6. The Prerequisite of ‘Humiliation’
~ A.W.O.L. ~
Humiliation – To feel the terror of complete exposure through a seemingly involuntary experience with vulnerability. To feel humiliated is to resent my vulnerability because I currently perceive it as weakness; because I have yet to understand its true meaning and potential. In this experience, the self comes face-to-face with the consequences of its previous choice to continue its deceptive slumber through life. Humiliation is quite purposeful, and always self-imposed.
In a deep alcohol-induced haze, I found myself in a recruiting sergeant’s car, headed to a processing center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to sign my life over to the US Army for four years. It was spring of 1998. It’s the oddest thing as I look back because I remember thinking, just months earlier, that the military could never be a realistic option for me. And yet, there I was.
I signed up for the infantry with the hopes of becoming an Army Ranger, jumping out of airplanes, and having all sorts of adventures. I left for basic training in early August of that year. Boot camp went well. I was near the top of my class in skills and physical ability. Near the end, I was often in charge of the platoon, marching them around and singing cadence. It was very rewarding. I also experienced missing my family for the first time in my life, as well as absolute sobriety for the first time in years.
While in basic training, I met one of my angels, my buddy, Jimmy. Jimmy and I were paired since day one. We were placed on the same bus from the airport in Atlanta, GA, to our training base in Fort Benning (western Georgia), and we wouldn’t be separated for the rest of my time in the Army. From that bus we were placed in the same barrack for several days at the in-processing station, then the same basic training platoon, then the same post-basic training school (for mortars), then the same duty station in Fort Stewart, GA, and ultimately the same platoon there as well.
We had an instant connection. It was as if we’d been best friends our entire lives. Often, he was wise beyond his years and a great listener. We were a tandem—and a comical one at that. I stand about 6’3” and around two hundred pounds, and Jimmy was well under six feet, and much lighter. Where there was one, you were likely to find the other. And ultimately, it was generally understood that if you messed with either of us, you had to deal with both of us.
Near the end of infantry basic training, there was a week long skills testing event that took place miles away from our barracks and far from any civilization. Thus, it was far from any supervision of our drill sergeants as well. On one particular afternoon out in this wilderness, my platoon was brought down to the bottom of a small hill where a large van-sized hole had been dug. In the air, there was the slight smell of the gas used during our gas chamber training months ago. This made us suspicious as to why we’d been led down there. The drill sergeants explained that the hole was to be a latrine, and it wasn’t deep enough yet. They ordered everyone to jump in and start digging. Picture sixty men in a van-sized hole over six feet deep.
Suddenly, there was an all too familiar popping noise that comes from opening those gas canisters. As we suspected, it was a prank. The drill sergeants began dowsing everyone in the hole from above. The guys started scattering, yelling, coughing and choking, and climbing to get out of the hole. I quickly grabbed my gas mask in an attempt to display calmness and leadership, but it was too late. One of the drill sergeants was thrusting one of the canisters right in my face. Disoriented and one of the last to climb out, I raced off to a safe distance only to collapse on my stomach, gagging with mucous and fluid coming out of my mouth, nose and eyes.
Then there was a moment that I will never forget. I looked up to my left and saw Jimmy lying there in the brush, doing the same. He looked back at me, and the look we shared in that moment is burned into my memory. I saw a young man wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into. I looked at Jimmy, and stared into a mirror.
A Brick Wall…
We graduated not long after the episode in that pit, and traveled together to our first duty station at Fort Stewart in eastern Georgia. From what I can recall, it was our second day after we’d arrived in mid December, and we were going through the long intake process which took about three days. At some point during that day, all of the new arrivals and transfers were called into a large room. We were told that, as a result of certain events in Iraq, all new arrivals would be reinforcing the same unit and would be leaving for Kuwait in twenty-four hours.
I cannot accurately describe what that reality felt like—realizing in that moment that fighting, war, and death could be in my very near future. I wasn’t afraid for my life. It was more like a very sudden awakening to what and where my choices had led to, how powerful they were, and how permanent they seemed in that moment.
