By Tim Tee
I am approaching thirty years in the same sad way that we all do and I am struggling with the idea of the next thirty. I have ideas, I have dreams. I also have a past. How can someone under thirty have a past? I joined the Army, I was bad at it, and I quit.
I have tried several different times to come up with ways to explain why, but they always sound whiny, especially when they are up against the glorification of the American military. It is impossible to avoid, so I will just sound whiny and explain the story of the two times I went Absent Without Leave (AWOL) and of how I was not physically or mentally fit for service.
A little backstory: I was young. I am the first person in my family to graduate from high school and I grew up in a conservative, Southern Baptist home. Going to college was not necessarily an expectation in my family. I wanted to go to college, but there was no way I would have been able to afford it. With a strong inclination toward a career in politics, and an arsenal of Tom Clancy and Ian Fleming novels on my shelf, I enlisted in the Army the summer after my junior year, leaving myself with my senior year to regret it.
I grew up. My family has always been very politically charged, but it was not until I enlisted that I really began to hear voices of opposition. It was also the year of Bush’s re-election. I finally felt the emptiness under all of that conservative hope. Slowly, I dug deeper into the burgeoning ideology and I came to a surprising discovery. I did not want to kill people. This is when I tried to get out of the enlistment.
Between my family and military bureaucracy this was much harder than I had imagined, but I did renegotiate my enlistment into a non-combat Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). I was awarded my ninth choice for an MOS and found myself in telecommunications.
In a story like mine, people are surprised at how much I enjoyed basic training. It was fun wearing a uniform, eating cafeteria food, and throwing hand grenades. Of course, the downside was the crippling self-loathing and endless philosophical crises I experienced on a daily basis.
Our first day, we learned a catchy motto of sorts, called The Law. “The Law, this is our domain. Are we men? No. We are beasts, because YOU have made us beasts…as a last resort we will use cold, blue steel and stab between the second and third rib, and twist! AAAAAHHHHH Patriots!” Call me weak, but that was not okay with me.
I was appalled at the hate they tried to instill. When we fired fully automatic weapons, we did so in three-to-five second bursts. How does one count that? Do we count to five? No. Instead you say the words: “Die, terrorists. Die!” or “Die, insurgent! Die!” or “Die, Iraqi! Die!” Apparently, it takes about four seconds to say it. The haunting thing, of course, is that those three things are not synonyms. We were trained to load our weapons whenever we heard an Arabic call-to-prayer. We were also told that Muslim children can be targets, because they are raised to be terrorists.
Whatever. We had to say messed up stuff and sing cadences that made jokes about blowing up children. The real problems started when I got to Fort Gordon, Georgia. I will skip some of the “whiny” details, but essentially I was lied to, my contract was bullshit, and life was very different than the life I was promised when I enlisted. I missed home. I did not fit into the macho, laughing-at-child-killing environment around me, and I was starting to feel the ramifications of a really stupid injury that I will discuss shortly. I was depressed and I could not sleep. At all.
I talked to the chaplain. He told me about how when he was in the Special Forces he completed a mission with a broken leg and that I needed to grow up. I told my Drill Sergeant that I wanted to see a therapist. He told me to grow up. Still, I could not sleep. My solution? Pills. They make pills for everything. I did not do drugs growing up. When I was younger though, I chopped part of my toe off in a funny lawn mower accident and had to take codeine. I remembered the peaceful and soul-soothing sleep that it brought me, and so I bought some.
Fun fact: the Army is a great place for recreational drug users. Every month people were court-martialed for failing drug tests. The pill-market in a barracks is extremely easy to navigate and its customer base extends far beyond trainees and enlisted men.
So, I took some codeine, I bought some percs and some Lortabs, and over-the-counter stuff when I couldn’t get anything else. Then, I took caffeine pills to help regulate myself in the morning, and sometimes the pills wouldn’t work quite right, so I’d take others with them to bring me down. Needless to say, the day came that I found myself walking a hypoxic tightrope and forfeiting the technicolor vomit of an overdose. Nothing really bad happened. For a couple of weeks before the incident, I had really started to feel the guilt and legitimate concern around my new habits. When, after one Lortab too many, I felt like I could no longer hold onto the world around me, I turned myself in.
The Army has what they call the Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP). There is a rule that if soldiers turns themselves in for a drug problem, they will not be punished. If only making it a legally enforced regulation made it so. I finally saw a therapist, though only for one session. I was harassed by doctors and received no sympathy. In fact, my mandatory group counseling did not start for another couple of months. When I came back from the hospital, I was sent to the Drill Sergeant’s (DS) office, where one Drill Sergeant told me that if I did not tell him where I got the pills, I would go to jail. I was stunned. I thought that I could not be punished (turns out he was lying), but I was scared, so I told him. This created more problems. He said he didn’t believe me, that I obviously stole them, and that before the end of the week, I would be facing criminal charges. The uninformed, teenaged me was terrified and so I went AWOL. I went home for a couple of weeks, did some research, and came back.
It turns out, that Drill Sergeant also abused pills. Apparently, his source was the same as mine and that made him nervous, so he tried to set me up. Shortly thereafter, he was removed from DS duty.
