Choices

When life revolves around conformity and obeying all the rules—all the time—what happens to those who try to buck the system on an Army post? –Vann Baker


In high school at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1971, there was a lot of bottled up, typical teenage rebellion, and once in a while some steam had to be let off.

You could count on one hand the number of so called trouble-makers in the school, and one year, while classes were changing, a group of us saw huge fight suddenly erupt in the hallway. We were expecting it to be a couple of boys, but as I moved forward and got a better look, it was two girls fighting—all out—over some boy, no less.

A teacher was brave enough to get between the two girls, and his glasses were slapped down to the ground in the next few seconds. Somehow he got the girls apart and just as quickly as the mayhem had started it was over.

Discipline is a way of life

For minor infractions at school, there was the dreaded after-school detention, which wasn’t that bad, but it could prove difficult to explain to an inquisitive mother how you developed a sudden interest in a club or after school activity, in the middle of the school year. It was difficult if not impossible for parents not to know what was happening at school.

The military has a great advantage over public (civilian) schools as the parent’s permanent military record could be affected, especially if the parent’s commanding officer became involved. A child could become a tremendous military career liability if they persisted in creating disturbances at school.

I remember one student, who had a reputation for talking back to his teachers and was particularly uncooperative in class. I don’t recall his name, but he disappeared from school a few days, and we assumed he had gotten a suspension.

Suspension was very serious, as at Ft. Knox, like all military base and post schools, your sponsor had to bring you back to school which meant he or she had to get time off from work and have a face to face conversation about the student’s behavior with the principal.

This was something that was fairly rare as these types of confrontations usually meant and even more serious confrontation back at home.

The mystery of the missing student

Days turned into weeks and we began to speculate about the boy’s disappearance when we waited out in the hall waiting for classes to resume after lunch. “Maybe he ran away from home?”, or “maybe he was killed by his dad and buried somewhere out in the millions of acres that made up Fort Knox,” was another theory.

Our speculation ended after a few months when the missing student turned up in school one day, sporting a “buzz” haircut and a Marine uniform. He spent part of the day visiting all of his former teachers and stood almost at attention, while having a polite conversation with the same teachers he had not so friendly conversations with just a few weeks earlier.

We were fairly sure he was given a couple of choices by his dad, one of them being an opportunity to get “three hots and a cot” and an opportunity to learn that life at home probably wasn’t that bad, compared to the alternatives.

My father was a drill sergeant for about seven of his 24 year Army career, and while we never had an in-depth conversation about what the alternatives were to finishing high school and staying out of trouble, it went without saying that my dad wouldn’t hesitate to give his permission for me to join the Army or even the Marines at age 17 if I turned into a trouble-maker. Or he would have shown me the door.

Looking back, I realize now that while we did have to walk the straight and narrow more so than the average civilian student, most of us developed a healthy respect for authority, good study habits and a willingness to try and get along with others, which certainly served me well in my life after high school and in the world outside the main gate.

Making choices

A few years after high school, I was working at a small printing company, in Columbus, Georgia. The owner of the company, who was a compassionate man with a soft spot for young people who needed some direction, and often offered some part-time work to help them along the way, had hired a particularly “type A” personality–a young man who didn’t seem to know what he wanted to do with his life, but he could talk a mile a minute on any given topic.

One day this young man came in and announced he had decided he was going to join the Marines. Even though Fort Benning, an Army training base, was adjacent to Columbus, he was hell-bent on joining the Marines and he talked openly about how the discipline of the Marines would be good for him and would give him some direction in his life.

Having grown up in a military family, I knew what the military life was like and while I knew that this lifestyle was not for everyone. However, for some people who didn’t have a strong internal compass to keep them going in the right direction, a few years in the Marines or any branch of the service could probably be beneficial, provided you survived basic training, of course.

I wished him well, but I was not able to learn how he fared in his new life and what it brought him.

About one in five Military Brats joins a branch of the service, and many make a career in the military. For those of us growing up in military families, we know what the military life is like first-hand, and for those that choose to make a career out of the military, it can be good choice, but it’s not for everyone.

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4 Comments
  1. There was one particular guy in our senior class that had become a real ass with teachers. We were at a public school near a very large air base so there was a good sprinkling of brats. The base was so large, in fact, we were split between two school districts.

    The make up and demeaner of us brats as a whole was exactly as you described. The air base was old so the school system was doing a good job by now of assimilating the brats with the townies. One of the cheerleaders was a brat friend in Japan, the coaches encouraged us to join the teams, I was on the school newspaper and helped in the biology lab. The teachers did not display some of the attitudes I had seen in some other civilian schools towards us transient students. In fact, I stayed in touch with a couple of them after dad got out of the service.

    This brat that was going out of his way to disturb every class was especially ticking off us brats. He was quite an embarrassment. More than one of us told him to knock it off.

    One day he let us know he was joining the 101st Airborne. I was not particularly impressed by this but happy to see him go. Don’t get me wrong about the 101st. The fact that he was going to terminate his education in his senior year seemed foolish to me. Certainly I was naive.

    I did not know this guy well enough to find out what led up to his decision. It was a public school so don’t know what connection they had with the military but, the military playing such a major roll in the community, it is pretty certain that there would be some sort of liaison.

    With the incredibly obtuse attitude this guy had, I am sure he was given no options when word got home and was plain told to sign up. In the 50’s , this was a common option even for civilians and very popular with local courts.

    His dad was an officer which only magnified the situation. Again, only guessing, he may have picked a very demanding role in the military to prove to “them” he was a big shot.

    As they say, a couple of psychology classes can be dangerous.

    Eventually the word got around to all the teachers about this student’s plans. None of them revealed any opinion till one day the kid picked on the wrong one.

    Once again, after a teacher gives his lecture on the daily subject, our future Screaming Eagle concocts some off the wall, mocking question to ask. The teacher listens and then contemplates for a moment. While stroking his chin, he gently says “I don’t think the 101st will require you to know that.”

    The class applauded.

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  2. Timing is everything! Great story, John.

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  3. The one (and only!) time that I got into a fair amount of trouble certainly highlights the differences we faced as Brats when it came to school discipline.  While a Stateside public school system might call the parents to discuss why their children are such screw-ups, in the military, the school didn’t call my father first.  No, my father (then a Master Sergeant) was called first by his CO to explain why his son (me) was facing a three day suspension.  Needless to say, being dressed down by your commanding officer because of your son’s misbehavings really didn’t go down well with my father.  I can still clearly (painfully so) hear the heavy footsteps of my father’s boots hitting the tile floor as he made his way down the hallway to my room.  Yes, the punishment was severe (I think lockdown at Leavenworth would have been easier), but the message was heard and understood. 

    Teachers and school administrators simply didn’t have to put up with bad behavior.  If it continued, they got the parent’s commanders in on the discussion, and it sometimes resulted in a one-way airplane ticket out of country and back home to an aunt/uncle or grandparent.  My last two years of high school were spent at a public school Stateside, and I was floored at the high level of disrespect and general lack of control and discipline I found at my new school.

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    • Unfortunately, by the time I was a JAG in Germany in the early 90’s, DODDS resembled many stateside schools in that respect. I recall my frustration with trying to get a family out of our community whose son was a constant threat to others. He led a group of young thugs in the housing area to commit all kinds of stuff and his MSgt dad played the “he’s only 12” and race card to his maximum advantage.

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