I was excited at first. I remember wanting to call home immediately. I remember knowing the fear and pain that would be in their voices upon hearing my news. I remember a hidden part of me wanting to hear that fear and pain, wanting to be admired, wanting to be missed.
I called home early that evening. I wasn’t fully present during the conversation. I was somewhere else, maybe Kuwait. My family cried. I told them not to worry—such a silly thing to say. It was one of those things you say to take up empty space in a conversation. Perhaps something you say just to hear your own voice.
That night Jimmy had overnight duty, and I was alone for the first time in many months, in an old National Guard barrack where new arrivals stayed until in-processing was completed. I was alone in a long dark room of bunks with a cold concrete floor and nothing but the sound of the large heater hanging in the center of the ceiling.
And then, it just happened. Perhaps it was the isolation, the steady hum of the heater, or the inviting dark warmth of the room. Like a brick wall at sixty miles per hour, out of nowhere. Four months of training never dragged it out of me, but that moment did—I could not kill.
In that instant, the honor for which I had been searching in the military never seemed more illusive, and I suddenly knew I had been looking in the wrong place for it. I knew in that moment that I would never find it there. In less than a second, I realized that I could not entertain the notion of killing another over someone else’s politics, someone else’s story. And not only that, I knew I could no longer be associated with any part of an organization that did. It was a lot to download so quickly. I broke out into a cold sweat right there in my bunk, feeling as though I was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. The following day we learned that our orders had been cancelled and we were not to be shipped out. Orders or no orders, the damage had been done. There was no going back for me.
It is not an easy thing to break a US military contract. I recall one particular morning when the entire company was gathered, our master sergeant made a public warning and threatened anyone who wanted out or was thinking of leaving without permission. On other occasions I remember being told that life as we knew it would be over if we left. We were told that with a poor military service record we would never be hired for a decent job for the rest of our lives. We were told if we left, we’d be caught and thrown in jail.
Under the advice of my squad leader, I went to the chaplain and told him everything I was feeling and experiencing. I even told him that my asthma had been bothering me again (which it had) to find out if that could be a legal way out for me. He advised against it and told me that there was no way out, but that I most likely would never have to kill anyone anyway. That wasn’t good enough for me, and on one particular day when he didn’t show for an appointment time we’d set, I realized that he was stonewalling me; and when I realized that this was the case, it paralyzed me with fear. I’d never felt so trapped or alone. Soon after I realized that it was up to me. There would be no easy out, no asthma excuse, no conscientious objector plea…just me and my decision.
My Own Terms…
The pressure was on and I felt every ounce of it. I spent hours talking about it with Jimmy. I rolled it all over and over in my head for weeks. What would my family think? What would my friends think? What would my country think? Then, on January fourteenth 1999, after we were through with duty for the week, I asked Jimmy if he would be willing to take me to the Atlanta airport. With no hesitation, he agreed. I went back to my barrack, packed up all of my personal stuff as quickly and quietly as I could, and left all of my military gear hanging neatly. I recall I was alone in my room, sitting on the side of my bed, bags packed at my feet. I will never forget that moment, that feeling. The room was completely silent. Sitting there, at 4:26 pm, I took up my letter paper as I so often did, and I wrote:
“The moment is at hand, I’m terribly frightened of the repercussions, and I‘ve yet to make a move. I hate leaving like this, but, at least, it would be on my own terms (as much good as that does me). This [the military] is a mistake for me. Lord, please help me find the courage to finish this, and move on to truly good things. I am confused, and I am lost. I’ll let my family be my guidance for now, take me home.”
Scared, yet hopeful, and even slightly empowered with a new and somewhat foreign sense of control for my life, I grabbed my bags and left…A.W.O.L.
Jimmy drove me straight to the Atlanta airport that night. There were no flights available until early morning so we grabbed a hotel room. He and I didn’t talk much that night. The next morning, he brought me to the airport and walked with me all the way to my gate. With a handshake, smile, and, “Good luck,” he turned and left. I haven’t seen him since.
