When we honor the men and women who served in the armed forces on Veterans’ Day, we mostly think of paying tribute to those who fought to protect freedom and democracy. I happened to serve in the U.S. Army during a time of peace. The only conflicts to be fought then were those with my own resolve as I struggled to conform to military life and to understand orders given in a language I scarcely understood. So as proud as I am to take part in patriotic parades and stirring ceremonies on Veterans Day, I have to confess that it feels a little awkward.
I joined the U.S. Army in the fall of 1984 fresh out of college in my native country Puerto Rico. I’d like to say that I was inspired to enlist because of an urgent desire to defend the United States from a foreign threat as so many young men and women throughout history can claim. Instead, my inspiration came from of all things, a movie: An Officer and A Gentlemen starring Richard Gere and Debra Winger. It’s laughable now, but back then I saw myself in Zach Mayo, Gere’s character in the movie. Sure I realized that I’d have to endure the grueling training depicted in the movie, but I imagined that at the end I’d wear an impeccably pressed uniform and lift an admiring woman off of her feet.
I could not have been more wrong. I remember calling my mother from a pay phone and crying like a baby as I told her that I had made a huge mistake. I did not speak English. All I knew of American culture came from popular movies. I had just lost all my hair at the barbershop. There was no cool uniform and there would be no woman for a long time.
I suppose one reason I feel so awkward about being honored on Veterans Day is because I now recognize the real reason I joined the U.S. Army. I did not know what to do with my life. I did not have any prospects in my small, remote hometown in the mountains of Puerto Rico. I thought the Army would be a great way to move to the United States, earn a decent living and get free meals. Of course, I’m not alone in joining the Army for pragmatic reasons, but my thinking now strikes me as incredibly simplistic and not as noble as those who volunteer in times of war.
Despite the absence of an enemy threat, there were still the usual dangers of living and working with weapons and heavy machinery. Those dangers were intensified, in my case, because of my lack of basic English skills. I didn’t understand the commands I was given. On the first day of basic training, the drill sergeant yelled, “Chow.” Everyone but me ran to the cafeteria. I got punished for that. Because of my poor English, I was removed from my unit, put in a basement, sent to ESL school, and I had to start basic training with a new unit. My English, however, would continue to be a personal struggle for my remaining military days. I was consistently misunderstood or I misunderstood others. During my second basic training attempt, I was ordered to cease fire, but I only understood “fire.” That day, I cleaned a latrine for hours as a punishment for not following orders. These unpleasant experiences are the only war stories I have to share from my military service.
I eventually completed basic training and military training and was assigned to the Second Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas to provide weather information to artillery units. Outside of the support we provided to artillery units during field exercises, most of my responsibilities were repetitive tasks like cleaning and inspecting our equipment, preparing for inspections or reviews, buffing floors, cleaning the laundry room, picking up cigarette butts, mowing the grass, and cleaning the motor pool. My work days typically ended at 5pm. In the end, my military service was cut short by federal defense budget cuts. Given the extended tours today’s soldiers are compelled to undertake, I’m almost embarrassed to mention my abbreviated term. After only two years and 10 months, I was uneventfully released early from my obligation to the U.S. Army.
However short my time in the U.S. Army was and for whatever misguided reasons I joined, I am, nevertheless, filled with pride for having served my country. I still reflect on what it means to be a peacetime veteran. Did my service count? I’ve concluded that being a soldier means being ready for battle, not necessarily actually experiencing battle. Veterans Day was meant for us peacetime veterans too. I will wear my medals proudly this Veterans Day.
Sgt. Hector Ortiz
“Hell on Wheels”
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