Who Says The Elite Aren't Fit To Serve?

By John Renehan
Sunday, March 16, 2008

"J ohn!" called my brother from the living room. "Are you coming out or not?"

He and my sister-in-law were eager to start the movie we had rented, but I, lurking in my parents' darkened study, waved them off. While they and the rest of the family were distracted, I had private business to attend to on the home computer.

It was December 2001, and I was a New Yorker.

Of the innumerable moments of surreality accompanying Sept. 11, 2001's fracturing of our daily lives -- fighter jets circling the city, a pillar of ash rising to the stratosphere, New Yorkers engaging in spontaneous conversation -- here was a doozy: finding myself at my parents' in California for Christmas, nosing furtively about the Internet for information on getting into the U.S. Army's Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Benning, Ga.

It seemed on the one hand an entirely reasonable thing to be doing, and on the other an outrageous one. Reasonable because the military would probably need the services of motivated citizens in the near future, and I was a motivated citizen. Outrageous because I, a lawyer with no military experience, knew virtually no one from my own background -- comfortable childhood, good education, white-collar career -- who had ever been in the service.

Nor had my prior life experience reduced my ignorance of things military. After high school, the students who joined up were the ones I would have expected to do so -- rough dudes with pickup trucks who shot guns on the weekends. In college, I was barely aware of ROTC, except that I would occasionally see groups of cadets jogging in formation across campus and think that they must feel so awkward. In law school, I did sign up for "informational interviews" -- they didn't dare hope for actual employment interviews at Berkeley -- with some of the services' JAG Corps representatives and was later informed by a fellow student that I was the only bona fide interviewee. The other students on the roster intended to read statements of protest regarding the Defense Department's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Such experiences over a young lifetime coalesce into prejudice: People like us -- the privileged, frankly -- don't join the military. We wonder about the military world occasionally, and a few of us may actually grow curious enough to investigate serving in a halting sort of way -- lurking in our parents' studies at Christmastime, perhaps -- but that's about as far as it generally goes, or ought to go, we think. The armed forces are for another sort of American. Right?

It took me most of a year to get serious and walk a block from my apartment to the recruiting center at 22nd Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, and another year to slog my way through the Army's truly dysfunctional officer recruiting process. During this period I harangued myself continually: How does one train physically for this? Will my 29-year-old body hold up? Am I mentally resilient enough to handle the "suck factor" of an intense program such as OCS? Am I personally forceful enough to be a leader in the military?

In short, can I hack it?

Which is exactly the question that ought to occur to a rational person in my circumstances. But I think that having no one close to me -- no one I considered like me -- against whose military experiences I could gauge my own potential, caused me greater doubt and anxiety than would have been the case otherwise.

Today I am a first lieutenant with a platoon of 50 men. As of October, I have been in the service for three years, and I have spent the past year in Iraq. I believe I've been as successful as any of the other junior officers in my unit.

Which ought to surprise me, given my prior prejudices about what sort of person is fit for the military. I was never the captain of the team. In Little League, as George F. Will once confessed, I prayed to walk. I "played guns" as a child but never owned one as an adult. I enjoyed camping and hiking but was hardly a mountaineer. I never took part in an Ironman competition. My pastimes and recreations, in short, little resembled what I imagined to be the off-time activities of the mud-smeared troopers I'd seen slogging through the woods on the Learning Channel.

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