This was originally published in The Belle Banner, Belle Missouri March 14th 2018.
Dear Joe,
I know that is not your real name, and that you don’t know me, but I know you. Every man in the army is a “Joe”, as in “GI Joe”. The term “GI” (Government Issue) was used almost exclusively in World War II to describe anyone in an army uniform. The Air Force wasn’t formed until late 1947, before that they were the Army Air Corps. So all solders were “GI’s”. The term has kind of died off as the people who lived it died. I said that I know you Joe, and I do, we haven’t met, but I know you as well as you know yourself. You are a teenager in high school and for you trying to see out the windshield into the future is like looking into fog. Life in the rearview mirror is crystal clear. All the major and seemingly insignificant decisions at the time, all the “I think I’ll try that” and I don’t think I’ll do that right now” thoughts that determined what became my life are clear as a bell. You can change your mind, but once you act it’s done, you can’t take it back.
I’ve been told that you are a very bright young man, although your grades don’t always reflect that. After all, for some of us, many high school classes were not that exciting. You have no idea what to do after high school, you’re kind of interested in the military, but you don’t know anything about it. You’re being pushed to look at colleges, but college just sounds like more classes, not that exciting. I know that you like excitement, the adrenalin rush, pushing to the edge, and you will probably be an old man before you lose that desire. Some of us never lose the desire, just the ability to do anything about it. I recommend that you consider the military. Three years in the military then if you want to go to college or a trade school, the government will pay for it. Full tuition plus $1,000 a year for books, plus around $1,000 a month living expense, while you’re in class.
Now I’m going to recommend a specific place in the military, for you, Joe. Army airborne infantry. Yes infantry, the grunts, the gravel grinders who hump big ruck sacks. When you have high scores and do a good job, the Army is always asking you to take a “special job”. I had many, but I kept going back to the infantry. The infantry IS the Army. Every other element in the military supports the infantry. The motto of the infantry is “Follow me”, because the infantry is always leading. I know, your mother says “but they shoot back at the infantry”. Wouldn’t have it any other way, taking it to them. Airborne! Jumping out of airplanes. The biggest thrill you can get with your pants on. The infantry is the most respected branch in the Army, and it works the hardest. When you come in from a 24 hour forced march over 40 miles that seems closer to 60, with blood in your boots, you’re not thinking good thoughts about those who encouraged you to be where you are. But, after the feet heal and you’re rested up, the bragging rites begin. “I was on that march. It must have been 80 miles. We did it in 24 hours and had to run part of the way.” When your platoon of 40 guys is on an outpost the size of the high school gym, in Afghanistan, and you’ve been shot at, mortared and living on MRE’s and haven’t washed for 30 days, you don’t really care much about the respect a rear echelon POG (Person Other than Grunt), who is sleeping in a bed on a big base, has for you, because there are guys who don’t like you on the next hill. And when you go looking for the bad guys, there are two SAW’s per squad even if it is short of troops. That’s a twenty two pound M249 squad automatic weapon with twenty pounds of ammunition, thirty five pounds of body armor, ten pounds of helmet and NOD’s, ten pounds of water, personal effects and whatever cross-loaded platoon or company equipment you were assigned such as giant rechargeable batteries, mortar rounds, radios, etc.
When a new private arrives at his first company, he is assigned to a platoon and then to a squad. An Airborne infantry rifle squad is nine men, a Staff Sergeant Squad Leader, two Sergeant Team Leaders and six specialists and privates. There are three rifle squads in a platoon, plus a weapons squad which has a Staff Sergeant Squad Leader and eight specialists and privates manning two machine guns and two anti-tank weapons. The Platoon Leader is a Lieutenant and the Platoon Sergeant is a Sergeant First Class. Most training and combat operations are by platoon. Squads do some patrolling and small operations on their own, but the platoon is usually together. There are three rifle platoons and a platoon of mortars in a rifle company, commanded by a captain and a First Sergeant. The First Sergeant runs the company, the Company Commanding Officer (CO), the Captain, commands. The CO is your best friend and your strictest disciplinarian, he can promote you to Specialist, he can recommend you for other promotions, awards, schools, etc. He can also fine you, restrict you to the barracks, make you work overtime (extra duty), and take your drivers license.
You’ve heard about how close combat veterans become with each other, like “Band of Brothers”. It’s not always the combat that brings them together, although being under fire does bring out things in individuals that wasn’t seen before, both good and bad. What brings that platoon together is being together. The 30 specialists and privates in that platoon spend days, sometimes weeks, and during deployment, months, sharing foxholes, MRE’s, water, canteens, razors, socks, ammo and stories. They share those things, and more, struggling up mountains in Afghanistan or humping 120 pounds in 120 degree heat in Iraq. They also share the most intense training in the army back at Fort Bragg, and EDRE’s (Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise) where the only sleep they get for several days is cat naps. Any BS that a new member of the platoon brought with him, soon dissolves, because under those conditions, the real person comes out. Any pretense is soon gone. Everybody is just who they are. There is no racial prejudice. The guy next to you may be of a race that you were never around, but he has the same job as you. He’s watching your back and you’re watching his. Nobody in that platoon cares how anybody grew up, they only care about who you are now. Platoon pride is intense. The platoon always wants to be better than the other platoons, whether it’s weapons qualification, PT scores, football, baseball, inspections, or a platoon member winning trooper of the month or of the quarter. And when they play, they play hard.
Parachute jumps are also a great equalizer, plus it’s a rush that’s hard to explain. There are only two kinds of people on an airplane full of paratroopers, jumper and jumpmaster, until you get to the ground, everybody is just a jumper.
Joe, I know that to some, that may sound like a terrible life, but I don’t think it sounds that way to you. I know that your parents greatest concern will be that you could be injured or killed. I would be more concerned that you would get hooked on it and stay until they run you off with a stick, thirty years later as a Command Sergeant Major or a Colonel. There are worse lives.
The 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina is unique in that sergeants stay there. Some spend entire careers there, minus a couple absences. You see Joe, those First Sergeants who run companies, and those Command Sergeants Major at battalion, brigade and above, who appear to new privates as having no real job, all came up in a platoon like I just described. Mike MacLeod, had a bachelors degree in biology and a masters degree in wildlife biology, enlisted in the army at age 40 and spent five years as a photo journalist in the 82nd Airborne Division, which included tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wrote in “The Brave Ones”, “When I arrived at the 82nd, I was convinced that the army could save all the bonus money it was paying soldiers to reenlist if it just got rid of all the sergeants major. But I was wrong. I have served with command sergeants major like Chuck Gregory of Tennessee, a seven-time deployer who would do anything for a dedicated soldier, and Kurt Reed, a sustainment soldier and a rock of enlisted muscle and fortitude who could chew ass like a bionic hemorrhoid but who never took a soldier’s dignity. These men inspired soldiers because their business was serving soldiers and their families. They believed to their core in the nobility of service. Because these men exist, I believe nobility does too.”
In the infantry it will take between two and a half and four years to make Sergeant, depends on how good you are. Staff Sergeant around five to six years and Sergeant First Class around 10. First Sergeant or Master Sergeant around 15 and Sergeant Major around 20.
So Joe, that’s my recommendation. If you spend three or four years doing that and decide to move on to other things, the self-discipline and maturity you will have gained cannot be found anywhere else. I left the army after about five years, stayed out two years, couldn’t stand it, went back and finished a career. My son spent four years, as an infantryman in the 10th Mountain Division and wrestled with the decision to leave. He did get out, finished college and has enjoyed a very successful career, but when he is home we talk about the army. It stays with you forever.
Good luck and have a great life.

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