I returned home to Wisconsin that evening. My home is a peaceful valley, and that night, the stars were out and over a foot of soft white snow covered the ground. I remember walking out into that snow, falling to my knees and just repeating, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” I finally felt safe again, at least for the moment.
I knew that the game had to be finished, and at some point in time, I would have to see about being legally discharged. I was officially a fugitive, and I had to make things right. So, not more than a day or two later I visited a computer lab and began my research online to find out what my options were as someone who’d gone A.W.O.L. In only minutes of sitting down in front of a computer, I found a hotline number that looked like it could help. I went home and called immediately.
Robert answered. He had a soft and sincerely caring voice that I will never forget. Robert listened to me, empathized with me, and explained all of my options. He informed me that after around thirty days, my unit would drop me from their official roll call, and my name and case would be turned over to all civilian authorities. At that point in time, I could turn myself in to one of two PCFs (Personal Control Facilities) in the country where I would be out-processed.
Robert then gently encouraged me to return to my unit and try legal recourse so as not to risk being caught and put in jail. I resisted this advice and told Robert that there was no way I was going back to that place. I explained how I tried talking to my chain of command, even the chaplain, with no result. He understood and then gave me a military number that I could call after the thirty days in order to verify that, indeed, I’d been dropped from the roll call of my unit, as turning myself in too early would only result in me being returned back to my unit for disciplinary action. I thanked Robert, and he requested that I stay in touch. I agreed.
I lived in complete fear that month (which ultimately would stretch into two). I felt alone, ashamed and misunderstood. I felt alienated from everything friendly and nonthreatening in my life. I was frozen. This was my deep, dark secret that I was deathly afraid to tell. And what was worse, my family was in on it all. They were forced into keeping my secret with me.
I worked a bit. I played a bit. But I could not look anyone straight in the eyes for fear they would ask me why I was back and what had happened. I tried not to lie, but rather simply avoided telling the whole truth. I imagined sometimes that it worked. Other times, I’m sure the person I was speaking to saw right through me.
After thirty days, I called the number that Robert had given me to find out if I had been dropped from the roll call. The soldier on the other end quickly informed me that I had not. I got the feeling I was being lied to. Yet, I continued to wait. Another month of making those calls went by. Then, one day, I made the final call. A woman answered that afternoon, and I made my usual request. God bless her, she was having none of me that day. I’ll never forget her words. She exclaimed, “I got better things to do with my time than this! You might as well go on and turn yourself in now before they catch you! Because, eventually, someone’s gonna get you! You’re gonna get caught!” She kept going, and I quickly had all I could take. All of the pressure that had built up from those two months of waiting finally had an outlet.
I fired back at her, “Well it’s real easy for you to judge me isn’t it?! You don’t know a damn thing about me! You don’t know what I’ve been through! You don’t know how I feel! Do you think I’ve enjoyed all of this?! Do you think I’m happy about all of this?! You have no idea how hard it was for me to leave the way I did!” I hung up the phone with a slam. I was shaking, out of breath, and my eyes were welling up.
My brother Zachary came around the corner from the hall to look in. He had that ‘Are you ok?’ look on his face. I was never wrong in my brother’s eyes—ever. This made him the perfect person to be there in that moment. I looked up at him, tears now, “How can she talk to me like that? She doesn’t know me! She doesn’t know what I’ve been through!” Zach sat down next to me and put his arm around me. “I don’t know.”
Minutes later I called the hotline number for the second time. Robert remembered me and explained that after two months I was sure to have been dropped from my unit’s roll call and released from their responsibility. He encouraged me now to turn myself in and report to one of the PCFs and explained that the process, assuming all went smoothly, would take a few days, maybe a week, and I would be home. He went on to caution me and explained that once I turned myself in, discretion was theirs, and it would still be the military’s option to put me in jail if they so desired. I was scared, but finally I had some answers and a plan. I booked a plane ticket for the following Monday to Fort Sill Oklahoma. It was now early April.
