Upon the Dotted Line

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            I sat across from a man whose features, except for his balding hairline, has been erased by time. My eyes had already grown weary from speed reading and initialing the novel length form. I had given up processing most of the information by page five. My eyes focused in on the scroll bar, this page would be the last one. I rallied my spirits and brought my cramped left hand up to the electronic signature device. I toiled to make my full name legible.

            “Welcome to the United States Army,” the man said while he extended his muscular, right hand in congratulations.

            I don’t know what spurred me to this moment. I have always known there to be a familial history of serving in the Armed Forces. Before I came into this world, my father had been serving in the Army Reserve. I have the faintest of memories of him and mother discussing deployments during the Gulf War. My brother and I, then both 5 and 3 years old, had little idea what war entailed. While sections of father’s unit were deployed, my brother and I found ourselves spared from separation which thousands of other military families had to endure.

            There are certain privileges from being the captain’s kids. I remember a few afternoons riding in a Humvee, speeding and bouncing down country roads between Fort Calhoun and Blair, Nebraska. Whenever we would visit drills, a certain member whose named has faded from memory, would always help my brother and play hide and go seek. Dad would always have a mini-heart attack whenever he returned to find us missing. Father once walked by Robert and me as we sat on-top of large, blue colored paper shredding bins. He turned around as soon as we busted out laughing.

            Every year we spent a week of summer either in Wichita, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri attending conferences. While the officers were confined to meetings, families were treated to local attractions and other activities. The most exciting moment would have to be patiently waiting in line to ride the wooden roller coaster called the Timberwolf at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. As we crept closer and closer, the thrill of the adventure became ruined when sirens began blaring and the park’s public announcement system declared all rides were closed because of severe weather. The most embarrassing moment came when all the officers and families were gathered at an introductory welcoming. The commanding general stood at the podium and announced my birthday.

            There is an unspoken tradition within the family of service to one’s country. There are cousins from both sides of the family who took the plunge and signed their names across their own dotted lines. Father has never pressured my brother, myself or any other family member to serve. When I signed the dotted line on that cold winter day, no one in my family watched as I swore an oath to defend and protect the United States. After I returned home from a day of medical examinations and document signing, I notified my parents of my enlistment.

            Without a second thought, they both expressed support in my decision and what brought about the action. It is difficult to tell someone, especially a person you love, you don’t have a solid answer. The best conclusion may originate from the year prior when my father had triple bypass surgery. I have experienced tragedy but nothing had resonated like knowing my father to be under the knife. I crawled my way into work and lost composure and flamed into tears while submitting a time-off notification. A good friend and I spent the day at entertainment centers and drinking in the evening.

            The next day dawned and with my father in recovery, I took a fledgling step and purchased a Trek bike. Three days after father’s heart surgery, I sought out the devastating truth and found myself initially unfit for military service by forty pounds. The first week slowly crawled away from an emotional high and ended with sore muscles from a pastime I had once enjoyed as a kid. Progress continued and habits changed and before I knew three months had passed and I went in for a physical. My eyes flinched as the digital scale finalized the number. Thirty-four pounds down. I sigh of relief escaped as I imagined only ten, fifteen pounds if lucky had been shed. As summer wound down, I knew the obstacle of winter would soon arrive and looked into warm clothing or getting my first gym membership.

            Two days after the anniversary of a national tragedy, my own personal setback unfolded. Earlier in the month, the bike trail I frequented had gone under construction. I stopped at home, dropped off my work materials and changed into athletic wear and returned to cycling. As I pedaled near the access ramp for the trail, I noticed it had not yet been completed. I decided to continue along Blondo street. Two miles into a yet-to-be-determined length, I announced my intentions verbally and physically as I approached an intersection. I ventured in and jumped as a black Ford Explorer crept forward then continued acceleration. My life did not flash before my eyes but rather, instincts kicked and prepared to propel myself off my bike. My right arm at the wrist slammed into hood, while my left arm harmlessly brushed away. Both knees collided with the front bumper and I fell backward and blacked out.

            I came about, resting on the pavement. “What the fuck? I yelled in the direction of the Ford Explorer, the driver door now opened. I looked around and saw a boyish face, frantically lording over me. A siren wailed before ceasing as a police officer, who happened to be two blocks away and saw the whole thing, arrived. After a trip to the hospital, I returned home for a week before returning to work with deep brown and purple bruises stretching down my legs. I rode my bike once for the remainder of the year. At every intersection, I stopped and frantically looked both ways then proceeded with extreme caution, borderline paranoia.

            I struggled through the remaining months of recovery, the deep brown and purple bruises which covered my lower legs, slowly faded. For the first week, I couldn’t sleep in my bed, rather made two over-sized and stuffed reclining chairs my slumbering home. Elevators, which I avoided because I’d rather walk up steps, became my new best friend. I intensely feared that three months of hard work and changing my diet would be discarded because of an accident. I threw caution out of the window during Thanksgiving at my dad’s – I ate two slices, one cheesecake and one pumpkin pie, without a second thought.

            I waivered about my decision to enlist. I continued monthly check-ups about my recovery and kept my recruiter informed with up-to-date medical records, in case a waiver was needed. Decision day came in early January and an appointment date was made for a day at the Military Entrance and Processing Station or MEPS. The night before, at a hotel provided, I found myself roomed with a young eighteen-year-old. He stood baffled I that in the midst of joining the military, I still had a full-time job and part time school. I woke that morning bright and early and quietly followed instructions through the whole examination phase, which included a Major probing both arms to find a blood vein.

The Military Entrance Processing Station in Omaha, Nebraska.

We were separated by genders and we sat in a cold tile room with a long wooden bench in the shape of an L attached to two sections of the wall. We were stripped down to our underwear and one of the teenagers asked why we were all joining the military. Any discussion we had was not serious hearted, as we were interrupted every few minutes by the door to the physical examination room opening. We would hush up, hear the next name called, and then resume our talking.

            A similar, more serious moment occurred six months later, a few weeks after I and a few other recruits had shipped out for basic training. It was after dinner chow, the day winding down and our two platoon drill sergeants had sent us to the bays. We sat in front of our bunks and our drill sergeants asked us why we had joined the military. I stewed on my answer, given more time because instead of starting with A in alphabetical order, the drill sergeant began with Z. The first people, happened to be twin, high school track stars who could run laps around about everybody else, and immediately said because they were patriotic.

            Our female drill sergeant, who had initially asked the question, immediately called bullshit by busting out with a hysterical laugh. The patriotic twins’ faces were red with fury but unable to respond for fear of retribution. She moved on down the line and received a few more patriotic responses. A few recruits answered about trying to get money for education. Two of the older recruits, both in their thirties, said to provide a better life for their families. I had concocted an answer by trying to piecemeal together others’ input with my own emotions.

            “I don’t know, Drill Sergeant,” the words sputtered out of my mouth after she had called my name.

            “That is the most honest answer I’ve heard all night,” our male drill sergeant said.

            I look back now, years after separation from the military and still wonder why I decided to take a plunge and enlist. Did I want to earn money and put it towards education? Yes, but I was already receiving tuition reimbursement from my employer. Did I feel a sense of patriotic duty?  Yes, but not an overwhelming sense of duty.

            If I had a chance to re-enlist, I’m cannot say with one hundred percent confidence that I would. There is a list of varied reasons, which I can justify a decision not to re-enlist. Rather, my service is best summed up from A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”