Cover image for This man's army : a soldier's story from the front lines of the war on terrorism
This man's army : a soldier's story from the front lines of the war on terrorism
Exum, Andrew.
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Publication Information:
New York : Gotham books, [2004]

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xii, 239 pages ; 22 cm
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HV6432 .E98 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



This Man’s Armyfollows one extraordinary young man’s transformation from Ivy League student to twenty-first-century warrior. Soldier X vividly brings to life his journey through ROTC training, the grueling trials of the elite Ranger School, and into the treacherous terrain of the Shah-e-Kot Valley in Afghanistan. There he leads his men to root out the hardcore remnants of Osama bin Laden’s forces, and must confront and kill an Al Qaeda fighter. On his return to the United States, Soldier X must face how media coverage has distorted public perception of the war back home as he seeks to make peace with the man he had become.In the tradition of Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone, This Man’s Armyis a gripping story of a young man’s introduction to the horrors of war, reported with brutal honesty and compelling insight. By turns harrowing and inspiring, it is the first account of combat from a new generation that is rising to confront the grave threat that faces our civilization and our way of life.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

The young Tennesseean who wrote this fine account of the post-9/11 army admits to a southern military heritage. This led him to go to college through the ROTC and on to the grueling Ranger School. His accounts of both are among the best during the last generation, but his military and literary achievements don't stop there. In command of a platoon of the 31st Infantry, he and other light infantry units were brusquely dispatched to the Middle East. He learned a good deal about himself and his men while pulling security duty in Kuwait, then still more when conducting sweep operations against the remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where he killed a man and learned more than he ever wanted to know about the questions others will ask on the subject. Soldier X will be leaving the army with a disabling injury--one hopes for a literary career as distinguished as any military one that circumstance has denied him. --Roland Green Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

The American war in Afghanistan has been overshadowed by the war in Iraq. But since October 2001, American soldiers have been fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan under often brutal guerrilla war conditions. The author of this war memoir, an active-day army officer, has had his identity embargoed until the book's publication. The book is a fast-paced, first-person look at the war through the educated eyes of a 25-year-old Ivy League-schooled Army Ranger who fought with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan in 2002 (and also in Iraq). The narrative, which confines its battle sequences to Afghanistan and contains a fair amount of reconstructed dialogue, follows the standard war memoir formula. It opens in the battlefield, then flashes back to a chronological rendering of the author's life, including the required depiction of the rigors of military training, complete with bellowing, sadistic drill instructors. Then comes the author's overseas deployment, beginning with a hurry-up-and-wait stint doing "long and boring" convoy escort work in Kuwait. X doesn't arrive in Afghanistan until nearly the exact half-way point of this not-long book. The narrative ends with his homecoming, his readjustment difficulties and his thoughts on the institution of war and the burdens of those who fight in wars. Along the way X provides an often perceptive, informed look at what it's like to be in today's military, as well as the experience of combat in southwest Asia. X also puts his education (a double major, English and Classics, he informs us) to good use, sprinkling references to Shakespeare, Graham Greene, Walker Percy, Don DeLillo, Joseph Heller and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, throughout the narrative. (May 24) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Prologue March 2002 Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan The sun rose over the mountains to the east, flooding the valley with light. While it remained dark, we could still tease ourselves into thinking that the job we had to do today was some way off. But the sun, creeping up over the Hindu Kush, reminded us of the immediacy of our fate. We knew that the time had arrived for us to be brave, so that we might continue to believe that we were, even if we should face the worst. We quickly formed up in the new sunlight, walking in a line toward the waiting helicopters. We moved with great labor, each of us carrying nearly his body weight in weapons and equipment. It was an ungodly amount of gear. I personally carried ninety pounds of equipment in my rucksack as well as 210 rounds of ammunition, a radio, a set of maps, a compass, a handheld global positioning system, and two quarts of water. I had an array of other assorted supplies strapped to the nylon webbing on my body armor, including four grenades with phrases like "Duck!" and "You Should Have Dodged Left!" scribbled on them