Finishing the Game…
I don’t really remember the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, or much of the flight for that matter. All I remember is being nervous, tight, scared. It was late when I landed in Fort Sill. I immediately went to a payphone and dialed a number for the military police station that Robert had given me. I explained that I was A.W.O.L. and wished to turn myself in. The voice on the other end instructed me to stay where I was and an MP (Military Police officer) would be out to pick me up and bring me in. I walked outside to the curb to wait. I remember that wait seemed like hours.
The MP that showed up was routine about everything in a very kind way. Not handcuffed, and sitting in the front seat of the squad car with the officer, we took off for the PCF. It was a quiet ride and not unpleasant. At one point in time, we were at a stoplight and I was gazing out of the side window thinking of everything that had transpired. I remember thinking to myself that I would never forget that moment. To this day I can still remember the country song that was playing on the radio.
The ride ended when we arrived at a long and narrow two-story barrack-shaped building. The MP walked me inside to a Sergeant sitting behind a counter who immediately proclaimed, “Another one?” I was led to a nearby room where I filled out paperwork for what felt like hours, and was also told that I would have to get a haircut the following day. I was made to change back into military garb. The Sergeant opened up a closet at the end of the room and told me to find something that fit. It was a closet of old ratty and torn camouflage uniforms, hats, and boots. It was a humiliation tactic, and a great check to my pride*. In response, I picked out the rattiest uniform I could find, complete with boots that did not match and a hat whose brim was split down the middle. I was no longer a soldier in my mind and refused to look like one.
After changing, all of the civilian possessions that I had brought, with exception of a few toiletries, were taken away. I was led up to a room to sleep the remaining three hours of the night until wake-up at six a.m., and was told to be clean shaven in the morning. I laid in that bed staring at the ceiling for those three hours. There was no sleep.
In the morning there was a pleasant surprise. I was shocked to see many others like me in the hallway and bathroom preparing for the day. A bit later we all lined up downstairs for roll call. There were about twenty of us that first day, a Tuesday. (By Thursday, the number would grow to around sixty.)
After roll call, we were rounded up, placed in the back of two big trucks, and carried to a chow hall for breakfast. Upon our return, we were instructed to remain outside in a small, fenced courtyard area until further notice. Not long after, I recall sitting alone on some bleachers that were in the courtyard area. A voice to my front right boomed out, “I’m sorry, are you tired!? Hey! Are you tired!?” I turned my head to see another sergeant, a new face, staring at me from across the small courtyard area. “Get your back off those bleachers and sit up! Or I’ll give you something to be tired about!” He proceeded to walk inside.
A tone had been set, which I believe was his intention. In that moment, I felt an anger and resentment that could only come from my inability to recognize this type of authority. His rank meant nothing to me, and I wanted nothing more than to make him aware of it. But I said nothing, and sat up as instructed. I remember looking down on the graveled ground and picking up a small blue-painted stone. (Occupants of the PCF were made to pick up colored rocks when they did not thoroughly obey orders.) I put that blue stone in my pocket and decided to remember that moment, that feeling of complete humiliation and powerlessness. Because despite the rage and anxiety I was feeling, I felt on some level that this was a very important moment for me.
Minutes later, he and two others came back out and ordered everyone into a formation. Needless to say, it had been a while for most of us, so it took a bit of time to get organized. He proceeded to tell us the rules of the process for the week, and I recall the first words he spoke quite clearly…“Let’s get one thing straight, I don’t give a fuck about you, or if you ever get outta here!” The insanity of speaking like that to group of men he didn’t know was suffocating for me. The only ‘crime’ any of us standing there had committed was to simply change our minds about what we wanted for our lives. No more. No less. There was no crime, no betrayal, but simply a change of heart. Yet, his disrespect was blatant, it was planned, and if I wanted my life back, I had to take it. So I did.
He went on with his speech. In-between brief procedural explanations, there were further attempts to scare, belittle, and dehumanize all of us for our decision to desert the army. There were threats of military prison if all orders and instructions during the week were not followed meticulously. He made it very clear that, until we got our walking papers, we were all still property of the US Army, and under their discretion, we could all be locked up.
