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Peacenik-vegan-yogi embeds in Army, achieves unexpected balance

April 30th, 2011 Posted in Arts and Life

Story & Photos by Natasha “Sarge” Bodily

LOGAN—As the semester ends, I think it is about time I reveal my little secret: I was never actually planning to join the Army. As in: never in a million years.

• Editor’s Note: JCOM print/PR major Natasha Bodily has documented her semester-long “embedded” experience with the Army ROTC at Utah State. What began as a challenge to do a push-up became something more. See the earlier reports in Natasha Bodily’s “You’re in The Army Now” series.
• Part I. Army 1: You’re in the ROTC now! Trying to be all that she can be
• Part II. Army 2: Drop and give me 20, cadet! Reflections on 5:45 a.m. training
• Part III. Army 3: Early-morning Army ROTC training not all fun & games
• Part IV. Army 4: Cadets go to war in furious mountainside paintball battle

When I was asked to become an embedded journalist in the Army ROTC at Utah State this semester, I hesitated for only a millisecond. I had interviewed some of the officers and cadets for another article, and enjoyed seeing another side of the military I knew nothing about.

I suppose I can’t say I knew nothing about the military: I grew up near Hill Air Force Base in Layton, Utah, and every year became best friends with someone who would be moving away at the end of the year. In my mind, the military stole my best friends, and I did not like it.

As I grew older, I realized “the military” didn’t steal my friends, but more likely I had a propensity for befriending those who had a different background or culture than I did. But that never fooled me into thinking I would never enlist, and I probably would never marry a military man either. I did not want my theoretical future children the kids who move all the time and lose their best friends.

Another reason I jumped at the opportunity to embed was my polar oppositeness to anyone who would want to join the Army. I am a peace-sign-toting yogi who wants everyone to be friends. If I’d been born in the ’60s, I most definitely would have been a modest hippie. After two weeks in Hawaii recently, I almost decided to move to a Pacific island to practice yoga and soul search. The warm beaches and ocean air connect me with nature and my true self. (I am not exaggerating; I really am this cheesy all the time. It’s surely annoying to those who know me, and who knows what my fellow ROTC cadets would say?)

My passions in life are finding serenity and self-fulfillment. I always see all sides of a dispute and wish each side could realize their similarities. Contention is never the answer in my book, and violence is not either.

In an earlier dispatch from ROTC-undercover, I mentioned that I only have brothers, so I suppose violence occasionally must be the answer. But it was in more of a “once someone is body-slammed and pinned, we’ll be friends again” kind of way. Shooting and killing seem the furthest from a solution to me.

Being a vegetarian, I have never hunted. I vividly remember being traumatized at 3 years old when my grandpa told me the other part of his mounted deer head was in the refrigerator.

So when I “embedded” in the Army at USU last winter, I enveloped myself in this alter ego in my kick to try new things I would never do. (About the same time, I almost joined a sorority, but that is an entirely different story.)

Initially, I planned to lie to all my friends and imply that I was truly considering enlisting in the Army. I kept the bluff going for maybe two or three weeks, but the ferocity of the unlikelihood was too much to maintain. When I confessed to my friend Andrew (mentioned in Army 1), he said he never believed me anyway. I looked so embarrassed when he caught me in my Army attire, he said. I countered that I always look embarrassed.

“But you are the LAST person who would ever do something like that,” he told me. Valid point Andrew. Most of my other friends acted confused, and figured I was joking, or possibly going through a quarter-life crisis. My former boy-who-I-dated-friend admitted that although he saw a great future for me in PR and journalism, he did not see that for me and the Army.

Despite my façade crumbling so quickly, I continued to attend 6 a.m. ROTC PT classes and as many other Army ROTC events as I could. I met with several cadets outside of classes to understand their perspectives more deeply. My most honed interest was in the female cadets.

I quickly realized that my initial impressions of Army life were off. First, military men and women are not exceptionally different from the rest of us—whatever that means. They are constantly joking around and having fun, when I mistakenly assumed they would be more rigid and strict. Under official military protocol, of course, they remain rule-abiding and professional.

Throughout the semester, I made a lot of friends who defied my expectations of how Army life is lived and what it means to be an Army grunt.

But although the Army did not match all my prejudgments, it did meet a few. One reason I signed on for this gig was to get in better shape. I figured all the commercialized “boot camps” could not compare to the real deal. This was certainly accurate. Army physical training classes were hard-core; my body never seemed to have time to recover between Monday, Wednesday, Friday’s 6 a.m. exercises and my Tuesday, Thursday yoga classes. The workout regimen has been well defined and tested to create physically fit officers.

I’m no officer, but I’m in better shape than I was three months ago.

My experience also made me appreciate the dedication and patriotism of Army personnel. Everyone I talked to wanted to serve a common good, something bigger than themselves. In some students, I saw how the Army ROTC helped to define them personally. By sacrificing a part of their lives, they somehow made better lives and became more solidified people.

My experiences mirror and enlighten a view I have of the world (my idyllic yoga world). You can never lump any group of people into a succinct category. Though I saw cadets with greater strength than I could imagine, I also saw those struggling to get by and those completely unclear of their purpose. I encountered very respectful men, and those who were crude and insolent, and then some who were plain ol’ bonkers. The ladies of the Army ROTC were very kind and willing to help out a fellow chica.

I firmly believe most people involved in the military are striving for something better. They are seeking a world of change and want to be a part of it. They are fighting for their country, and are proud to do so. And though they are united in a common goal, inevitably they are all individuals. They have their own strengths and weaknesses, and varying insights about life and how to live it.

This Army lifestyle is ideal for some. Although it will never be my path, I can more fully understand the psyche behind military involvement. Not only do I understand the mindset better now, but I also have developed an immense respect for anyone who chooses this path. It requires a dedication, patriotism and self-sacrifice unmatched in any other career path I have ever seen. The character of a military person must be strong and courageous. If it does not start out that way, I am confident it eventually becomes so.

Politically, I may never understand the reality and necessity of war. But I now have a better insight into the people who we send to fight them, and I will always have a profound appreciation for those people.

I also learned that combat is always the last option after all efforts of “peacetime” are exhausted—including humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, civil support, nation-building, security assistance, foreign internal defense, anti- and counterterrorism, noncombat evacuation, support to insurgency, peace-keeping, peace enforcement, etc. (Look at all those peace’s on the military’s list!)

The U.S. Army follows seven core values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. I am grateful our soldiers are striving to maintain these standards, and I myself will aim to keep them as well. They are excellent goals. Perhaps our similar goals will keep me tied to them somehow, even though I will no longer be embedded.

As an outsider, I constantly worried about making mistakes. I feared offending, upsetting or misrepresenting the land-based branch of the military. Often I introduced myself as the journalist, faker, poser or just a “not real” member of the dawn PT sessions.

However I talked myself down, however, I never felt unwelcome.

Occasionally, I thought I was expected to do more than I was capable. Yet, I most often could accomplish more than I realized. The members of USU’s Army ROTC were hospitable, helpful and friendly to this scrawny, out-of-place peace-builder. From now on I will fondly regard camouflage-wearing soldiers crossing the Quad as fellow troops, dear friends, because despite our seemingly opposite mindsets, in the end, we are really not so different at all.

And, as I’m sure you are all curious to know, 10 weeks later, now I can do a real push up. Kind of.



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