Fake it ‘Til I Make it

By, Joshua North

~ Marcia Barton Prize Winner ~

Dumb, oafish, warmonger, uncultured, knuckle-dragger, cretin.  These are just a few examples of opinions some people have regarding the US Army Infantry.  Having served for 10 years, through multiple levels of leadership and duty stations, I can say, without a doubt, that these stereotypes were, and are, mostly true.  This doesn’t necessarily mean these qualities are bad in the context of a profession whose purpose, according to Army Field Manual 7-8, is to “close with the enemy by means of fire and maneuver in order to destroy or capture him, or to repel his assault with fire, close combat, and counterattack”.  The rub came when I realized I didn’t fit the stereotypes of an infantry soldier but spent 10 years pretending to be one.  Maintaining the pretense of being something that isn’t organic to who someone is comes with a cost.

It was never my intention to join the infantry.  I, like many others who joined the military, was at a point in life where there wasn’t anything substantial going on in my life:  between jobs, single, broke, and bored.  Sitting on my futon in my small, cold, barren studio apartment, I came to the realization that I needed to grow up and establish some goals; something to work for that wasn’t just a short-term job.  I sat there, old-school #2 pencil in hand, and jotted down my likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, dreams, fears, and all the things I thought were relevant to figuring out what my next big step would be.  Looking down at the chicken-scratch I just put on the paper, I saw the sum of who I wanted to be jotted down in a few dozen words:  I wanted a career (not just a job), I didn’t mind strict rules and harsh environments, I was healthy, physically fit, I wanted to help people physically and spiritually, I was interested in medicine, I wanted to learn a new language, and I wanted to get out of the small town I spent the last 21 years of my life in.

Armed with this deeper understanding of myself, I ventured out to ask questions; seek guidance from those I considered wise or knowledgeable at the game of life.  Most of the people I asked were from my church:  old, retired military veterans or the relatives of old, retired military veterans.  In those wrinkly, weathered faces I saw a spark ignite in their eyes when they all would inevitably talk about their military service.  “One of the best times of my life”, was a common statement along with “You’ll see amazing new places”, “You’ll make strong bonds with excellent people”, and “I wouldn’t trade my time in the military for anything in the world”.    With such glowing endorsements, and some of the commonalities I’d recently discovered about myself, how could I not consider a career in the military?

At first, I wanted to become a chaplain’s assistant, medic, or even join the Army band (to this day I still don’t know why I never considered the other branches of the military…oh hindsight).  Those careers made sense since violence and I never saw eye-to-eye.  I was a peaceful, verbal, compassionate person who would much rather use my words than my fists, so I wanted to stay away from jobs that were combat oriented.  After a convoluted recruiting process that involved aptitude tests, used car salesman tactics, and a pretty lengthy Q & A session, I was signed up as a Special Forces Candidate.  It was the allure of extensive medical and language training (both very high on my list of priorities at the time) that won me over.

To progress to Special Forces Selection, one must first complete infantry basic training.  While at Basic, the differences between who I was and who I felt everyone else was could not be more drastic.  For starters, I was older than most of my peers, many of them having come straight from high school.  I was almost 22 with a healthy dose of life experience and perspective under my belt.  I didn’t care about their high school drama or the girlfriend they had back home who was, from what I could tell, obviously a horrible person anyways.  Most of them talked about sex and cars and guns and getting deployed because they couldn’t wait to “shoot terrorists in the face”.  I didn’t want to shoot anyone in the face.  I wanted to become a medic so I could fix and heal people’s ailments and injuries.  I wanted to learn a new language so I could communicate with strangers from another country and establish common ground for sharing the Bible.  I wanted to be a constructive force in the world, not something trained to destroy.

The culture shock didn’t stop at Basic.  It was there during my Special Forces training and Selection.  It was there after I didn’t complete the Special Forces Qualification Course and was sent to a regular infantry unit (because that’s what happens when you don’t complete the SF program).  It was there during my deployment to Afghanistan.  It surrounded me everywhere I went for 10 years, unrelenting, like a massive natural disaster.  I didn’t care for guns, partying, or talking about causing violence and death.  I didn’t like talking about women like pieces of meat, and I didn’t like feeling trapped because of the contract I signed.  I wanted to talk about philanthropy, philosophy, theology.  I wanted to read books and see the world.  I wanted to help people feel better and be better.  I wanted to be surrounded by like-minded people who shared the same interests as me.

So, there I was, surrounded by people who were supposed to become some of the greatest bonds I would ever forge in my life; who represented the culmination of almost everything I found loathsome and vile.  How was I supposed to build comradery with people who had nothing in common with me?  The answer is, I didn’t.  I was a hermit in a legion of people, doing my job but never really a part of the crowd.  In the decade I spent in the Army, there is only one person who continues to reach out to me and see how I’m doing.  Out of thousands of people that have shared sweat, blood, tears, time, talks, and laughs with me, only one even knows I’m still alive.  There’s a reason I only served for 10 years instead of the traditional 20 plus:  there was no place for Joshua Allen North, lover of culture and fellowship; there was only room for Private/Specialist/Corporal/Sergeant/Staff Sergeant North, knower of military tactics and excellent in the clutch.

But I was very much a chameleon: shifting my colors and movements to replicate my environment.  I observed my surroundings and blended in, assimilating with the masses.  I tried to find the line between being socially and professionally acceptable without contradicting who I truly was.  That line doesn’t exist; it’s all or nothing. So, I chose nothing:  nothing of myself to add to the melting pot.  It was time to play pretend and I could pretend with the best of them, but it left me feeling exhausted and empty:  all deposit; no return.  Getting people to believe and accept the façade I had constructed wasn’t the hard part, the hard part was realizing I didn’t need to.

About 4 years into my military service, I got married.  My beautiful bride helped me realize it wasn’t me that needed to acquiesce.  No matter what persecution I faced at worked, I was no longer, and would never again be alone.  There was such deep and profound hope in that.  I didn’t need the social acceptance of my peers; I had my partner.  That made the idea of being myself acceptable but that didn’t stop my professional life from being difficult.  The infantry is as much a way of life as it is a career.  60 to 80 hour work weeks were the norm; deployments and field exercises were 24/7 for weeks to months at a time.  After spending so much time with a group of people, it was hard feeling like I was never a part of that society.  It took a toll on the rest of my life, sapping my energy, and straining my relationships.  My wife and children have suffered for my choice to serve in an environment I despised.  Wearing a mask for such an extended period was suffocating but, now that I’m no longer a part of the establishment, I feel like I can finally breathe.  Maybe that same fresh air will mend some tattered bonds and replenish an exhausted soul.