Reflections of a Career Past (or My Adult Life Until Now)

Michael's Last Uniform Picture

Last picture taken in service uniform, April 2014

One month ago yesterday, I left a military installation for what will be the last time as a member of the United States Army. Though in all technicality I'm still a servicemember for another week, I can't help but to reflect on what will equate to 9 years and 19 days of active federal service and all the highs and lows that came with it. It's also a perfectly timed reflection as the Army itself celebrates its birthday on June 14.

Leaving Home

I made a rather quick transition from high school senior to "Soldier in Training"; I received my high school diploma on May 21, 2005, and on May 31, I was being dropped off at my recruiting station to be taken to the Tampa MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) and begin my journey. In those days that I had to transition, I spent a lot of time looking forward to what was coming, getting eager to go out and do something in the world, and saying goodbye to friends I had made over the years. And though more often than not, friends will always say "never say goodbye", there are always people you fall out of touch with and never see or speak to again for various reasons, so there were a few goodbyes in there. Memorial Day that year was ironically the day before reporting to the recruiting station, and I spent it the only way I knew that felt appropriate; visiting those close to me, both friends and family, one last time for my final laughs and shared meals (funny how a lot of parents wanted to fatten me up; I was rather small back then). I left home with nothing more than the clothes on my back and the paperwork I was required to carry; everything that had once been a convenience or comfort item for me (electronics, living 15 minutes from Siesta Key beach, friends to call on at all hours, next to no worries because I was still living under dad's roof) was now a memory, the only thing in front of me at that point was camouflage uniforms, waxed boots, and Drill Sergeants with vocabularies so colorful they would make your granny blush.

Initial Entry Training

It might surprise some to hear, but I was a rather cocky kid. I was a member of my high school's JROTC program (and truthfully, it was practically what kept my lazy behind in school), and I had a knack for watching what was going on around me and picking up on things rather quickly. So, I was a little arrogant when I started training thinking I was better than I was, but there's not really much wrong with having a confident attitude ;-)

Basic Training

I remember finding basic training easier than I expected; in part because I was somewhat familiar with some things being taught thanks to my time in the JROTC program, in part because I had listened to my family's stories from years before and mildly expected a Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket reception. The Drill Sergeants were surely tough on us, but I hadn't expected them to teach us in the ways they did or provide the motivation that they did; they truly demonstrated why they were the top Noncommissioned Officers in their fields. I remember keeping to myself more often than not while I was there too; I've never been a big social butterfly, and I knew I wouldn't see 99% of those I was in basic training with again, so I saw no need to get on anything more than professional working terms with pretty much everyone. That decision did come back to bite me the one time I could have used a shoulder to cry on though. I was near the end of basic training when the first anniversary of my mom's passing came up, and needless to say I was a wreck that day with nobody to turn to. Thankfully, that was a slow training day for my platoon and I was able to suck it up long enough to get through the day.

I did pick up two hugely beneficial lessons while at Fort Jackson though:

  1. The bonds you form in the military are indeed as close as those with your own family
  2. A shell casing coming out of a M16A2 rifle and landing on the base of your neck is not comfortable at all

Advanced Training

After 10 exciting weeks of basic training and earning the title "Soldier", it was time to go off for another 5 months of training to learn all the IT skills the Army thought would be necessary to be successful in my job. One of the first things I remember hearing at the schoolhouse after arriving at Fort Gordon was that those who knew next to nothing about computers would be the ones who did best in the class, and the instructors were right about that. I grew up surrounded by computers and spent more time messing with them than a high school kid in 2002 probably should have, but it served me well I think in finding something I was good at and enjoyed. Once again, I found the training rather easy and boring (I don't sit still well, even worse in a learning environment). Overall it was good training though and it helped me lay some groundwork for the plans I had for my military career. I had finally started to take focus on my own professional growth; how to advance as a Soldier, training that would be useful in "the real world", and all in all wanting to get as much out of the service as I was willing to put in.