in black Magic Marker. I wondered how well I was going to move at ten thousand feet above sea level with all this crap on my body. We helped one another down off our feet in order to sit on the tarmac while waiting for our CH-47 helicopters to fuel. Then we sat silently, watching the planes and attack helicopters take off a few hundred meters away. Finally, it was our turn to load the helicopters, and each man struggled to his feet under the weight of his equipment. One of my friends from another platoon walked over and shook my hand before he went to board his own helicopter. He didn't say anything, just squeezed my gloved hand in his and forced a tight-lipped smile. Another friend in his group threw me a cocky wink, too far away already to walk over. It took a while to load the bird. We packed in tight, and because I would be one of the first on the ground, I was one of the last to board. Few of us had awakened early enough to eat anything in the hours before sunrise, and those of us who did had not been able to eat much. After we settled into the helicopter, a few men tugged at their pockets for energy bars or granola they had stowed away in their shirts and camouflage cargo pants. Most looked around nervously, their helmets swiveling from left to right. The curved night vision mounts strapped to their foreheads made them look like rhinos from the neck up. I almost fell over when the helicopter took off. There were more than thirty of us inside, and like me, many were on the floor, sitting on their rucksacks. The body armor wrapped around my torso made me feel awkward and off-balance, and when the helicopter lifted off, I latched onto Flash, my radio operator, to steady myself. Once the helicopter was in the air and on its way, we righted ourselves and settled down for the ride into combat. The helicopter had machine gunners on both sides, as well as one on the back ramp, which was down. The gunner in the back sat on the very edge of the ramp, confident he would not fall because he was tied down to the helicopter by a four-foot tether. We got our first good aerial view of the base as we left. Below us, rows of tan tents shuddered under the rotor wash of the helicopter blades. Behind them, we could see the bombed-out airplane hangar that had become the division's headquarters. I looked around me at the men to my right and left. They were my men, and I could feel them looking at me as well. Some of them looked scared, others simply looked anxious, and still others feigned sleep in an effort to show how cool they could be, how detached they were about what we were about to do. Many were still just kids, no more than eighteen years old, yet they carried a dizzying array of machine guns, shotguns, explosives, and other weapons. Only one man in the platoon, my platoon sergeant, was much older than thirty, and he was sitting near me by the ramp, next to the mortar rounds we had loaded onto an ATV that was lashed to the floor of the helicopter. The helicopter gathered speed, cruising over the hills and through the valleys of eastern Afghanistan. The only good view was out the back, but it was spectacular. A few minutes after we left the base, we began to ascend and crested a ridge, only to swoop down the other side, flying low and close to the ground. It made for a heck of a ride. We soon leveled out, and I could see power lines stretching from east to west. I knew we must be near Kabul, the capital city. No other place in the country had any power lines, much less any other utility. We made our way south of the capital and then headed due southeast toward Gardez and into the valley to that city's east, the Shah-e-Kot Valley, where American and allied forces had been fighting with Taliban and al-Qaeda forces for the past week. As we got closer, the terrain grew more mountainous. The ride got rockier too, as the pilots protected their helicopters from snipers and rockets by hugging the ground, flying what they called "map of the earth." We had been in the air for over an hour when one of my soldiers, Noodles, unceremoniously puked his meager breakfast up into a plastic bag between his legs. (He had been given his name by the platoon for the way his thin arms shook like wet noodles when he tried to do push-ups.) The other soldiers in the helicopter roared in approval, shouting and cheering Noodles on as he vomited. The crew chief had just enough time to throw the bag out the back of the helicopter before another soldier, Tayo, also puked, losing it into a Ziploc bag that had just a few seconds earlier contained one of my team leaders' cans of Copenhagen. Once again, the other soldiers cheered Tayo, wildly yelling and egging him on. It reminded me of the times I had been about to jump out of an airplane and seen motion sickness spread through the plane, with guys puking into the little yellow bags the air force hands out prior to takeoff. I knew that today it was more than motion sickness. Despite the hooting and hollering, the embarrassed grin on Noodles's face, and Tayo's brave shouts back to his platoon mates, I saw the raw fear behind the smiles. Fear was behind the yelling too, a welcome release for the other soldiers in the helicopter, who now had something to take their minds off the fact that we were about to be dropped into the middle of a suspected al- Qaeda stronghold and that some of us might not make it back to the place we had just left. I was scared too. I had lived with and led these men for more than a year. We had become a family, and