It was the 1980s and the Soviet Union was still a powerful might. The world was divided into two sides: free and communist. Terrorism was making a stir around the world through various groups—the IRA, the ETA and other nationalist groups. Back then, there were a few rogue countries like Libya with ties to global acts of terror.
In high school, I was THAT GUY! I WAS THAT WEIRD GUY. Yet, deep in my heart, I knew that I WAS THAT DEEP GUY! I wanted to join the military and fight for democracy and bring order to the world. I really wanted to eradicate disorder in the world.
Hell, my mother’s cancer had caused disorder in my home. I wasn’t winning the war against my mother’s cancer, and I couldn’t create order for my Mom. I needed to find meaning in this loss, and I also needed a place where I could gain a win.
I served my country, the United States of America, to create greater meaning in my life and to get a win. I wanted a win for myself and my family. The military seemed to be that place for me to get that win! I wasn’t alone! And we who pursued the military didn’t fit into the stereotypes featured in high-end, mass-culture newspapers.
A path for our future
I was anointed to preach at the age of 10, at a Charismatic prayer service my Mom dragged me to as a boy, even before I became a preaching friar monk. I lived like a monk even before I became a monk. And each year, I grew stronger. My will was to get that ‘win’ via the spiritual life of prayer, by reading my parents’ philosophy and theology books, and by living a contemplative life.
I pursued the virtuous life. Hell, I remained a virgin until I was 21! By then, I’d been part of the U.S. Marine Corps’ ANGLICO and had returned to Norwich University (at the Military College of Vermont), where I had a strong academic record and a vision to heal my Mom and the world with my faith and good works.
I wasn’t the only one with a calling at a young age. My close friends were also uncovering their sense of calling. My friends were special, each in their own sovereign way, outside of high school norms: the wise ladies’ man (Karim), the grappling surfer (Pat), the driven entrepreneur (Ramsey), the hidden giant (John) and the gifted Luke Skywalker-like hero (Dale).
If you were to try to find an archetype for me, good luck! What did we have in common? The military. We weren’t like typical students in our high school. After graduation, my friends and I did not pursue higher education with a big college football school.
We all considered the military as the path for our future, but without glamourizing it. We just jumped in with our souls and minds. This “leap” was similar to what the existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard has described as an individual’s leap of faith. My friends and I all made that existential leap of faith. Interestingly, besides my friends, my sister and Dad also made it into the uniformed warrior life.
Yet, my leap was distinct: I needed a win. I needed a win for myself and my family, and soon. I pursued the leap with an intense spirituality, as I negotiated the reality: My mother was dying in front of me. And, as David Bowie sang, and as I was reminded of by the recent Brooklyn Museum of art exhibit, “We can be heroes, just for one day.”
And so, it wasn’t until many years after my Mom’s death, the monastery and two other periods of time spent in the military that I found the meaning of heroism. I found it in myself, by extending the life of a little girl from Iraq. The girl’s name is Rawan. My experience with Rawan was the win I needed for my past. We find meaning in ironic ways.
My friend Pat’s calling inspired me to share my calling to the military with civilians and other veterans in a narrative-rich essay. Many see the troops on television without understanding the actual soldiers who are in front of the screen. Pat’s words about his service touched my life, and I hope you learn more about military service via Pat’s narrative below.
Transformative service: A changed soul after a loss
“Why did you join the military, Mr. Urquhart?” This is a question that I get, many times, throughout the school year. After 23 years of teaching at Seabreeze High School, I now answer this question slightly differently than I did in the beginning.
It’s a multifaceted and multilayered answer. There’s no one thing, one moment, one feeling, one event or even one person that led me to my decision to join the Army. The decision involved a complex compilation of many different aspects of my life. To contain any soldier’s story within one essay is like saying you read a travel brochure on France and are now an expert on France!
What is it about travel brochures? A brochure actually piques your interest, and hopefully gives you a desire or passion to visit the destination featured inside. Unfortunately, unlike each destination in a pretty travel brochure, not many people want to learn about a soldier’s story. Their interest just isn’t piqued. We’re living in a world where the general interest is far more focused on reality TV.
