By Ken Trainor
My son completed "basic" last month at Ft. Benning, Georgia — 2nd Battalion, 54th Infantry Regiment, Delta Company, 4th Platoon. Dylan is 32, older than most of the recruits (though not the oldest). A police officer in Willowbrook, he joined the Illinois National Guard this summer to further his career goals and because he's had the itch for a long time.
Scratching that itch involved an immersion experience beyond most immersion experiences — 14 weeks of being grist for the mill, run through the wringer, coming out the other end as an infantryman. His bus arrived at Sand Hill in early September. When the doors opened, the drill sergeants boarded in full throat and ran everyone off the bus — and they didn't stop running until Thanksgiving weekend, followed by three weeks of AIT (Advanced Individual Training), ending a week before Christmas, when loved ones arrived to attend the graduation ceremonies for, as they put it, "Your Soldier."
In the official letter that served as our only communication with the United States Army ("Dear Sir or Ma'am"), we were informed that "our mission is to transform civilians into well-disciplined infantrymen who embrace the Warrior Ethos and live the Army Values. … Your Soldier will be trained to the highest standard. Infantrymen must be physically fit and mentally tough. … Over the course of 14 weeks of training, your Soldier will be forged into a tough, adaptive, and flexible Infantryman, able to close with and destroy the enemies of our country in close combat."
Some of this, I admit, sounded promising. There is much to be said for discipline and transformative experiences (when they lead to a greater good). I'm all for "physically fit." The fact that our soldier was quarantined for three and a half months — without his cellphone or access to the internet — was A-OK with me. No junk food, being forced to eat healthy items he had never tried before and discovering he liked them (Brussels sprouts!) — what parent could argue with that?
I gave him stamps and envelopes before he left and was rewarded with the first four letters my son has ever written to me. The more fully-dimensional person who emerged from those letters, who I knew was in there but had only glimpsed in brief intimations, now came through loud and clear.
Being away from the comfort zone cocoon for an extended period had a formative and transformative effect on me when I spent a summer working in a national park in 1971, and this seemed to have a similar effect on him. Absent one's place of origin, the heart does grow fonder. He's also a decent letter writer, something that warmed this father's heart.
A maturing person, who seemed eager for even greater maturity, made for enjoyable reading. And wonder of wonders, he was lucky enough to be assigned a drill sergeant (SSG Sean Jolin) who didn't just berate but also taught life lessons that my son found helpful, the main one being, "Bitter or Better — with any kind of adversity, you have two options, get bitter about it, or use it to get better."
All of this I deeply appreciate.
The part about being "able to close with and destroy the enemies of our country" could stand some clarification, such as how we define "enemies" and how we "destroy" them.
My first close encounter with military culture was a trip, no doubt about it — and there is precious little doubt in it. Supremely self-assured, that culture is self-referential and self-reverential, reinforced by an adoring public. The history is sacred and cited often. The large field upon which graduation exercises took place — adjacent to the impressively appointed U.S. Infantry Museum — was literally sown with the soil of many of this country's most famous battles, beginning with Yorktown, which decided the Revolutionary War.
Yet the recruits, as they always have, see through the excessive solemnity and regimentation, even as they embrace the "Warrior Ethos."
And that extends beyond our soldiers. As I told him in my first letter, we all need to develop the warrior within — the toughness, perseverance and determination that life demands as it tests us — but a warrior without wisdom has too much to "prove" (mostly to him or herself). And warrior wannabes who find themselves in positions of power tend to overcompensate and drag others into harm's way.
The Lord of the Rings (Gandalf), Star Wars (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien) present memorable embodiments of the wise warrior. In real life, our outgoing president managed to temper the warrior-in-chief with wisdom whereas our incoming commander merely plays one on TV. With a son now in the military and at the mercy of his whims, that worries me.
Nonetheless, I'm proud of Dylan for completing this grueling exercise. He cut a fine figure in his dress uniform, with his beret and the blue infantry cord fastened to his right shoulder. Our journey to Ft. Benning — where my father completed boot camp before entering World War II — inspired me.
All of life, it seems to me, is basic training (followed by advanced individual training), where we learn to handle whatever gets thrown at us, where discipline works best when it comes from within rather than imposed from outside, where we are all on a long march, fighting a great battle, and where a warrior without wisdom is simply a machine that destroys.
A warrior with wisdom, on the other hand, is worthy of honor.