The real reason I joined the military

WARNING: This post is not funny.

When people ask me why I joined the military, I’ll usually rattle off the same lines anyone else does.

– You can go to college for free, and even maybe get your current loans paid back
– The job market was unpredictable after the various late-2000s financial crashes
– You can travel* all over the world
– Health benefits, housing, food provided
– Steady paycheck
– Something, something, patriotism, America

Ugh, I already sound like a recruiter in this.

If I like you, I might have even told a joke:

“I actually went to the Marines office, but they were closed for lunch or training or something. So I went next door to the Navy office to ask them when the Marines were coming back… and here I am.”

None of that is false. But any of that as an answer to WHY I joined the military isn’t completely truthful.

It was about a girl. It’s always about a girl, isn’t it?

My girlfriend Camilla and I were having lunch at a Dairy Queen, because she’d never been to one before. She was an exchange student from Korea, and if you have to ask which one, don’t be ashamed because I also asked her that when I first met her and felt like a huge fucking idiot.

We were talking about my favorite subject: me. Specifically, what I was going to do with my life in an abstract sense of who I wanted to be as an adult.

She made a casual observation that since I like cop/detective shows so much, I “should go chase serial killers for a living or something.”

As cliche as that sounded to me for a young man to think “Oh hmm maybe I should work for the FBI or CIA or something,” I at least owed it to myself to look into it.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s official website listed several qualifications they look for in potential candidates. The way they worded their statement, it seemed to me they valued military experience just as much as someone actually going to college and getting a literal Criminal Justice degree. Other agencies I looked into (CIA, NCTC, etc.) also listed military experience as a great bit to have on your resume.

So I considered it. I went to a local recruiting office JUST to get some information, but of course you know how that story ended. It’s true though; I went to the Marines office and nobody was in. The Army office was also empty; lights off.

Went next door to where the Navy and Air Force were, and asked the Navy guys if they knew when the Marines were coming back. They weren’t sure, but gave me a pickup line about “Surely you’d want information on ALL the branches, right? Come in and have a seat!”

And they had me. The Navy remained the only ones I ever talked to. It’s impossible to even ponder the ways an entire life could turn out differently just from a simple choice — had I been there an hour earlier, perhaps I would have been a Marine and you’d be reading very different stories. Or perhaps they wouldn’t be all that different.

I got a bunch of information, visited them a couple more times, decided that “Intelligence Specialist” sounded sexy enough for my liking even if the recruiters didn’t know precisely what it is they did as a job. We scheduled an ASVAB, the military aptitude test that asks you a bunch of multiple-choice questions very similar to an SAT/ACT college test. In fact, if you live in America and went to public high school, you probably already took an ASVAB at some point. I had, but it had been years ago, as I was 23 when I joined the military.

Let’s back up a bit.

I dated a lot when I was young, dumb, and full of unexamined insecurity. I had no idea what I was doing in life and acted like a complete asshole to most of the women I got involved with. Never physically abusive, unlike the father figures in my life, but just generally a jerk.

It would be difficult to explain why without seeming like I’m being self-serving or launching some attempt at absolution. And that wouldn’t be right. What I will say is that a lot of the friends in my life that you read about in the other stories on this blog are people I exploded at, attempted to socially manipulate, or otherwise emotionally hurt at some point.

It was a severe and pervasive pattern, and eventually I realized it needed to stop. But I only realized this after I got hit in the face with some emotional pain of my own — I don’t experience genuine emotional empathy like most people seem to. Even today, it’s still a foreign concept to me.

I had been single for two years before I met Camilla, and had attended extensive self-referred therapy for narcissistic and antisocial personality traits. I’ve never met the clinical definitions of either NPD or ASPD, but I’m “as close as possible without going over” to put it in Price Is Right terms. I now describe myself as a ‘Diet Sociopath’ though my therapists have always told me that it’s more important to focus on specific behavioral traits I wish to change, rather than getting caught up in labels that some organizations may find derogatory. I’ve always agreed with that sentiment, so we’re just going to move on.

