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My Army Story (Part 1)

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Ken served 8 years in the U.S. Army as a 46Q, photojournalist. He was named the 2013 Paul D. Savanuck Military Journalist of the Year.

At Bagram Air Base just after receiving the Combat Action Badge (pinned above "U.S. Army").

At Bagram Air Base just after receiving the Combat Action Badge (pinned above "U.S. Army").

I joined the United States Army in 2009 when I was 40 years old. I’m often asked why. It’s a good question.

My stock response is that I wanted to serve, and the Army had raised its age limit during the height of our two wars. There was a window I could slip through, and my nation needed me.

That is part of the truth.

The whole truth is less patriotic: It was also a half-assed suicide attempt.

I know that sounds dramatic, but at the time my life was dramatic. On January 5, 2009 my wife walked away from our marriage, on our anniversary no less, and to say her departure was abrupt doesn’t even begin to describe it. We’d been together for 14 years. Our lives, I thought, were irrevocably entwined. She left, and I uncoiled like a broken garage door spring.

I couldn’t fathom moving on alone and didn’t want to try. A delirium that’s very hard to describe overtook me. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t drink my grief away.

The loneliness was overwhelming. I gravitated to online dating sites to fill the void, but that only mixed me up worse. Meanwhile, my painting business started to sputter. My mind was elsewhere, so the quality of my work suffered. I had to move back into my parents’ house with my two young kids when I was 39.

A couple of months into this hell, I decided to buy a pistol and end my life. I drove to the nearest gun shop, which was 30 minutes away in Salida, Colorado

As I was speaking to the young man behind the counter about the benefits of 22 calibers compared to 40 calibers, the thought of my kids living the rest of their lives with the repercussions of me shooting myself overtook me. My daughter was two years old, my son five.

I thanked the young man behind the counter for his time and shuffle-stepped back to the gravel parking lot. If you were one of the people who happened to drive by the Salida Gunshop at that moment, you would have seen a ghost of a man sniveling and limping and hiccupping towards a silver Toyota 4Runner like he’d just been tear-gassed.

I was crumbling apart like an asteroid hitting the atmosphere. Delirious as I was, I could still see that if I kept plummeting, I’d keep fragmenting until there was nothing left to hit the ground. My end wouldn’t even make an impact.

That’s when a notion slipped into my head: If this was the beginning of the end for me, maybe there was a more noble way to die. Like a Soldier.

I don’t know where that random thought came from, but it put into motion a series of decisions that launched a 180° change in my life that would drag me to the edge sanity, and then pull me back.

180°

Nothing could have been more ludicrous for me than joining the Army.

I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s – two relatively peaceful decades for our country that made it easy for people like me to dismiss the armed forces as a last-ditch career choice for dumb jocks and rednecks. All I knew about the military came from watching reruns of “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “M*A*S*H” or from movies like “Stripes” and “Platoon.”

Today it’s just expected that we support our service members in every possible way, but in the 80’s and 90’s the predominant cultural climate in America bred subtle hostility and, maybe worse - blatant indifference towards our men and women in uniform. I was as guilty as anyone.

Looking back, I think one of the most cringe-worthy moments in American history came when independent presidential candidate Ross Perot picked retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale to be his running mate for the 1992 presidential campaigns. Perot surprised the nation and proved to be a formidable opponent, ultimately garnering a record 19% of the popular vote – but Stockdale became a footnote. He was mercilessly ridiculed by news media and on Saturday Night Live as being a doddering old fool.

I’m ashamed to say, in 1992 I didn’t know what a Medal of Honor was. Stockdale was not only a recipient, but also owned four Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars for valor in combat - an astounding array of honors for any service member in the history of our armed forces – but none of us knew what that meant.

The man was probably the most badass American hero to enter politics in the last century and nobody cared.

That was the state of America in the 90’s. The Gulf War was a TV show. I came of age in those years, so joining the military never crossed my mind as an option in life. It was what other people did.


2009

I wandered through my 20’s and 30’s as a wannabe Renaissance man: I earned college degrees in journalism and theater, moved to New Zealand for a while, tried to be an actor, wrote a couple bad screenplays, worked as a bouncer in strip clubs and country bars, and eventually wound up in California painting scenery for Broadway plays and TV shows for the better part of a decade. After my wife and I had kids, we moved back home to Colorado to raise them in a less chaotic place.

9/11 opened my eyes to our armed forces, but military service remained a foreign world to me. Come 2009 and I’d been alive for four decades and didn’t know the difference between a sergeant and a colonel.

After I aborted my initial plan in the gun shop I went home and did a little internet research into joining the military. I was surprised how easy it was to sign up for service.

I answered a few online questions on the U.S. Army recruitment page, and two days later real-life U.S. Army recruiter Staff Sgt. Marc Parker stepped through a dusting of newly-fallen snow in my front yard to knock on my door. I can still see him, completely out of place in my high-mountain hipster town, standing there on my doorstep. It was the first time I’d ever talked to a member of the U.S. military in uniform.

I remember focusing on his tan, thick-soled Army boots and thinking what a bummer it must be to have to wear something like that all day, every day. I’d never worn anything but tennis shoes to work. He offered to take his boots off, but I said don’t worry about that. Come on in.

We sat opposite each other at my glass dining room table. He informed me that, since I had two college degrees, I could come into the Army at the rank of specialist.

That sounded pretty cool to me: “Specialist.” It had a ring of authority to my civilian ears.

“Is that, like, above a sergeant?” I asked.

“Uh . . . no,” he offered. “But you’d start just two ranks below me.”

Staff Sgt. Parker was good at his job. He didn’t mention that it takes years to move up a rank in the Army, and left me intrigued and excited about the prospects of being a middle-aged man in the military. A week or so later, at his behest, I made the drive to the military entrance processing center (MEPS) in Denver to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) - a general subject test designed to predict if you’re smart and stable enough to be a Soldier. Back then if you could pass the ASVAB and a physical, and weren’t a felon, you could be a Soldier.

You might be surprised that a 40-year-old could join the Army. In fact, the maximum age is back down to 35 now but at the time the Army had raised it to 42. The country was embroiled in two exhausting wars and needed all the help it could get. Most prospects my age didn’t get past MEPS because they couldn’t pass the initial physicals, but I passed all the tests with flying colors, so Uncle Sam happily welcomed me into his steely embrace.

Almost every single person I knew begged me not to go through with it. The military was so opposite from who I was it was laughable, and they feared for me. But I was out of my mind.

I signed on the line and took the oath – and thus 2009 became one hell of a year for me. It started with my wife leaving me, and ended in basic training.

Worst. Year. Ever.

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Next up: Part 2 - "Balls"

At a welcome home ceremony at Fort Hood, Texas.

At a welcome home ceremony at Fort Hood, Texas.

© 2019 Ken Scar