Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sal Baldovinos Shares His Army Experience

I met Sal Baldovinos on Twitter with his Twitter username @mayhemchaos when I noticed a tweet and clicked through to his profile. As soon as I saw ex-army as part of his Twitter profile, I asked if he would write a guest post for me. He jumped right in with both feet and wrote a long guest post.

I didn’t break this post into two parts because I think it’s worth reading in one take for a very descriptive insider’s view of basic training and the concerns of our service members. And you can read more of Sal’s writing at his own blog

What drives a person to join the military. For some it's an escape. For others, it is true patriotic servitude to their country. And for me, like many others, it was a way to lessen the financial burdens of college tuition.

It was career and financial aid night at my high school. I was just a junior then and already looking for ways to pay for school to ease the stress off of my mother.

I sat in on all the major Texas universities’ financial assistance sessions. Just as my mother and I were leaving, I spotted a friend of mine, Jason, a senior, sitting at the Army recruiters' booth with his black army shirt on.

We chatted for a bit when, in no time, I was approached by one of the recruiters. He gave me his card and for the next few weeks we went over the formalities of what it would take for me to join the Army. Being that I was only a junior and 17 years old, I could not enlist in the regular Army for another year. My only other option was to enlist in the split-option program in the Army Reserve. So I did just that.

I took my oath

December 29, 1999, was the day I took my oath to be in the United States Army Reserve. Though it's been 10 years, and as cliche as it may sound, I still remember that day as if it were last week.

I spent the night in downtown Houston prior to all the tests, questioning and more tests that would follow the next day. It was a night you'd think someone would not be able to sleep. However, it was the opposite for me. I never really get anxious or nervous until the moment of execution, so sleeping was not a big deal for me that night.

Early the next morning, I went down stairs to the hotel's cafeteria and ate what would be my last official civilian breakfast. The van took us to the MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) center and so began an all-day procedure of enlisting in the United States Army. I was shuffled from room-to-room, asked question after question, signed and dated countless documents and officially grew annoyed of reciting my social security number.

Nevertheless, the day came to a close with our swearing in. I raised my right hand and pledged myself, like countless numbers of men and women before me, to the United States.

I would leave for Basic Combat Training that summer to complete the required 10 weeks of training at Ft. Knox, KY. Since I was under the slit-option, I would return home to finish my senior year of high school and complete the second half of training the following year.

Boot camp – an adjustment to say the least

Boot camp was just as you would imagine. Most movies depicted basic training just as it is. Within a few hours my personal belongings were whisked away to be replaced with standard issue clothing. My once full set of hair was substituted with a "screaming eagle" -- a fully shaved head.

We were met with two drill instructors that said nothing to us on the bus ride to the barracks, though that would soon change with constant yelling and in-your-face insults on our lack of speed. We were wrangled up, filed in to lines, made to do push-ups for not retrieving our duffle bags quickly enough. And this was all before lunch.

The next few weeks were an adjustment, to say the least. Class after class, drill after drill, mile after mile made me cherish what I had left back home. Once assimilation to military life had set in, the rest of boot camp was pretty much easy. I repelled off towers, marched more miles then most people do in a year, experienced night infiltration training, slept in the mud and ambushed opposing companies.

I fired a weapon for the first time, threw a hand grenade, stepped into a gas chamber and counted to 10 with riot gas filling my lungs. We went through what all soldiers go through in preparation for what could one day save our lives.

I didn't pray much then, only during the standard prayer times one might participate in: bedtime, meal times and times of stress. As a treat, we were taken in to town to a local church that would give a magic show and presentation every class. They gave us all Bibles and prayed over us.

I was filled with a religious high that lasted about as long as I could stand to sit and read one chapter of the Bible. I think we all had that spiritual motivation the night following. We were all a little nicer to one another, reading portions of the Bible that we felt would help us through this time.

Of course that went away as quickly as it came for most of us. The stresses of boot camp, being away from home and clashing personalities would ultimately extinguish that spiritual high. After all, we were being trained to recite "kill, kill, kill" -- not recite the Ten Commandments.

