Monday, November 26, 2012

Infantry Vs Morality

So many times I've wanted to write about aspects of our military life...but bit my tongue for various reasons: not wanting to break the spousal creed, not wanting to potentially deter Tall D's growth in the profession should this blog ever be linked to one of us, not wanting to potentially hinder my own path in providing services to the military, and not wanting to generally "go off" when at times I believe most stuff is situational.

But here's the deal folks, I was a spoiled kid, the daughter of an Air Force officer, who was a quiet leader and who from what I've been told didn't necessarily push himself to move up the ranks. My take on our experiences in that military of old are skewed because I was a young child (Dad retired when I was 9) and each branch of service has its own personality. I truly have no knowledge of whether Dad developed an ego in the service. I do know that his life was his job and while he was a good father, he wasn't around much for my older siblings. He always worked either Christmas or Eve and granted the young enlisted guys leave to go home to their families. It was hard to get him to take family vacations and when we did, we usually left behind schedule. We went to church on Sundays and I remember Mom & Dad dressing up glamorously for military balls. I also remember when my parents stopped drinking to set the example for my brothers and the young airmen in the department. Dad was never one to really lose his temper, but there are stories of him litting into an airman that he learned was a wife abuser. Dad never went to war, so in that respect his experience is totally different as well, but I do remember the difficulty of his transition out of the service. After wearing the same uniform and having the same routine for 20+ years, he suddenly was left with a massively reduced income, no idea what to wear each day, and lots of idle time (& two kids left in the home). Additionally his military job (a meteorologist) doesn't exactly translate into a job outside of the service where limited positions exist...and especially when Dad is an extremely quiet man. Watching Dad through his whole experience, left me better able to connect and relate to many of the service members I helped with their transitions during my job in Louisiana.

On the flip side of that experience, what I can tell you is that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into when I agreed to marry an enlisted infantryman, as that world is a completely different world of its own and I believed Tall D when he told me the type of man he wanted to be in this life (a man not unlike my father: a leader, a believer of God, a heart for the world, steadfast, compassionate, but with a lil more fun & beer drinking thrown in...and honestly, a man who had set my first task to help him apply to become an officer, although that didn't end up being able to happen). My ignorance withheld the truth that that type of man doesn't survive the enlisted infantry due to the culture of the institution. I should have known something was askew when my uncle scoffed that I was going to run off with an infantryman....

And here's where I'm going to slightly spout off, because I joke but I'm also dead serious that routine weekend beer pong was probably the first indication that my marriage would be doomed. The infantry culture is one that promotes the atmosphere, maturity, egotisticalness, and moral standards of a frat house. It's definitely understandable in some do you send men (& some women) off to combat, training them to kill others without much regard, and yet expect them to return home and act like the most upright of moral citizens? How do you deal with the realities of a job many love to hate AND hate to love but expect them not to want to drink, drug, smoke or sex away frustrations and sorrows? Especially in a culture that tends to see emotions and sharing as a sign of weakness? Where counseling still contains a massive stigma and where most will admit to some of the symptoms of PTSD & TBI, but its rare to have one openly admit that they actually will classify as having the diagnosis. And the reality is that those who don't conform to the behaviors of the set (or who attempt to uphold the truth of the situation) are usually hazed or thought of as the weaker set. I can't tell you the countless times I individually had a soldier share with me that they didn't like someone's choices or lifestyle behaviors or share with me what they really were struggling with, but rarely will one stand out against the grain to stand up for what they truly believe in or what they are going through. And this is an example of why: The one time I actually witnessed a soldier finally share a segment of a nighttime dream (PTSD related) that he'd been struggling with, the entire kitchen went quiet and his fellow soldiers all changed the subject and left him hanging. How do you break the cycle when the entire institution wants to live in denial? And what do you do when even leadership tends to turn their head until they have to deal with the more negative outcomes?

In reality, as negative of an influence that the infantry culture can be, it seems like the transition out of that culture is even harder on the soldier. One of the many things that the military has going for it is it's sense of camaraderie  The soldiers feel it when they work, sleep, party, etc with the same set of individuals day in and day out. They have to overlook any differences, because it doesn't matter when your life depends on the other in order to survive. The wives experience it also because generally most are going through the same thing. You understand that you're not the same individually, but you're going through the same experience and dealing with the same fears & concerns. I've never seen another setting that has the same sense of support, understanding, or camaraderie because it's rare that other occupations operate the same. Last year, in my veteran support job and in the conversations I had with several of Tall D's fellow veteran students, this need for camaraderie was continually brought to the table. And last year, I somehow attracted and developed a mini support group of about 12 diverse former soldiers from various service areas and branches, who were able to openly share their experiences, support each other, and find a similar type of camaraderie---that whole experience is limited however and only opens for those who are willing to seek it. Additionally, some veterans bond together in order to continue the moral chaos that existed while they were IN service, and I'm not so sure how well that benefits them in pursuing new goals outside of the service. The transition itself is usually a period of being lost and of needing assistance, but the soldier/veteran has to be willing to tap into the resources that exist.