they were my brothers. White, black, Hispanic, Asian-we looked like the United Colors of Benetton and yet were as close as any group of men can be, more so than any athletic team I ever played on and more so than even the friends I had grown up with back home in Tennessee. I knew everything about the guys around me- their hometowns, the names of their brothers and sisters and girlfriends, their favorite bands, what their parents did for a living, how old they were when they lost their virginity, the color of their first car. Everything-even the stuff I had no interest in knowing. I was pretty damn sure I had the stomach to kill or be killed, but I wasn't sure if I could watch anyone else in this helicopter die. I looked at my platoon sergeant. Sergeant Montoya looked back at me, eye-to-eye, and we instantly knew we were thinking the same thing. The soldiers in the platoon called him Yoda behind his back because he knew everything and had lived to the incredibly advanced age of thirty-four. He had prayed over me the night before, asking God to give me the judgment and skill necessary to bring the platoon back safely. We were both professional soldiers, but the men under our care were more than Department of Defense cannon fodder to be indiscriminately thrown to their deaths. We cared for these men more than we cared for ourselves, and we were resolved to bring them all back alive. I broke away from Sergeant Montoya's gaze and began to tie a piece of string to my right wrist. It had become a combat ritual for me, beginning with the first mission we had run a few days earlier. Before we landed, I tied a piece of parachute cord to my wrist. At home today, I have a collection of string bracelets I fashioned before missions, and there are enough to cover much of my forearm. I closed my eyes to pray. I told God I was about to take leave of my faith for a few days. When I opened my eyes, I would be a new person, a person outside myself. A while later, my radioman, Flash, reached back and tapped me on the shoulder. "Sir," he said. "We're close." I struggled to reach my feet and leaned over Junk, one of my machine gunners, to get a view out of one of the Chinook's tiny side windows. I saw small dark figures on the ridge to the helicopter's left and knew these were our allies, Canadian soldiers who had landed before us and were securing the landing zone. I then helped Flash to his feet and worked hard to remain upright as I put my rucksack on and then secured Flash's radio to his back. As the Chinook settled down, the dust flew up, obscuring everything and blinding us all. We felt a sharp jolt, and Flash and I grabbed onto each other again to keep from falling over. The back ramp filled with dust, and the machine gunner on the ramp moved to the side. We couldn't see a thing, but it was time. I pushed the men ahead of me, pulling Flash with my left hand, and before I knew it, I was out of the helicopter, under its spinning blades. I had just set foot into the Shah-e-Kot Valley. I I grew up in East Tennessee, just outside the medium-sized city of Chattanooga. If ever there was a Southern city rooted in the past and struggling to find its path in modern America, Chattanooga was it. I was born half a mile from Missionary Ridge, site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Cannons stand on all the high points of the city, guarding historical markers, standing sentinel for an era that died at the Appomattox Courthouse over a century before I was born. At least postbellum Chattanooga was more forward thinking than some of the cities even farther south. It had a thriving urban renewal program and could boast that most of its inhabitants heartily enjoyed living there. I certainly did. I spent my adolescence playing football, running track, and doing all the normal things boys my age did. I was always small, until I hit puberty, late, in my junior year of high school, but I loved the outdoors and felt comfortable there in a way I never did on the athletic fields. I loved the mountains and sandstone cliffs that surrounded my home, and hiking and running along the dirt paths that led through the woods. In addition to being an agile rock climber, I was an avid reader. So when the sun was shining, I climbed. When it rained, I stayed inside and read. It was a simple childhood, and I felt blessed. My father was a journalist and newspaper executive, my mother an English teacher at a girls' school in Chattanooga. They were divorced when I was eight, and after that I lived with my mom and younger sister, learning to be somewhat independent at an early age. My mother would leave for work with my sister in the early hours of the morning and return late at night. To earn extra money for my sister and me to have what we needed, she worked as an assistant to her school's basketball coach in the afternoons and evenings. I rarely saw her during the school week. I got myself up every morning and fixed most of my meals myself or ate them at school. I was lucky to be able to attend a distinguished Southern boys' boarding school on partial scholarship as a day student, the result of my mother's work as a teacher at the crosstown girls' school. My father paid generous child support to my mother and contributed the rest of my high school tuition but, significantly, didn't plan on college. Or, I should say, he didn't plan on my going to college where I did. He's a good guy, my father, but he had been a notorious hell-raiser when he was a teen. He went through six different