Commentary: A veteran reflects on service, pride in fellow service members

By Beth Reece

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I was the fat kid more likely to curl up in the corner with a book than go outdoors. So when my dad announced my senior year of high school that I should pursue my dream of becoming a writer by way of the military, it was clearly a joke.

“That’s not for Beth Ann,” Mom protectively shot back. But it was for me.

At the recruiting station downtown, an Army staff sergeant wooed me with details about the G.I. Bill and the public affairs career field for print and broadcast journalists. All I had to do was lose 10 pounds, pass a typing test, then score high enough on the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery test.

“Be All You Can Be” was the slogan then. For a young West Virginia girl from the sticks, those were heady words. As scared as I was of boot camp and being shot at, I wanted to become the best writer I could be, and the Army provided a path. As my friends waited for glossy college brochures to arrive in the mail, I raised my right hand and promised five years of my life to the Army.

I went to Basic Training in July 1989 at Fort Dix, New Jersey, commonly referred to as “Fort Disneyland,” though I don’t recall my all-female battalion having many thrills. Barely off the bus, a drill sergeant singled me out for wearing a ragged T-shirt embellished with Old Glory. “Drop and start pushing,” he hollered before conveying my first lesson: the American flag is not a fashion statement.

In the next 10 weeks, I went from being a nervous, unmotivated teenager to a soldier – fit, disciplined and confident. I learned how to march, shoot and survive. And I discovered Army core values like loyalty, duty, selfless service, integrity and personal courage.

Though I was officially “trained to kill,” my job was to write news and feature stories, not serve in the infantry. At the Department of Defense’s Basic Journalism Course, I learned the importance of fact-checking and spelling sources’ names correctly. I learned in just a couple of months what probably would’ve taken me years to grasp in college.

Would the kids I grew up with recognize the new me? Would we have anything in common? Turns out, I didn’t care. They were busy exploring their new independence and partying. I was put on orders for South Korea. It was pure luck that Army personnel managers assigned me to a monthly magazine in Taegu, where the noncommissioned officers I worked for insisted it didn’t matter how good a writer I became if I wasn’t just as strong a soldier. And although being assigned to a logistics support command shielded me from the hazardous duty along the demilitarized zone on the northern border, those NCOs didn’t allow it to soften me.

When units on the peninsula gathered in the field for training exercises, I followed. Some Army journalists were allowed to cover the war games in civvies and stayed in warm, dry hotels. I camped alongside the troops in tents during monsoons and practiced marksmanship and combat skills the same as they did when not conducting interviews or crawling in the dirt with my camera. And when I was assigned a story on a rappelling and mountaineering school on a nearby island, I wasn’t standing on the sidelines with a pen and notepad. I, too, overcame the fear of steep heights, stepping off cliffs tethered by nothing but a rope.

War came in 1990 when President George H. W. Bush deployed the 82nd Airborne Division to the border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I remember standing in formation at morning PT cheering for the 82nd and sharing my fellow soldiers’ pride and confidence in the lethality known as the United States Army. But it wasn’t my war. Korea-based units remained in place. I longed to be a part of the history being made, to capture in words and images the courage of America’s sons and daughters. Instead, I became a wannabe who still wonders how it would’ve felt to lean on my skills and gear, to know the thin line between safety and danger.

When my five years of active duty ended, I got out of the Army knowing that joining was one of the best decisions I ever made. So I did the next best thing and became an Army civilian, eventually landing a job at the Army’s flagship publication, Soldiers magazine, a dream I’d had since discovering the publication on a rack outside the chow hall my first month in Korea. My goal was to continue sharing soldiers’ stories in a way that made them feel good about what they did whether they worked on the front lines, at a motor pool or in the supply room.

I was no longer serving in uniform, but I knew what it was like. And I could fully appreciate the tenacity of those I wrote about. People like Tibor Rubin, a Hungarian Jew who was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp only to later join the U.S. Army and save his fellow soldiers when they were taken prisoner by communists during the Korean War. People like Michael Novosel and his son Mike Jr., who served as “dustoff” pilots for the 82nd Medical Detachment during the Vietnam War. Their job rescuing wounded or trapped soldiers, often amid fire, was a death wish. And there were those who joined on the heels of 9/11 with zero doubt they were bound for Iraq or Afghanistan.

These are the soldiers I think of on Veterans Day, the ones whose bravery and fortitude far outshine mine. Most people have stopped counting the lives, limbs and minds America lost in the Middle East, but those losses – and our victories – make me even more thankful for having served. I may not have been given the opportunity to deploy to a warzone, but I was ready if called and willing if needed. I was a soldier. And that gives me a sense of gratitude and pride in our veterans that only an American who’s raised their right hand can have.