A week after I completed AIT (job-training school you go to after Basic Training), I found myself on a bus listening to three senior NCOs, each one close to retirement, having what seemed to me at the time to be a peculiar and surprising conversation:
“I hate when people say we fight for freedom. I been to Iraq and Afghanistan and that freedom nonsense is bullshit.”
“Only thing I ever fought for was Halliburton. Our government don’t care about the American people. It’s just rich people gettin’ richer.”
There are many misconceptions about the Army, in no small part because such a small percentage (>1%) of the American public participates in it, and one of them is that everybody in the military are conservative Republicans. They certainly exist, sure, and another conversation I overheard which enforced that idea was one morning two guys, one of them a squad leader (which is like a store manager position) talking openly in a formation with 50 other people, about how Obama needs to be assassinated, but that only paints a small picture.
There are foreign nationals who wish nothing more than to return to their countries after serving, and others who want to stay and fully embrace the American Dream. There are anarchists and anti-government fanatics who completely ignore the irony that they work for the government. There are die-hard small government conservatives who cling to the socialist military benefits of housing allowances, food allowances, and free (or mostly free) healthcare. There are careerists and short-timers. There are also many a Puerto Rican independentista. There are Puerto Ricans of every political stripe with a variety of feelings toward the U.S., estadistas for certain join, but so do those who sign up for the Puerto Rican National Guard so that they will protect “their country,” as in, Puerto Rico.
About a month ago I received a FB message from a Puerto Rican academic finishing his master’s program at the University of Texas. He wrote me because he saw in one of my interviews online that I am in the military, yet I openly talk about my independentista, anti-American imperialism views. He wrote me wanting to know my thoughts on joining the military in spite of his own beliefs. His reasons were financial, due largely to his anxiety over finding a teaching position that would allow him to send money back home to relatives on the island who are struggling. I told him he was in luck, as financial reasons were precisely my reason for joining myself.
I graduated from the University of Tampa in 2009 with a B.A. in Spanish Studies with an emphasis on literature and linguistics. For the previous two years, I had been making connections with people at the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña and had been planning to return to Puerto Rico. If that didn’t work out, I wanted to find work in Latin America, as that was where I felt at home. And then, as we all remember, the economy crashed, and one of the sectors hit hardest was the publishing industry, especially in Latin America. In 2009, as well, we Puerto Ricans had Luis Fortuño as a governor and his aspirations to be our Reagan completely destroying our infrastructure and economy. One of the casualties was the Instituto, which around that time sent me a letter telling me I was qualified for eight different positions, but none were available. Facing difficulty finding work in Tampa, my pregnant wife and our daughter and I moved to South Carolina, where I was hired to be a bilingual Help Desk support for a tech company.
Working a job I did not care about is nothing new to me, and so I could live with it, at least for a while, but the money was just not sufficient. After more than once having to beg my dad, who lived in town, for money to buy our kids food, my wife and I felt we had hit rock bottom. At that point, the military was the best option, and although I kick myself now for it, I enlisted rather than become an officer (the story behind that is boring, trust me) making less than I deserved but with more steady employment and better living conditions than I had had my entire adult life.
Ideology, I learned, takes a back seat to survival. We become hung up on ideology, and even moreso, ideological purity. This occurs in all groups, and we Latinos are especially bad at testing our brothers and sisters with trivial standards to see if so-and-so is or is not “a true (insert Latin American country here).” But at the end of the day, our ideologies do not feed us, clothe us or help us raise and protect our families.
When the academic asked me how he could be in the military when he is an independentista, I told him what I tell anyone who asks me that question, “The military is like any other job, and most people are just looking to get a check. Your personal beliefs really don’t matter.”
But it is more than that. The military, I have found, is neither the brain that makes decisions, nor the hand that guides policy. It is the tool. The long arm of the Pentagon moves us soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen in whatever direction it wants. That direction is often made by legislators, who increasingly have little knowledge of military life but a whole lot of love for the institution (namely, making the institution obscenely wealthy). And all that we in uniform can do are our jobs, and hope to survive it all.
The regular ground troop has very little control over his or her destiny aside from their actions, and if the military has taught me anything, it is the importance of taking whatever control you have and making the best out of it. While troops invaded and terrorized my island in 1898 and the governors during the military dictatorship (let’s call pre-1949 Puerto Rico what it really was), ordered massacres and extreme social repression, the greatest enemy of the island has always been Congress, the state police and the FBI. They are the ones who have enacted draconian laws, harassed, and brutalized our citizens for years, far more than the military itself.
I am in the medical branch. My job is to fix medical equipment. I have worked nine months total, out of four years, in an environment where I actually did my job. During those times, I felt like I was doing some good for others. It is very heartening to fix something for a doctor that they need to help a patient get better. I am proud of that work, and the very reason I chose this particular job was that it was all about saving lives rather than taking them.
Has my experience made me change my feelings toward the United States and its relationship with Puerto Rico? No, because like I said, the military has little to do with what has most screwed up the island.
Has it weakened my political ideology? No, if anything, it has only solidified it. If the military were a private company, it would be bankrupt and likely sued by its creditors. It is poorly managed, wasteful and oftentimes fraudulent. I once helped a guy with paperwork that would absolve him and the hospital we worked at for losing a million dollars’ worth of medical equipment. Large segments of the active duty military hardly do any work. Most days are spent bullshitting with friends, running personal errands or playing games on their phones. On average, I do actual military work once a week. While this is true in medical and supply units all over the military, and it would save the government millions if not billions of dollars if they turned these companies into reserve units, the status quo remains with thousands of people being paid to do practically nothing.
Yet that analysis has nothing to do with my political ideology. These are things I have discussed with many a soldier and sergeant, because unless you are completely blind or just willfully ignorant, corruption in the armed forces is no secret.
I consider how Pedro Albizu Campos was in the Army, and how during that time he started formulating his plan for a Nationalist movement. The Army demonstrates, alternately, the best of humanity and its worst. It mixes real courage with soulless dehumanization. And seeing both the unifying power that binds the armed forces of this country together as well as its almost unconscionable weaknesses, is to de-mystify the sense that America could never be beat. Serving in the Army has made me more keenly aware of how much better Puerto Ricans can be if we had not only unity of conviction, but also the mythological basis for empowerment. Because if Americans have one thing Puerto Ricans are sorely in need of, it is the ability to be a complete screw up, know it, and yet still think they are God’s gift to the planet.
Puerto Ricans focus so much on our shortcomings, we celebrate the smallest achievement as though we just landed on the moon, as though that is the best we can do. We have become petty, and have lost hope. But it can be found, and for me it was located in the oddest of places, serving a country I don’t really consider my own, and seeing how far the idea of greatness can take even the most mediocre of people.
Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and co-owner of Aignos Publishing. His books Traveler’s Rest and The Feast of San Sebastian deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. He holds a BA in Spanish Studies from the University of Tampa and a MH in Creative Writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.