high schools before finally graduating on a cold day in December. They sent him his diploma in the mail. He went on to the University of Mississippi, where he partied hard and paid his way through his first semester by selling beer to all the fraternities and sororities on the black market. Oxford, Mississippi, was a dry town then, and my father used to drive a tractor-trailer full of kegs from West Memphis, Arkansas, making a tidy profit when he returned to school. This story was confirmed to me by some of my friends' parents who went to Ole Miss with my father, so unlike some of the more apocryphal stories about Dad, I'm inclined to believe it. He left school after a year, his departure no doubt hastened by the fact that he had urinated in the dean's convertible one night while drunk. It didn't matter, though. My father's future was assured, working for his grandfather at the local newspaper. His own father was a brilliant academic who had long since drank his life away by the time my father left for college, divorcing my grandmother and cutting himself off from his own family. In his final years, the only members of the family he still spoke to were my sister and me. He had reformed himself by that point and used to tell us stories of his early life in Faulkner's Mississippi just down the road from his friend, the novelist and editor Willie Morris. He had moved to Chattanooga just before World War II and married into one of the oldest families in the city, the McDonalds. They had fled Scotland after the infamous Glen Coe massacre of 1692, to Ireland and then to Virginia, eventually moving west to settle on a small plot of land in East Tennessee in 1819. We have held the same piece of land ever since. My father raised me to shoot rifles. He could never throw a football or baseball with me on account of his bum right arm that had been crushed when he flipped a Jeep onto it in 1973. So instead of playing sports, he would take me to our family farm and teach me how to shoot with a single-shot Winchester. He sat with me for hours while I fired at paper targets and cans sitting on the fence. When I was twelve, I got a .22-caliber rifle of my own. My father taught me how to control my breathing while taking aim, how to hold the rifle's butt tight into my shoulder, and how to gently squeeze the trigger instead of jerking it with my finger. We would sit high on a hill above a small stream, where my father would smoke cigars and drink Diet Cokes while I shot at targets he chose. Often, he would give me his empty Coke cans and make me run down the hill, put them in the stream, sprint back up the hill, grab my rifle, steady my heavy breathing, and fire enough holes into the cans to sink them before they could float away out of range. Eventually, he let me roam the woods of our farm alone to hunt snakes with the big farm dogs we kept around. If my father's family held a genteel aura of Southern aris- tocracy, my mother's family was firmly rooted in the lower middle classes. Her father grew up on a small tobacco farm in South Carolina, moving to Chattanooga to begin a career as a photographer after serving in the Pacific during the Second World War. Her mother was from Louisiana, a former high school basketball star in the days of six-on-six half-court girls' basketball, who met my grandfather while working in New Orleans. He had a son from a previous marriage, and with my grandmother had three daughters. My mother was the second and would graduate from the University of Tennessee along with her sisters. No one I have spoken to can understand why my mother and father ever married. My father's family and friends always figured he would marry someone from a more distinguished family, and my mother's family wondered how my mother-responsible, educated, down-to-earth-could fall in love with someone so obviously different from her. My father was charming but as wild and irresponsible as my mother was calm and balanced. I guess my mother saw in my father someone fun and unpredictable, as well as a young man with considerable talents. Writing a popular sports column for the newspaper, about the only thing that everyone in East Tennessee cares about, football, my father wrote with an understanding of his readers unmatched by any other writer I have ever read. He wrote for the common man reading the afternoon paper after a long day at work, and it was impossible to go places with my father and not be accosted by a fan of his column. In my mother, my father saw someone who could raise his children to be more responsible than he was. After my parents divorced, my mother went along raising my sister and me just as my father had wanted, in her image-responsible, full of common sense, shunning anything flashy or ostentatious. Both my parents are of Scottish descent, but I got my Scotch frugality-short arms and long pockets, you might say-from my mother. My father was and is a legendary spender, always in debt. But I have inherited as many traits from my father as my mother. He was always hardworking, which impressed my mother when she met him, often holding down multiple jobs and reporting to work at the paper our family owned as early as four in the morning. When the workers at our paper went on strike in the seventies, my father worked twenty-hour days alongside the rest of the family, writing stories, operating the presses, and catching naps on the sofa. The strike broke after a few weeks, a defeat for the labor movement in the South but a proud moment for the