I can vividly remember the bus ride from St. Louis to Fort Leonard Wood Army base in Missouri. There must have been 50 people on that bus. We had only left St. Louis at around 8pm after a full day of travelling from Massachusetts. The bus was dark. We left the city and drove through blackness. I sat on an aisle seat half-way down the bus, but several other men (it felt strange to refer to ourselves as men) sat on the floor in the aisle. There was no radio and no one talked. All we could hear was the occasional cough and the sounds of the bus.
I was 18 and scared.
I realise now that all the other guys on the bus must have been scared too, but I felt like I was the only one to be realising the mistake he had made. They belonged here. I didn’t. I couldn’t see many of the other guys in the dark, but I assumed they were sleeping. How can they do that? Was this just another day for them? Did they have such good reasons for joining that this was actually the best option for them? Was there no doubt? Why didn’t they look scared? We were all going to become soldiers. I was going to be called Private Wroolie, and I hadn’t even gotten used to Mister Wroolie. I didn’t know if I would be handed a uniform upon leaving the bus or if they would make us go to bed first. When would the head shaving start? It was after mid-night. I should be sleeping, but I was too afraid. If only the bus would break down. Or if only someone would walk onto the bus and say âI’m from the Army. Thank you all for volunteering, but we don’t need anyone else. You can all go back home.â
But that was never going to happen. I had completely screwed up my life. I was sure of it. I volunteered, so I had no one to blame but myself. I was in for four years– and the bus ride alone felt like a month.
Only 24 hours earlier, I was saying goodbye to my girlfriend. She was just the latest girl I was seeing and I wasn’t sure how I felt about her. But in the four-hour ride, I had convinced myself that I should have asked her to marry me. Then, at least, I wouldn’t feel like I was throwing my previous life straight in the trash.
I wasn’t leaving much behind, but it felt like it at the time. As a teenager, my friends were the most important thing to me. But my family moved around a lot and the newest group of friends in the newest location hadn’t even known me a year. They liked me and made me feel like I fit in, but they would like someone else soon enough. Deep down, I could not imagine them sitting around the McDonald’s we all worked at saying, âIf only Eric were here . . .â
I had finished high school a few months earlier. Most of the people I graduated with didn’t know who I was since I transferred into the school in November. But I had some really good friends who I could hang out with when I wasn’t working or at school. They all were going off to college– to University of Massachussets mostly. I wasn’t. A lot of the people working at the McDonaldâs were still hanging around, but the smart ones were leaving. I had a problem with truancy which led to low grades and a lot of summer school back when I lived in San Diego. I didn’t think any college would take me. I didn’t even try. The only two options I saw at the time were continuing to work at McDonaldâs– maybe sharing an apartment with someone one day– or joining one of the services. I had four armed services to chose from. The Air Force was for smart people (too smart for me, I thought), the Marines for hard-core fighters (Dad said âI didn’t raise my kids to be cannon fodderâ), and there were so many Wroolies in the Navy that I didn’t want to be just another (and the uniform put me off too). So I decided on the Army.
When I first talked to the Army recruiter (âCome in, come in. Have a seat. Would you like anything to drink?â), I told him I wanted to be a police officer when I finished with the Army. He told me about the options available in security and military police. All these years later, I can’t imagine why I told him that’s what I wanted to do. I can’t ever remember seriously entertaining the idea of being a cop– before or since. My only real passion in school was journalism and writing for the high school newspaper. I think it just sounded good to say I wanted to be a police officer. He told me there was a language proficiency test he wanted me to take first. The Army really needed people good with languages and he had to put them all through the test. I told him I failed the only semester of French I took, but he still put me in for the test. It was called the DLAB (Defense Language Aptitude and Battery) which gave you a fake language that you needed to listen to, analyze, and then answer a bunch of questions about what was said. I did well.
The recruiter told me I should become a linguist. He told me I could get extra profiency pay for having a language (but money was the furthest thing from my mind). He told me about DLI in Monterey, California, and how it was more like a college than a base. He told me how people learn about the culture and even dress in cultural clothing while learning. Honestly, I don’t know where he got that! I was big into James Bond books at the time (John Gardner, not Ian Flemming, I’m ashamed to say.) and while still insisting on being an MP told him I would consider being a Russian linguist. That would be pretty cool and exciting. He couldn’t guarantee me a language, but âwith scores like these, you’ll have no trouble getting Russian.â Basic training is tough (âI’m not gonna lie to youâ) but the rest should be easy. This was in March. I was signed up to enlist in October. I wanted the Summer before giving up my freedom, and I would only just finish High School in June.
In August, Iraq invaded Kuwait and soldiers started massing up in Saudi Arabia. There was talk of war. The first war since Vietnam, which led me to think about Oliver Stone movies and the Deer Hunter. I checked with the recruiter. Everything would be fine, he said. It was.
So after the Summer, which involved a lot of time in Springfield, MA and about six weeks back in San Diego, I reported to the recruitment office in The Federal Building in Springfield, Massachussets. I wasn’t sure if I should even be there. How does the shy kid become a soldier? It was October 9th.
Late that evening, I watched the lights of Ft. Leonard Wood approaching the windows of the bus. We drove through the gates which looked like every other base I had ever been on with a guard post, a concrete sign, and a few flags. Turn after turn after tun, we arrived at a building. The bus door opened and a drill sargeant stepped on. The wide brimmed hat is very intimidating. But at that moment, it was downright scary. He was short but stocky and he had a little mustache that made him look even more sinister than he already was. He stood there for about 30 seconds in silence– just looking us over. Would it be possible to quit now? Would I dare?