Thurman P. Woodfork

WHAT IS A SOLDIER?

What makes someone a soldier? Well, just to take a guess, sometimes all it took was a letter from the SSS. Hell, a soldier can come from anywhere in our present society, and be male or female, wealthy or working class, makes no difference if you truly have the desire. Look at the recent examples of Patrick Miller, Shoshanna Johnson, Lori Piestewa, and Jessica Lynch, to name a few of the more well-known members of the current rank and file.

Do people really join up for those great sounding, patriotic reasons like love of country and Mom’s apple pie? Do they really yearn to protect the Constitution and keep this country free? Or maybe way, way down in their secret heart of hearts, they’re just adrenalin junkies: out for the adventure, looking for a free trip around the world, exploring exotic places like Khe Sanh and Kosovo.

There is a certain amount of joie de vivre to be had in wearing a helmet and NBC uni in 100 plus degree desert heat, or freezing one’s unmentionables off in a snowed-in tent on an icy mountaintop in Korea. Added zest comes from having unseen, surly people drop mortars on you or craftily pick off the last friend from your original outfit so that you can hold him in your arms as he bleeds to death waiting for a Medevac.

Of course, there are some who choose to go adventuring on the seas, regularly visiting such interesting places as Japan, Italy, The Philippines, Yankee Station, Yemen. It’s said that the deck of an aircraft carrier is one of the most dangerous places in the world. That could, in itself, be adventure enough for many people. Okay, okay, so you spent most of the trips between ports down in the bowels of the ship in the engine room. So what? Think of the great camaraderie you developed down there with your hard working friends.

Then, one may simply decide to join the military for reasons as prosaic as earning money to get a college education after the enlistment is up. But what makes so many reenlist after that first tour is over, and then the second tour, and so on until they realize that they’ve somehow become ‘The Dreaded Lifer’?

What is it, really? It can’t be the great pay or excellent working conditions. Crawling through rice paddies or triple canopy jungles while attracting leeches and sniper fire can’t logically be called a ‘perk’. No, it’s something intangible, like the enduring bonds forged with the folks who crept through that jungle or froze on that mountain with you. However, some people do their twenty without ever hearing a shot fired in anger or having spent any time on the remote, frozen tundra of some tiny, isolated spot like an Air Force arctic radar station.

Can it be that there are people who do require and enjoy the discipline and structure inherent in the military life? They need order, a sense of responsibility, the close-knit teamwork, camaraderie, and, yes, love required of an effective unit. A unit that, after all the trappings are put aside, is tasked to place its very existence on the line in the continuing defense of a nation. They are the bulls that always instinctively station themselves on the perimeter of the herd and face outward to deal with any danger that stalks their fellows.

Man, after all is said and done, is a herd animal, though we may call our particular herd a family, a squad, a neighborhood, a tribe, a city, or a nation. Perhaps, in time, the limits of our herd will be defined only by the boundaries of the universe.

But, to be perfectly honest and to stop dancing all around the question, I really don’t know what makes a true soldier. Maybe some do it because Dad was a Lifer. Or, maybe like me, they just looked great in a uniform. Plus, as Andy (Nicholas Andreacchio, Col., USA (Ret.)) says, “We get to march in parades—and nobody can beat our funerals.”

Submitted for the April 2003 IWVPA Club Theme Project, “Portrait of a Soldier”