My relationship with Camilla represented a step forward in my efforts in life to turn over a new leaf for myself. She was the first girlfriend I’d ever been able to be honest with about my personality disorders, mainly because I’d not been aware of them. One ex-girlfriend had called me mentally ill once, but I don’t know how serious she was.

Camilla was also studying psychology, so she had academic familiarity with what Antisocial Personality Disorder actually meant. I didn’t need her to be my therapist or anything like that; it was just comforting to be dating someone who could communicate with the same clinical language I had become familiar with. Like meeting a girl who likes the same bands as you, only replace music with the DSM-IV.

She accepted me for my faults. She helped me in recognizing behavioral traits in my life that could be identified as falling under this general personality disorder umbrella. And I think she helped me accept myself; you might not think a narcissist would need help with that, but it’s no secret that narcissism is often (/always) rooted in insecurity.

My relationship with Camilla was incredibly meaningful to me, and came at a point in my young adult life where I was truly trying to figure out not only who I was, but who I wanted to be. Emotionally AND career-wise.

We went everywhere together. We studied and did homework together. We walked around Washington DC together. We fought sometimes, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t break up with her at the first hint of disagreement. I helped her find an apartment. I let her stay with me when her building had a serious insect infestation. I helped her not feel afraid to go back into her home. I comforted her when she cried about the immense pressure her family put on her. She visited me in the hospital when I got into an accident.

I loved her. A lot.

It didn’t have a happy ending. As I mentioned, she was an exchange student. I had an emotional issue with being flaky and non-committal in relationships, so in hindsight I suspect that my subconscious found a sort of perverted comfort in knowing our relationship had a definitive expiration date.

That expiration date came, and I was NOT ready.

When you dump someone or get dumped, there’s a sense of closure. It’s an event that we’ve developed social structures to address — your friends tell you that you deserve better, and so on. You don’t get any of that when someone moves halfway around the globe; my therapist told me that this situation is more emotionally equivalent to a girlfriend suddenly dying as opposed to a breakup, but I think she was just trying to make me feel better.

I helped her pack. I took her to the airport. Tears. Hugs. Kisses. Goodbyes. Eventually she had to board, and all I could do was look through the glass as I stood there, powerless to stop this from being the last hour that I would ever see her. I don’t know what to write here other than it was really sad and incredibly painful. I didn’t know how to emotionally process any of it, though I don’t know that any amount of therapeutic preparation would have helped.

That same day I had an appointment with the recruiter to meet him at a Burger King near my college where he would drive me to take the ASVAB test. I don’t remember whether this was intentional scheduling on my part, but it was a welcome distraction. I walked from the airport to the Burger King and just sat there for a while and waited, feeling sorry for myself.

The ASVAB was actually really hard. They had some kind of algorithmic testing method where if you got a question correct, the next question would be more difficult, but if you got it wrong the difficulty would stay the same or possibly even drop down a little. Even though intellectually I knew that the harder the questions, the better I’m probably doing, it still felt like I was flunking the damn thing. My only studying had consisted of taking a single free online practice ASVAB the night before and re-learning some algebra via reverse engineering the multiple-choice answers back into the question being asked. Coupled with my new, unwanted status as a single man, I didn’t have much confidence here.

Not that I cared. I was still pretty emotionally dead and was considerably less full of jokes compared to my usual jovial self.

I met my recruiter back in the lobby after finishing, and he was handed a file folder with my results. He took a peek inside, scoffed, and said to me, “What, you couldn’t have held out for two more points?”

I thought he was insinuating that I’d failed. Quite the contrary: the highest possible “score” you can get in a percentile-based testing system is a 99 and I had received a 97. Back at the recruiting station, the Chief patted me on the back and told me “If I’d have known you were a genius this whole time I probably would have been nicer to you.”

Ego: Stroked.

