Ever since I was little, I knew that I never wanted to join the military. I saw the stress and strain that it had put on my father from a very early age. The late nights, the long stares, the deep sighs as I would help him take his boots off after his day was over. My father was a man who knew the meaning of sacrifice and discipline. As a single father of two boys in Detroit, my dad made an incredible sacrifice to ensure that his kids didn’t have to grow up in the same place that he did. He saw it as the only way out of Detroit, a city synonymous with poverty and violence. These are the kinds of people that the military draws into its web; the truly desperate who think that they have no other choice. And while my sacrifice was nothing compared to my father’s, at 20 years old I found myself truly desperate with nowhere to go.
As a young 20-something and a college dropout, the recession was not kind to me. For the better part of a year, I worked several dead-end and odd jobs where I would get laid-off due to downsizing and being the newest (and youngest) person there. The final straw was when I was working at a farm-to-table restaurant very close to my house. I got paid a reasonable amount and made really good tips; it was finally enough to keep me comfortable and allowed me to catch up on my rent. One day, I showed up to my shift and the restaurant was closed with a “For Sale” sign in the window. I tried to get in touch with the owner for days to get my last paycheck, but was unsuccessful. I went to see a recruiter the next week.
My father’s and my desperation are not isolated incidents. Military recruiters are often allowed to visit high schools in areas of high poverty. I was in shock when I came to Vassar and found out that this wasn’t a common occurrence everywhere. The military promises so many things that sound out of reach to someone who has only known hardship their entire life. Money for college, health insurance for families—hell, a steady paycheck is what it took for me to raise my right hand. When talking to veterans about why they joined the military, the overwhelming response is that they needed to do something to change the situation that they were in.
Many vets feel the need to stay in order to keep the stability and benefits that the military affords them and their families. And what do they get in return? Broken bodies and minds, with not much guidance on how to function once they leave the military. I’d often ask myself if it was even worth it to push myself to such extremes for an organization that I knew would go on without me. It’s no wonder that the active duty veteran suicide mortality rate since Sept. 11 is four times the rate of combat deaths in the same span of time (Watson Institute, 2021). This country is failing its service members every day by refusing to offer them any support once they leave the military, especially knowing that most of them come from poverty. Military job skills are often not transferable to the real world, leaving them to fend for themselves while the military continues to profit from their exploitation.