‘Are You Planning on Running Away and Joining the Army?’

Soldiers from the 13th Sustainment Command Expeditionary march onto a C-17 Globemaster III at an undisclosed location in the Middle East.
Soldiers from the 13th Sustainment Command Expeditionary march onto a C-17 Globemaster III at an undisclosed location in the Middle East on Aug. 21, 2009. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Kim Harris/U.S. Army photo)

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "The Wives" by Simone Gorrindo. 

"Sometimes I think about joining the military."

That was what Andrew said to me one evening in the winter of 2007, when he was twenty‑four and I was twenty‑three. We'd just moved in together and were out walking in Annapolis, the colonial Maryland capital where Andrew was studying the classics at a small liberal arts college.

"I would leave you," I said, without thinking. The air was cold enough that I could see my breath.

Andrew's face went still.

"Join the Army? You would never want to do that," I continued uneasily. The Global War on Terror had been going on for six years already. We were in the midst of the Iraq surge, the deadliest year for US forces since 2004. I had moved to New York for college just two weeks before the Twin Towers fell. By the time I graduated four years later, it was hard to imagine not being at war. But it wasn't my war. Everyone I knew was against the invasion of Iraq, which seemed, in every sense, like a costly conflict with no clear rationale, and I had marched with friends in protest of it. Afterward, we'd gotten drinks at an East Village bar. That had been the extent of my involvement. It wasn't like my generation was being drafted. US soldiers fighting this, I thought, must either be true believers, from military families, or out of options. Andrew was none of those things.

He always had an answer or an argument. This time, though, he'd said nothing.

Two years passed. Andrew finished his degree, working as a bartender while I waitressed at an Irish pub and freelanced for the local weekly paper. He dropped the Army idea, or so I thought. As he finished up school at age twenty‑six, he considered his options. He was fascinated by geopolitics. Maybe the State Department could be a fit? Then he discovered how much paper‑pushing the job entailed. The Peace Corps was an exciting post‑college idea, but he needed a decent income to repay his mountain of student loans. He also felt like he didn't have time to dally.

When most of his peers had gone off to college, Andrew had chosen to dedicate himself to Wushu, a modern martial art China was bringing to the 2008 Olympics. He'd started practicing traditional Chinese martial arts when he was four, becoming so invested in it that, by the time he was a teenager, he was waking at 6 a.m. to instruct classes alongside his teacher. In late high school, he began working with a coach who trained members of the US team for Wushu. He didn't love it the way he'd loved Shao‑Lin, a practice based in Buddhist philosophy that had been much more than a sport to him -- it had been his purpose, his cosmology, his spiritual center. But the Olympics was an athletic goal he couldn't pass up. He trained seriously for three years in the Bay Area before leaving, at age twenty, to spend six months practicing Wushu full time in Beijing. When he returned to California, he was so burned out on the sport that he quit martial arts entirely and became a bartender, renting a studio above a taqueria on Market Street in downtown San Francisco, where he spent his mornings diving into books by Western philosophers and twentieth‑century American novelists and questioning the limits of the narrow world he'd grown up in. By the time he entered college at twenty‑two, he had already worked hard for and given up on a lifelong dream.

The spring Andrew graduated, I noticed an Army recruitment pamphlet on our nightstand. I intended to ask him about it but forgot in the tumult of moving. We were heading to do forestry work in the Ontario outback for a summer, where we would live without electricity or running water, a last adventure before we moved back to New York so that I could attend Columbia's graduate school for journalism. Life was so busy, and the Army seemed such a far‑fetched idea to me, it was easy not to think about it. Maybe because I didn't want to.

Then, sometime in the fall of 2011, when I was knee‑deep in school, I found an extremely detailed workout regimen scrawled on a pad of paper on our coffee table. Andrew was so devoted to the gym that he often went at 3 a.m. after work, but there was something about the specificity of the goals, and the goals themselves--X number of push‑ ups, two‑mile‑run in X time -- that made me pause.

"Are you planning on running away and joining the Army?" I asked that night. It was Wednesday, the only weekday evening he had off. We were at our neighborhood park. It was June and steamy out. Shirtless men were grunting and sweating, doing pull‑ups on rusty equipment. Bill Withers wafted from someone's giant boom box.

"Not running away," he said, smirking. "But yes."

"You haven't stopped thinking about this," I said.

"I haven't," he said. "It's what I want to do."

And suddenly, I understood what I hadn't wanted to understand two years prior: This was real, whatever this was. A desire -- a calling, even? For the next month, I came at him with the same question over and over: Why? I asked, riding back with him to our apartment on the subway at night, drinking whiskey at a neighborhood bar, sipping coffee out of paper cups on our stoop. Why did he have to get his hands dirty with these wars?

(Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

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Andrew's grandfather had fought in World War II, like mine. Otherwise, his background was about as far afield as you could get from the military. He had been raised in California by children of the '60s. His mother was a modern‑dancer‑turned‑marriage‑and‑family‑therapist. His father, who died when Andrew was eighteen, had been a charismatic ecumenical spiritualist. He had run a commune where Andrew spent the first six years of his childhood. But Andrew had also grown up on a steady diet of Rambo and Predator and Saving Private Ryan, and felt drawn, as a kid, to the Vietnam vets who came through his life, like his father's friend, a helicopter gunner who loved to show Andrew his war wound, the gunshot to his stomach; and a boyfriend of his mother's, a limo driver who lived with a bullet lodged next to his spine that had traveled there after he'd been shot during a firefight. In Annapolis, he lived on the same block as the Naval Academy, bartended with Iraq vets, and watched college friends commission as officers in the Marines. His vision broadened, and he became increasingly curious about the war, inhaling books like Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts, about American Special Forces soldiers, and Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer's biography of Pat Tillman, the football player who left his sports career after 9/11 to become an Army Ranger.

