Being 17 or 18 isn't, as I recall, all it's cracked up to be. Things move pretty fast, and you're not equipped with enough of a bank of experience to feel comfortable about a lot of the decisions you're expected to make.
I spent the day at the local MEPS. Those of my readers who've been through the MEPS process at some point just cringed - it's pretty irritating - anonymous and brusque.
The vast majority of the folks going through that process are pretty much kids. No more than a year or two out of high school, and somehow they've come to the decision that the Army, Navy Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard is where they need to be.
It's a rough decision to make - I remember it - and as you start the process, alone with a folder in your hands and under the indifferent control of people who don't know your name or care to learn it, it's a scary place to be.
Two primary groups show up at MEPS - "applicants" and "shippers." The applicants are there for a physical, to see if they're physically qualified for service and, if they are, to make committments about contract length, job opportunities, etc. The physical is impersonal, not mean, but they don't know that yet. Their eyes are wide and they clutch their folders and wonder why nobody is speaking gently to them before drawing blood, before telling them to strip.
Shippers show up with one small bag and a slightly overwhelmed look. For these folks, it's all over but the shouting. The shouting, they know, is just about to begin. They go to the front of lines in order to make their flight times. It seems more confusing to them than it should be - my recruiter said I was going to Basic, why am I standing in this line? All of these other people are going other places, how will I get to my place? Nobody thinks of these transitory details when they steel themselves for what comes next - you think of how to say goodbye to your family, and you try to prepare yourselves for the Drill Instructors, but what happens in between is confusing and frustrating.
They are proud, though. They have service pride already. The Marines, of course, but the others, too. "Yeah, the Marines might be tough, but they wouldn't get anywhere to fight without the Navy!" and "Don't hate the Air Force, it's not our fault you weren't smart enough to join!" and "Airborne all the way!"
They don't have a clue, but God love 'em, every last one of them has balls of solid brass for volunteering to take their places in the long lines that stretch out into history.
The shippers go, walk off early in the day into their futures. The applicants "process." They have physicals, and interviews. They pick jobs. Some are disappointed, some are thrilled, some are delayed, some sent home.
The whole party starts arounf 0500 (which means everyone's been up since 0330), so by early afternoon, the kids who were confused and keyed up in the morning are hollow-eyed and worn.
And the ceremonies start. Every hour or so, the group of eight to 12 who are finished go down a hall to a small room with carpet and some service flags. They're walked through one more piece of paperwork, then get a two-minute class on the position of attention. For the first time ever, they're called to attention and an officer walks in.
"I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."
They'll come back, as shippers, in a week or a month or eight months, but they made the committment today. On that carpet, in that room, not knowing where the words will take them, they made the ultimate gesture of devotion. Although I do not know what it may require, they said to their countrymen, I will defend you.
The moment of truth may come thousands of miles away, but what has been called "the offering" was made today for those young people.
It's an eight-year committment, you know. It's called a Mandatory Service Obligation, and when you enlist, you incur it. Only once (some of us are past those days), but there's no way around that number - you're on the hook, one way or another, for eight years.
I watched a full MEPS today. Overheard the staff talking about the high number of shippers, about how long it took when there were so many applicants "on the floor."
We've been in Iraq for four and a half years, and Afghanistan almost six. We've got folks acting a fool in front of Congress and trying to recreate the 1968 they read about once. We've got marches and dire news and a full-blown fistfight in our country about fight 'til we winvs. cut our losses.
And yet our military takes only volunteers, and still the processing station was packed. And you don't know the number of times I heard a young man say, "guaranteed infantry - damn straight!"
When we're proud of the wardogs downrange, we shouldn't forget to be proud of the puppies. They just keep coming, walking as straight and brave as they know how into a tremendous unknown.
That takes a lot of things, but mostly it takes guts. I'm proud of them, and you should be, too. It's a leap of faith, and it's a big one.
Doesn't take near that kind of guts for a MEPS frequent-flyer like me to walk in and get poked and prodded so I can run around with a Reserve unit again. Which I did. I do so love wearing boots.