Going Overseas - South Korea

Something we heard constantly while in training was to expect to go overseas very soon after finishing training. It was 2005, the deployments were rather rapid, and deploying units always seem to have open slots on their manning rosters as they ramp up to ship out. Well, it was no different for me; I learned early in my advanced training that I'd be going overseas as soon as I was finished being taught what I needed to know. But it wasn't to join in the war efforts directly; rather I was stationed at Camp Casey, South Korea. And in typical Army fashion, though they had trained me to do my job, none of what I left the schoolhouse knowing really applied that well to what I was doing in this assignment. Nonetheless, I did what I could to pick up on the job as quick as possible, learned some other valuable life skills while there (and still hear Mr. Paek screaming in my head whenever I'm driving a manual shift vehicle), and got the swift kick to my fourth point of contact that I needed to get my cockiness in control. That first time being overseas, being away from home as I was, it really was a unique experience and helped give me the appreciation I have for traveling today. And a taste for soju... Ya, I miss that...

Return to Fort Gordon

My running joke shortly after getting back to Fort Gordon and getting to work with my new unit was that I took the scenic route to get from my schoolhouse to the building I was working in across the street; 13 months to cross a street!? OK, enough with the bad joke...

The three years I was stationed here were borderline the most fun years of my career and the most painful, literally. On the fun side of things, I was kept busy by being a "board whore" and competing in all sorts of "Soldier of the XXX" boards and competitions. Being selected as Soldier of the Quarter for the installation is easily one of my top achievements in my career, and not something that comes about easily. There's a lot of hours spent studying material for these various competitions in addition to the every day duties I was performing. Also in the period I was competing at these boards, I was selected for the promotion board by my boss and on the month of that board appearance and yes selection, began a nearly three year period of developing into a noncommissioned officer myself and waiting for the system to finally be in my favor and be selected for promotion to Sergeant. I had a lot of good people around me letting me make mistakes and learn without holding my hand, and I really think it made me a better person as I wasn't afraid to take chances because I had their confidence.

I mentioned my time here as painful, and it was. It was while I was stationed here that I started having all of the medical issues that would eventually lead to my discharge. It was a rather frustrating time too because I could still do some of the things the doctors advised me to take it easy about doing and there were few answers as to why I was feeling the way I was. Even today, I don't think there is a real diagnosis for any of my knee, ankle, or back issues in my medical records but there sure are a lot of recorded visits, tests, and prescriptions for all of them (including one note I found mentioning a possibly partially torn achilles tendon that was never followed up on). It still frustrates me how I don't know what exactly the problem is so I can try to fix it, but at least I know the symptoms and am trying to learn how to take it easy.

Heading Back Overseas - Germany & Afghanistan

Leaving Fort Gordon, I was excited to head back overseas, this time to a European country. I also knew leaving that my unit was slated to deploy after my arrival, so after five and a half years in the service, my number had finally been called to do my time in the sandbox. The assignment was probably my hardest; I had fallen in on equipment I was unfamiliar with, was in charge of its deployment and maintenance, and now directly responsible for the welfare and professional development of junior Soldiers. With the fast paced tempo of the unit, I didn't have much of a choice but to hit the ground running, even though medically there were days where I could barely walk. Once again, I learned to refine my skills and with the help of those I was working with, managed to figure things out. My patience had finally paid off here too as in December 2010, I was finally promoted to Sergeant and now was being paid for the level I was arguably working at for the better part of a year and a half.

Deployment time came rather quickly it felt like, and in a bit of a mind game, I was onboard a C17 flying into Afghanistan on the first anniversary of my old roommate, SGT Adam Ray, being killed in action in the same country. Upon arrival, my team was quickly at work getting our communications equipment consolidated and preparing it to be placed in service on the network, then working on getting our work space established. It was a busy several weeks for us getting things situated, most of us on our first deployment, and many of us also busy with things like school (it was in Afghanistan I basically finished my Associates Degree). As with any life experience, there are days in that 10 month experience I'd rather drink out of my memories and there are days that were pretty decent there (I did learn the little bit of Afghan cuisine I was introduced to isn't all that bad), but I was definitely happy to get back to Germany and finally relax (well, as much as I would; I did mention I don't sit still well, right?).

