On September 22nd, 1982, my dad drove me to the AAFES Station, the enlistment center at which I’d signed up for delayed entry back in April that year, and dropped me off. I had joined the US Army, signing up to for MOS 19D – nineteen delta, in Army parlance – a Cavalry Scout. I’d also volunteered for Airborne training and, upon completing that, was to join the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.
I’d never been in a plane until the day I flew from Baltimore to Louisville for Basic, and I’d already volunteered to jump out of planes. People tell me they understand me better when they know that bit of my history.
But before I left Baltimore, I stood in a room with a number of other young people – I don’t remember how many anymore, it was probably twenty or so – and took the Oath of Enlistment:
“I, John Francis Appel, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” Being an atheist, I left out the “So help me God” bit at the end, which you’re allowed to do.
(And don’t ever let anyone tell you there are no atheists in foxholes. I was hardly the only one when I served, and there’s plenty serving today.)
Basic and AIT were tough, no doubt about it. I injured my left knee in the second full week of Basic, which put me on crutches for about a week, and limited some of my physical training for a week or so after that. It hurt, sometimes badly, right up until we got a break for Christmas and I went home on leave for a couple weeks. It still bothers me occasionally today.
But I finished, if not in a particularly distinguished fashion. I went on to Fort Benning for Airborne School, and after some difficulties there, got my wings and headed to Fort Bragg and the 82nd.
I spent four years in the Regular Army all told, going from Fort Bragg to Fort Hood in ’84. Sergeant’s stripes came in 1985. Leaving the Regular Army in July of 1986 – two months early courtesy the Graham-Rudman budget cutting bill – I spent a year in the Army Reserves in the Operations shop of a reserve Special Forces group. (I’m always careful to say that I served in the 11th SFG but was never a Green Beret. There’s another story there.) In 1987 I switched over to the MD National Guard and back to being a cavalry scout, and in July 1988, I took off my uniform for the last time.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 I briefly looked into re-enlisting, but was told pretty firmly that I would almost certainly be sent to Korea to free up a currently-serving guy to go to the desert. That was the last time I considered going back into the Army.
Next year, 2018, will mark 30 years since I became a civilian. But probably surprises non one who knows me well that in many ways, I still consider myself bound by that oath I took as a skinny teenager back in ’82.
My military service was a formative period of my life; not one event, but a big string of them over those four years full-time and two part-time. It’s hard to count the number of roads not taken and possible alternate Johns populating the multiverse from the choices I made during that time. But while I’m not the same person I was in 1982, or even ’88, there can be no doubt that the core of the man I am today was formed in the days I wore “Uncle Sam Ain’t Released Me Yet” on my chest.
I have a deep and abiding affection for the US Army, and the 82nd Airborne in particular, and most especially with my fellow paratroopers and cav scouts, past and present.
But that affection is tempered by what I truly believe is the over-veneration of those in uniform. A free and democratic society should not place blind and unblinking faith in those under arms, for what history has shown us again and again is that that path leads to authoritarianism. Those who bear force and exert power over life and death in the name of the nation must be held accountable, and I believe, should welcome that. I fear the infiltration of our Armed Forces by people who want to bring about an authoritarian state – or at least would be willing to stand aside as one was created.
And everyone’s heard the saying “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” One doesn’t need to look too hard at recent history to recognize that the answer to our issues in the world can’t always come from the barrel of a gun, or the weapons bay of a stealth bomber, or the launch tubes of a guided missile cruiser. After one of the terrorist bombings in Paris a friend posted a cartoon of a Godzilla-sized GI wading the Atlantic, rifle held overhead, saying “Hang on, we’re coming.” That bothered me greatly, because we have more to offer the world than our soldiers, more than our prowess at violence and ability to project at least some bit of our power to damn near any spot on the planet. We can’t solve all the worlds problems by shooting them. It’s entirely the wrong solution to many of them.
And yet: I am proud of my service. I am proud of the Army, while recognizing its many imperfections, for despite those it has so often done the long, hard, dirty work that needed doing, without the flash and glory-seeking of some of the other branches. (I’m looking at you, Marines.)
I’m not certain how else I’m going to mark this day, besides this post. It’s a working Friday, so I’ll go to the gym. My day job hours will be spent as a protector of a different sort, in information risk management. I’m deep in the draft of a new book, so I’ll most likely stop somewhere to write before I go home. Since it’s Friday I might head over to the pirate bar for a glass or two of rum before calling it a night.
But I’m sure at some point I’ll think back on that skinny, nervous kid with the big glasses who had no idea what was going to happen, and marvel at how his life has turned out so far.