Soldier

After five years as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, I joined the Army because I wanted a challenge. I wanted adventure. Then I started basic training on September 11, 2001, and got more than I expected. After serving multiple tours in Iraq—patrolling city streets in the dead of night, hunting down insurgents, shooting at the enemy and being shot at—I will never be the same.
Matt Cook, photographed in Austin, on Memorial Day, 2008.
Photograph by Brent Humphreys

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

I sit in the formation area packed with two hundred other cherry recruits. Here it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. We are all equally worthless. We are all named Joe.

I had enlisted in the Army one month earlier. I’d marched into the recruiter’s office, and before the first lie could fly from his mouth, I’d assured him that I was in. There was nothing revealingly patriotic about my decision; I’ve always considered myself to be a Texan first and an American second. Enlisting was my rite of passage, but I was in need of some external motivation to muster up the courage to part ways with the creature comforts of my life as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin. I had a naive desire to make my life more adventurous, Hemingway-ish even, and in my diseased imagination, there was a war hero inside of me. Furthermore, I was madly in love with my ex-girlfriend and determined to show her that a man was hiding behind my indolent shortcomings. She did not want me back. So I’d decided to become a soldier.

Now I hurry up and wait for the drill sergeants to pick us up for our first day of basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. I grow nervous when they arrive. They circle us quietly, like sharks sensing blood. I make eye contact with Drill Sergeant Jones. He is tall, husky, and black. I have never seen a more unpleasant scowl.

“Did you just eye-fuck me, white boy?”

“No, Drill Serg—”

“Shut your cock-holster, Private!”

“Roger, Drill Serg—”

“Oh, I see. You a funny motherfucka, huh? I gonna remember you, Private!”

A dozen more drill sergeants enter the formation area. I pull my patrol cap low and watch their reflections pass in the spit shine of my boot. I want to be Drill Sergeant Jones. For the next fourteen weeks he will be my mentor and my adversary, and he represents everything I hope to become. His job is to make me forget who I was and remind me every day of what I really am: “I am a fucking killer. What makes the green grass grow? Blood! Blood! Bright-red blood!”

We are divided into four platoons and begin our march downrange, calling out cadence, “I used to date a beauty queen; now I hump my M16.” We step all over one another’s heels; they have not taught us how to walk yet. It is a beautiful morning. The sky is cloudless and blue, the air clean and cool. We reach our barracks and form up in our platoon areas quickly and quietly. We are introduced to our company’s first sergeant. He is tall and thin and has a fatherly face.

“Listen up,” he says. “Does anyone here have parents who work at the World Trade Center, in New York City?”

No one responds.

“Good. Does anyone here have parents who work at the Pentagon, in D.C.?”

Again silence.

“Even better. Welcome. Drill sergeants, they’re yours.” He turns and walks back into his office as they awake like a disturbed anthill.

“Grab your duffel bags, privates. Hold ’em out to your sides.”

Less than a minute later, I’m struggling to keep the bags off my hips. My arms and shoulders are on fire, and I am trying my best to fight the laws of physics—and to stay invisible. Too late.

“Holy hoppin’ Hebrew, Private! We’re going to war, and you can’t hold up a bag? Ho-lee shit! I can already tell YOU ARE GONNA DIE!” He removes the brim of his hat from the bridge of my nose and moves on to the next Joe.

The rest of the day continues in the following manner. Push-ups. Flutter kicks. Up-down-goes. Mountain climbers. Drink water. Cherry pickers. Pull-ups. Dips. Drink water. At night we are herded ten at a time into the latrine for a thirty-second shower, then we dress for the next morning’s physical training and stand at attention in the middle of the room. I stare at the man across from me as we repeat the Infantryman’s Creed. We are under total control.

Senior Drill Sergeant White’s hoarse voice breaks through the room as he turns out the light. “Today, the United States was attacked,” he says. “Two planes destroyed the World Trade Center towers, killing twenty thousand people, and another crashed into the Pentagon, killing five thousand. Congratulations. You are the first basic training class of the new American war.” He walks into his office and shuts the door.

My eyes are heavy, and my body aches with pain and joy. I laugh to myself as I mount my bunk. I see right through his mind game, but I bet some of these guys believe him.

RAKKASANS

The rest of basic training is a joke. And so is airborne school, which I complete directly after. The drill sergeants and airborne instructors are more than capable of pushing us, but they are limited by Army bureaucracy and the politically correct way of doing things. Standards get lowered, training becomes easier, and I feel no real satisfaction from graduating. There is a looming sense of things to come post-9/11, and I want to be a part of it. I’m feeling patriotic, but I will have to wait.

My first duty assignment lands me in Korea in late February 2002. I train near the demilitarized zone and am so close to the North Korean army that I hear propaganda being played over the loudspeakers. A year passes, and new orders send me to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where I am assigned to 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Known as the Rakkasans—a nickname given by the Japanese during World War II that loosely means “falling umbrellas”—we are the most elite brigade in the regular Army. (Just ask a Rakkasan.) The war in Iraq is a month old, and my unit has already been deployed to the

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