My heart was racing. I had heard all the horror stories about this and now it was my turn. Like a group of cattle we were forced through the doors of the small shed-like building. Inside, figures were wearing the same strange alien-like mask as myself and the others with me. The view through the mask’s eyepieces was terrible to begin with, and the darkness of the room, combined with whatever smoky substance filled the air, only added to the confusion. The muffled voices behind the masks began yelling. The doors behind us slammed shut. Through the smoke and darkness we could hear the order to remove our masks. We knew we had to do what we were told. To disobey would only bring worse punishment upon us. Gripping the sides of my mask, I pulled in an upward motion, breaking the seal that the tightened straps had created against my face. Immediately, the smoke entered the void the mask had just protected. The burning sensation on my skin was intense. The muffled voices behind the masks then yelled out orders to say our names and Social Security numbers. The noxious-smelling smoke entered our noses, mouths and lungs as we tried to deliver the information we were ordered to give. The gagging, choking and coughing that ensued were uncontrollable. My body was doing things that were completely involuntary. My eyes began watering. My nose ran like a faucet. Some of the others around me were vomiting. The spasmodic sound of young men coughing and gagging filled the room. Finally, when we thought we would die, the doors behind us were flung open. The bright day burst into the room as the group rushed back outside to fresh air. The scene became one of young men leaning against trees, lying on the ground, or staggering around aimlessly waiting for the effects to wear off. The pungent smell hung in the air and stuck to our uniforms. We could not escape it. It is a smell I’ve never experienced again in the last 30 years, but it remains one I will never forget.
The scene I just described was not a nightmare that I had, nor was it an experience with extraterrestrials. Rather, it was one of the toughest portions of the nearly four months I spent in Fort Benning, Georgia. Part of our training involved being subjected to tear gas. It was sort of like a police officer in training being tased. We had to experience the tear gas, which is relatively mild compared to the nerve agents or other chemicals that could be used against us if we ever found ourselves in a combat situation. It is one of many experiences I will never forget during my six years of service to my country from 1990 to 1996.
Growing up, one of my favorite activities, especially when I was with my cousins in upstate New York, was playing army. I had known that my grandfather, who helped raise me until the age of six, had served in the army during World War II. I didn’t know much more about his service, but the idea that he had stepped up at a time his country needed him was noble to me. My grandparents’ basement was the perfect place to act out what we thought it would be like to be in the army. We would spend hours building forts, giving orders and pretending to be in battle. It was all very innocent.
After my adoption in 1980, I began to learn about my adopted parents and their families. My adopted father had been drafted during the Vietnam War. There, he served as a military police officer in the army. I’ve watched him through the past 40 years, and while he doesn’t agree with the war he served in (for the record, all war is bad) he still maintains an extreme sense of pride in himself and the others who sacrificed their time, and in many cases, lives for their country. He wears his Vietnam veteran hat and displays his veteran stickers on his pickup truck with great pride. He has started to share more and more of the things he saw while in Vietnam. It is something that I’ve heard is very common as veterans grow older. When he does open up, I sit and listen intently, soaking up every bit of it. He has earned every ounce of my honor and attention.
My adopted grandfather also served in World War II. He saw action and earned a Purple Heart in the Pacific theater. I will never know the absolute horrors of what he saw or did. I do know that in his final years on earth, he also started opening up and sharing some of his experiences, but I know most of it stayed with him when he went to his grave.
Knowing that my biological grandfather, adopted grandfather, and adopted father all served in the US army, I knew the path I wanted to take. The desire to serve my country was strong—not strong enough to make it a career, but it was something I wanted to accomplish, nonetheless.
In my senior year of high school, I joined the Army National Guard and was accepted to Virginia Military Institute. The next six years of my life we were going to be very different-looking from that of most 18-year-olds headed off to party at colleges with fraternities and sororities. I chose the path less traveled—a summer in the humid oven-like atmosphere of southern Georgia, learning the ins and outs of being an infantryman. In August of 1991, I matriculated at VMI, where I was subjected to the rigors of a military college and the grueling “Ratline.” The following summer, I returned to Fort Benning for my specialized training on the M60 mortar. While not nearly as rigorous as basic training or AIT (Advanced Individual Training), it had its own share of challenges.
Over the next five years I graduated from VMI and completed my six years of service to my country. My honorable discharge hangs upon my wall as does my VMI diploma. The challenges and obstacles I overcame in the army and at VMI, as well as the invaluable lessons I learned, have served me well in life. The hardships I’ve faced since my military experiences, while never easy, have been tolerable because of the irons I chose to put in the fire many years ago.
As I sit writing this, my grandfather’s neatly folded American flag, that once draped his casket, now looks down upon me. I cherish that flag and all the flags that have been draped over caskets or have been flown proudly at other times. I don’t look forward to the coming day when my adopted father’s flag will be handed to my mother or to me—the oldest of eight and the only child in my family to have served my country. And someday, my own flag will be handed to my sons. I hope that they appreciate the great sacrifices that so many before them have made to this nation. I hope they look upon my flag as proudly as I look upon my own grandfather’s. Above all, I hope they always carry a burning love inside their hearts for this great country.