One thing I am thankful for is finding Joomla while I was in Germany. At a time where I was finally starting to accept my military career wasn't going to go the places I wanted it to, I found something to distract me from that routine and set me up for a great future. I'm still looking forward to finally getting back over there for a bit too; 16 months actually in Germany just wasn't enough to really get to take in the sights and sounds, or see all the cool stuff in Europe that people love baiting tourists into.

Final Move - Fort Campbell

Leaving a deactivating combat unit in Germany, I was rather lucky to be assigned to a brigade with a storied history (506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, ever seen Band of Brothers?) in a division with its own ego (101st Airborne Division). I was back in a role that I was all too familiar with there, helpdesk support and having to deal with people on a day to day basis. To say my time at Campbell was enjoyable would be a flat out lie; I had a lot of people issues for a while and didn't really feel like I fit in to the scheme of things (some would probably say I made it difficult to be around me, I won't deny it). I was again fully expecting to be in Afghanistan again, but was surprised when I was told I would be staying in the rear. I legitimately had mixed feelings about not deploying with my unit; on the one hand, I already didn't get along well with most of those I worked with so the deployment would have probably made things worse, but on the other hand I had the unresolved medical issues to deal with and staying back gave me time to get things situated. It ended up being a blessing in disguise as I did get things treated and the doctors finally reached the point with me where they found me no longer medically fit for service. At long last, I was finally being let go.

In the days following the separation process starting, the one question people kept asking me was "how do you feel about it?", and it got annoying somewhat quickly answering it repeatedly. Going into it, I knew three things that would help make accepting the transition easier (I wasn't exactly leaving on my own terms; that young and arrogant Private that joined the Army in 2005 had intended on a 20-year career in the service):

  1. I knew I was on borrowed time - Since the middle of 2009, my health had been borderline at the point where I could have been separated at any time, being able to get another nearly 5 years out of my body and stay in the Army as long as I did and be able to accomplish what I did is a feeling that cannot be taken away from me, even knowing it probably shouldn't have happened.
  2. I knew I had a career lined up - For the last couple of years, I'd tossed the idea around of doing some freelance work and talking with some people it was clear that as soon as I had an availability date, there would be a job out there for me. A fear a lot of Soldiers have getting out is finding a job, matching their pay and benefits, and being able to support themselves and their families; though I didn't have a sure thing until I was already on transition leave, I knew I'd be OK in that area.
  3. I still have (some) youth on my side - Three years ago in Afghanistan, I was able to get my body healthy enough to do a lot of things that a lot of people had told me I wouldn't be able to do. I was running consistently, dropping borderline excess weight, and arguably the healthiest I had been in years. Much of that had to do with lifestyle decisions while deployed that I couldn't have made while not deployed in the Army, including not exercising at all for nearly 3 months and letting my injuries naturally rest. I'm 27-years-old today; though I joke I've got the body of a 47-year-old at times, I also know (or am stubborn enough, you choose) that with some rest and actually taking care of myself, I can have a healthy life and not be drug down by the injuries that shortened my military career.

Military Recognitions

Several weeks ago when I was posting about being on my way out or receiving my last award, a few people had asked about my awards and recognitions. I had mentioned that I'd talk about it when I got around to writing this post, intending to write it actually in those first couple of days after I had left Fort Campbell. With that said, this should sum things up:

  • 3 Commendation Medals
  • 7 Achievement Medals
  • Medals recognizing service in Afghanistan and South Korea and serving during the "Global War on Terrorism"
  • US Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon Service Member of the Quarter - 1st Quarter, FY 2008
  • Nominated for the U.S. Army Intelligence & Security Command Quality/Customer Service Award - 2010

My Future

There's a lot about my future that's uncertain. More uncertain than I'm used to anyways. With the military, there's always a structure in place that partially defines what will happen with your career and when. I don't have that anymore, I just have my own desires to follow and hopefully I manage to get things right. I've got a job lined up and actually started last week and I'm slowly starting to establish a home and a routine that doesn't involve 5 AM wakeups daily and forced exercise that was just hurting my body. For the first time in years, I've actually been happy to be working and not just going through the motions or griping about what I'm doing. I think I'm finally getting past the original culture shock of transitioning from an environment I was comfortable with (even if I wasn't all that happy) into something that's foreign to me, and I have a lot of hope for my future and what it brings.