After Basic Combat Training

I finished the 10 weeks of Basic Combat Training and graduated just three days before I had to go back to Houston and start my senior year of high school. It was, as for many people, a fuzzy memory of mid-terms, Friday night football games and steady girlfriend. Throughout that year I began drilling with my Reserve unit in Houston. I was the youngest person in the entire unit at the time. Not even fresh out of high school, but still enjoying those days.

I had great leadership and made strong friendships in that time. But as quickly as I came home, I was leaving again to finish the second half of my training in Ft. Lee, VA. When I enlisted I was given only a few options to choose from for job training as I was forced to pick based on shipping dates since I was in the split-option.

Out of my choices, I went with the job that best suited my interests. I went to Ft. Lee and completed my training as a Food Service Specialist, the glorified title for a cook. I enjoyed every class and all the free food we cooked. It was basically college with drill instructors yelling at you in the mornings and evenings, while our classroom instructors treated us with a little less aggression.

The weeks to follow were not as routine as one would expect. My time in Virginia was immediately following the events of September 11th. Besides the constant security checks, the chronic challenge and passwords to enter a building and endless reminders that we were at war, training went by quickly and I would graduate and come back home.

By this time I was already into my second year of an eight-year contract with the Army. I was strongly considering joining the regular Army and going overseas to finish out my time. I took a year off from school after I got home to evaluate what I really wanted to do with my life.

I postponed the decision to transfer to an active army unit once I decided to go to The Art Institute of Houston to pursue a degree in multimedia and web design. I continued drilling at my reserve unit and living my life as a civilian/soldier.

For the next two years as I completed my studies at The Art Institute, my postponed decision not to go active duty became a more permanent one. I was enjoying school and most of all civilian life. I knew, for me, the Army was not a career choice anymore and I started to resent aspects of the Army. After September 11th our unit was under constant rumor alert for when and if we would be getting deployed. Each summer seemed to be our last in the States.

One such summer was met with a phone call telling me to get my paperwork in order and finalize any personal things for we would be leaving in 90 days. This not only upset me, but also my family and finance, as we were in the beginning phase of planning our wedding. We had less then two months to plan everything only to find out in the end that it was just another false alarm.

My resentment in the Army stemmed from ever-changing leadership, mismanagement, disorganization and simply being burnt out from all the back-and-forth and instability of whether or not we would ever be deployed. My final two years in the Army Reserve were filled with challenging my superiors, questioning my reasons for enlisting and at one point considering reenlisting to another unit.

I had become disillusioned with the unit I was with but didn't want to get out of the Army just yet. With the changing political atmosphere and constant threat of being deployed, I decided with my family that it would be best to finish out the two years and be discharged at the end of my contract.

Leaving the Army

As my time was coming to an end there I was met with at monthly meetings about why I didn't want to reenlist. One of the new motor pool sergeants called me in to his office. We were fairly acquainted but didn't know one another beyond that. He was curious, like the retention officers, why I didn’t want to reenlist.

He said to me, "I always see you come to drill and you're smiling, laughing and generally seem to like being here. So why would you want to leave so badly?" I answered him as honestly as I could; I told him about my troubles with the Army and the mishandling of medical expenses.

I've been out of the Army for almost two years and, though I miss a lot of the friends I made, I don't miss the Army itself. I was an important phase of my life and I honestly don't look back with any regret. I learned about being a leader, being a follower and being a good American.

Phyllis Zimbler Miller is the author of MRS. LIEUTENANT: A SHARON GOLD NOVEL and the co-author of the Jewish holiday book SEASONS FOR CELEBRATION. She also blogs at PZ the Do-Gooder Scrooge and Operation Support Jews in the Military, and she is the co-host of the BlogTalkRadio show Your Military Life. Her company Miller Mosaic LLC builds call-to-action websites for book authors and small businesses.


Justin said...

hey Baldy!!! I thought you LOVED the army HAHAHAHAHA... stop spreading you propaganda everywhere people are going to think the reserves are full of fat disorganized weekend wannabes.....oh wait....lol
You should have gone active buddy completely different experience.


Justin said...

Oh Hey I thought this was one of Sals blogs...oops anyways we served together for about a year I met him after my 6 year stint in active when I transferred to that unit. Truly unfortunate how his perspective was skewed due to that units short-comings anyways good story.