By Jay Kirell
Today is the one-year anniversary of my last day as an active-duty soldier. A year ago today my three-and-a-half year odyssey ended and I was sure that I wouldn’t miss a single thing about Army life with the possible exception of the friends I made.
I was wrong.
There’s actually quite a few things I miss about the Army. More than I thought when I sat down to write this. While many can get caught up in the harsh and monotonous test of endurance that is life as a soldier, remembering and concentrating on only the bad, the cruel and painful experiences – it’s important to remember that there were good moments too. And while everyone’s definition of “good” is different, I think being a year removed from that life I gave me the perspective to reflect back on which aspects of military life I actually enjoyed.
Which ended up being a lot more than I thought the day I separated.
So here are 15 of the most enjoyable aspects of life in the Army, at least, from my personal experience:
Rear Detachment (or Rear-D) are the personnel left behind when the rest of a unit deploys overseas. When I graduated basic training and arrived at Fort Campbell, every combat brigade in the 101st Airborne was 48 hours away from flying out for a year-long tour in Afghanistan. All that was left on post once the brigades were gone were soldiers too injured to do anything, too recently returned from Iraq to deploy just yet, or too new to have been sent over. If you were just arriving at the base, like me, you were just tossed into any available company (which were now down to a handful of people instead of hundreds). From the moment I arrived until the week before I deployed, my days were spent showing up for formation in the morning, sitting around until lunchtime, and then getting dismissed shortly after lunch. All the higher-ranking personnel were gone, most of the mid-level personnel were either broken or uninterested, and that essentially makes any Rear-D unit the military equivalent of a junior high school classroom with a substitute teacher.
14. Airport Courtesy
Going through an airport dressed in your military uniform is an experience. The first time I did it I was traveling from McArthur Airport on Long Island to Nashville right after graduating basic training. I breezed right through the metal detectors, not even having to take my boots off. People came up to me, shook my hand, thanked me for my service. All I could think, standing there in my crisp new uniforms with no unit patches on them yet, four days after graduating basic, was: “what service?” But the attention felt good, if somewhat awkward for an introvert like me. The speed of getting through security, however, was more than worth it.
13. Biscuits & Gravy
Some people are going to laugh at this, wondering why I would include a common breakfast food on a list of things I’ll miss about the Army. Well, it’s because I never had biscuits & gravy (southern-style) before I enlisted. I’m from New York, and Jewish. I’m either eating a bagel or skipping breakfast. The first time I ate B&G was my second day in basic training, where they were forced upon my plate by an unhappy kitchen server. I wasn’t expecting much at first, but after realizing I had about 3 minutes to finish it, I took a few bites, and thanked God that it wasn’t horrible. Then I took a few more and thought it wasn’t bad. Then a few more and realized it wasn’t bad at all and in fact, really good. Add some salt and pepper and I was hooked. It was my go-to breakfast when eating on-post or had the chance to get it in the chow line out in the field.
Some vets will disagree vehemently with this, because some soldiers absolutely HATED the idea of sitting in a room, taking notes, and learning stuff. I loved it because it (a) got me out of doing something physical; (b) I like to learn new things; and (c) I knew I could read and write better than everyone else I was in class with, which gives you confidence. Some classes were better than others. EMT classes were fun until you had to give each other IV’s. Driver classes were about as fun as sitting at the DMV. Drone piloting was taking a class learning how to fly a tiny remote-controlled spy machine, and pretty much as fascinating as it sounds.
11. Rental Prices
No matter what Army post you’re stationed at, the rent is cheap. You either live for nothing in the barracks, use your housing allowance to live on-post, where utilities are covered, or you live just off-post and use the housing allowance to try to find something cheaper, and pocket the rest. You can get away with this because most Army posts are located in places nobody would live in otherwise. Fort Campbell was more than an hour outside of Nashville. The average rent in Nashville is $1,400. For Clarksville, Tennessee and Oak Grove, Kentucky, the two towns that immediately border Fort Campbell, the average rent is less than $650.
10. “Air is Black”
That’s a phrase you hear on deployment when the sky is so filled with dust that helicopters can’t even leave the Forward Operating Bases to assist troops in the field when they need support. What that means is that if you’re preparing for a dismounted patrol, you have to suspend or cancel the mission (provided you have sane leadership) until the sky clears. Sometimes air could be black for hours, sometimes more than a day depending on the size of the dust storm. I know few soldiers who ever complained about the day’s mission being cancelled.
9. MRE’s With Chocolate Peanut-Butter Spread
There are about two dozen different types of MRE’s. Most of them are, at least, edible. One or two are usually worth fighting over. I can’t remember which one it was, but a particular type of MRE came with a side packet of chocolate peanut-butter spread. This stuff was soooo good. Anyone whose eaten it knows what I’m talking about. It was so good you didn’t even need the cracker it came with to spread it on. I just squeezed it straight into my mouth. Now, this isn’t saying I miss eating MRE’s, I don’t – it’s just that this one spread was worth remembering.
