Every year around Veterans Day, my thoughts inevitably turn to my time in the U.S. Army. As Iíve written in this space before, my experiences in the military did have some negative effects on my mental health, but all the benefits and once-in-a-lifetime memories far outweigh any of that.
Letís start from the beginning ó basic training, or boot camp as some people call it. Having led an admittedly sheltered and worry-free childhood in suburban Chicago, I was nowhere near a ďmanĒ when, two months after graduating high school, I left for basic training in Fort Sill, Okla.
I will never forget being stuffed into cattle cars with other scared recruits, sweating profusely in the summer heat and being forcefully told to shut our eyes and not speak a word. This is how basic training started. We learned on the very first day that in order to survive basic training and get through it with a minimum of raised voices and push-ups, we would have to work as a team. We also learned to help out our fellow recruits who maybe didnít have the most coordination or intelligence, because even if 63 of the 64 recruits in the platoon did something the right way, we would all be punished for the one who screwed up.
Working together as a team also forced us to interact with people of different ethnicities and backgrounds. We came from all over the United States: inner city kids, suburban kids, country kids, even a kid from Jamaica. We had different accents. Different world views. Different childhood experiences. But no matter our differences, we all wanted the same thing and worked together to make that happen.
Basic training also toughened me up and pushed me to physical and mental limits that I had never before experienced. I learned that I was capable of accomplishing once unthinkable tasks. I became more assertive socially and confident in myself. I had finally started to break out of my suburban shell.
Of course, the true military experience does not begin until after basic training. My experience included deployments in Bosnia in 2000 and then Kuwait/Iraq in 2003. Those deployments taught me many things. Number one, I realized just how good we have it here in the United States. Even the poorest people in this country are well off compared to many people in the world. I will never again look at everyday things such as running water and electricity in the same way. In my mind, after seeing what I've seen, if you have those two things and enough food to live, then you're in good shape.
My time in the military not only made me appreciate the basics of life, it also made me appreciate life in general, being alive, and my health. Every day of my two months in Baghdad, I had visions of being severely injured (or worse) in a mortar attack or by a roadside bomb or by a sniper. I thought about what it would be like to lose a limb or to be confined to a wheelchair. I thought about what my funeral would be like, and who would be there. I pictured my mother in the front row of a funeral home, dabbing away tears as I lay in rest in my Army dress uniform.
Fortunately, none of those visions became reality. I came home in one piece, physically at least, and literally every day I give thanks for that. There are many veterans who weren't so lucky and who had much worse overseas experiences than I did. May we remember them, and all veterans, this Veterans Day and thank them for their service.