I faced my punishment, a Field Grade Article XV and forty-five days of extra duty. Then, with the specter of pills behind me, and while finally receiving weekly counseling, I tried to just be a soldier for a while.
Eventually, I could no longer walk without severe pain. Any image that comes to one’s mind when the word “flat-footed” is spoken or read will not do my arch-less feet justice. As I understand it, and I give this information under no pretense that it is actually correct, when feet have no arch the weight of the body is not supported properly. The weight is redistributed to the inside of the feet, which causes considerable pain. Also, due to this redistribution, the leg bends inward, though very slightly, and the bones are also not supporting the body’s weight properly. When the pain in my feet and legs became too overwhelming I had pain all throughout my shins, knees, and hips, and my feet were pretty much useless. The doctors forbid me from participating in any physical training activities. All of this happened because of my flat feet.
I was given crutches, which makes no sense. I would just put more strain on one foot instead of less on both. Anyway, I went almost a year without being able to run. There were periods in between where I would try, but the big problem is that I could not take a Physical Training (PT) Test, and therefore could not leave Fort Gordon. The summer of 2006 was when things got really bad.
Our new First Sergeant (1SG) told me that if I did not pass a PT Test he would, “make my life a living hell.” I stopped going back to the doctor. My whole life became PT. I was supposed to have ninety days of recovery from my profile before I was tested. Even though I had gone a very long time without participating in all of the running, push-ups, and sit-ups that I would be tested on, I was forced to take the test without any recovery. Obviously, I failed. I had to go to “remedial” PT sessions. All the while, my feet were in incredible amounts of pain. Then, The Army started doing really dumb things to me. For instance, there is a ridiculous rule that a dental appointment is more important than literally anything else. Who makes dental appointments? A computer does. Can they be rescheduled? Not even if you call your brigade commander and beg. I tried it.
Right when I was starting to make progress, I got scheduled for a dental exam, and then had to have my wisdom teeth removed. The appointment was on the date of my next PT Test! “No rescheduling,” they said. They were removed, I was given two weeks no PT, then they wounds split back open, was given more rest time, and then was forced to take more PT tests without recovery time.
Then, I had a tonsil infection. The exact same chain of events took place. Tonsils removed, bed-rest, and no recovery time.
“Tee, how come your PT scores keep getting worse?” asked the First Sergeant.
“Because, I keep getting…” “Shut your mouth,” the Company Commander said.
At formations, the 1SG, the commander, or Drill Sergeants would call me out for fun. I became an example of what not to become. “Don’t be a broke-dick like Tee.” “In my day, guys like Tee got blanket parties.”
Fun fact: a blanket party is a barbaric form of peers punishing peers, where they wait until you are asleep, hold you down to your bunk by pulling down on your blanket, and everyone takes turns hitting you with socks stuffed with foreign objects. Luckily, the torment and ridicule I experienced by the spring of 2007 never escalated to that point.
I broke up with my girlfriend at the time, in the most immature possible way, because I was sick of having to call her every week to tell her that I failed another PT test and would not be able to move on to the next installation and marry her like her family was expecting. I simply could not take anymore.
I went to my company’s executive officer, one of the very few sympathetic people that were around at this point. I told her that I needed out of the Army, or I was going to do whatever it took to make my expulsion necessary. She told me that if I wanted out I could either play the same game I had been playing for two more years, I could fail a drug test, or I could go AWOL. That night, I left. I came back a few weeks later, got treated like shit for a few more months, and finally on July 17, 2007 I was a civilian again.
Soldiers judge me. When I was in, I saw soldiers get arrested for rape, I saw soldiers beat each other up, pull deadly weapons on each other, snort cocaine, and just generally be bad people. I served extra duty with a lot of these guys. And I was the “dirtbag.” Literally, these guys, who got Article XVs for stealing from their fellow soldiers, had the distinct privilege of being a better person than I was in the eyes of the Armed Forces.
Civilians judge me. “You signed a contract!” “You knew what you were getting into!” What seventeen-year-old person ever knows what they are getting into? I did sign a contract, when I was not of legal age to do so without the signature of my incredibly biased parents. This is not even considering the fact that my contract was ignored by the Army the entire time I was in the service.
Thanks to circumstance, and perhaps a graceful officer, my discharge was “General, Under Honorable Conditions.” However, the qualifier still hangs at the bottom of paperwork: “Patterns of Misconduct (AWOL).”
My Drill Sergeants told me I would spend the rest of my life working shit jobs because of what I did. Well, I put myself through college and graduate school. Now, I am launching myself into a final trajectory and I do worry about the long-term implications. My dreams of serving in some political capacity probably died the day I stood up for my dignity and I am sure that most people don’t see that as standing up at all. I signed up and backed out and I deserve the hand I was dealt on principle.
Sure, I handled it wrong. Sure, I signed a contract. I really did want to be in, and stay in, the Army. My question is, on what principle do we deny a young adult treatment for his emotional, physical, and spiritual health? Let them say what they like, but the Army failed me long before I failed the Army.