Ironically, what happened over the next couple of days was nothing short of wonderful. As the twenty of us grew into sixty, a small bunch, maybe five or six of us, banded together and shared our stories. We shared where we were from, where we had been, and of course, why we had left the army. It became obvious that the constant threats on our freedom had sparked camaraderie. Everyone I met had a reason that was very important to them for leaving the military the way they did. None of them were wrong. It was all so perfect, and occurred at a perfect time, as my greatest fear in turning myself in was that I would have to go through all of it alone. It was not the case.
I believe it was the second afternoon that we were to meet and be interview by the NCO (non-commissioned officer) in charge of our release. We were prepped and warned by our supervisory sergeant to be strict with our etiquette, language, and postures. This was the man, we were told, who held our freedom in his hands. We were told how ruthless he could be, and how, if we slipped up, it could be over. He was made out to be the devil himself—a man who could send you and your life straight to hell. And, judging by what we’d seen thus far, there was little reason to believe it wasn’t true.
We were marched to the office where the interviews were to be held. There, we were told to wait in line in the hallway outside of the NCO’s office while each interview took place, one at a time. A few of us began a conversation to pass the time. Suddenly, there was a booming voice from just down the hall. “What the hell is all this noise?!” The group immediately silenced itself as a gigantic man who towered over even my 6’3” frame moved quickly down the hall. He was a high-ranking Master Sergeant, and he turned his gaze quickly upon me. “What kind of position is that?!” He was referring to how I was standing, which I will admit was not particularly formal. He immediately bellowed, “Is that how you were told to stand!? You were told to stand at ‘parade rest’ [a posture with hands folded behind one’s back and feet slightly apart], and not to talk when you’re here, right?!” He went on a bit. Yet I heard very little of it. I was too furious to comprehend another word, and how I resisted telling him to go to hell, I’m not sure. The self-restraint could only have come from the deepest desire to be through with all of that business once and for all. So I clammed up, and when I noticed he had finished, I responded with an equally booming, “Roger that, Master Sergeant!”
Soon after, it was my turn for the interview. I knocked and entered. Closing the door, taking parade rest posture I announced, “…reporting as ordered, Sergeant.” The words fumbled out of my mouth. I was nervous and scared, maybe more than I had ever been in my life. For here he was, the man that could send me home, or send me to jail.
I don’t remember his face, only my impressions of his way of being, his energy and manner expression. I remember a sharp and honest look to him. Yet, his posture suggested exhaustion as I’m sure weeding through deserters week after week can become a bit disheartening.
He shuffled through a small pile of papers that belonged to a brown file folder open on the center of his desk, my brown file folder. This went on for a minute, maybe more. Then he looked up at me, still in my posture and said, “At ease.” I adjusted my posture with the order. His face grimaced with a look of confusion. Picking up a handful of the papers in front of him and dropping them back down on the desk, he said finally, “I’m sitting here going over this paperwork, over and over, and what I see is a new soldier, with a lot of rank, great test scores, and a lot of potential. I don’t understand this.” He paused and stared at me. “Can you explain this to me?”
I was beginning to feel my emotions set in, and although I was able to keep them at bay, I’m sure they were present on my face. “It’s very personal,” I managed to squeak out.
“Yes I know, that’s what you put in your paperwork when you got here. But given the circumstances, it’s not good enough. It’s just not good enough, and I need to know what happened. I need to know what went wrong.” He held up my file, “Because this, this is just a waste.”
He waited, poised in his chair for me to answer him. The tears wanted to come in that moment. I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry for the two months that had gone by living in fear and shame. I wanted to cry for the embarrassment I felt when my extended family heard what I’d done. I wanted to cry for all of the dreams I thought I’d lost. I wanted to cry for the humiliation I felt when I arrived at this base. I wanted to cry so I wouldn’t have to talk. How could I possibly explain myself to this man? Still, he waited, and I began.
“First of all, I have nothing personal against the army. I loved basic training. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I would never take it back,” I stopped. I felt myself losing control.
“What happened,” he said, patiently. In that moment, I remember feeling that something had shifted in this space. Something was not what it had seemed. Something was not as I was told and led to believe about this moment, about this man.
