the flow blood being cut off. This happens so often “don’t lock your knees” is whispered up and down the ranks during ceremonies.
As weird as it is to say, I actually saw more casualties occur during a 90-minute change-of-command ceremony than I did in Afghanistan. Of course, that ceremony was held in Kentucky in the middle of a 95-degree day, which ultimately saw about eight soldiers go down from either heat exhaustion (we couldn’t leave to get water once the ceremony started) or locking their knees.
1. You will learn to hate Military Police.
MP’s exist in a curious space within the Army. They patrol the bases and have pretty much all the authority and power of regular police officers, regardless of rank. A lowly private can pull over and ticket a general and there isn’t anything the general can do about it. In that sense its very egalitarian. On the other hand, this authority makes MPs the most hated people on any military installation. Usually, getting pulled over by a cop and saying you’re soldier might help your case in getting out of a ticket. Good luck trying that on an Army base with an MP. Think they’re going to be impressed? All they do is ticket soldiers. That’s their job, and that’s why every soldier hates them.