You are going to Basic Training next week. You already read the book. In fact you read the book before it was the book. But these are some specific things I wish someone had told me before I went to basic training. They are in a very particular order, i.e. the order I happened to think of them in. If I had known then what I know now, I would never have had the courage to do what I did. But if I had not done what I did, I would not know now what I didn’t know then:
· The Army is a toxic environment. It is toxic to faith, it is toxic to morals, it is toxic to good manners, it is toxic to free-thinking, it is toxic to humanity. However, this does not mean that people in the Army are the enemy. They are people, beloved of God. He died for them. Each one has his own story, his own history of wounds and health, brokenness and wholeness, happiness and sadness, wisdom and stupidity that made him what he is. Know the story, know the person, see him as he sees himself, and see him (as closely as you can) as God sees him. It will change the way you treat everyone in your life.
· Some people have nothing to say worth saying. But no one is not worth listening to.
· Push yourself to do your best at everything they put in front of you. Go the extra mile. But do not define yourself by how well you do.
· Compete with your peers, because it will make you faster, stronger and better. But do not define success by how you measure up to them. You will be faster, stronger or smarter than many of them, but that does not make God love you one iota more than He loves them. Someone will always be faster, stronger or smarter than you, but that does not mean God loves them more.
· The most valuable things cannot be earned. They are given for free, and the best you can do is try to be worthy of them.
· Make friends with your peers. Do not do what I did and be a loner, and take pride in that loner attitude. You are more outgoing than I am so that should come naturally. But be prepared to part company without hesitation or possibility of appeal the first time someone says, “Hey, let’s go to the strip club.”
· Friendliness is not the same as trust. Trust is earned and it is neither implicit nor all-encompassing in most cases. There are more men in the army than I can count that I would trust with my life, but less than a dozen I would trust not to try to lead me into sin on a night out on the town. And there have only been two friends in my entire career that I would trust with anything really important to me. Go out with the guys, but keep your own counsel on what really matters. Una Certa Sprezzatura.
· Draw your lines, make them known, and never cross them. Don’t be afraid to alienate people who don’t like your faith and morals. If they are fair you will earn enough respect to get on with by being good at your job. If they are not fair, who cares what they think anyway? Unless they are your boss. In which case, well, some days are like that. Morals are more important than promotion.
· Know your alcohol limit. Figure it out on your own, around people you trust. Take that number of drinks down by about 25-50%. That is your “going out with the guys limit.” Set that number in your head and NEVER allow them to talk you into going over it. Make the decision before you go out. Once the first drink crosses your lips, do not change that plan.
· When your peer hangs a pinup girl on your wall locker, borrow his lighter and burn it in front of him, and say, “I will not be a part of treating women like objects.” If he does it again, punch him in the nuts.
· When someone tries to get you to look at porn, ask them if they would kindly shoot you in the face instead. Trust me, you are better off dead. Nothing will kill your ability to love more effectively than porn. You were raised on love. Losing your ability to love will twist you up inside worse than you can possibly imagine and you will feel it. You are better off taking a bullet to the brain than getting hooked on that poison.
· Do not go it alone. The first chance you get, you find a parish. Give yourself a few weeks to try out the different churches in your area, and then make your decision and stick with it. Register at that parish, get envelopes, volunteer to be a reader, an usher, sing in the choir (I’ll warn you right now, the choir probably sucks, bless their hearts), anything. Be involved. Commit to that parish.
· Seek out Catholic young adults. If you can’t find a group, make one. Your peers in the army will be a toxic influence. You need a wholesome influence to counter it.
· Don’t expect your Catholic friends to be perfect. Peoples is Peoples.
· Don’t expect your Army peers to be demons. Peoples is Peoples.
· God loves your Army peers as much as He loves your Catholic friends. But your Army peers might need you to translate that love more than your Catholic friends do
· But then again, I’ve known some pretty wounded Catholics. You are related to more than a few.
· If a person never knows the love of the brother he can see, how will he ever believe in the love of the God he cannot see?
· Give your job your best, but do not give it your heart. To the Army you are not Matthew Kraeger. You are not a son, a brother, a friend, a boyfriend, a cousin or a nephew. You are not a person at all. You are an 11B10. Your identity and place are entirely representable as a sequence of numbers and letters, detailing your age, height, weight, physical fitness, rank, job, how well you shoot, etc. Your entire military existence boils down to a sheet of paper called an Enlisted Records Brief. You are fully interchangeable with all other 11B10’s. Give the job your best because it is what you swore to do, but do not give it your all because it is not who you are. My biggest regret is that I spent so much of myself for so long on a worthless job, instead of on relationships with people who could actually care about me. In a lot of ways I made a bad trade, but I never totally lost myself into it, and many people have been more patient with me than I deserved, so I came off all right in the end.
