A friend's (drop dead gorgeous) daugher was planning on entering the U.S. Army as a Dental Hygenist after graduating from High School. I felt compelled to write this bit of advice for her, and others might find it useful as well...
Congratulations on your imminent graduation and exciting career plans! I’ve been meaning to write to you about those plans ever since my buddy Kevin (your pop) told me what you were planning on doing after graduation. Joining the Army? Wow. That’s quite a step. I know. Like you, I joined the Army before I graduated from high school, and also went active not too long after graduation. Of course this was back in 1976, so I imagine that things are different now, but there are things that I’m sure are the same too, and I’d like to talk about them for a bit.
You’re forgiven for not wanting to pay particular attention to what one of your pop’s old beer buddies has to say, and I understand. Maybe I won’t even say anything terribly useful or helpful, but then again, maybe I will.
There are many positives and negatives about the life that you are about to lead. Focusing on the positives for a bit, you’re about to leave home and learn a career that will help you become a functioning adult, enabling independence for the rest of your life. Some people go to trade school, some people go to college, and some people just tumble into the first thing that comes along. Kudos to you for taking a pro-active stance on what it is that you want to do with your life. However, the task ahead of you will be quite difficult at times. The armed forces in general, and probably the army in particular, are, as an institution, quite conservative. The integration of women into the military is actually a recent innovation, occurring only in the last 40 years or so, and in many ways the military is still adjusting. When I was in, they were still fiddling with women’s uniforms, trying to make them look military, yet feminine at the same time. Hopefully they’ve got that all worked out for you anyway!
Going into the dental hygiene field, you’ll get to spend your working days inside a nice clean environment, and you’ll meet a lot of people. Mostly mouths. The officers will be your friends, yet you’ll be an enlisted person. You’ll probably see very quickly the differences between these two classes of people. And classes they are. You’ll find that the officer class tends towards being white male, college educated, from a relatively wealthy background. Their off hours bonding rituals will remind you of fraternities in many ways. Honor, ritual, and tradition are very important to the officer class.
The enlisted world is quite different. Again, it will skew towards the male (it seems that women make up about 10% of the army’s ranks), but will tend to be browner, with about a third each black, white, and Hispanic. It’s not so much the color of the skin, but the socio-economic background of the person that makes a lot of difference. Maybe it was the job that I was in (and yours will be about as different as different can be!), but I worked with a lot of ignorant people in my time in service. If the officers were frat boys, the enlisted men (and probably women) lived more like in a lumber camp. Payday hit, and there was a lot of drinking and whoring. The policies of the army almost seemed to encourage such behavior. I spent a year in Korea, with some time patrolling along the DMZ between North and South. When I arrived, I noticed that I was being given a very conflicting message. There would be a lecture on the hazards of venereal disease, but at the end of the lecture, the prices were given for “short time” and “all night”, with admonitions not to increase the prices! I was kind of shocked. The message was “Don’t do this, and if you do, don’t make it more expensive for the rest of us!”
You’ll be dealing with these same ignorant mo-fos on a daily basis, so get used to it quick. Sexual harassment is rampant in today’s military, with some un-godly percentage of women reporting rape, near-rape, and crude behavior. I guarantee that you’ll have to deal with it at some time in your career, no matter how short…
The next couple of months will be the hardest and most challenging of your life. You’ll be treated like shit. Early rising, forced marches, exercise unto exhaustion, minute attention to the most trivial details. I remember having an inspection of a locker, and I was criticized for having a razor that had been used! So I got two razors, one for use, and another for display. You’ll become very acquainted with boot polish, because lord knows, you can’t be an effective fighting force unless your shoes are shiny! Be prepared for long hours of tedious boredom. Independent thought is NOT appreciated, so reading was frowned upon. I used to carry a copy of the New Testament, not because I was religious, but because it was a book that I could carry around in my shirt pocket and read to occupy my time. It was also a book that the authorities were reluctant to take away from me. A typical class would be taught in 1 hour blocks, 50 minutes for class, with a 10 minute break. Those breaks were so dull, that I often considered taking up smoking just so I’d have something to do during the time. I was so bored that I got real good at spitting to hit targets in the dust just for something to do. That kind of thing.
I was in the army for four years, mostly coinciding with the Carter administration, between 1976 and 1980. Luckily for me, there were precious few wars during that time. The absolute worst (and most traumatic) time of my life was 1978-1979 when I spent a year in Korea. I did not like it, and it warped me in ways that I still recognize today, 25 years later. My best year was just before that when I was at Ft. Lewis, when I got to sing in the soldier’s chorus that was part of the base band. (Did you know that the army has official bands? I sure didn’t. Nor did I know that they have to go to a navy music school, just like you’ll have to go to school to learn your skill.) During that year in the chorus, I got to meet several women in the army, and learned a bit about what they went through. It was a very lonely time of my life, and meeting these women was like drinking cool water from a desert oasis. Of course, THEY were kind of screwed up, just like I was. After all, we were in a very strange place, dressed in very strange clothes, doing very strange things. It was a very strange time all around…
I wish you the best of luck in your coming adventure. You will learn more and grow more and do more than you ever thought possible. How you come out of it depends a great deal on both what you bring to the situations you encounter, and how you handle them. Your experiences will be both good and bad. The best approach might be to hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst. With a philosophy like that, it’s hard to go wrong…
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