8. Watching Idiots Get Smoked
Corrective action was always something I was uncomfortable with. Sometimes it bordered on abuse and most of the time it was just used as a tool to relieve boredom by team leaders and squad leaders under the guise of “training.” I certainly didn’t enjoy the times I was smoked, either by being made to push, kick my legs or run to a certain spot and back, but it’s something that’s been part of the military for as long as there’s been a military. That said, watching someone else get smoked can sometimes be worth putting up with it occasionally happening to you. Because sometimes soldiers just act like idiots and make observing their punishments worth it. For example, one time I was in a tower and watching a new private doing Iron Mikes (lunges) across the LZ. He was getting visibly angrier and angrier with every lunge and by the time he got back to the specialist who was smoking him, he ripped his E-2 rank off and tossed it on the ground at his superior’s feet. For those not up on military rank, E-2 is the second-lowest rank you can be, so tossing it on the ground didn’t upset the specialist as much at it amused him to the point that he started coughing from laughing so hard.
7. “I’m Jewish, I Can’t Eat That”
My favorite saying when going through the chow line out in the field. This might take a bit of an explanation, basically, in basic training you get three choices of breakfast food when you go out in the field. In addition to scrambled eggs, which everyone gets, you have your choice of either bacon (two flimsy pieces), waffles (soggy) or biscuits & gravy (yum) to go along with it. The one guy working the serving tray just goes from one to another, the first soldier getting bacon, the second waffles, and the third B&G and so on. If you wanted bacon but happened to be in the spot before waffles, oh well, too bad, so sad. Except, when I got on line and someone handed me bacon, I’d say “I’m Jewish, I can’t eat that,” and they’d look confused for a moment, then just say “well, what can you eat?” and the rest is history. Nobody ever questioned me because I was literally the only Jew they’d ever met. Most of them believed I had sex through a hole in a sheet, what did they understand about dietary habits. Long story short, that’s how I always ended up getting biscuits & gravy out in the field.
6. “I’m Jewish, I Can Eat That”
This specifically refers to ice cream, and more specifically, the ice cream given away during Sunday (oh Army) morning Jewish services in basic training. This is why when you happen to find yourself in a Jewish service during basic training, you see so many black, Asian, latino and redneck soldiers. The religion wasn’t spreading, only the rumors of sweet treats. Ironically, I never went to a Jewish service in basic training, I only know about the ice cream from all the others who came back recommending it. Judaism has never been so popular.
5. Road Guard
The road guard serves a valuable purpose on any military installation. Early in the morning, usually during PT hours, the road guard will stand watch and prevent cars from going down routes used by soldiers for running. The road guard just stands there, watching other people run and jump and sweat and occasionally bleed. Yup, the road guard just stands there, not doing anything really. Then as soon as everyone is done doing PT, the road guard goes home for breakfast. I loved being a road guard.
4. Military Discounts
Whether it’s Veterans day or just regular active-duty military discounts, it’s very appreciated to be able to take 10% off on a host of stuff. Soldiers are notoriously underpaid, many have large families and struggle to pay the bills. Most soldiers live paycheck to paycheck. Any little bit of help businesses can offer soldiers and their families is needed, as sad as that is to admit.
3. Getting Your Wisdom Teeth Removed
Every member of the military receives 2.5 vacation days per month, for a max of 30 per year. Everybody knows this because it’s part of the basic benefits package. However, for those who happen to be in the right position, and also understand how to use the system, they can end up with an extra four days off not mentioned in any handbook. Basically it involves selectively and strategically getting your wisdom teeth removed. Because when you get a wisdom tooth removed, you get sedated, and when you get sedated, that means you get a note from the dentist saying you have to go home and rest for a day (with about 10 pain pills). Then even when you come back to work, you can’t do anything too physical for another three days. Soldiers will strategically make dental appointments around things they really don’t want to participate in – like division runs, change of command ceremonies. I even had a sergeant in Afghanistan schedule a wisdom tooth removal to get out of a really long dismounted patrol that was planned. In other words, a lot of soldiers like getting out of work, but none so much as those that are on…
Profiles are medical determinations restricting soldiers to either very light physical activity, or none at all. Soldiers with various injuries receive little notes from their doctors, take them (usually smiling the whole way) to their NCO’s and watch as the NCO grumbles about “shit-bags” and “riding a profile” before dismissing you. Soldiers on profile tend to gather together, like a hobbling island of misfit toys, to conduct their own version of physical training, based on the specifications in their profiles. I was on a profile for the last nine months I was in the Army and my morning PT session consisted of me writing my name down on roster sheet and when walking back to my house on-post. It was by far my favorite nine months of service.
Imagine your own life. I’ll assume you work in an office setting. One day you arrive at work, your boss calls you and your coworkers over for a morning meeting. The boss tells you today is going to be a long, hard day, lots of work to do and some might be working well into the night. Everybody sighs in resignation. Just then the boss smiles, says “Zonk!” and all your coworkers sprint out of the office as fast as possible and drive home. In the Army, this happens once in a blue moon, usually right before what everyone thought would be a super hard PT session. The platoon lines up, ready to start the workout, then the Platoon Sergeant yells “Zonk!” and everyone runs in different directions back to their rooms or cars. Anyone still standing there after five seconds (like most new privates who have no idea what’s going on the first time they see it) end up doing the workout. That’s why everyone else sprinted away. It was confusing and thrilling and an instant morale booster for the platoon. Bet you’re jealous your job doesn’t do that, huh?