(Leadership Lawton and Leadership Oklahoma recently visited Fort Sill. Below is an article that I wrote in October of 2014 after my visit with Leadership Oklahoma. I will never forget how deeply that visit touched me, especially having breakfast with the recruits.)
We were instructed to leave a seat between each of us in the empty mess hall for the recruits. Few of us in Leadership Oklahoma Class of XXVIII had military experience, so we were impressed with the food line which rivaled any breakfast buffet in town. Some of us had found a seat, but others lingered in the food lanes or at the juice dispensers. Then the recruits arrived.
They descended upon the serving lines with speed and efficiency. Always orderly and respectful, they moved past us mechanically as we wavered between yogurt or a bagel. They invariably grabbed both and walked in sharp angles to an empty seat. Dropping their trays between us as if pre-assigned, they went for drinks. Each returned with two glasses that they cupped tightly in the center of their chests, elbows extended.
Although mindful of us civilians in the room, they had only ten minutes to eat. Despite this, they still very respectfully responded to our questions. I watched with fascination as one young man folded everything on his tray into a pancake like a taco (for maximum eating efficiency I was later told). The stubble on his head was likely the only he had ever experienced. He could just as easily have been in a sophomore English class.
At a nearby table sat the young women, just as precise and just as hungry. With no makeup and their hair pulled helmet-tight, nothing could hide their youth. But just about then, one of the Leadership Oklahoma members at my table asked them why they carried their drinks that way, cupped tightly in the center of their chests, elbows extended. “Because that is how they train us to handle a grenade, sir.”
I was awestruck. Respect and gratitude replaced sentimentality as I saw these recruits with clarity. In fact, I saw every soldier I had ever known differently. Because in that moment, the United States Army marched right into my brain: The bagpipe players on the polo field who learned to play in forty-five days. The drill sergeants who spent their weekend with us instead of their families. The solemnity of the retreat ceremony. The big guns firing on the range. But mostly, men and women who carry their morning drinks like grenades because their lives literally depend upon it. Nothing could have been more enlightening.
How foolish of me to look at these recruits as anything but the men and women who keep America free. Just four weeks into their basic training that shapes them into soldiers, they already mastered discipline and precision beyond my imagination. This was reflected in each and every soldier I met on Fort Sill last weekend. And while I learned to recognize a few of the ranks from their symbols, I could never distinguish rank based on behavior, demeanor, or professionalism – from private to general, I saw only Army Strong.
Both of my parents served in the Navy. I have worked alongside countless other veterans not to mention the dozens of former students who went on to serve. And in my time here at Lawton-Fort Sill, I have come to appreciate the Army like never before. But not until last weekend did I ever carry the heart of a recruit – cupped tightly in the center of my chest, elbows extended.