Good Men Project Magazine contributor Newman McKay addresses some common misconceptions about Army life.
I haven’t had much time to sit down and reflect lately. I went home on leave in September and returned to a pile of work that required my attention. Isn’t it funny how everyone comes up with things for you to do when you finally get some time off? I haven’t had a “real job” per se, but I can tell you—that’s how it works in the Army.
I’ve covered what it was like adjusting to life here, but sometimes I wrongfully assume that everyone knows what it’s like being deployed to Iraq (it’s easy to get sucked into the “Army bubble”). So, I thought I’d write about some of the misconceptions people have about Army life.
1) Deployment is difficult.
It’s difficult to be away from family and friends, no matter where you are. It is isolated here, but the miracles of modern technology give me opportunities to be in contact with the outside world; an internet connection, for instance, is very helpful.
Life here is simple. I have a well defined mission, and I know what I’m supposed to accomplish at work. Since many of life’s little distractions have been eliminated, the experience here can be boiled down to these basic activities: working, exercising, eating, and sleeping.
My meals are prepared in a cafeteria, and there is a free laundry service that only requires that I drop off my clothes and come back three days later to pick them up. The combination of the internet and international shipping allow me to buy just about anything I want online and have it mailed to me. I don’t want to live this way forever, but it could definitely be much worse.
That’s why I so appreciate the men and women who came here in 2003, before there was any sort of infrastructure. If I lived out of a tent with no air conditioning and ate boxed meals every day, I imagine it would be a lot tougher.
2) Soldiers don’t get paid much.
The Army pay scale is based on your rank and time in service. Anyone who has been in for a while—say around 10 years—is probably doing pretty well, assuming they’ve been promoted on the traditional timeline. Even for those who have not been in long, many of them forget to take the benefits into account.
The gross amount of an Army paycheck may not be much for relatively new guys like me, but we have free health and dental care. We get allowances for housing and clothing. Spouses and dependents get benefits. While we’re deployed, we get food and housing totally free, and our expenses are reduced to virtually nothing, not to mention that all deployed soldiers get a pay increase.
All things considered, soldiers are paid pretty well in my opinion. I make out better doing this than I would at any other job I could have landed fresh out of college.
3) The Army has a culture of discipline.
The American Army is comprised completely of volunteers. There isn’t a draft anymore; everyone serving signed up for it. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because every day we see American men and women willing to serve in the Armed Forces and we don’t have to compel them to do it. That is a wonderful thing.
However, anyone who has been in the Army for a length of time can tell you that things are changing. It’s becoming more relaxed. In a way this is good. Good business models often incorporate ideas about free thinking and equality, where everyone is allowed to speak their mind. There is a time and place for that in the Army as well.
But the Army is not a for-profit business. In this line of work, situations often arise where decisions must be made while you are short on time and information. When leaders in the Army give orders, subordinates must be prepared to execute, without question. The delivery and execution of orders could be the difference between life and death, particularly in a deployed environment.
I often see that discipline lacking, and I think it’s a reflection of American society as a whole, particularly of my generation. The standards of hard work, respect, and discipline are lost on many of my generation. I’m not perfect myself, but I do think the way that I was raised reflects the values of an earlier, more respectful, generation. These values are integral for both our Army and our society as a whole. When the soldiers in my platoon get upset, I like to tell them, “We are here to protect democracy, not to practice it.” And I hope we never forget that.
4) Bullets fly by my head all the time
Obviously, a job where you go out on foot looking for terrorists is dangerous. But there are a lot of other jobs that must be done for the Army to function. There are cooks, mechanics, fuelers, and weapons repairers, to name a few. Most of the people here spend the majority of their time on the Contingency Operating Base (COB), which is like a small city. I don’t want to downplay what soldiers do here—many American men and women willingly put themselves in harm’s way for the good of our country. But, aside from getting hit by one of the mortars that insurgents randomly fire into the base, I’m not going to get hurt walking from my room to the shower.
I will actually be going on convoys soon, and I am excited for the opportunity to get off the COB and do something new and exciting. Even on the road, we have vehicles now that are specially built to withstand bullets and bombs. You still have to be alert and vigilant out here, but as long as you do that, you’re generally safe.
Life here isn’t all that exciting. The routine is not all that different from what anyone does on a day to day basis. I eat, sleep, and work, and then do it again. I’ll be better because of this experience, and hopefully I am doing my part to help us win this war and bring home our troops, but it’s hard for me to see the big picture through my small microscope. I do want to share the little insight I have. Keep these soldiers in your thoughts and prayers.