The Soldier in Me

It was January 1989, during my senior year in high school. My family was sitting at the dinner table when my mother turned to me: “I was talking to some mothers today, and their kids are all applying for colleges. When are you going to get to it?”

I stared back, “I already told you. I'm joining the Army.”

Until that moment, my parents apparently thought my plans for military service were a form of youthful rebellion. Or stupidity. But that night my plans suddenly became real -- the start of a months-long battle to convince them that I knew what I was doing and would not be deterred.

Normally, I wouldn't care what my parents thought. I was a teenager. But at 17, I needed parental approval to enlist, a battle I eventually won. Six weeks shy of my 18th birthday, I reported to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to train as an MLRS/LANCE Operations/Fire Direction Specialist, managing operations and logistics for a missile platoon.

I was a mess of a human being. I was 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighed just 111 pounds, and didn't have a shred of self-confidence. In high school, I had been the short, skinny, Salvadoran war refugee with the funny accent who looked half his age (still do) and read books in the (then) lily-white Chicago suburb of Schaumburg. A deadly combination.

I was also a Republican. As a 17-year-old precinct captain in 1988, not even old enough to vote, I helped deliver one of the district's best precinct performances for Henry Hyde. I had a framed picture of me with George H. W. Bush.

Of course, that was a different time, a different Republican Party. And I was a different kind of Republican -- always socially liberal, committed to fiscal sanity, and willing to pay more than lip service to the concept of national service. Talk was cheap. I was going to wear combat boots.

* * *

Military service is a sacrifice from the beginning. The cheap combat boots assigned to new recruits blister the toughest of feet -- after one particularly grueling 20-plus-mile road march with a 100-pound rucksack, I literally squeezed out blood from my socks. But basic training was the best thing to ever happen to me. They say they break you down in basic training so they can rebuild you into a real man. I was already broken when I arrived at Fort Sill. For me, it was all building.

Eight weeks later, I emerged a brand new person, this one weighing 140 pounds. And after my three-year stint, while I was stationed in Germany and missed deploying to the Gulf War by a hair, I emerged as a Democrat.

There's a reason most vets running for office this year are running as Democrats. The military is perhaps the ideal society -- we worked hard but the Army took care of us in return. All our basic needs were met -- housing, food, and medical care. It was as close to a color-blind society as I have ever seen. We looked out for one another. The Army invested in us. I took heavily subsidized college courses and learned to speak German on the Army's dime. I served with people from every corner of the country. I got to party at the Berlin Wall after it fell and explored Prague in those heady post-communism days. I wasn't just a tourist; I was a witness to history.

The Army taught me the very values that make us progressives -- community, opportunity, and investment in people and the future. Returning to Bush Senior's America, I was increasingly disillusioned by the selfishness, lack of community, and sense of entitlement inherent in the Republican philosophy. The Christian Coalition scared the heck out of me. And I was offended by the lip service paid to national service when most Republicans couldn't be bothered to wear combat boots. I voted for Bush in 1992, but that was the last time I voted Republican.

Lest this sound like an ad for the Army, those were different times, when our men and women weren't treated as expendable pawns in a neoconservative's game of Risk. One of the many tragedies of the Iraq War is that the military is no longer a viable option for those needing a boost up the socio-economic ladder, making college a possibility, granting people the confidence and experience that has paid such huge dividends for countless veterans.

Daily Kos and Crashing the Gate, my co-authored book, would not exist without the confidence and experience I gained in the military. Yet I wouldn't enlist in today's world. I look forward to the day that military service is once again a viable alternative for people like the person I used to be.

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga is the proprietor of and co-author, with Jerome Armstrong, of Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics (Chelsea Green).