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Welcome to the Green Machine

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  • Welcome to the Green Machine

    Welcome to the Green Machine

    My son was jobless, directionless, and apartmentless. So when he decided to join the Army, we were just glad he was out of the house. What we didn’t know was just how much the military would change him—and us.

    ...
    A woman once told me, after her life had taken an unexpected turn, that if you live long enough, pretty much anything can happen. That thought was in the back of my mind on a cool morning in November of 2016 as I sat in the covered bleachers overlooking the wide expanses of Hilton Field parade grounds at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina. Across the field, about a thousand camo-clad soldiers marched in formation out of a pine forest, emerging from the green and white fog of detonated smoke grenades. They came toward us across the dead winter grass, in five companies, Alpha through Echo, to the wild whoops and cheers of the crowd and the strains of “Soldiers,” a rousing modern rock song with lyrics like “This is a perfect day to die” and “With our final breath, we will fight to the death—we are soldiers, we are soldiers.”

    I was there not as a reporter but as a dad. Alongside me were my ex-wife, Jacqueline Wallace, and our twelve-year-old daughter, Harriet, all of us with tears in our eyes and our skin tingling, proud to bursting of our son and brother: Private John Henry Lomax, who would be formally graduating from Army boot camp the next day.

    Military service is a tradition in many families, but not in mine, nor Jacqueline’s. No Lomax or Wallace had served in the armed forces since World War II. The general idea in our family was that the military was for other people, not for our son. I’m not proud of that, but it is the truth. I grew up on war movies, played guns incessantly as a kid, and later, when at loose ends as a young adult, toyed with the idea of joining the Navy or even the French Foreign Legion, but I never followed through on those schemes. I was isolated from the military world: even in my thirties, I could count on one hand the number of my friends, acquaintances, and extended family members who had served.
    ...
    While the thought of what danger he might face on some foreign duty post was frightening, his first interactions with the Army were already having a positive effect on him. After his first visit to his recruiter, he could see some hope on the horizon. He was on a vector, a whole new world had opened up to him, and he was making his own plans, with little to no input from his mom or me. Through our shared Netflix account, I could see he was watching David Simon’s Generation Kill over and over again; the nonfiction miniseries about a Marine recon unit in the Iraq War is often lauded as one of the most realistic treatments of modern military life. He cut down on his aimless partying, and after each visit to his recruiter, he’d come home with fresh servings of military jargon and acronyms for us to decipher.

    First you start hearing about MEPS, the military entry processing station. That is where recruits take their physical and their ASVAB, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and their score on that IQ test of sorts helps determine their AIT, advanced individual training, leading them to their MOS, military occupational specialty, or “job,” as we civilians call them.
    ...
    “I, John Henry Lomax, do solemnly swear 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.”

    And at that moment, he was no longer under our control, nor was he his own man. He belonged to Uncle Sam. You might think it’s a bit like dropping your kid off at college, but in fact, it’s not like that in the slightest. You won’t be getting a phone call in a couple of days. You won’t wake up some Saturday morning to find a garbage bag full of dirty clothes in your laundry room and your kid sleeping one off in his or her old bedroom. And your child won’t be studying philosophy or English literature or any other academic pursuits. No, your child will be trained to give his or her life for our country.
    ...
    To find out what might be going on in our son’s life, Jacqueline and I sought various third parties with military experience. Since my mid-thirties, my network of friends had expanded to include a few more military folks, both ex and active, and I reached out to a few of them for information. One of my correspondents was Shawn Reese, a veteran I met through a mutual friend on Facebook. Reese is an Army success story. Twenty-five years ago, he was a beered-up, skirt-chasing Tennessee college dropout turned Army private. Upon Reese’s flunking out, his Alabama-bred Vietnam vet dad—Reese family members had fought in nearly all of America’s wars since the Revolution—made his decision to enlist simple. “It was either that or I could die by his hands,” he jokes.

    His ten years in the Green Machine included several “real-world deployments,” as he puts it. He has since acquired three degrees, including two master’s, one in international relations from St. Mary’s University, in San Antonio, and the other in national security policy from the National War College, in Washington, D.C. Today, Reese lives on Capitol Hill and works as a security analyst for the Congressional Research Service. For all his adult life, he has either lived or studied the military, and a neophyte military dad could find no wiser sage. Eventually I would visit his cavelike basement flat, in D.C., and we would talk for hours about what he had lived and what John Henry could expect.

    “Comfort is relative,” Reese said one night. “If you are wet and cold, then it’s fantastic to be dry and cold. If you’re sweaty and hot and standing in a desert somewhere, suddenly the greatest thing in the world is being in shade. And that is not something you can comprehend unless you have a profession that makes you go to shitty places with shitty terrain and a shitty climate and then do shitty, stressful things. And the only way you can keep yourself sane and able to function without becoming a complete and utter animal—and don’t get me wrong, part of you does become an animal—you just have to laugh and say, ‘There ain’t a damn thing I can do about this, so I might as well just accept it for what it is.’ Life is shitty. It’s even shittier in the Army. Embrace the Suck.”

    That is one of Reese’s favorite sayings, and when I ran it past John Henry via text, he sent the following reply: “Lol yea I’m already pretty familiar with that mantra.”

    That John Henry could already relate to that jibes with another of Reese’s credos: “Privates are always privates.” He said his grandfather’s World War I diary could have been written by someone serving during Vietnam or Desert Storm. The basics of military life haven’t changed over the decades. “The only thing that has changed is the technology: we didn’t have cellphones, we didn’t have some of the things that soldiers now have in their barracks,” Reese said. “But as late as 2001, when I was a company commander in the Army, soldiers were still the same. They were Joes. Male or female, they were Joes.”

    The military is one of the last great leveling forces in America today, he said. At its most basic level, the Army takes in people from every background—the farm, the streets, small towns, and increasingly from the pinched urban middle class—and turns them all into one thing: a private. “I’m not saying the military is perfect at this, but the military has a long experience in taking people from different groups and putting them together and making them be a part of the Big Green Suck,” he said. “The Green Machine. It rolls on, and you are just part of it. And it sucks, the military sucks, the Army sucks, but it’s the greatest job in the world.”
    ...
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