“I got to my unit. The day after I got there, we got orders to ship out for Kuwait, and I was excited at first. But that night, my buddy had duty and I was in the barrack alone. It was the first time I’d been alone in a while, and it just hit me, out of the blue…I can’t kill anybody.”
I’m sure that I must have been clearly upset by now. Calmly, he asked, “Did you talk to anybody about this?” I explained that I’d gone to my squad leader, his squad leader, my platoon sergeant, and of course, the chaplain. I explained that no one seemed to want to understand or acknowledge that what I was feeling was real.
I explained that the chaplain eventually stopped communicating with me. I explained that my actions were taken, in my opinion, because I saw no other choice. I repeated that I had nothing against the army, that I loved this country, that I truly valued my experience with the military, and that my feelings on killing were not even known to me until that very moment, months into the process. And when those feelings came up, they just got stronger. I told him that I wasn’t proud of how I’d done what I’d done, and that I’d never quit anything in my life. I just didn’t know where else to turn, or what else to do.
He just sat there, listening, really listening to every word, and watching me, looking at me. What a sight I must have been. I stopped. My voice was shaking He didn’t speak right away. He was thinking and I…I was off somewhere. Somewhere in defense of my own castle. Somewhere I could disconnect from this moment and not have to be afraid of anything he was about to say. Then, a miracle happened. He spoke.
“Noah, you walked in here today and you had a look on your face that was scared out of your mind like you were going to jail for the rest of your life. And that’s just not going to happen.”
He paused and I now met his glance, “You did not fail the army. The army failed you. You’ve done nothing wrong.” He paused again, “I can see how much this upsets you and how hard you’ve been on yourself about it. But you’re gonna’ have to put this behind you. Do you understand me?”
There was an angel sitting in that chair that day—the kind of angel that is unmistakable, who shows up when you least expect it, and leaves you breathless. I was beyond vulnerable, and in a moment where he could have sealed my fate—not simply my physical fate, but the fate of my heart and mind—he set me free.
I returned home the next evening, still with memory and worry. But there was also a growing peace, a peace that comes from an overcoming, a peace that comes from the realization that all is now truly well. My family was there, as always, at my gate when I landed, there to greet me and hug me, and say goodbye to all of that. They were every bit as relieved and overjoyed as I was. That car ride home was the great exhale that I had been waiting for.
This was my great lesson in humility. It serves me still to this day. Never had I been more embarrassed or ashamed to show my face in public, or to my friends or family, than during those weeks I spent A.W.O.L., as well as many months following my official release. The experience completely and wholly humiliated me.
In this, I learned what it is to be humble. For the first time in life, I felt and experienced what it is truly like to be in the minority, to be the one who is chastised, judged, and thought a lesser man, inferior, and unpatriotic. Now, I had been offered a means to understand, a means to offer compassion.
When humility tames my arrogance and pride the truth can finally shine through. I begin to understand that there truly is no superiority that can exist. I began to embrace that there is no ‘country’ in the realm of the soul*. There are no ‘Americans’ in the eyes of God. When one awakens from the inside, there is no need for authority or rules. For there is no need to govern truth. To understand this notion, I have tried to imagine someone like the Dalai Lama requiring a government or needing a system of rules in order for them to behave correctly.
In the spotlight of humiliation, all hiding places disappear. Transparency becomes mandatory. This is the gift offered here. It is a moment provided by life to lay down my resistance. It is a moment for the declaration of truth through my silence, and for the honoring of truth through my stillness. It is a moment to simply remain, in recognition of a great opportunity to grow, not despite—but because of—the appearance of the drama currently surrounding me. Humiliation is truth raising its voice, screaming, “Look at me! You created me! Why do you deny me? Stand now and acknowledge my presence once and for all.”
My small taste of this understanding has allowed me to see my humiliation in a far more wholly light: As an invitation to love more purely, more unconditionally, and with less hesitation.
And with that, I bless the prerequisite of humiliation with every ounce of gratitude and sincerity I can muster. I bless it fully.
Thank you Jimmy and the US Army…I love you all.