Military Service and Masculinity: Reflections from a Millennial Veteran

When I started grad school a few years back I was still on active duty. And I wasn’t aware of it then, but I took a lot of my Army “values” into the civilian world. By “values” I don’t mean the ones that the drill sergeants make you memorize in a pseudo, third-reichish ceremony bonfire after we’re done with the last ruck march. I don’t mean the ones embedded in the purposefully mispelled acronym “LDRSHIP,” either. By values, I mean the culture–the way of being of soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen and women.

In the military, one develops many traits; some good, others not so. But one of those traits that you do develop is a highly advanced and even messed up sense of humor. A real straight-forward, raw and uncut way of looking at things. It also releases any previous harness your tongue might have had before. I can easily drop f-bombs left and right without as much as blinking an eye. So when I was with my battles, it wasn’t an issue. I can catch up with any of my old Army friends and turn it back on. “It is what it is,” right? Well, not in today’s world of academia, no sir.

As we all know, today’s college and universities are a luke-warm cauldron of political correctness that has taken on fascist-like characteristics. And I kind of learned that the bad way. So when I started grad school, I was still on active duty. I was technically using my leave days until I officially ETS’d or separated. But that’s a small detail. However, it does represent a much larger trope that’s been sitting in the back of my mind for four years. And that is that whenever I spoke of my military experience–which was impossible of me not to–people, but especially men, started acting weird. Let me explain.

Most people, when they find out that I was in the Army say, “Thank you for your service,” which is fine. Some people genuinely mean it, while to other–it feels–it’s just something you say. Like “Bless you” when someone sneezes. In any case, I started noticing that when I spoke of anything “hoaah,” the man or guy I’d be talking to, and especially if he was heterosexual, tried to buck up. He tried to artificially inflate his sense of man; his masculinity, as he now stood before another man whose masculinity had been tested and proven through military service.

Now I should point out that in grad school I tried to stay away from any gender arguments after a militant feminist chewed me out over a discussion on the wage gap. My still green intellect was yet to be exposed to the rational arguments in this field, and so during a class discussion, I might come off as misogynist dick (I totally did). And for that, I’m quite embarrassed. I only learned that I needed to bring my “hoaah” level down after I started noticing how people reacted to me. Not an easy transition, to say the least. The bottomline is that I’m no expert in gender studies.

But going back to how men felt when I spoke of my Army experience. It seems as if these men felt emasculated by me. I mean, I certainly wasn’t doing it on purpose. But the subtle backlash I got was very interesting. It’s almost as if they felt that I was indicting their masculinity. Perhaps it was the fact that I joined because I had to, just like the millions of people from all races and creeds do. Not only was I down economically, but I knew that I wanted to get my Master’s no matter what. So to me, grad school meant a lot. I had been deployed twice, jumped out of airplanes, policed many fields for cigarette butts, cleaned an ungodly amount of latrines, and just a lot of dumb crap for my GI Bill.

The worst was when the men would say, “Oh, well, I was going to go to the Marines, but I didn’t.” Well, good for you!  (Even worse are when they try to appropriate their family’s service as their own! I had one fat baby-boomer [original worst generation] try to make it seem as if his dad’s service and honors passed on to him like an aristocratic baron of sorts). I’m glad that person had the social safety net that I and many others didn’t have. Or that we weren’t just willing to rack on an exorbitant about of student debt, either. The point is that in the many exchanges that I encountered immediately after I separated, I couldn’t count the times where I had to deal with another man’s hurt feelings of self.

Interestingly enough, this isn’t a purely military/civilian phenomenon, either. Being stationed in a post where you have nothing but cool guys, i.e. Special Forces (SF)/Ops walking around in civilian clothes and viking beards was a real emasculation to us “lesser” troops. I was always amazed when my battle buddy would say about those guys, “They’re real men.” Effectively, within the military there is a chain-of-masculinity, sort of speak.

At the bottom you have the regular guys; the legs. The ones who wear regular old patrol caps. Also referred to as the NAPs, or “non-airborne personnel.” Then you have the “fucking airborne, hoaah” guys. The 82nd, 101st big-ten division guys. The guys that won the Second World War types. I’m one of those idiots. Then, immediately  on top of that, you have the Rangers. Everybody wants to be one. After the Rangers come the SF guys; the green beret. The guys that ruck and kill for a living. The guys that go mudding with their Jeep Wranglers and trucks and intentionally leave the mud all over their vehicles to publicly demonstrate they’re men of the wild. Men who come back with beautiful foreign wives; the guys who can walk around post without any headgear on and sergeant major can’t say shit to em’. And finally, all the way at the top of the mountain, looking down on us all are the real cool guys: the D-Boys. The Delta/JSOC/SEAL (Joint Special Operations Command) guys. The type of guys who killed Osama Bin Laden. Consequently, the intelligence guys shit at the battalion guys, the engineers shit on the intel guys and the infantry guys shit on everyone that “doesn’t bleed blue.”

At the end of the day it’s all crap. That’s one of the reasons why the Army got so old in the first place. I got tired of the incessant “macho head games” that sent a lot of people to the hospital trying to carry way too much weight in their ruck sacks. That’s the type of stuff that almost got me killed after I went down with a heat stroke after a five-mile run. That’s the stuff that gets people demoted and even kicked out of the Army for. I knew a first sergeant that put a Ranger tab on without going to Ranger school. In the Army, that’s a major offense. And you had this poor, overweight senior NCO dumbass get kicked out, just because he was trying to hang.

At the end of the day, I’m glad I served. My sense of masculinity is healthy enough for me to maintain confident competitive edge, yet not so overbearing to where it’s destructive to myself or anyone else.

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4 Comments

  1. Such honesty and courage in sharing your experiences and what a different account to read! It’s not easy to admit if you may have come across badly, but you are so humble and recognise that. I do hope all has gone well with your masters, all the best

    Like

  2. I really like this post. It’s very interesting to hear about, since I don’t personally have any experience with the military, (I’m 14, how could I:P). Any topics concerning gender norms, feminism, vulnerability and masculinity I find very interesting, so this post was perfect:D

    Like

  3. I don’t think this is just down to masculinity per say. Any time someone talks about an achievement, there will always be someone else who feels like they need to prove their just as good. I think it comes from most of us wanting to prove we’re ‘just as good’.
    It’s really interesting to read your post, especially as someone who knows very little about the way the army works. I really enjoyed reading this and you have a wonderful writing style, very amiable.

    Like

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