4 May
Digging around in the old dresser I use as a file cabinet, I find a lot of dust, documents, and under that, a yellow Kodak envelope. My early adulthood coincided with that awkward phase between analog and digital cameras and I didn’t use either very much, so there are only a few things it might contain–wedding and baby photos, I think. When I lift the flap I’m hit with a chemical smell. Tucked into the paper sleeve is a stack of Polaroids dating back to 1999, all self-portraits. In them I see hints of the hard-won athletic frame I possessed for those few years, the painted cinderblock walls of the barracks, my standard-issue desk and my dog tags; I’m wearing boy’s clothes and wear my hair in a short boy’s cut. I look like a boy. A very young boy. I see these snapshots of a girl with no idea what she was or what she wanted and I wonder:How did my parents agree to this?

They had to’ve known I didn’t belong in the Army. Thinking back for a moment I recall my mother’s words: “Recruiters lie. Don’t let them blow sunshine up your skirt.” I remember watching night-vision news footage of missiles falling over Iraq, just a month before I would end a year of getting ready by signing over my life. I can only imagine what went through my dad’s head as he watched with me, both of us silent and probably calculating the odds of future deployments, of my coming home again in one piece. He didn’t tell me not to go. Neither of them did, but I know they worried. I was stubborn. Once I made up my mind to do a thing they couldn’t talk me out of it.

“It takes all kinds,” people say. In some ways that’s even more true in the military. Boot camp was a culture shock, my first exposure to the world outside of the one I knew from my semi-rural Oregon upbringing. There were tough kids from big cities in the north, staunch Southern traditionalists, Army brats and rednecks; our barracks housed patriots, lost souls, the aimless, the desperate. Some people were there only because they felt they had no other option. Some barely knew English.

We followed the same orders, crawled in the same mud, drank the same kool-aid. I was one of the lucky ones, privileged to have my choice of MOS (I chose linguist) and a family to return to if I failed. My life didn’t hinge on the outcome of boot camp, unlike that of so many of my fellows. I didn’t have to worry about the Army getting my paycheck to my family in time to pay their bills. I was there to prove to myself that I could do it, and to postpone the decision of what to do with the rest of my life as long as possible. How could I move forward in life if I didn’t know what I wanted?

The military life fits some people like a glove. Natural-born soldiers stay in until they can retire then just keep going until they’re old and gray. Others are short-timers like me, who leave after their first commitment. Everyone on the spectrum takes away something from the experience. Some cultivate a deep sense of patriotism. Some go home with broken bodies. I like to think that most gain a broader understanding of what it means to be an American–wouldn’t you, if you were suddenly living with hundreds of your fellow countrymen, most hailing from places you’ve never seen? We learned how to get along and work together, and on some fundamental level we even understood each other. I have met veterans who look back on their service fondly, and I’ve met others whose every memory is tinged with bitterness, but it’s not often I meet a person who regrets signing that paper.I wouldn’t take it back for anything.

The military, for a while, was my home away from home. It didn’t matter where you were; so long as you were with your fellow soldiers, you were among friends. Life was about consequences and order and learning to take pride in a job well done. It was about being torn down and built back up again, shedding entitlements and learning humility, that respectable currency of the rank and file. We learned pride of the whole over pride of the individual. We learned to share success and failure in equal measure; we resolved to do better for the sake of our comrades. It was the kick in the ass I was looking for, and the one I didn’t know I needed.
I didn’t love being in the Army. Soldiers are human just like anyone else. We had our fair share of assholes who played the system, which allows it so long as it’s within the bounds of regulation. You find the same thing in the civilian world–people will seek a loophole. I was far from perfect myself. Many tolerant men and women–saintly, even–had to work very hard to make this round peg fit the square hole. Like any change it was often a painful process, but I grew to appreciate the discipline I learned. I wouldn’t be the person I am without it.

Soon it’s dark; I’ve long since slipped the polaroids back into their sleeve and abandoned filing to search for more. In a few minutes I’ll wander dreamily to the kitchen to make dinner for my boys, living souvenirs of a time when I was called soldier; until then I sit with my photographs, surrounded by memories captured in glossy print.


8 Responses to “Remembering”

  1. Tami May 5, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    Wow. Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve considered going into the military myself, but never actually pursued the notion.

    Also, I didn’t think you looked like a boy except in that top one that didn’t really show your face. In the bottom picture, you’re GORGEOUS.

    • Bika May 5, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

      Awww, thanks 🙂 Flattery will get you everywhere!

      It’s really only the polaroids that had me looking like a boy, I think. I wish I hadn’t been too lazy for long hair back then, I think it would’ve looked nice on me.

      Out of curiosity, is it still something you’re considering? Joining the army is a pretty huge system shock unless you’re already living a very structured and disciplined life. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but it’s most definitely an Experience.

      • Tami May 6, 2011 at 7:42 am #

        If I were single, I’d consider it. Both my husband and I have discussed it, and it’s just not something we’re interested in while we’re together. =]

  2. Arrens May 5, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    /salute from one vet to another.

    • Bika May 5, 2011 at 3:22 pm #


      I would totally haunt the smoke pit with you, dude. /salute

  3. Fallah May 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm #

    This is a nice post. My youngest sister joined the Army Reserves after flailing around, trying a year of college and moving home. It changed her, but in a good way. I wrote her actual pen & paper letters while she was at Boot Camp and she wrote back. This would have been around 2005 or so? She’s still in the Reserves, part of the Army Band.

    Her (now) fiance is someone she met there. Lots of her friends are Army folks. I have a hard time thinking of her as “military material” (we’re all WAY too stubborn, for one thing) but it seems to have been good for her.

    I love the photo of you with your Mom. Reminds me if seeing my sis in her dress uniform for the first time. She looked so sharp I wanted to salute her.

    • Bika May 5, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

      Man, I can identify with all of that-I knew the exact same thing would happen to me so I just skipped the whole random-year-of-college step to cut it off at the pass; I keep my pen and paper letters and hoard them like gems (in some cases they’re the only personal letters ever written by a few of my relatives). Nobody ever took me for the military type either, but it worked out for the best!

      That picture with my mom was taken the day I graduated from DLI. It was a good day–Monterey is a gorgeous place!

  4. Mom May 6, 2011 at 9:13 am #

    I have all the letters you sent home from boot camp, and they are priceless…we laughed, cried and beamed with pride through every single one. And FYI, when you joined up, it took YEARS off our lives…”stubborn” is a word in the dictionary with your picture next to it! But we still love you, Army girl!

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