My Most Depressing Thanksgiving Ever
And a thanks for our military.
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In hindsight, it was probably unwise for me to enlist in the military right before the thick of the holidays, and it will not surprise you that it certainly didn’t take me more than a few days of teenage clarity to reach that conclusion after the ink on my contract had dried.
I took my oath at the San Antonio MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) on Fort Sam Houston, Texas on November 22nd, 2005. I do vaguely recall an aside from my recruiter asking if I wanted to wait until after New Year’s before officially signing and receiving my orders to ship out for training.
Being a very intentional young person, I wanted to go immediately. I felt like I was wasting time, and it was better to get it out of the way.
I was wrong.
A little more than 30 hours later, I quietly stood in a slow moving and strictly monitored mess hall line.
My hair had been completely shorn, my energy entirely depleted from a lack of sleep, my skin poked and prodded by so many immunizations I had lost count, my eyes bespectacled with the ugliest pair of frames that have ever been created in the history of optometrical design, with a cute little black strap that was cinched unto the temple tips and chaffed against my formerly hairy skull, and I stood in this line, where I had been ordered to stand silently and stare straight into the back of the skull of the soldier in front of me (and that soldier and the one behind me had been told to do the same) while locked up in a rigid position with a plastic cafeteria tray held parallel to the marching surface (the floor) and as the soft holiday music played ever-so-ironically over the mess hall sound system and around our young and deeply frazzled brains—tauntingly, I feel, in retrospect—I could only think of one word, over and over and over again:
This was a mistake. This really sucks.
Over the previous day, from shortly after arrival with the shouting training cadre to this very moment with more shouting training cadre, I had been shouted at so much to stand in line, to be quiet, to walk, to run, to do anything on command and nothing otherwise, that I began to think I may not enjoy this whole experience as much as I hoped.
Time had slowed to a crawl and then became, without warning, irrelevant. We didn’t need to know the time to do our very important job of standing still quietly and staring at the back of others’ heads, and so, time no longer mattered.
It could have been an hour. It could have been ten hours. Eventually, the skulls in front of me floated forward enough that I suddenly found myself facing a long display case of prepared holiday food and in front of them, a line of important looking people, some of them clad in festive Santa hats, ladling and spooning out things unto the trays ahead of me.
By military tradition, on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, senior officers and NCOs (sergeants) in a unit will man the food trays, both as symbolism of leadership and a nice holiday gesture.
It was an odd juxtaposition: on one side were smiling, happy older adults, cheerfully doling out helpings of turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing, and on the other side were an unending parade of the most numbly miserable young faces ever witnessed outside of a Ticketmaster presale.
It became much worse. My tray settled in front of a large man overseeing the distribution of green beans. On his uniform were several stars. He softly smiled and said, “Would you like some green beans, private?”
He said this with genuine warmth, but before I could answer, I suddenly noticed the person standing next to him. This was undoubtedly his daughter, about my age, and she looked equally cheerful. The two of them, utterly disgusting in their holiday joy.
I looked at her, and I saw only one thing: freedom — the freedom of youth I had so easily surrendered when I signed that contract. She could have been a college student. She could have been working part-time shifts at the local Dairy Queen. She could have been out parole. I didn’t care. I wanted to immediately trade places with her.
These older men in uniforms were a novelty to our young eyes and came with our fresh surroundings. Her presence, on the other hand, so warm and kind and eager to make us feel at home, only served to remind us of our lives being put on indefinite hold and more importantly: just how impossibly far away from our homes we truly now were.
I can laugh about all of this now. Those early days in the military are retrospectively hilarious, but at the time, it was the worst Thanksgiving in a series of Thanksgivings I would spend only around other service members, always somewhat homesick.
I am many years down the road, and every Thanksgiving, I can’t help but think of those service members, all around the world, who, today, are sitting beside each other at long tables with festive decorations and breaking bread and missing their families and communities and trying their very best to grin their way through it.
To those of you reading this, remember that, for all the bullshit, you are loved and appreciated, and we are so thankful that you’re serving our country.
Here’s to your safe return home and the seat we’re holding for you.
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