Instead of going home that day, I went to Camilla’s now-vacated apartment bedroom. She’d lived with my best friend for the last few months after moving out of the dorms when the school year concluded — a best friend whom I also dated in high school. After I introduced the two of them to see if they’d get along, and saw that they did, I told Camilla we’d dated a long time ago but now she’d become one of my most emotionally supportive friends in life, Camilla laughed and compared the situation to something you’d see in “that American show ‘Friends’ you guys have.”

Now it was just my friend’s apartment. I’d been there a lot since she moved in, and had been there a lot even before that. It felt a lot different now. Like something had been removed.

I went into her old room. There wasn’t a lot left over. Some papers, an air mattress, and maybe a book or two.

I didn’t cry, though I’m not saying that so I sound tough in this story. I definitely cried about the loss of this relationship over the next several months.

But today I just… sat there. For hours. I curled up in a ball on the floor and stared at the wall. I sat against the wall and stared at the floor. I laid on the mattress and stared at the ceiling. I didn’t feel anything. Just felt… hollow. Empty.

A part of me never left that room.

My life continued, but it was on autopilot. Nothing felt the same anymore. Every aspect of my life felt meaningless without the person I’d grown to love so dearly.

I did not handle it well. I began to hate everyone around me, seeing them all as part of a system that required her to move back to her home country. I felt that all the people I knew were somehow complicit in the government’s requirement that she couldn’t stay here forever. I saw everyone as somehow culpable for what was preventing us from being together. I blamed them for losing her.

Trust me. Even at the time I knew it was irrational. But you can only control your actions, not your emotions. I FELT that the people around me were responsible for her leaving, even though I knew that wasn’t true in any way whatsoever.

A piece of paper somewhere said she had to leave because the piece of paper she had didn’t match up with a third piece of paper she would need to get. Millions of years of evolution hadn’t prepared me for such an arbitrary reason for the end of a relationship.

Instead of dealing with my emotional pain like an adult, I joined the military.

I had yet to “sign on the dotted line” to join the military, but it was pretty inevitable. I couldn’t look at the same college buildings we’d studied in. I couldn’t walk down the same streets we’d walked together. I couldn’t hang out with the friends who’d also gotten to know her. I needed to leave this place and any trace of memories that had been left behind.

I wanted to run from my problems, just as I had when I turned 18 and ran from my home life troubles.

I began to rebuild those emotional walls I’d broken down over the years. I withdrew from life. I rarely hung out with my friends anymore. Hell, I stopped leaving my apartment most days. I stopped going to therapy. I dropped out of the semester of college I was in — I was enlisting in the military anyway, so this wasn’t an out-of-left-field decision.

Technically you can back out of joining the military even after signing everything. The no-shit point of no return is somewhere during your first few days of boot camp, legally. Your recruiter might get pissed off at you for leading them on if you back out, but hey it’s your life and your decision.

I signed that dotted line shortly after taking my ASVAB, and MEPS assigned me that Intelligence Specialist job I’d been interested in. I had a few backup jobs I would have taken, but if all they had was “Shit Cleaner” or whatever the fuck riff-raff job was available, I was fully prepared to walk out, pissed recruiter be damned.

Then, I was placed in the Delayed Entry Program, or DEP. I had a good half-year or so before I shipped out to boot camp in December. I expected to feel some regret and mentally prepared myself for it.

But that’s not what happened. With each passing day, I grew more and more confident that this was the choice I wanted to make. It was a combination of a lot of different things: My father’s disapproval of the career track I was on, the half-dozen reasons I bullet-point listed at the beginning, the general sense of adventure, and certainly the thrill of joining the community of people who hold a security clearance and are allowed access to know classified government secrets. (I still don’t know where the aliens are or who killed JFK, but I can tell you unequivocally that 9/11 was not an inside job.)

The biggest reason though, is that I just wanted to fucking leave.

So THAT is the real, actual reason why I joined the military. The fun anecdote about poking my head in the Navy office to ask them when the Marines would be back is a lot easier to whip out in casual conversation.