family. During high school, I took hard courses, studied equally hard, and took pride in my work. I also participated in a lot of extracurricular activities, relishing the leadership opportunities sports and student government provided. Playing varsity football during my sophomore year, I was not only the smallest player on the team but the smallest in all of Tennessee. I played free safety weighing only 105 pounds but discovered that toughness often gets you farther than size and athleticism. All the same, I was knocked unconscious two times that season trying to tackle fullbacks twice my size. My father was supportive when it came to football, always in the stands, and only criticized me once, during my senior season. Before one of our away games, I walked to the middle of the field to shake hands with the other team's captains and call the coin toss. Afterward, I ran back to the sideline and played a tough game, which we lost, barely, to the team that would eventually go on to win the state championship. After the game, my father was waiting for me on the way to the team bus, a stern look on his face. Before he'd allow me to board the bus, he let me know in no uncertain terms that he had seen me shake hands with the other team's captains before the game and fail to take off my thin leather receiving gloves beforehand, which he considered an unforgivable breach of courtesy. "Just who the hell do you think you play for," he asked me, "the University of Miami?" For my father, winning or losing wasn't as important as playing with class. Academically, I did well and only performed poorly in one subject-Latin, during my freshman year. But I would redeem myself in the classics three years later by becoming a National Greek Scholar as a senior. My college counselor steered me toward challenging, competitive schools. While my father had always assumed I would go to the University of Tennessee (like my mother) or someplace equally cheap, I instead set off with my mother in her Saturn station wagon the summer before my senior year, to look at the elite-and expensive-schools of the Northeast before summer football practice began. After eighteen years in Chattanooga, I was becoming restless for a change of scenery. My father, I think, would have been somewhat happy if I had chosen the University of Virginia-a proper school for a good Southern gentleman to attend. But when I visited there, they told me they could care less whether I applied there or not. "We already get the best applicants from all over the South," they assured me. That turned me off, and I decided on the University of Pennsylvania before my senior year began. I liked the urban environment at Penn, the big libraries, and the diversity of the student body. I had never before seen such a multicolored group of people, speaking so many languages. I liked the energy of the city and of the campus. The Penn admissions officer who visited my high school took a liking to me and made me her personal mission to recruit. I applied early and got in shortly after football season ended. I now had a bigger problem, which was how to pay for a school that would cost $30,000 a year. When I came to my father and pled my case for tuition, all I got was shrugged shoulders. My mother and I applied for financial aid, but my father's considerable income counted against us-he made a good bit but had saved nothing for my college and had heavy debt. At the time I was really angry at Dad's remarkable dual absence, of both foresight and fiscal responsibility, but as I got older and came to learn the full extent of my father's debt, my anger turned to pity. He's the only one in our tightfisted family who isn't by nature a cheapskate, and the hole he's dug for himself over the years inspires silent frustration more than rage. It was difficult back then for me to see how a man who wrote so effortlessly, so beautifully, could be so incompetent in other areas of his life. But it was hard to stay angry with the old man, and if you know my father you understand. Eventually his ebullient, charismatic, larger-than-life personality just wears you down, until you forget why you were angry with him in the first place. So I quit running track and began working at the family newspaper after school in addition to the weekends I already worked. By the end of the year, I had saved $10,000 from three years of working during high school and my mother came up with another $8,000-enough for a year of Penn when combined with the financial aid I received. However, it was understood that to stay at Penn beyond my freshman year I would have to get some additional help. The military immediately became an option. I had always wanted to serve my country and had toyed with the idea of enlisting for two years before college. But my college counselor, coaches, and teachers recommended that I try for an ROTC scholarship instead. I felt that as long as I was going to join the military, I was going to go all the way. I had always loved the woods and any sort of physical challenge, and I didn't want to be some desk jockey or supply lackey wearing a uniform. I wanted to be a killer. I wanted to be something elite, like a Navy SEAL or Army Ranger. I wanted to be something I could brag about when I got old. The Army presented the best options, so when I visited Penn again after I had been accepted, I also visited the Army ROTC program there. They were excited to see me and signed me up right away, with the assurance that I could apply for a three-year