All of these influences stirred in him a possibility that had maybe always been there. Still, he struggled with the ethics of this impulse. He'd been raised to do harm only as a means of self‑defense. If he didn't have to hurt or kill people, he reasoned, then wasn't remaining a civilian the moral choice? He knew there were no clear‑cut answers, but he mulled this conundrum for years as though it were a hard but not‑impossible‑ to‑solve math equation. Eventually, he came to this: Soldiers were as necessary to a society as shelter was to an individual. If he had both the aptitude and proclivity to be one, then maybe enlisting was the moral choice. And a soldier, he decided, was no more responsible for a country's war than a tax‑paying civilian. He also felt it was his duty as a citizen to vote and be informed, but it wasn't a soldier's job to weigh in on political decisions. Once he'd clarified this thinking, he spent months looking at photos of seriously wounded vets, soldiers who'd lost both their legs or all of their limbs, fates that scared him more than the prospect of death. He thought that in doing this, he might burn out his desire. But it remained. He was willing, he decided, to take the risk. There was the matter of the particular conflict, though. Like me, he had been against the war in Iraq. But after thinking and reading about our involvement in Afghanistan, he came to feel that responding to 9⁄11 in the way we had was important, even imperative. And he understood our need for a presence in a country that shared borders with strategic competitors like Iran and China.

"Countries are in a constant power play with one another," he told me when I asked what he meant by "strategic competitors." I was romantic and naïve. Countries, to me, were beautiful patches on a quilt, mountains to ride trains through and beaches to sleep on, not chess pieces vying for dominance on the board of geopolitics. "Countries need armies, and armies need soldiers," he explained, though he admitted it wasn't quite that simple. But he believed in owing your country rather than it owing you. He believed it was meaningful to be a soldier. He wanted to be part of history, to be, as he told me once when he was feeling lofty, "at the beating heart of the world." He longed to be of service, to get high on purpose. And, despite his unerring decency, he wasn't soft. He had an edge, a restlessness, an outsized energy that filled any room.

"Andrew? The Army?" people would say when they discovered that he was enlisting. Usually, they'd pause, then nod to themselves. "He's intense," they'd admit. "It does make a weird kind of sense." His mother was the most worried but least shocked of any of us. Once, when he was in the first grade, she found a piece of paper on which he'd scrawled the words I love WWII.

When it came down to it, for Andrew, the Army was like anything else we can't talk people out of: He wanted it.

And I wanted him.

We fought hard about his desire to join, winding up in a therapist's office together in downtown Manhattan, not far from where the World Trade Center had once stood. He had proposed just weeks before. In therapy, I found out that in his past two years of silence, he had been fighting with himself. He worried that maybe he wouldn't make it out whole and alive, but mostly, he worried that I would leave him, just as I'd threatened.

"If I have to choose between you and the Army, it's the Army," he said during one of our sessions. The words hit me with the force of a physical blow. We had been together for four years by then. He had wanted to marry me from our very first date.

"I'd give up my writing for you," I said without thinking. What had I even meant by that? I didn't have to sign away my civil rights to be a writer. I didn't even have to take a shower. But I meant it, at least in the way that people mean things when they feel desperate and terrified. Don't leave. I'll do anything.

"Well, you shouldn't," Andrew said, frustration contorting his face.

"What if we just don't get married at all?" I asked after the session as we walked back to the subway, pushing against the autumn wind. I had never been sure about marriage anyway, had been a skeptic of the entire enterprise since watching my parents tear theirs apart. Even the most ordinary marriage seemed designed to fail, and this would be no ordinary marriage.

"What do I do with all my stuff? Just stick it in storage?" he asked.

"No, leave it! We'll still be together," I said.

Andrew stopped suddenly, just a block from the subway entrance. Leaves skittered across the sidewalk. "We need to get married, Simone. Girlfriends don't count for shit in the Army. If something happens to me, no one's gonna be calling you, no one's gonna take care of you. And we've been together four years. It's time to shit or get off the pot."

I looked at him. His face was calm, no longer twisted with emotion, and I felt every impulse I'd ever felt toward him. I wanted to slap his cold, rough cheek and touch it, softly, just to warm him.

"How romantic," I said, looking down at the feet rushing past us. "You could stay here, keep your job," he said.

"So, what? We break up?"

"No, I could just do one contract, then get out."

One contract? That was more than three years. "A long‑distance marriage?"

"People do it," Andrew said.

"People are idiots," I said. "It would crumble. We would crumble. Can you imagine? With how much you'll be deployed and training? It would be like saying goodbye for the next three years. And then what?"

"We're strong," he said.

Were we? I had always thought we were. I knew, somehow, from the beginning, that our relationship wouldn't be one to just run its course. This fact had intimidated me at first, but once I'd summoned the courage to commit, being with Andrew had been like building a home from cedar and cement. Time wouldn't tear it down. You'd need heavy equipment, a fire fed with kerosene. You'd need violence. That's how I'd felt about our relationship. And then Andrew's single‑minded ambition about the Army came blowing into our house, threatening to knock it down. It was a force of nature I hadn't foreseen, a decision he was making that required me to make my own tough decisions: Could I marry a soldier? Could I support him in a war with a purpose that seemed more gray than black and white? Could I reconcile that man with the man I loved? And was it worth it to leave behind a life I'd made for the life he'd chosen, simply because I loved him?

Simone Gorrindo's writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, Longreads, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Christian Science Monitor, The Best Women's Travel Writing, Self and others. She holds a master’s in journalism from Columbia University, and has received fellowships and grants for her writing and reporting from the International Women's Media Foundation, the Georgia Council for the Arts, and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and two children. “The Wives” is her first book.

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