Over seven years ago, just before my 18th birthday, I made a huge decision that affected the course of the next 9 years of my life. I received an acceptance letter from West Point, and just before I could legally vote or buy cigarettes, long before I could legally drink or go to a night club, I decided to attend. In doing so, I committed myself to 4 years at a military institution where not only would I attend college, but I would spend my summers conducting battle drills and learning how to patrol villages, my school years wearing a uniform and taking a class that taught me how to accurately depict a complex infantry movement on paper with symbols (which has OBVIOUSLY been extremely helpful since then) and waiting for next semester when I could FINALLY do that thing I couldn’t the semester before (like not having to greet every upperclassman that walked by, wearing civilian clothes after hours, having a small fridge in my room, or getting to have beer in my room… oh wait, that last one never happened- someone capable of running down a live fire range shooting at targets with real bullets while someone runs right next to them is NOT mature enough to have a beer before bed). With that four year commitment came another; the promise to serve as an Army Officer for 5 years on active duty, and 3 extra in the reserves.
What were most of my peers doing on the dawn of their high school graduations and that following summer? Deciding which epic beach trip they’d go on based on how easy it was to drink underage. Deciding if they wanted to go to the party school or the one with a good reputation. Deciding if they even wanted to go to college at all. As my friends geared up for college to begin- picking out bed sheets and room decorations, sending in their roommate criteria, participating in mixers at the sorority or fraternity they wanted to join- I was sweating it out in the woods of upstate New York, wearing a uniform and gear too big for me, learning how to use a weapon ultimately intended to kill someone, figuring out how to wrap my poncho and liner just right for maximum dryness and warmth during overnight security perimeters, checking my half-shelter mate for ticks, figuring out the best tactics for getting that mirror shine on my low quarters. When my friends still had plenty of time to figure out what they wanted to do with their futures, I’d already locked in mine for the next eight and a half years.
Obviously I wasn’t the only one. I was one of about 1,500. In our rare spare time, my roommate and I were figuring out the best way to tape down the perfectly folded underwear and t-shirt in our inspection drawer so they wouldn’t slide around when someone opened it. We were helping each other memorize “knowledge” from our handbooks and scraping the factory coating off our hat brass to make it shinier. Amongst our squads, we were learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and pulling each other through because success meant less yelling, less push-ups, and maybe finally a chance to eat dessert.
West Point is it’s own beast that is really difficult to understand unless you’ve been through it. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why the “Old Grad” community is so strong. But beyond all the grandiose ideals that it inspires, there is one fundamental concept that is easy to overlook: Young adults- kids, really, who are still fighting off the remains of pubescent acne and raging hormones- are committing themselves to a life they know little or nothing of, for at least the remainder of their sub-30′s life.
Sure, there is an opportunity to bail. Before the first day of junior year, you are given the option to stay or go. You’ve been exposed to West Point (but not the Army per se, mind you) for two years so you at least know kinda what you’re getting into. Except not really. As I’ve discovered, West Point did very little to prepare me for what real life in the Army would be like, not tactically or technically, but as a member of a family and as a person with other life goals- basically, a person with ambitions of actually having a life. Honestly, commitment night snuck up on me and I found myself trapped. I wanted to go but I had no backup plan. And besides, I didn’t want to be a quitter, which seems like an awfully dumb reason for once, in hindsight. Just two more years, I thought, and it’ll be better.
I was wrong. Sure, now I enjoy luxuries like not living in the barracks, being able to get married, and having a dog. But some things haven’t changed, like not having my weekends to myself, being told exactly what I have to wear, even if it makes no sense, and spending copious amounts of time away from the guy that I happen to really enjoy spending time with. My point is that my peers and I were asked to make a very serious decision at a very young age, with relatively extremely little information to go on. It’s slowly becoming increasingly obvious to me that, despite what I though, I am not the only one who’s realizing that the decision they made was the wrong one.
Growing up, I danced ballet for about 15 years. Before my acceptance to West Point, I was on track to attend a fairly prestigious public college and study dance, at least as a minor. This would have allowed me to continue my path as a dancer and given me many more years of doing something that I loved immensely: performing on stage. Last night, after almost 6 years out of the saddle, I took a ballet class and realized that my still-alive dream of performing again will probably never be achieved. I’m too old (seriously) and too far removed. As the realization struck me, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that this is not where I wanted my life to be at this point. I’m not old, but I’m sure not getting younger. There is much that I love about my life. I love that I’ve found a good man to enjoy life with and that I live comfortably and have nice things. I don’t love that I come home from work every day exhausted, defeated, and unhappy. I don’t love that it wasn’t until recently that I realized that there are people out there who actually like their jobs.
I know there is still plenty of time for me to do most of what I want to with my life. In two years, three months, and twenty nine days, I’ll be free to pursue those goals. But I don’t like that so much of my young life has been wasted on something that I committed myself to six and a half years ago, before I even knew better. It causes me to wonder if kids should be forced to make such a choice at such an age. I don’t think for a minute that West Point will make any big changes to the way it operates. A ship that big, that’s been fueled by tradition for that long, doesn’t change direction just because a breeze hits the stern. But maybe it’s not West Point that needs to change. Maybe it’s the Army. I don’t know. If I had the answers, I probably wouldn’t be sitting behind a desk in the back corner of a staff office at a post in Alaska.
What I do know is that there’s an underlying feeling of dissatisfaction that seems to affect more of my peers than is immediately obvious. That the current, outdated system of promotions, evaluations, and procedures (or lack thereof) for assigning jobs is a quick and easy answer to a much more complex problem. That the potential I know I have goes untapped as I spend hours a day copy and pasting word documents and catching up on theoatmeal.com comics (how I did not have this website in my life sooner, I do not know…. AH! NO! See?!?! My poor brian is wasting away).
Of course, Plebe Fasolak did not know all of this as she scrapped old floor wax off the walls of the barracks halls with a Gerber and inhaled fumes from super concentrated all-purpose cleaner that her classmate did not know was super concentrated and incidentally chemically melted all the wax off the actual floor with. Otherwise, she may not have found herself in that exact situation in the first place.