scholarship once I started school. I spent that summer climbing, growing my hair long, and working for my dad at the newspaper. It was the summer of the Atlanta Olympics, and I would drive the hour and a half to Atlanta every day to get enough interviews with athletes to supply me with a few days' worth of stories for the sports section. I was usually off work in time to climb some routes on the sandstone cliffs behind my house before the sun set. I loved the way the rock felt under my fingers, the way that my forearms burned from hanging for so long, the way that adrenaline alone often kept me from falling. The backs of my hands were always cut or covered with scabs from having jammed my fists into cracks as I pulled myself up the cliffs. In September, my mother and I packed her station wagon and drove north, up I-81 through Virginia to Washington, D.C., and then up I-95 into Philadelphia. We started the day in the green lushness of East Tennessee and ended it on I-76, driving through the oil refinery and housing projects of west Philadelphia. I was beginning to see what Walker Percy, one of my favorite writers, meant in his novel The Moviegoer when he described the "rinsing, wrenching sadness of the cities of the North." My freshman year of college was a disaster. I was lost in the city, lost in my classes, and felt isolated as a white Southern kid among all those Yankees. My accent, which I had never considered pronounced, evidently was, and it just made things worse. Each time I spoke up in class, I could feel my classmates thinking I must be either ignorant, inbred, or racist. Maybe even all three. I didn't think I belonged and wanted to go home. I even considered transferring to the University of Virginia. My Northern classmates all seemed so much smarter than me. In the novel White Noise by Don DeLillo, one of the characters responds that he knows so much because, of course, "I'm from New York." Many of my classmates were the same way, believing themselves to be street smart and wise beyond their years. I understand now that they were just as scared and unsure of themselves as I was, but I didn't know it then. While my classmates worked hard in the library and achieved good grades, I began to take my failures in the classroom to be a matter of course and adopted a defeatist attitude. The Army was different from the rest of Penn. I was good at ROTC from the start. I knew how to navigate in the woods better than the Northerners, even in the flat woods of New Jersey, where we trained on weekends. I could outshoot any of them with an M-16, and I made easy friends. They jokingly called me "Sergeant York" after Tennessee's famous war hero, a moniker that pleased me to no end. I liked waking up early on Wednesday morning to drill, and learned how to perform exotic tasks like clearing bunkers and hallways with guns and grenades. I liked wearing a uniform, which made me look different from the rest of my classmates for at least one day during the week. On Mondays, I would report to military science class to learn about the rank structure and how the army organized itself. We also took classes in basic military tactics and leadership. I never made anything less than an A in ROTC, but unfortunately, I wasn't making A's in anything else. Despite my poor grades, the Army gave me a scholarship that summer. My mother gave me a big hug when she heard the news. We didn't tell my father until a few days later, but when he heard he greeted the news with a mixture of pride and apprehension. He was proud I had decided to serve in the military, but I don't think he'd planned on me showing so much resolve to stay up north for college. Sophomore year wasn't any easier, though. My grades in the fall were the worst yet. In the spring, a particularly ugly (and absurd) classroom incident reminded me of how much of an outsider I still was. After becoming angry with me while arguing in class about whether or not order was restored at the end of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, one girl called me "David Duke" in retort to my argument. I guess she figured associating me with the modern South's most famous racist would shut me up and prove her intellectual superiority, but given the argument's context, the insult was a non sequitur. It was just an ugly slur from a Yankee prep school girl suddenly alarmed that she was being bested in argument by a backward Southerner. I got mad and walked out of class. I returned the next week only after a black girl who usually sat by me in the class tracked me down and let me know how embarrassed the rest of the class was for what that girl had said. ROTC wasn't as fun that year, either. In part because of recent protests that surrounded the ROTC presence on campus, the Army decided to merge the Penn Army ROTC program with all the other programs in the city. We now met at the Drexel Armory, which was only a few blocks from campus, but we were no longer a tangible part of the Penn community as we had been a year earlier. I was angry about the protests. During the Vietnam conflict, college students protested ROTC as a way to protest the war in Southeast Asia. Now a small but committed group of activists on campus protested ROTC to complain about how the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy established by President Clinton and Congress discriminated against homosexuals. For my part, all I wanted to do was serve my country and pay for school, and it pissed me off that ROTC was moved off campus to placate