Quentin Lucas found himself in the military, facing court martial, before he could begin to see what a ‘real man’ might be.
About halfway through my military career, I found myself facing both a court martial and questions of identity. Years later, I’m only beginning to see how those two challenges were tethered. Though, in retrospect, I’m not sure how I would’ve come to understand that if Captain Brown hadn’t sat down to speak with me one day — just when the climate of legal repercussions was beginning to warm.
A little backstory:
I joined the Army later than many, at the age of 23 after I had already graduated from college and was saddled with debt — largely because what weighed heavier than school loans was a lacking sense of accomplishment. College ended quickly. And I managed to graduate while barely applying myself. Today, though many of my fellow recruits hovered around the age of 18, I normally still wouldn’t think much about joining at that age. But, while in basic training, a drill sergeant made a point of asking me how old I was.
“That makes sense,” he said, after I answered. “You carry yourself differently.”
I later cast the incident aside as the drill sergeant merely reacting to my face sometimes looking younger than my years. But, that moment somewhat matters now because impressionability is important when rebuilding a raw recruit into something fit for the military. And I wonder sometimes: If I had been of a more impressionable age when I joined the Army, would the threat of a court martial have ever materialized for me?
Being known as an uncooperative soldier might have earned you the label of “shit bag,” or “dirt bag” if you didn’t like to use the word shit. And I was most certainly uncooperative, a little more settled in my boots than an 18-year-old might have been.
Initially, I felt guilty about being so problematic, and complicated. So, I tried to change, to repress — which led to nightmares. I had never known a person could harm himself in his sleep until I joined the Army. I could never remember the dreams but I would wake up with scratches on my face, still fresh, burning and wet. Ironically, and fortunately, finding more trouble through a new transgression — unrelated to the impending court martial — indirectly provided a fresh perspective on my dilemmas, which helped ease my anxieties.
The additional bit of mischief was really just an aggressive reaction to the stress I’d been feeling over the prospect of military prison. The details are too byzantine to recount now. But I will say that the only party hurt on account of my rebellion was roughly two square feet of grass.
Nonetheless, the scolding I received was legendary. My dad was military and also, for a time, a yeller. So, I had years of practice with blocking out noise — with looking like I was paying rapt attention to my complainants. But this time, I listened. Maybe it was because I already felt so badly about myself due to my underwhelming military performance, and hated how tattered my reputation had become. But, ultimately, I really wanted to hear what this one particular sergeant had to say.
And then, after he had finished shouting me three feet into the ground, I climbed out of that hole and walked away trying not to smile.
Specifically, I was shouted down on account of the “complication” which might incarcerate me, the supposed source of that complication, and what that “source” said about me as a person. The dead grass had become an afterthought. But I listened to this tirade and walked away satisfied, a new confidence filling me up like I was a balloon taking in a birthday girl’s breath. The sergeant who smacked me so hard with his bluster prattled off a string of presumptions and misfires. He had no true idea about why I was so “complicated,” what had caused that complication and, thus, what he was actually angry about.
In response, I quietly walked back to my room, realizing that sometimes people are just going to be angry with you — and that there’s not always something to be done about that. I still had no idea what was going on with me. But it felt oddly comforting to believe that my commanders didn’t have a clue either — no matter how confident they seemed. Like never before, I’d come to feel that if anyone was going to make a decision about what should be done about me moving forward, I was the one with the best chance of making the right decision.
Then the time came when my legal problem became all but official: Full speed ahead, the court martial was coming unless I made the decision the Army wanted me to make.
Captain Brown had known about my situation for a while. Yet, during all the time we worked together, he never said a word to me about it. Even on the day when he asked to speak with me privately, it was because another captain had asked him to.
“You’re in serious trouble,” Captain Brown said, the Georgia sun pushing his eyes into a squint while we sat on a bench outside. “This is the kind of decision that will stay with you for the rest of your life.”
I had first told Captain Brown about how I was refusing to kill people in Iraq months earlier — and that if the Army wasn’t intent on forcing me, then I wouldn’t board the plane. I explained that this stance was one that I had held before joining the Army, and one I shared explicitly with my recruiter — who, nevertheless, helped me find a position that was combat, while telling me that the job was actually non-combat. Like most of the other soldiers I told, Captain Brown didn’t express any measure of doubt regarding the story. Then he told me his own recruiter story.
“I took my nephew down to a recruiter’s office. But I didn’t tell the guy I was military,” he said. “As soon as I knew he was lying to the kid, I stood up and said, ‘Let’s get out of here. This one’s full of shit.’”
But now I was looking at the very strong reality of several years in prison. So, Captain Brown wanted to talk. He was never a loud man, but serious, and a war veteran with a wealth of stories that would leave you wondering how anybody can ever, truly survive combat. I was a little intimidated when talking to him about my life and the path that had led to this pivotal moment. The deep-seated decision not to be a killer, made unconsciously years ago by a boy who just didn’t want to be like the gangsters living in his neighborhood.
I eventually reiterated to Captain Brown that I wasn’t going to kill, and that the Army lacked the means to coerce me otherwise.
“I see,” Captain Brown answered, leaning forward from the bench, elbows on his thighs. “So, basically, you’re just trying to be a man.”
What makes me laugh now is that when Captain Brown said that, the first thought to run through my mind was, “Oh, my God. Is that what’s been going on with me? Is that why this has been so damn hard?”
Then I tried to play it cool, like I was in anyway rugged enough to match the intensity of the man who taught me how to fire an M-16 from a moving Humvee.
“Yeah, Captain. Just trying to be a man, sir.”
Yet, as proof that I’m still learning about and from this experience, it wasn’t until I sat down to write this essay that I realized that I wasn’t just trying to be a man. The more I think about what happened during that period, the more I feel like I was a boy chasing down manhood, failing to believe that manhood lived within me, that manhood was anything other than always just beyond my fingertips.
My father was a Vietnam War vet. I had never said as much aloud but it had always seemed evident to me and everyone around me that joining the Army was, in some way, an attempt to connect with him — maybe to finally touch what was just beyond my fingertips. Maybe all of that turmoil with the Army happened because I just wanted to be like the first real man I’d ever known.
A year has not yet passed since my father died. During our final talks, we never discussed my experiences with the Army. But that was because he stood by me throughout the entire ordeal.
With my father gone, and every memory of him so acutely intensified in his absence, it’s become increasingly evident that his being in the Army isn’t why I still look at him as a “real man” at all. Lately, I think more about the love that we shared, once as man and a boy and then as a man and a man — and how that love is still real, filling the spaces in my life that his body once occupied.
If someone were to ask me what a real man was, I wouldn’t be able to answer expertly.
But I appreciate how my father comes to mind when I hear the question, because my relationship with him has convinced me:
I don’t need to go chasing down the answer.
Photo credit: Jürgen Schiller García/Flickr