Here’s my reality
It was 1986. Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States, and Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the Soviet Union. Reagan, well, I knew he was an actor in cowboy movies. Sadly, the only thing I knew about Gorbachev was that he had a big spot on his head.
I was a surfer, naive to current worldly events. But I did know some things about the two leaders. Yes, I cut images of the two leaders out of newspapers and wrote short reports about them in my social studies classes. Let’s be frank: At the time, I really didn’t care.
Then, while skipping school to go surfing on a very cold day in January, I looked up into the sky to witness a catastrophic event. A beautiful cloudlike white stream extended from the Challenger space shuttle, just as it did during all the previous launches; but suddenly, an explosion caused this white plume to split in two. This explosion was the end of the Challenger and its crew.
I went back to school that same day to find my last two classes catching up with the space shuttle tragedy. My classmates were tuned in to the TV. There was intense emotion in the classroom, and the tragic explosion was repeating itself over and over again on the screen.
My reaction was strange. I zoned out in the back of the room, thinking of how the loss of the crew’s lives was tragic. And yet, I thought more about the losses of the crew’s family members. Family members were suffering, and were going to suffer even more with tragic grief. I began thinking of my father, who died in a suspicious car accident in 1968, just months before I was born. He was a good man who left behind a wife and seven children.
The Challenger explosion left me in a saddened state, because it made me think about my loss. I began daydreaming about the large ripple effect the car accident had created in my family. The accident involving my father expanded in my life. Expanded? Well, into abuse, neglect and a lot of heartache.
The loss and the ripple effect of the accident on my life could fill a book, much like the dark book, Mommie Dearest. Actually, my life’s book, at that point in time, wouldn’t have mirrored the darkness in Mommie Dearest. My book would’ve made Mommie Dearest seem like one of Mother Teresa’s inspirational books.
The Challenger event caused a stirring in my mind that made me more aware of the world.
Yet, this tragedy, this horrific event, was an awakening. It was a turning point in my life. I had another desire. I wanted to do more with my life. The Challenger event caused a stirring in my mind that made me more aware of the world. At the same time, it caused me to dive deep within myself and question my purpose in life.
However, to say that the Challenger explosion was the reason I joined the military would simply not be true. It may have been the catalyst that allowed my mind to open, my ears to truly listen and my heart to care more about the world around me.
So, if not this tragic event, then what was it that sent me onto this fork in the road, regarding my future decisions? What was it that ultimately led me to the Army?
I’d have to say friends. Friends who stood by me through elementary school, in junior high school and throughout high school. Friends! Friends who were willing to be present. They were present through the party times and the hard times. My close friends. They were willing to take the ASVAB military entrance exam and join the military with me.
We joined together! There was even one friend who joined me in the “Buddy Program.” We served together in South Korea, as part of the U.S. defense force (Army) during the Cold War. We were soldiers. We were men. And we served our country.
I’m now 50 years old, and looking back at my pictures, I see a naive 18-year-old boy tossed into a foreign land I knew nothing about. I was a boy who was putting on a strong front, trying to convince myself that I was ready for whatever life had in store for me. The demilitarized zone, more commonly known as the DMZ, was only 40 minutes from where I was stationed at Uijeongbu’s Camp Red Cloud. The threat from North Korea was real, just as real as it is today.
As a “63 Bravo” mechanic, I supported the 332nd MI unit. I remember servicing many vehicles on snow-covered hilltops. These were the same hilltops on which I pulled long hours of perimeter guard duty. In this role, I was no mechanic, but I was a “straight-up” soldier. It was during these times that I realized that at any moment, something could happen, and life could change really quickly if North Korean soldiers approached the camp.
Fortunately, I’m alive. Knowing what could’ve taken place allows me to have so much more respect for the men and women who served in wars throughout American history, including the Vietnam War and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One veteran I look up to is my father, Earl Ronald Urquhart. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Interestingly, I didn’t know this until I returned from my voluntary military hardship tour in Korea. My father went to Fort Dix for basic training, and like him, I went to Fort Dix for basic training. Also, we both served in Korea. Maybe some things are just meant to be.