Most of my colleagues (who are foreign to the U.S.) are surprised to find that I worked for the Department of Army for six years.
My College Years
My sister attended a college in Phoenix called Grand Canyon University. She was on a ROTC scholarship and studying to be a nurse. The outcome of her studies is that she would enter into the Army life as a nurse.
After I graduated high school, I informed my sister I was considering going to Phoenix to attend Devry University to attempt a degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. It was basically the only school I could get into after doing so poorly in high school (I dropped out for a time and had to take two senior years to graduate).
She attended my high school graduation and helped me move to Phoenix and get set up. She was my moral base there, and someone to turn to when I was in need. She realized how broke us college students can get and helped me out in any way she could.
She eventually graduated Grand Canyon University (GCU) with a Liberal Arts degree (nursing just didn’t work out). And subsequently she went into the army as a 2nd Lieutenant (an officer).
Since that time, September 11th occurred. The U.S. got involved in wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq. It was inevitable my sister would be deployed. And she was. To Iraq, and more specifically, Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
I would chat with her occasionally, but her first deployment was more reading the news and hoping all the news of dead U.S. Soldiers didn’t involve my sister.
After I graduated Devry, the U.S. economy was in the shits. There were basically no jobs for engineers. However, by chance, I found a job with the Army Materiel Command that was based out of Texarkana, Texas.
I told my sister, “I’m joining the Army!”
She scolded me, “Ron, you can’t take orders. There’s no way I’m letting you join the military.”
“But it’s as a civilian.”
“Oh, ok. Better then.” she said. She always tried to talk me out of joining the actual U.S. Army as a Soldier.
So I moved to Texarkana, started pursuing my Master’s degree in Business Administration, and eventually moved to Huntsville, Alabama to begin work as an engineer at Redstone Arsenal. I rapidly had to learn all the acronymese and got set up as a U.S. Army civilian Government employee.
For those that do not understand how this works, the U.S. Army has three different faces: the Soldiers, the civilians, and the contractors. The Soldiers have their chain of command, be it enlisted or officers. The civilians have their chain of command, but the top command usually goes to a Soldier (a Colonel or a General). The contractors usually support the civilian side of things.
For example, Soldier X wants 100 rounds of bullets. A civilian figures out how to order the bullets. A contractor manufactures and delivers the bullets. A civilian makes sure the Soldier gets the bullets. The Soldier fires the bullets.
It’s a pretty simple explanation, but it’s pretty much how it works.
Anyways, I was being rapidly introduced in this Army culture and trying to figure out how it all worked. My strength was as a programmer, so I found work developing training programs for the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and CH-47D helicopter.
All of this training would prepare me to be a better civilian engineer and help support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I eventually had to leave the U.S. army due to some psychiatric problems, but my sister and I continued to talk Army life even after I left the civilian service.
A Common Ground
Even though my sister was on the military side of the U.S. Army, we started forming a common ground. We had to attend the same types of training programs (for example, Prevention of Sexual Harassment). We learned the same lingo. We even used the same acronyms when we talked. I wasn’t becoming a Soldier, and she wasn’t becoming a civilian, but we had common ground.
On her deployments, we often Skyped and found ourselves talking about Army life. I felt that she trusted me with more information than she would any of my other family members. She would often use me to relay messages to friends and confidants. She even let me stay at her place for a year while she was deployed on her third tour of duty in Iraq.
Her Returns from Deployments
Her return from deployments were always met with feelings or relief. She wasn’t dead or hurt. And she was more-or-less glad to be back in the U.S.
I asked her if it was weird being back (after one deployment), and she confided in me, “Yes, but it’s strange going to crowded places.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because I don’t see other Soldiers. There’s nobody to watch my back. There’s no green uniforms around.”
I asked her what it was like driving.
“Oh, it’s hard to get used to. I observe everything. If I see a little black bag on the side of the highway, I stare it down. You just have to stare it down and hope it doesn’t explode as you pass by.”
My Sister and Fear
I once asked my sister if she was scared over in Iraq. Keep in mind she’s been deployed three times so far. For her third tour, she finally received the Army training to be a Physician’s Assistant.
“Fear is constant.” she said.
She added, “There were some Soldiers who were so paralyzed by fear that they would rarely leave their barracks unless it was an absolute necessity. There are so many things to be afraid of over there.”
“How did you overcome it?” I asked.
She responded, “To be blunt, you have to accept that you’re already dead. It’s the only way to function as a Soldier and get over the fear.”
This mimics what occurs in my favorite war drama Band of Brothers. In the series, there’s a Soldier paralyzed by fear.
He gets some advice from a Lieutenant:
The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.
She also confessed to me that her biggest fear in Iraq was losing a Soldier. “One of my Soldiers got really hurt and I still have regrets about it to this day.”
So Stephanie, this post is my tribute to you. Thank you for helping me throughout my college years, my Army career, and even after shit hit the fan psychiatrically. I’ll forever regret never coming to your wedding. And I’ll always be thankful for letting me stay with you in Louisiana when I was at my worst (and turning me into a Glee fan).
When I told you about writing this post, you asked, “Why now?” I’m like, “Why not.”
You deserve it sis. You are the greatest and bravest warrior I know.
Just as a side note, a lot of the conversations with my sister mentioned in this post are paraphrased.