Matt Crowder looks back at the moment he knew he had to join the U.S. Military—the morning of September 11, 2001—and how that has turned him into the man he is today.
Most of the time, as I scan Facebook, I come across memes either get a groan or a quick chuckle, but not long ago I stumbled on one that hit me like a ton of bricks. It perfectly described something that happened to me.
As I have written before, I’m a bit of a dork. Always have been, always will be. I’m proud of it even with the negative connotations that it carries. It’s just who I am. Before I joined the Army I was an Accountant (yeah I know, big surprise) making more money than I could have imagined at 23. By all measures I was living the good life, but there was something missing and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
In the summer of 2001, I decided to look into the military and see what they had to offer. My first look was with the Marines. I talked to them about the possibility of doing something with planes because I have always loved and been fascinated with flying. They were very nice and offered to give me a study guide so that I could get ready for the Flight Aptitude Test, which gauges your potential and understanding for the flight program.
I declined. I told them I would go ahead and take the test while I was there because I was pretty comfortable, or maybe arrogant, about my chances of doing well. I smoked the test. Seeing as I didn’t even study for it, they were pretty excited. I, on the other hand, was less than excited. You see, I knew full well that they weren’t going to let me get anywhere near the inside of one of their planes because I was blind as a bat.
I let the idea of the Marines slip into the background, but there was still a nagging feeling that the military was pulling on me like a magnet. That pull became very clear to me as I sat in the conference room at work on a Tuesday morning in September and watched terrorists fly a plane with my countrymen into one of our buildings. I knew then what I had to do. I talked to the Army.
I sat down with the Army recruiters and scheduled a date to take an assessment test to see what jobs I qualified for. I’ve always been good at taking tests so this one was pretty easy. I finished it in about a half hour and then waited for everybody else to finish. The person giving the test looked at me, surprised, and told me I got a 98.
The next day, after going through a long physical, I found out that I wasn’t going to be allowed to join then because of my eyes. Many of the recruiters told me not to worry because I had a top score and they didn’t see why I wouldn’t get a waiver to join. After looking over my packet, the recruiter asked if I wanted to go into finance or something like that, with my Accounting background.
I told them thank you, but no. I only wanted Infantry. I’m sure looking at me with my big glasses and lack of physical prowess they were surprised, but nonetheless they gave me almost everything I wanted. Little did I know that making the choice to join the Infantry was going to change me not only physically, but mentally as well.
The meme that hit me like a ton of bricks says, “From Dork to Dedicated Infantry Combat Killer in 14 weeks (*or more)”, and every single word in that statement is true. Over the course of 14 weeks I was changed from an out-of-shape 23 year-old kid that couldn’t run a mile into a man that could run 5 miles with ease, march 20 miles with 50 pounds of gear on my back, as well as shoot, move and communicate as a part of a lethal fighting force. While the physical changes were obvious (I dropped 25 pounds) it was the mental and psychological changes that are unseen that have stayed with me more over the last decade.
Those 14 weeks in the summer Georgia changed me. There were many times where I wanted to quit, times where I didn’t think my body would keep going. I can still remember the sights and smells, or the time where I quite honestly saw my life flash before my eyes because I thought I was going to die from the heat and exhaustion. But I kept going, I didn’t quit. Perseverance was the single biggest thing that I learned while I was there. The fear of failure I went in there with turned into one of my strongest character traits.
Over the last ten years there have been quite a few times in life when I wanted to call it quits and give up. At those times, I remember being in Basic Training and my Drill Sergeant telling me that I wouldn’t cut it, and that he was going to get me to quit because he didn’t want me in his Army. I also remember that whatever I’m going through at any given time is nothing compared to the Soldiers we have out there on the front lines. My trivial problems are nothing compared to what they experience every day.
Because of my skills with a computer and my poor vision, I was stuck in the office as soon as I got to my first unit. My biggest regret for my time in the Army is that I never served on the line as a true Infantryman. There were attempts to move me down to the line—which I welcomed—but they were foiled by deployment orders and the desires of my superiors to have someone with my skills working with them on the staff. This coupled with a back injury has kept me out of the fight. I wanted to be out there, but I never got my chance.
In my 27 months in Baghdad, I only got to go out in sector a total of 13 times. My buddies always loved it when I did though, because I was their good luck charm. Nothing ever happened when I went out. Looking back at it, I see it as both a blessing and a curse. I am truly blessed because I got to come home to my family who I love, but at the same time I live with the guilt of knowing that there were guys who were out every day, many of whom either came home permanently scarred physically and psychologically, or never came home at all.
It’s this guilt that drives me today.
Due to my injured back I was allowed to reclassify into the Human Resources area of the Army. Now I manage the personnel strengths of the units in my Division. While I am looking over our strengths and shortages, I have to pick people that will be deploying to Afghanistan. I don’t take this lightly, as I know that there is the chance that they may not make it home at the end of the deployment. Many of these young men just finished the same 14 weeks of pain and hell that I went through 10 years ago in the heat of a Georgia summer.
While I may never meet any of them or the countless thousands of other young men that were transformed from dorks to lethal instruments of our nations, we are connected all the same. Even though I am no longer an infantryman, I still carry with me the pride of knowing that I too was once one of them. This is never more clear and heavy on my heart than on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day.
While many are enjoying a barbecue with their family and friends, I find myself lost in the memories of those that I have known and lost. McLaughlin, Titus, and Voelke were three brave men that I knew that never made it home. My own grandfather James was a Prisoner of War after being shot down over Germany. These men, and the others that have paved the way for our ability to enjoy a barbecue or take in a football game or NASCAR race are always with me, like Angels keeping watch over us.
These are the heroes of our time, and had I not joined the Army I would never have had the chance to know these men. I’ll never know who they were before they joined, whether they were a dork with glasses like me or the captain of the football team. But to be honest, it doesn’t matter who they were before they made the choice to serve their country. What matters is that they did at all. In that we are the same. We gave up that which we were before and were transformed into something different, something better, and every one of us is the same. We have a real, true bond that carries across generations and wars that will never be broken. For in that pain we bore, and in the sweat, blood and tears we shed, we truly became a “Band of Brothers”.
“I cherish the memory of a question my grandson asked me the other day, when he said: ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said, ‘No. But I served in a company of heroes.'” -Major Dick Winters, quoting Mike Ranney’s response to his grandson. Excerpted from the real-life interview of Major Dick Winters in the film “Band of Brothers” (2001).
Lead image courtesy of Flickr/familymwr
Meme courtesy of Facebook – GruntStyle