G.I. Joes for Real


Mom cried hysterically, and refused to let go of my brother. My father stood with a blank expression on his face, pretending not to notice his eyes welling up with tears. And I watched all of this, biting my lip and clenching my jaw to avoid breaking down.

We stood outside the Military Entrancing Processing Station (MEPS) at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. We had arrived at 5:30 in the morning, and after six hours of “processing,” my 20-year-old brother—my only sibling—was about to get in a maroon van and be taken to the airport to board a plane for Fort Benning, Georgia. Once there, he would begin basic training in the United States Army, training he hopes will lead him to a career as a Green Beret.

“I’m doing this for a reason, Mom,” he said. “Just remember that.”

My brother and I are on opposite sides of the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword,” so you can imagine my disdain when he first expressed his desire (or rather his lifelong goal) to become a career military man. He was 8 and dressed up as G.I. Joe for Halloween. While I buried my nose in books and spent most of my time with pen and paper in hand, he bought paints to camouflage his face and organized a street-wide acorn war complete with munitions stashes and attack strategies. “I want to be G.I. Joe for real,” he used to say, “and I’ll save people in jungles and have the coolest guns of anyone.”

When the first Gulf War broke out, we were in elementary school. We hung yellow ribbons around trees and sang “Proud to be an American” in our school choir. But it seemed so distant and without direct consequence; we didn’t know anyone who fought or died. By the time we were in high school, we were without a care in the world. What sort of teenagers kept up with international affairs anyway? Ironically, we were at a place called Texas Military Institute, a private Episcopal high school whose most famous alumnus was General Douglas MacArthur. Thomas joined the JROTC, and I, a member of the speech and debate team who could most often be found in the school theater, teased him about the way he looked in his uniform.

After graduation I fled Texas as fast as I could to attend college in Boston. A year later, Thomas enrolled at Texas A&M. Although he made the Corps, he dropped out after a few semesters because he desperately wanted to join the Army. I told him he should stay in school, and then enlist. He just got angry, called me a Yankee sell-out. “Well, at least I’m not stupid,” was my response.

He drove a green Chevy truck with a lift, larger-than-life tires, and a performance muffler that made the engine sound like a diesel. I objected to its abominable gas mileage and asked if he cared that we were so reliant on Middle East oil. He hung a small Confederate flag from his rearview mirror—proud of his southern roots, he would say. I refused to ride in the truck as long as it was there. He used his paychecks to buy guns—rifles, handguns, and even a civilian version of an AK-47. I couldn’t understand, and still can’t, why anyone needs an AK-47 or a handgun. As we grew older the differences between us led to shouting matches and slamming doors whenever I came home to visit, which I did less and less. But after September 11, Thomas began calling almost every day, many times pleading with me to please come home.

My brother is not a politically driven person. Although there are certain issues (gun control and military downsizing) that he is concerned about, as far as I know he has never voted. During the 2000 election, I was staunchly opposed to George W. Bush, and even more so after the debacle that ensued. September 11 forced me to rally behind a man in whom I had little faith. I just hoped that his actions would help me feel safer when I couldn’t fall asleep at night. Thomas and I agreed that the United States had to go into Afghanistan. But right until the night before he left for the Army, we argued about Iraq. I contended—and still do—that in one fell swoop, President Bush flipped the bird to the United Nations, lied to the American people, and gave religious fundamentalists everywhere just one more reason to be pissed off at the West. Our conversation was spurred by a comment I made at dinner. “I just hope Bush doesn’t get re-elected, because if he does, you’ll be fighting in a war for sure.”

Dozens of boys stood in line that morning at MEPS. Maybe I shouldn’t use the word “boys,” but on first glance, they looked as if they were waiting for lunch in a high school cafeteria: There was the punk with slicked-back hair and a leather jacket painted in homage to the musical group The Misfits; the homeboy wearing a red jumpsuit that sagged to the floor, a large gold chain with St. Michael on the pendant, and a blue and red vintage-style 76ers hat; the gangly kid who hadn’t yet shaved the shadow of black peach fuzz that sat above his upper lip (hours later I would hear him say, “if anyone goes gay on me in our bunker, I’ll kill ’em. I’ll give ’em a cafeteria fork to the neck.”

And then there was my brother. The night before he had shaved his beard. Now he looked as he did in his senior yearbook, all pink skin and youthful eyes. In between a physical, a short interview, and his swearing-in ceremony, he sat with us in the waiting room. His restlessness made him goofy, so we recited lines from our favorite funny movies, laughing out loud in a room of silent recruits.

When we had first arrived, Thomas was the only recruit who brought family with him. As the sun came up, and the smell of breakfast tacos sifted into the room from the cafeteria down the hall, more people arrived. “There’s a guy here with two kids,” he said as he sat down next to me after his physical, “and one of them was just born.”

One of the recruits got up and changed the television at the front of the room to ESPN, which showed a special five-part series on sex and sports. All the boys watched as shots of Anna Kournikova in swimsuits flashed on the screen. A moment later, the elevator doors opened. A young Hispanic woman with curly hair exited pushing a stroller followed by an older woman pushing a second stroller. They crossed the room and stopped where a dark-haired young man, who looked not a day over 20, had stood up to greet them. He pulled out a baby girl in a pink jumpsuit from the second stroller and put her on his lap as the rest of his family sat down. At the sound of a blast of gunfire coming from one of the video games in the back of the room, the recruit playing the game shouted a loud, “Hell yeah! You like that? Huh?” and began jumping up and down. Most of us turned to see the commotion. The young father, still holding his baby girl, passed her to the young woman, who accepted the baby without question. Then he turned to the older woman.

“Can I have a few quarters, Ma?” he asked.

She obliged and he left the two of them, sitting a seat apart.

Not long ago, in an interview with Tim Russert, President Bush made a statement that, among other things, secured my vote for whoever runs against him.

“I’m a war president,” he said, “I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign-policy matters with war on my mind.”

It leads me to wonder: Would he have made the statement if he had the experience of actually serving in combat? Would he have treated the war with more deference if either of his daughters was a member of the armed forces? Would he have made decisions so seemingly flippantly if he had watched Thomas recite a line from Airplane that morning that made my mom bounce with laughter and run to the restroom for relief? And just as important—would it have made any difference to Thomas?

Martha Bartle will receive her B.A. in journalism next month from Emerson College in Boston.