· Being a soldier is a job. Being a warrior is a vocation. There is a difference. Never confuse the two.
· Learn everything you can. Everyone has some wisdom no matter how stupid or irritable they might be. Listen to them with a completely open mind, take in everything they say, whether teaching you how to shoot, or how to bandage a wound, or how to march. Listen as if they were teaching the only possible way of doing things. Then, when you have wrung every last drop of knowledge out of them and sifted out the garbage (that takes a while, sometimes it is hard to tell what is garbage and what isn’t) file it away in your mind and remind yourself, “That is one way of doing things.”
· You have the bad luck to be of significantly higher than average intelligence. This means that at least half of your leaders will not be as smart as you are. Do not for an instant think that this means that you know more than they do, or that you do not owe them respect and obedience.
· The dumbest person in the Army knows more than you do about something.
· Always question everything. Including me.
· Expect an answer. Don’t just question to be smart.
· Some people will not be able to answer you and they will mock you and tell you to shut up. This does not mean there is no answer, only that you need to find it for yourself because you have gone beyond your teacher’s depth. Remember that when you are the teacher and one of your students goes beyond your depth.
· You are a human being, not a rock. You are going out with a faith much stronger, more mature and better informed than I had when I went out. You are older than I was. You have the benefit of more experience from your older brothers. But I promise you, you are not invulnerable. If you think there is any sin or folly out there that it is beyond you to commit, think again. Of course, vice will not seriously challenge you, not at first. Once you make your standards known pride itself will ensure that you never back down from them. What will kill you is complacency. Better men than you have become alcoholics, murderers, rapists, drug addicts or just plain lazy bastards and it can happen to you. They did not fail because they were weak. They failed because they were strong, and they trusted in that strength. Only God’s mercy stands between you and becoming everything you justly hate. Remember, because you start out with great gifts, your fall will be more terrible if you fail. If you stop growing in your faith, you will fail. It may take ten years to undo your natural gifts and habits of home. It may take fifty. If you stop growing, you will die.
· If you keep growing in your faith, it doesn’t much matter what else you do. God will bring you through.
· By “Faith” I mean relationship, not book knowledge or observance of rubrics. Those will kill you deader than anything else if you trust in them in the absence of a vital relationship with God.
· But don’t skip the study or the rubrics either.
· Maintain your prayer life. Without it you will fail.
· Go to daily mass when you can. I don’t care whether you feel like it or not. It will save your soul.
· Develop a No Less Than prayer life. It might be no more than a morning offering when you wake up and Hail Mary, Our Father and Gloria as you fall asleep. This is what you fall back on when you simply have no time for your regular prayers. Train yourself to wake up with a morning offering on your lips. It will serve you in good stead when your drill sergeant throws a trash can down the hall at 0400, and the next chance you get to think is 2200 lights out.
· Guard time = rosary time.
· Mopping the latrines = rosary time.
· Standing in line at the chow hall = rosary time.
· You are a human being, not a rock. You will be contaminated. You will wake up one morning and look at yourself and see a habit that you have picked up that you could have done without. It might be something silly. It might be something vulgar. It might even be something sinful. Do not freak out. Did you expect to be perfect? Set about cheerfully and hopefully undoing it. Cheerfully because God is already working at it. The very fact that you see it means that He showed it to you, which means it is time to start working. Hopefully because He wants to perfect you far more fervently and effectively than you ever could.
· In the end, you will never save your soul. The best any of us ever learn to do is cooperate with God as He saves us. But the results can be quite spectacular. Read a biography of Mother Teresa if you need an example. Actually, read her biography whether you need an example or not.
· 4 years, 10 years, 20 years, a lifetime. The Army is temporary. Like anything else it is worse than useless as an end. But as a means it can be a road to the service of God in His people, and a path to Heaven. Just keep in mind what is truly important.
· Remember who you are (easier said than done, as you’re still figuring that out.) You were a Catholic gentleman before you joined the Army, and God willing you will be a Catholic gentleman when you are out of the army.
· Remember that you are loved. The Army can never love you, but there are plenty of people who do. They loved you before you were a soldier, and they will love you when you are a soldier no longer.
I will be praying for you. I love you, and I am proud of you.
Your Older Brother, who made 93.4% of the mistakes he has just warned you against, and saw the rest of them first hand…
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Matthew 10:16