There are other issues with the culture as well. It seems that many of the soldiers who choose or are put into the enlisted infantry ranks have had challenging pasts (Tall D tells me that this is historically the case as well), which might mean that the chaos that gets created in off hours is just a repetition of the life lived prior to joining the ranks. And generally speaking as individuals "mature" into adults, these same patterns exist due to the continuation of the infantry culture. Additionally, historically enlisted ranks have been paid at a rate that would allow for the survival of one individual (the soldier) and not for a family---in the past it was thought that the lower ranks would not have families (which isn't the case as much these days). Another major issue that I noticed while working in an office responsible for helping soldiers transition out of the service is that in times of downsizing, the military will cut individuals for various behavioral infractions that it is more than willing to overlook during other periods of need. Frequently these soldiers aren't granted the ample time needed in order to transition successfully. How do you prepare for separation, relocation, an identity shift, family needs, and create a new plan if you have just a few weeks (if that) until you're removed from your job? And if you have no family of origin to fall back on, then what do you do? And even for those who do have ample time to transition, why find a minimum wage job if unemployment pays you more than what you can find to do for a new job? Is it any wonder our veterans are struggling with employment, with sustaining, with accessing appropriate resources? (There's more to all this story, this is just a part of it.)

Honestly all this has been forefront on my brain for months (obviously, I lived and breathed veterans for an entire year both at home and at work last year). I'm not going to lie, I've been struggling the last few months not to be slightly disenfranchised with the whole infantry lot. Don't get me wrong, I most definitely appreciate the reality that these individuals face and the choice they make to put their lives on the line for each other and for the nation. What I'm not so thrilled with is the choices many of them make and the mentality that can be held outside of the job. Especially by those who want to head into leadership...and there's where part of all of this comes from lately. One of the fellow guys in our unit who was one of the lowest moral individuals I've ever met and who in a lot of ways Tall D started to be more and more like over time, has now announced that he wants to become an officer. Tall D and I have debated this announcement more than once in the last week, as he fully supports this choice (arguing that infantry officers need not be morally sound if they lead well in battle) and I am adamantly opposed to it (as I believe that officers are to LEAD by example both in combat and outside of work). I'm seriously so opposed that I wish I could write a letter against this individual's application packet. Why should we continue to put individuals into positions of leadership just because they're good in battle? And what makes a true leader? (Interestingly, my buddy I breakfasted with on Friday, also was enlisted infantry who became an officer...and who offered my same opinion when questioned on all of this.)

And here goes, the other reason all of this has been on my mind is because sometimes, I feel like an infantry wife/milspouse failure. I'm opposed to divorce. I'm opposed to milspouses who walk away from their soldier/veteran when the sol/vet needs her/him most. I remember adamantly telling my hesitant family that yes, there would be problems, but Tall D and I would see them through. And in reality my rose colored glasses blinded me from many of the truly underlying issues that did exist, until the reality was shared after it was basically too late. (Ironic that what we're good at professionally, isn't always what we're good at personally...isn't that the truth.) I recognize that not all of Tall D's and my problems stemmed from the military (as we obviously have fundamental differences in how we were raised and how we look at the world, plus our spiritual lives dwindled and I became that woman who banked my happiness on his happiness which only further made him unhappy because I was unhappy) and I recognize that I would tell any other milspouse that if he's not willing to get help or change his behaviors, then there isn't anything you can do but to move forward yourself.....but it still feels crappy to be doing it. I might be assertive and opinionated, but underneath, I've always been a caring and bleeding heart. While Tall D was never willing to tap into the resources as he had declared that he would, it doesn't mean that I've given up hope that he might and it doesn't mean that I'm willing to totally walk away from being his friend. Because as cheesy as it sounds, there's one infantry value that I do truly believe in...and that's the reality that you don't leave your buddies behind....

Disclaimer: I also must say that not EVERY infantryman is affected this way. And obviously from recent events (General Petrayus & others), every officer or individual (both inside and outside the military) has the potential to be morally corrupt as well. We all struggle, I get this. I wouldn't say that the beginning of my separation was the greatest show of my moral character either, I'm just as capable of having a 2X4 in my eye while pointing out the flaws of systems and others. And I don't know that the system can be fixed honestly, but I think it's a shame that it continues to exist as it does.

Updated after two hours of raking: The more I thought about it the more I realized that any choices that I still wonder at their morality or whether they were the best decisions I've made occurred while being surrounded by the military culture. Technically the choices were all within appropriate professional or societal guidelines these day but they definitely weren't the greatest representations of my values. And then I wondered why it might be that we're more likely to make those types of choices dependent upon the individuals we're routinely interacting with....Do we make questionable choices when our choices seem pale by comparison to those around us? And if that's the case....then that might explain a lot....and only furthers my belief that strong moral leadership is part of the key.

What do you think? What makes a leader? Is morality part of it? Or is that now an old-fashioned notion?


  1. Don't feel like a failure. People grow, change and adapt and we only have one life - we need to be happy, or as happy as we can be. If walking away from an unhappy life is what you need to do to make that happen than that's what you need to do. I can't even imagine how difficult it would be to be a military spouse. Thinking of you! XO

  2. I would like to say that morality is important in a leader, but unfortunately I don't think that is the case these days. I have a lot of thoughts on this, but can't seem to put them down in a comment right now! I hope to be back with something more coherent :-)

  3. I don't have any experience with the military life but when my family lived abroad we knew some embassy folks and they were an interesting lot. Very close (almost incestuously so), drank a LOT, very insular. They wanted to live just as they did in America (with imported American cars, generators, American products from the commissary, etc) and never step outside their embassy bubble. The whole experience was very strange, and not something I want to repeat. I'm not saying this as a judgment necessarily, just an observation of how people who all want to live similarly and cling to similar ideals can end up as an island in a sea of difference.