I Was Proud to Be a Soldier.In the summer of 2001, I had this insatiable urge to enlist in the military. There was no logical reason for me to do that. I had a full scholarship to a good school, a 4.0 Grade Point Average, my own apartment, and a job I liked just fine. I wasn't running from anything, and my life didn't lack, but in the summer of 2001, I just KNEW it was time for me to enlist. I went to the recruiter on June 13, 2001, and ultimately shipped off to Basic Training on the 4th of July.
I arrived at Ft. Leonard Wood, and knew in my heart that it was exactly where I needed to be. Basic Training was tough, but I excelled, and was proud to be there.
On September 11, 2001, my company was on the last day of our final Field Training Exercise before graduation. That morning, I was woken up by the guard, and in turn, woke up the other troops in my squad. As I sat on the edge of my foxhole enjoying a cold tin cup of MRE coffee (caffeine being a rare, and quite forbidden, indulgence for Basic Trainees!), and talking with my battle buddy, my Drill Sergeant came rushing up and told us all to go to the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) for a very important briefing. I scuttled to pour my coffee out into my foxhole and kick some dirt over it, but Drill Sergeant didn't even look at what I was drinking. He just ran down the line to the next squad, and told them the same thing. That's when I knew something wasn't right.
I rallied my squad (as I was the Squad Leader) and we began moving at a quick march to the TOC, our weapons at the ready, as we'd been taught to do along the roadways for the sake of this tactical exercise. When we arrived at the TOC, some other squads were already there, but we had to wait on the others. Our Company Commander was standing on a large rock, holding the tall walking stick which we called the Charlie Stick (as we were Charlie Company.) The Commander never gave briefings, so we thought this must be something pertaining to our graduation.
Finally, everyone had arrived, and we formed up. I will never forget my Commander's words. He spoke in his usual loud and powerful voice, "Charlie Company, it is my responsibility to inform you that there was a national incident. A plane has hit one tower of the world trade center in New York City. It is suspected to be a terrorist incident, and the worst attack on our own soil since Pearl Harbor. Charlie Company, you all enlisted in peace time, but hear me and hear my right. You all are going to war. I don't know when, and I don't know with whom, but you all are going to war. Make no mistake about it. Squad leaders, check with your soldiers, and see if anyone is from New York. If they are, they will be afforded the opportunity to call home and account for their families. That is all, Charlie Company. Prepare for your road march tonight."
I didn't believe him. Nobody did. See, in peacetime, a popular practice among Basic Training companies was to tell the troops that something bad had happened which would require them to go to war upon completion of their training, and see how they'd react. Well, my company had done that just a week prior, so when he gave us this briefing, all of us pretty much said "yeah, right, Sir." It was so outlandish, we couldn't imagine it was true. Then our Senior Drill Sergeant drove by in the duty truck, which had a radio, and we heard the broadcast as the plane hit the second tower, and knew it was for real. We were going to war. Every last one of us.
That day was filled with preparations, disbelief, and a little bit of chaos for me, as my entire squad, with the exception of myself, was from New York. I had to get them to the Senior Drill Sergeant so he could take them to a phone to call their families. I later found out that none of them could get through, and that all were given the option of skipping the road march that night in favor of continuing to try calling their families. Not one of them took that option. Every last one of them was back at basecamp by the time we formed up for our road march through the trecherous terrain of the Ozark foothills. By the time we set off, the first ice storm of the year was upon us, and we marched all 25 kilometers as the wettest, coldest, proudest Americans you ever saw. We marched for the people of New York, and I marched for my squad, none of whom had any idea whether or not their families back home were ok, but still CHOSE to soldier on. What great Americans those guys are!!
At the end of our road march, we had to do the night infiltration course. By this time, the ice storm was going even harder than it was, and there were strong winds to go along with it. I am from the deep south. It was the first time I'd ever experienced something like this before, and it chilled me to the bone. The artillery simulators went off all around us, the machinegun fire was overhead, and we crawled 300 meters to our rights of passage in the rock circle. I made it about 295 meters before my muscles just completely went out on me and I fell limp to the ground, my M-249 Light Machinegun crushing my left arm, and my rucksack fr
My buddy's refusal to leave me behind, although he was every bit as tired, cold, soaked, and ready to be finished as I was, is something I will NEVER forget. New Yorkers are special people. They are proud, and strong, and will never leave a fallen comrade, and when I fell, it was a New Yorker who found strength when I had none. On a day that I should have been his strength, he was mine. That spoke volumes to me, and I resolved then and there that I would fight for all New Yorkers, and that show them the dedication that my buddy showed me.
In the days that followed, I graduated Basic Training, and went on to my Advanced Individual Training at the Engineer School. My mother, when she came to see my Basic graduation, told me not to go volunteering to fight, or for anything that would increase my odds of deploying. What I didn't tell her was that I already had. I had begun my Airborne packet, and volunteered to be a paratrooper.
Over the next few months, I became an Engineer, came to terms with my own mortality at the age of 19, had a few little meltdowns, and moments where I just wanted to scream, "WHAT HAVE I DONE?!!!" but overall, I was a proud soldier, and when I finished Airborne School at Ft. Benning, my first stop when I took leave, was New York City, and Ground Zero. I drove all the way there in uniform, and I will never forget the people of New York, and how they surrounded me, a girl from the deep south, wearing dirty camouflage and Private First Class rank, and listened as I told them I had come to see what I was fighting for, then thanked me for being their soldier. I felt like they accepted me as one of them. When I got up to the platform to view the destruction, I removed my beret, and could not help but cry. I was so angry, and hurt that someone would do this to my country. After I had looked a while, I don't know how long I stood there, I silently put my beret back on, and walked away. I knew what I was fighting for, and I was ready.
I arrived at my duty station a week later, and volunteered for deployment as soon as I could.
To this day, I have still not seen the video footage of the attacks. I don't need to. I've been there, and I've served to try to make it right. Of course, one soldier can't make a whole lot of difference, but I'm still glad I was a soldier on September 11, 2001. It was the only thing I'd want to be.
Looking back, my only regret was not enjoying the day before I enlisted a lot more than I did. I didn't really take the time to really take in my surroundings, and bid farewell to my hometown, and my country as I knew it. I didn't know it would be the last day I would see my country at peace. Hopefully, within my lifetime, our country will be at peace again, and I will appreciate it more. Things look a lot different through veteran's eyes.