By Allie Proff
When I was young, I loved stories about heroes. Greek demigods, shining knights, or caped crusaders, it didn’t matter to me. I loved how strong they were; not always physically but definitely courageous in standing up and defending others even when the cause seemed lost. Some of my favorite heroes in particular were my dad, my grandpa, and my uncles. All had served in various branches of the military. My dad (an anti-submarine helicopter aircrewman during the VietNam conflict) and my grandpa (my mom’s dad and a WWII submarine mustang officer) especially enjoyed trading sea-stories.
My reasons for joining were mostly idealistic: I wanted to defend my fellow Americans, our freedoms, and protect those overseas whose rights were being trampled. I had also read the book Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein (totally different than the movie) and thought that it made sense to earn my civil rights through service to others. I won’t lie; military people in the media (movies, video games, etc.) were pretty cool, tough, and disciplined. And the ass-kicking women were even cooler. As a girl, I’d much rather be GI Jane or Vasquez from Aliens than some primpy mall-girl (although a combination of the two would be best). It also helped that I got an NROTC scholarship to help pay for college. Finally, as part of growing up, I wanted to test myself. How strong was I? How fast could I run? Just how far could my mind and body be pushed? What were my limits?
I learned I could run 3 miles in a little over 7 minutes a mile and could even run 10ish miles around Lake Union all at once without stopping. I learned how to shoot various weapons, the nautical rules of the road, and how to fight fires (every sailor is a fire-fighter; if there’s a fire at sea, there’s nowhere to run and no reinforcements). I reaffirmed that I’m pretty stubborn and self-sufficient and can keep going even when I think I can’t. I also learned what happens to me physically and emotionally when I’m exposed to long-term sleep deprivation (it’s not pretty, but that’s another story).
At one point, I realized I had become a little bit too backstabbing and political because that was the culture of the wardroom on my ship. I let myself be brainwashed into thinking that’s what I had to do in order to stay competitive. There came a point where I didn’t like who I was. I sat down and made a list of what was important to me and who I really wanted to be.
Unfortunately, I also learned I’m not so great at being in the military (or maybe I should’ve been enlisted instead of an officer). I’m a great support person, but not so great (or happy) at being the person out in front leading. When I left, I felt like a failure. During this journey, though, I discovered as much about my strengths as much as I did my weaknesses. My current job as a technical writer totally suits my personality and skills: I love what I do, and I’m good at it. It was a process, though, getting here.
As I was in the military, I looked around and listened to others and their reasons for joining. Some, like me, were idealistic. Others were mercenaries (or at least just more realistic), just doing a job for the benefits (GI Bill, technical training) and then getting out to live a “real” life. Some wanted to travel or were just trying to get out of the parent’s house and anywhere but their hometown. Others had no direction and just thought it would be something to do while they figured out what they wanted to do in life. Everyone’s reasons were different, and pretty much everyone had more than one reason (even if they didn’t admit it out loud).
For those of you thinking of joining, some of you will do well. Some, like me, will realize it’s a bad fit. However, we will all have been through a crucible and found out more about ourselves in a shorter amount of time than almost anywhere in the civilian sector. We will always get to stand and be remembered for our service as veterans of the armed forces.
I’d love to hear from other veterans. What motivated you to join? How was it the same as or different from what you expected? If you aren’t in anymore, why did you get out? What did you learn from your experience and how has it affected you today?