a noisy special interest group that had a beef with a policy set up not by the army but by elected officials in Washington. To the protesters' credit, they never directly confronted the cadets. My gay friends openly appreciated that I was just trying to pay for college, but that didn't stop them from sometimes lashing out at me. That summer, I took off immediately after passing my Ancient Greece exam at the beginning of May, so that I could begin training with the military at the U.S. Army Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia, a week later. Airborne School was my first real experience in the regular army, away from ROTC, and I passed with flying colors. For the first two weeks, we trained in sawdust pits and on towers meant to simulate jumping out of an airplane. In the third week, we jumped out of an airplane five times and graduated at the end of the week. During the course, I lived in the drab army barracks at Fort Benning and tried my best to be as anonymous as possible in training, to avoid the ire of "the black hats," as the Airborne instructors were known. When we were given time off, I sat in the room I shared with another soldier and read the books I had brought with me. I remember a Navy SEAL who was going through the course with me asking me about the book I was reading one morning, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. I didn't know how to explain it and mumbled something about the book being a narrative of a road trip between a man and his stepdaughter. "Sounds pretty fucking boring," he replied. "It is," I assured him. I was proud to earn the silver wings identifying me as a paratrooper at the end of the month. Full of confidence, I resolved to turn things around at Penn when I returned for my junior year. I did. My grades soared that fall, and I found professors who took an interest in mentoring me. One, a fellow East Tennessee native, even took me aside and let me know that any kid from East Tennessee couldn't do worse than an A in his class. The act of fraternal motivation worked. I responded by working my ass off for him as a token of gratitude and as a protest on behalf of all Southerners trapped in Philadelphia. During his office hours on Wednesdays, I would go in to talk with him, more about football and the University of Tennessee's opponent that upcoming Saturday than anything relating to class. The Tennessee Volunteers were unbeatable that season, going undefeated on their way toward winning the national championship, and I mirrored their success in academic halls above the Mason-Dixon Line. I earned a varsity letter that fall playing lightweight football, a peculiar sport found only in the Ivy League and at the service academies. It's contact football played only by those weighing less than 165 pounds. A wide receiver and defensive back in high school, I now played defensive end. I enjoyed putting the pads back on again and, despite two broken bones in my left hand, played well enough that season to help us win the league championship. Our only loss that year was to West Point, who was always the dirtiest team we played against. I also began to assert myself as a campus leader that year. I wrote a column each week for the school newspaper, served as president of my fraternity, and at the end of the year was selected for membership in one of the two exclusive senior honor societies. ROTC picked up its intensity as well. During sophomore year, most of the classes we were taught had been the same as those we took as freshmen. Now, as juniors, we taught most of the Wednesday morning classes ourselves and were evaluated by the seniors. The ROTC battalion was divided up into four companies, and all the Penn cadets were in one company. I was the company first sergeant, responsible for ensuring that everyone was present for training, had their hair trimmed every week, and remembered to iron their uniforms and polish their boots. Keeping track of so many college students, who during the week all did their own separate thing aside from ROTC, was like herding cats, but we had fun. Every other week, I got the Penn cadets together to drink beer and complain about school and ROTC. That summer, I went to ROTC Advanced Camp at Fort Lewis, Washington, for five weeks of leadership training with upcoming seniors from other colleges across the country. We all had to meet a group of standards, but they were ridiculously easy, especially the physical requirements. All the activities catered to the lowest common denominator, and the biggest challenge we faced came in the form of living with female cadets in the same barracks, with only one latrine and shower room. Every day, we were given an hour to shower after the day's activities, and the eight females insisted they needed as much time in the latrine as the twenty-two males in the barracks. The males usually got in the shower last, and by time we did, the water was almost always cold. I then more or less "interned" with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg for three weeks, jumping out of planes again and getting a feel for regular army life. I was deeply impressed by the men I worked with there and felt like an imposter among them. I felt like the cadet in Tolstoy's The Cossacks, who goes to live and work with the tsar's heartiest warriors. I did my best to fit in, always volunteering to carry the heaviest pack, and slowly earning the grudging respect of the other men. I was quick with a joke and never complained, so eventually the seasoned