Hopefully, if you're reading this article, your upbringing was relatively free of war. If that's the case, you probably got all of your information about the military from movies. But even accounting for what you already assumed was Hollywood bullshit (obviously war is not a nonstop action explosion festival), if you're like most people, you still have a grossly skewed idea about what life in the military is like. For instance, many of you think ...
I'll be blunt: Everything about boot camp in movies is wrong. At least, it's wrong today. What you find out in boot camp is that the heart of military life isn't killing bad guys, fulfilling your potential or being all you can be. It's uniform inspections.
And they almost never let us draw skulls on anything.
When it comes to this, it doesn't matter what service you join. For approximately the first two weeks of boot camp, you will do nothing but learn how to wear your uniform, iron your uniform, fold your uniform, stow your uniform and, if you're lucky, take out your uniform and iron it again.
How is it even possible to spend so much time on uniforms? Well, given that it's the heart of military life, letting your uniform deviate from the standard by a quantum measurement is basically like punching America in the face. When I was at boot camp, a drill sergeant there would use one of those laser pointers as a level to make sure that medals were mounted on our uniforms straight. It takes time and effort to learn to compete with lasers. We'd also learn stuff like how to repeatedly iron and starch between the buttonholes on our shirts. Apparently, some almost-noticeable lines tend to form there, and the rest of the world doesn't even know about it, but in the military, they could clearly cause a devastating loss of morale.
Look at this guy's ruffled lapels. No wonder he lost the war.
After those weeks, even when you think you're moving on to learning other things, you are still constantly preparing for the most important part: daily uniform inspections. But between those, you do get to learn other things. For example, how to stand at attention, which you wouldn't think would take that long. It's just standing, right? Well, I was failed once because one of my thumbs was resting slightly in front of the crease of my pants instead of behind it. Also rack inspections, where you learn how to make your bed again, and again, and again, and then one more time.
But what about the other shit, like the crazy drill sergeants who will drive you to suicide? Fortunately, these days at least, that position isn't staffed with people who have personality disorders. They're also much more limited in what they can do to correct recruits -- physical abuse, working people out too long, swearing and anything else you can imagine any self-respecting drill sergeant doing simply aren't allowed anymore. Of course, being drill sergeants, they find imaginative ways to correct you anyway, but it's going to be more along the lines of making you stand out in the middle of a field saluting squirrels.
"Just a few more hours and Sarge will let me pray for death."
When Maverick hops into his F-14, or Will Smith goes after a giant alien flying saucer in his F-18, what never makes it onto screen is the absolute shitload of tedious maintenance that goes on to make that possible. An older aircraft needs a mind-boggling 40 to 60 man-hours of maintenance per hour of flight. A newer aircraft like an F/A-18 will have "only" about six hours for every flight hour ... but that number goes up as the fleet ages.
Better join quick!
Try to picture a video game or an old G.I. Joe play set from your childhood that featured this (real) maintenance schedule: You wash the plane every 14 days and take the panels off and hand-wipe interior of the plane every 28 days. You do flight control maintenance every 56 days, and take everything apart once a year. And don't forget phase inspections for metal fatigue, the independent inspections by military higher-ups, the conditional inspections after the plane has had a hard landing, the engine inspections after every 150 and 300 flight hours, inspections of the flight recorder after every 10 flight hours ... and that's on a plane that's working perfectly. This isn't even touching on the time spent fixing shit that breaks.
The mechanics do the work, and the pilots get laid.
It's not just planes -- it's every piece of equipment. It all needs constant upkeep and babysitting. In the Navy, out of the 250 to 300 ships in the fleet, only a hundred are up and working at any one time. The rest are in maintenance. Generally, that's one year off for every six months of use. Our guns, too, are notorious for getting jammed easily in sand and need constant attention (good thing none of our wars are fought in deserts these days), and tank crews spend more time maintaining their vehicles than anything else.
"Jesus guys, did anyone not spill their drink in here? Slurpee Friday was the worst idea ever."
So even if servicemen and women are 1) serving during a war and 2) getting deployed to combat zones, the majority are in support roles. Not just fixing the aforementioned machinery, but cooking meals, driving trucks, trying to use the computers, trying to fix the computers, trying to put in orders for new computers and so forth.
In a combat zone like Iraq, for every one soldier whose job description includes combat, 2.5 people are in support positions doing all of the tedious but lifesaving work that makes his job possible. So if you're like the vast majority of those who serve, the rest of your life will most likely not be spent telling war stories, but rather explaining to that 15-year-old punk in Starbucks that you got the scar on your face from tripping over an unsecured air conditioning cable on the way to your bunk.
If First Blood, The Deer Hunter, Jarhead and countless other movies have taught us one thing, it's that every serviceman who has ever set foot in a war zone is just one combat flashback away from suicide, homelessness or violent murder. If you're lucky, he will just quietly drink himself to death. If you're not, he's gonna lay a beat-down on your ass, because he's having a violent flashback and thinks that you're the 'Cong.
Oh, with a C? Man, we got that war all wrong.
I understand that out-of-control people make for better drama. And it's not always even played for tragedy -- everybody loves the idea of a hero like Rambo who can flip out, wreck half a town and yet still be totally justified in doing so because of where he's been and what he's seen.
But while the public understands that most trips to Vegas do not end in wacky accidental marriages and that most FBI employees do not face off against hyperintelligent serial killers on a weekly basis, it's somehow become general knowledge that this movie image of veterans is pretty much spot-on. Maybe because when veterans groups try to raise awareness of post traumatic stress disorder, people think they're talking about the thing in the movie with the hallucinations and shooting sprees. They're not.
They almost never let us check out rocket launchers anyway.
First, let's get one thing out of the way right now -- PTSD is real, mental illness is a serious issue that should never be downplayed, and even one suicide is a tragedy. No one here is trying to say otherwise. But let's take a look at what doctors, not Hollywood, say about PTSD: The most common symptoms are disturbed sleep, memory problems and depression, not "violent rampages against the uncaring system that created you."
Do a small number of sufferers respond with violence or lawbreaking? Yes, but some people respond to getting cut off in traffic in the same way. Neither is common. PTSD might ruin your life, but chances are it won't make you a badass.
"Mitch, you've been a mess ever since you got back from the war. Please, if not for yourself, then for the people who love you, go on a cathartic homicidal rampage."
But here's the part that really crushes the Hollywood fantasy: In general, soldiers are actually as healthy mentally as the general population, and in some ways even healthier. In a recent article about military suicide, Army officials expressed worry over the fact that, after soldiers had endured a decade of grueling war and separation from their families, their suicide rate had reached that of the general population. That is, soldiers were in danger of committing suicide at the same rate as the general population which includes babies, loving grandmothers, the double-rainbow guy and others who are not generally known for their tendencies toward self-harm.
If you consider that the military is disproportionately made up of demographics that have always correlated with suicide -- young, male, and with easy access to guns -- the military actually comes out ahead. Then there's the fact that a recent Army study showed that 79 percent of Army suicides occurred when the soldier had either been deployed just once or not at all. In other words, repeated visits to combat zones somehow make you less likely to kill yourself.
"Hey, if I survived this ..."
"But wait," you say. "These are Gulf War vets! What about Vietnam vets like Rambo? Everybody knows that war was extra-traumatic and that they were horribly excluded from society." Well, the fact is that Vietnam vets are actually doing pretty well. If you're a Vietnam vet, you're less likely to be unemployed, more likely to have finished college and better off economically than the average nonveteran.
"Thanks, stolen communist gold!"
Not that we're trying to paint a too-pretty picture here. After all, another misconception is ...