A recent reflection of military service in the Los Angeles Times newspaper painted a one-sided image of the U.S. Army. It caused me to reflect upon the person I am today after serving 23 years.
I was raised in a small Vermont village where my parents struggled to keep jobs in the 1970s. We shared meals in a small hand-built home; life was simple but good. My father’s Creedence Clearwater Revival 8-tracks played while my brother and I helped our grandfather gather firewood each summer. We moved to Florida when I was ten, where my parents each held two jobs. My brother and I went to work by age 14 and hated school with a passion.
My male mentors through childhood were Vietnam veterans and they helped me understand how great my country was when it seemed my parents struggled so hard to feed and clothe us. I grew up in the Cold War and saw how poor life under the Soviet Socialist yoke was.
Despite how some Americans treated Vietnam veterans, they were proud of their service. Their stories of war were humble and full of love for their fellow man. My military mentors ensured I graduated from high school so I could join the Army.
I enlisted at 17, guaranteed a spot in a paratrooper unit as an infantryman. I got stationed at Fort Bragg with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. At age 18, I was being coached by more combat veterans. They ranged from older Vietnam war vets to younger ones who served in Grenada, Honduras, Panama, and Iraq. They taught me to put others before myself. In a nutshell, my early Army service was life-changing.
Mentors taught me to put your team first, be a professional, stay physically fit and mentally active. I learned to think fast and run faster. We fired weapons, carried heavy packs on long marches, and created a brotherly bond that is yet unbroken. There were varying political positions, different ancestral backgrounds, people from wealthy families and also those who were happy to finally see a dentist every year. We never worried about religion, politics, or who the president was; we were just happy to sweat, drink, cuss, and raise hell together.
By age 19 I was acting squad leader, by 21 a Sergeant, and by 23 using an early computer to plan complex airborne operations. I look back fondly on the brilliant, funny, crude, and loving people I worked beside. All so different, yet all such patriots.
After earning an ROTC scholarship to attend college, I started a journey to be the first person in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. 2LT Commission in hand, I was right back at Fort Bragg to serve with another great team of paratroopers in the 82nd’s combat engineers. Shortly after arriving, the terrorist attacks of September 11th would send me in many new directions as the Army moved my wife and I into 14 homes in 15 years.
Although trained as an engineer, I started to work in the defense policy and diplomacy/intelligence world. I assisted a two-star general as he led the team building the Afghan Army from scratch. I later assisted a four-star general as he led a review of the Afghan war strategy in 2009. I could do this because the Army sent me to earn a master’s degree in Middle East Studies, and even in how to detect and prevent genocide.
All my training led me to work with a retired British three-star as he assisted the Afghan government in convincing the world to change the end-state goal of the Afghan war to a political process. We traveled the globe to help the Afghans push the world into supporting a peace process framework.
I do not look back at my Army time with bitterness. It was amazing that I got paid to do all those challenging, fun, and exciting things. My service in the Army and work across the U.S. government taught me many things, including my selection to join the non-partisan U.S. Presidential Transition Team.
If I could summarize what the Army and our nation really teach those willing to learn it would be: to be kind, to be brave, and to protect the innocent. I was no military or senator’s son, but I am clearly a fortunate one. I owe much thanks to my blood-family and my other family, the United States Army.
Jason is a retired Major in the U.S. Army. He now dedicates his life to peace-building through education. He is a writer, podcast host, interfaith dialogue public speaker, and non-profit leader. He teaches courses on religion, national security, and conflict resolution. He gives his time to help military families, explain Muslim cultures, preserve literature and music, and conserve endangered wildlife. @Jason_c_howk.