When I was a seventeen-year-old high school student I had little idea that I would end up joining the Army after I graduated. My grades were poor and my prospects were pretty dim (county college…which is where I eventually ended up, anyway). A close friend approached me one day with a plan that permanently altered the course of my life: we would join the Army together on “The Buddy System”, conquering the world as a team, living out the rest of our working lives before retiring at thirty-eight years of age. We would drink and womanize wherever Uncle Sam sent us, and maybe even return home as heroes; we would be rock stars in Army green. It wasn’t like I had anything else to do, so we set the wheels of fate in motion. It turns out that the wheels of fate don’t always like being spun like they are some ridiculous game show prop.
I Did It My Way
Although joining the Army was never a serious consideration, I had already taken the ASVAB test a few months before. It got me out of a math class one day, so I filled in the circles as fast as I could and then sat there doodling on my scrap paper. My score came back high enough to do almost any job that the Army had to offer, and my partner in crime performed similarly. We contacted an Army recruiter, who visited our parents and arranged for us to meet at the Philadelphia MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station), choose jobs, and set a date with destiny.
These were the days before cell phones (in 1993 a cell phone looked like a small suitcase and cost a king’s ransom), so when I couldn’t get in touch with my “Buddy”, it wasn’t a surprise. I assumed that he would be where he was supposed to be at the appointed time. Who misses an appointment with the Army? The recruiters assured me that with such a lengthy process ahead of me, I should get started without him. I joined a group of would-be warriors and commenced our examinations: we were stuck with needles, asked to perform duck walks in our undies, and were subject to a few more “intimate” studies of our constitutions. I was offered a list of MOSs to choose from; ASVAB results alone don’t guarantee every job will meet the current needs of the Army. On that list was X-ray technician, but it came with a year of training after Basic. This training was to be at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, which is a notoriously relaxed environment, but I was imagining an extra year in Army hell, so I passed. I chose 63B Light Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic. My training would be six months long; the bullet of advanced technical training in a sun-kissed vacation spot had been dodged.
That day was a whirlwind of paperwork and prodding. There was little opportunity to ask if my sidekick had come or called; my natural assumption was that he had gone through the process on his own, and that we would compare notes later.
When I got home the first thing I did was mount a full assault on my trusted companion’s answering machine. I imagined that he was somewhere, telling everyone that would listen about how awesome it was that we had joined the Army together. It was a full day before I heard back from him. He explained that at the last minute his parents had made a case for the family’s military legacy: his uncles, father, and grandfather had all been Navy men. He had indeed been to MEPS, but in a later group. I was unable to speak. The gravity of the situation settled on me like a boat anchor. I had joined the Army. All by myself. The first half of Full Metal Jacket began playing on a loop in my head; it didn’t stop until I landed in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The Drill Sergeants had much more in store for me than R. Lee Ermey’s character could ever bring to bear.