My career in the military did not pan out as I had envisioned that it would. It turned out to be short, relatively uneventful, for the most part entertaining, but a valuable experience nonetheless. I did what thousands of farm boys across America have done for the decades: I used the Army as an escape from the fields and barns. I decided, shortly after our move from the city of Charlotte to the farm in Monroe, North Carolina, that a stint in the military was going to be my parent-approved means of escape. Given that most of my male relations had served at least one tour in the military, my parents would be fully on board with this post high school adventure. The books were closed on Vietnam and other than the ever present, cold war threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviet Union – something we had all learned to live with – this was considered a pretty ‘low risk’ time to be in uniform.
I was so eager to escape that I signed up in October of my senior year in high school, via the Early Enlistment Program. As I was only seventeen, I had to get my parent’s approving signatures on the necessary paperwork, and there was not much in the way of dissent from them to begin with. College was not on the horizon, and shift work at the local plastic pipe factory was only slightly more appealing than continued association with cows and chickens. The enlistment process, however, had actually begun the summer between eleventh and twelfth grades. I went down to the strip-mall recruiting office, which housed the Army, Navy and Marines and the Air Force representatives. I never quite got around to the Air Force recruiter, probably because at that time I had no real appreciation for what Air Force duty was like. Years later, this would be a case of ‘had I known then, what I know now’. I first talked to the Navy recruiter, mostly as a courtesy to a classmate. His father was the Navy recruiter and I thought that it would be the right thing do, all in the spirit of weighing my options.
I continued to talk to the Army recruiter. Relentlessly, for months, I would stop by and read brochures or watch short films as we discussed my career options. I think I made his job very easy, as it was not so much of a case of selling me on the Army; so much as, it was a process of whittling down the list of options after basic training. I covered everything possible; armor, artillery, data processing, finance; anything except motor transport. My biggest fear was that I would wind up working on trucks and equipment in the motor pool, which would not be overly different from a day on the farm. The only difference would be that the equipment would be painted a different shade of green than the John Deere tractors. Finally, after an exhaustive sifting of options I decided that I wanted to be an Electronic Warfare Signals Intelligence Analyst. I chose this career option for several reasons. First, it sounded cool. Secondly, the recruiter could not tell me about the position for a couple of reasons. He did not actually know what the job was but he could tell me that it was classified. At the ripe old age of seventeen and staring into the adulthood working in a classified field. This sounded like an adventure more than a job. I knew for certain, when I enlisted, that this was going to be my career. I was going to do twenty, or even thirty, years and retire with my jacket sleeves heavy with stripes and medals over the pocket. Again, this was my plan at age seventeen.
After taking the necessary tests and getting the clearance under way, I had to go back to the induction center to firm up my tour of duty. Again, the old adage of ‘had I known then’ would come back to haunt me. First, I had to select my post training duty station. I wanted to go overseas immediately, so I was given a choice of Berlin, Frankfurt, or Korea. Both Berlin and Frankfurt – I know now – are great operational duty stations and my father was stationed in Berlin when he was in the Army. Korea, though, seemed more exotic, so I opted for that assignment. I also had to pick my duty station upon returning from overseas. There was Fort Meade Maryland (NSA), Field Station San Antonio (Kelly AFB), and Fort Ord, California. In keeping with my escape mentality, rather than selecting one of the premier intelligence assignments, I chose Fort Ord, California, as far from rural North Carolina as you can get. The plans were firmed up in October of my senior year and I left for boot camp after graduation.
As it turns out, my military career was a steady ping-pong-ball volley between tactical and strategic assignments. Boot camp was about as close to ‘army’ as I would ever get. After boot camp, I went to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. We did not live in the old World War II era wooden two-story barracks; we lived in dorms with two people to a room. We had to be at class by around nine in the morning and we knocked off about three in the afternoon. It was like going to college but having to keep your haircut and wear a uniform. The haircuts and uniforms were our only reminder that we were indeed still in the Army. Unfortunately, my clearance took a bit long to catch up with me, so I spent about five months on CQ (Charge of Quarters) which meant pulling one twenty-four shift of being a ‘go fer’ for the Army contingent followed by three days off. Therefore, the college atmosphere was now evolving into more of a part time job environment. All of that changed, however, when I completed school and shipped out for Korea.
Korea was another volley, bouncing between the tactical environment of Second Infantry and the strategic environment of USAFSK Camp Humphries. While at Second Infantry, we lived in Quonset Huts, worked out of two-and-a-half ton trucks, or the division’s intelligence center and at USAFSK (US Army Field Station Korea), we worked in a multi-platform, all services strategic intercept and analysis center. Operations at USAFSK more closely resembled what we, as students at Goodfellow, were told we would be undertaking. Duty at USAFSK was very much like doing shift work in an office building. Duty at Second Infantry more closely resembled life in the infantry. By no stretch of the imagination was our life at Second Infantry like the actual combat arms soldiers, but it was as ‘grunt’ as we cared to get. We considered ourselves more ‘chair-borne rangers’ than airborne rangers.
After my year in Korea, I was off to Fort Ord, California, and it was here that my plan of a career in the Army was revisited for the purpose of revision. I loved Monterey, California. I was always amazed that the Army had managed to procure this beautiful tract of land. Duty on the other hand, like the Ping-Pong ball, bounced me back to the tactical environment. I spent more time in the motor pool, working on trucks, either cleaning vehicles or picking up cigarette butts. I only had to paint decorative rocks once, but once was enough. I was slowly awakening from that dream of a career in the Army.
After one hitch, I got out. I never regretted my time in the Army, and those memories are some of the best I have, but I just was not cut out for what I now saw as a military career. The Army that I imagined in high school was not the reality that I lived on active duty. I liked the intelligence work, just not the ‘Army’ side of the business. No matter what job you have, the Army will find a way for you to do it in the woods, or in the desert, on top of some snow capped mountain. As valuable as the overall experience was, there is one thing I took with me which opened up some doors outside the barracks.
The best thing I had going for me after my active duty time was my security clearance. It was not just the Top Secret clearance, but also the string of letters after ‘top secret’ that identified (to the indoctrinated) a collection of exceptionally sensitive access levels above Top Secret. I took the clearance and parlayed it into a position with the U.S. Department of State as a communications officer. That clearance was more valuable than formal education and at this period, the federal government was having a difficult time obtaining cleared employees.
Therefore, although my career in the military was short it provided some invaluable experiences. Granted, it did not turn out to be the thirty-year investment I had envisioned at the ripe old age of seventeen, but it did launch my federal career. Had I chosen a different MOS, or different branch of service, I do not know where I would be now, but I have no regrets about where I have been or my short tenure with the Army.