sergeants stopped resenting the fact that in a year I would be making more money than all of them as an officer, despite having never yet served a day in the active duty military. Also that summer, my father and I took a trip to France on the occasion of my twenty- first birthday to see the battlefields of Normandy. We walked the length of Omaha Beach one morning and-in the afternoon-visited the American cemetery there. My father began to tear up as soon as we stepped foot onto the pristine, immaculately groomed grounds, and I too was overwhelmed by emotion as I walked by the thousands of tiny white crosses marking the graves of so many brave U.S. servicemen. I had a tough time believing I could ever live up to their example of service and sacrifice. When I returned to Penn that next fall, I found myself eagerly looking forward to the coming semester for the first time. I had by this time fallen in love with Philadelphia. I loved the rhythms of urban life, the constant activity that filled the streets, and the bars on every block that served Yuengling beer by the bucket- load. Even the refinery on I-76 almost looked inviting. Senior year was a blur. I watched as my friends scrambled to find jobs or get accepted to graduate school. I celebrated when I heard they had been hired by a prestigious company or had gotten into medical school or law school. I knew what waited on the horizon for me, and I can't say I was looking forward to it. I was now finally enjoying college-the freedoms, the good-looking women, and all my friends-and I didn't want it to end. I was reading things that year that began to expand my mind and change the way I thought. I studied lots of theory and philosophy my last two semesters, reading Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas but also the modern critical thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, and Marx. I began to reread things I had read years earlier, amazed by how much my perspective had changed. After four years of college, I had only just begun to really feel that I was learning anything. I was the battalion commander of the ROTC detachment at Drexel that year and spent as much time in the armory as I did anywhere else. I slept only a few hours every night, waking up at five in the morning to run with the other cadets for PT and then going to football practice at night. By the time I went to bed around one or two in the morning, I was exhausted. I was always either sick or recovering from illness, and the inhuman quantity of beer I was drinking on the weekends wasn't helping my health. Many nights I didn't even sleep, joining my best friend George for breakfast downtown in the early hours after morning PT and a full night spent in the library. He was hard at work on his senior thesis that fall semester, en route to graduate school at Harvard, and we prided ourselves on our "rigorous" intellectual lives and corresponding lack of sleep. Many of my friends openly worried that I was spreading myself too thin, but my grades were good, and I was determined to get the most out of college before my military service began. I went out of my way to join friends for coffee or drinks in the afternoons and on the weekends, enjoying their company while I could. I knew I wouldn't be around many people like my classmates once I joined the army. Every so often, one of my friends would ask me why I was joining the army, and I always fumbled to find an answer. Back home, joining the military just seemed like a natural thing for a young man to do, even if not as many do it today as once did. (Still, even today, armed forces recruiting stations in the South continue to fare far better than those in the North.) My friends at school, however, were forcing me to answer questions for myself as much as for them. Why the hell was I joining the army? In a frighteningly short period of time, I would be a commissioned officer who could be leading men in combat. All that romantic crap I had thought in high school about being some sort of gun-toting tough guy didn't seem so valid anymore. But as I talked with my friends, I still could not imagine living to the age of sixty and looking back on a life in which I had never served. There was no war on the country's horizon in 2000, but I still felt that I should at least do my duty in the peacetime military. My classical education helped to ease my doubts. In the polis of ancient Greece, it was the duty of every able man to serve in the military. The men of Athens and Sparta did not wait to be drafted under the threat of war. Instead, they grew up with the understanding that military service went hand-in-hand with citizenship. Taking up arms and learning military skills at a young age were facts of life for young Greeks. So if our society's culture of democracy had been built upon the Greek model, why should my classmates and I be any less ready to fight than the young men of Athens? On May 20, 2000, just two days before I graduated with a double major in English and Classics, I was officially commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Infantry. In three days, I would drive all my belongings back home to Chattanooga and set off cross-country to my first duty assignment, in Fort Lewis, Washington. Now that college was over, the education of Andrew McDonald Exum could begin in earnest. Excerpted from This Man's Army: A Soldier's Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism by Andrew Exum All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.