I joined the National Guard for a variety of reasons. Money for college, the opportunity to better myself, and fear of the impending end of my teenage years with nothing to show for them being among the top few. Now, as someone who identifies as an intellectually curious, academically ambitious, bohemian liberal, the Army wasn’t the most obvious of ways to spend the next 6 years of my life. I mean, what about hanging out in Manhattan coffee shops discussing the negative aspects of third-wave feminism with bearded hipsters and devoting energy to protesting the horrors of factory farming and Big Pharma? But I enlisted, and here are the 8 most surprising things I learned this summer:
1. Communal Showering Doesn’t have to Suck
Alright, I admit for the first few days, the idea of washing myself in front of a bunch of naked strangers didn’t appeal to me, to put it mildly. In more honest terms, it wasn’t gonna happen. I actually waited until all the other girls had showered and gone to sleep and then snuck into the bathroom to shower in privacy like a decent person. I couldn’t maintain that routine though with the 4 hours of sleep per night, so eventually I had to suck it up and strip down and wash like everyone else. And it wasn’t that bad! I mean sure, there was the occasionally awkward bump of naked thighs as someone bent over to get something on the bench (space was limited, to say the least), and there was that one girl who insisted on casually inserting tampons and then handing me my bottle of shampoo, but all-in-all, I made it through the experience with little to no trauma.
2. Seemingly Fundamental Standards for Food Quality are Actually Relative
You may not realize or believe it now, but if you are hungry enough, you will eat whatever you have at hand. In the past 11 weeks, I have eaten pre-packaged, cold, congealed mystery meat patties with chunky multi-colored liquids dripping off of them, food that fell onto the forest ground, and stale candy crumbs that I found in my wallet after 8 weeks. Once, I even saw a fly in my juice, and I just picked it out and resumed drinking.
3. You find out who your True Friends Are
You’d be surprised how many people had girlfriends, or boyfriends, or even fiancés who sent a letter breaking up with them while they were at Basic. You’d be even more surprised about how many significant others didn’t write at all. It takes 5 minutes to sit down and write someone a letter; a letter that would mean a whole lot to someone who’s completely cut off from all modern forms of communication. Yet a lot of people found themselves “too busy” to do it. And all you ASSHOLE Ex’s who wrote “Dear John” letters to people at Basic Training need to go take a long, hard look in the mirror; and think about what kind of person you are. I’ve seen how that shit hurts, man.
4. You Learn a Lot About Race
Growing up in urban Eastern PA, I was perhaps a bit more sheltered to racism than I realized. But this summer I learned about so many diverse racial experiences. I honestly had no idea how much prejudice can affect day-to-day life in the South for an African-American. I mean some of the girls told me of experiences that I’ve read about in history books: people laying money on the counter because they didn’t want to touch the black cashier’s hands, not being able to date white guys because both families would be against it, witnessing white supremacy protests. I also had no idea how tribal people can be.
As a multiracial person raised by a mom who doesn’t even resemble me, I don’t particularly gravitate to any race, the differences, if any, seem peripheral to me. But, when a group of people that know nothing about each other is forced to live together for two and a half months, you start to see a lot of all-white, and all-black, and all-Latino cliques. And it wasn’t just the Southern Black/White dynamic and the ethnic cliques that shocked me. The conversations with a native Chinese girl about racial relations in her homeland were eye-opening. Several Texan Mexican-Americans opened up to me about their experiences with prejudice living so close to the border. And I met a Filipino-American who exclusively dated blond white guys!
5. Friendship is Possible with Almost Anyone
My best friends at Basic included a 23 year-old Kentucky native who played Division I basketball, a Mexican Ecuadorian teenager who proudly “lived in the ghetto” and whose father is being deported, a 29 year-old Vietnamese father and martial arts instructor, a brilliant self-proclaimed “Navy brat” who is wanted by The Citadel and the Naval Academy for her intelligence, and a fellow Biracial girl who was a ridiculous flirt, but through her colorful stories about her life opened my eyes to the experiences of mixed people in the South.
6. You’ve Pretty Much Joined a Huge Fraternity
You are basically now part of one of the most diverse and surprisingly, inclusive, clubs in America. Because of the myriad common experiences shared among members of the military, mutual understanding is very easy to achieve quickly with soldiers you’ve just met. Just walk up to someone in ACUs (Army Combat Uniform) and ask them about the first time they were smoked (punished with physical exercise i.e. push ups), and you’ve started a conversation that can last hours. Moreover, you know the soldiers in your unit may end up risking their lives for you, and they know that you may one day give your life trying to protect them; it’s difficult to find a connection elsewhere that can beat that.
7. You Grow Up
After training, you go back home to your friends at high school, college, or work, and everything goes back to normal. Except every so often, while you’re in the middle of a conversation about how “hard” life is as a high school student or why so and so’s Mom needs to go screw herself because she won’t let her kid pierce his face in ten places, you just think, “what the fuck, why do I hang out with these people?” Now personally, being trapped 8 hours a day with a bunch of ignorant *ahem* developing teenagers obsessed with their libidos, I already felt that way. But if you have any friends in the military, I guarantee they have questioned your friendship post-Basic at least once. I MEAN SERIOUSLY MORGAN, I SWEAR I LOVE YOU, BUT YOU NEED TO QUIT IT WITH YOUR TAYLOR SWIFT STYLE, CONSTANT FLOW OF GUYS, LOVE-LIFE! We still love you guys, we just have something that sets us apart now. Honestly, coming home, you do experience a sort of mini culture shock. The “soldierization process” just fundamentally changes you as an individual.
8. Never Underestimate your Potential to get Stronger
There were girls who went to Basic unable to do 3 pushups and graduated doing 30. I witnessed female soldiers wheezing after running a quarter of a mile, and then watched them graduate able to run two miles in less than 18 minutes. I myself had never ran more than a mile before Basic Training. As I finished that last 3.5 mile group run, there were tears of joy running down my face. These last few months I pushed myself harder and farther than I ever had before. And the realization that you’ve progressed, that you’ve come so far, is one of the best feelings life has to offer. I guarantee you’re so much stronger than you think.
All this being said, I wouldn’t trade the best and worst summer of my life for anything.