When I was promoted to sergeant while in Iraq, I really didn’t want it. Well, let’s be honest. Part of me did, part of me didn’t.
I have to admit that when I joined the Army, I used to look at all the rank charts and my mind would fantasize about all those stripes on my arms. Part of me even wanted lieutenant’s bars on my shoulders.
As a child, I would gaze with wonder and youthful adoration upon my father’s old corporal stripes on his faded and worn Korean war uniform. I wondered what it would be like to wear them, to be in charge of men on the battlefield, to be a hero like the kind I saw in war movies.
Upon joining the Army, slowly but surely I began to change my mind about having those stripes. Perhaps I was getting older, more mature, my war hero fantasies fading with age, youthful infatuation wearing off. Perhaps I was beginning to realize just what it meant to have those stripes and the duty that came with them. I mean let’s face it, being promoted to sergeant literally means 10 times the responsibility for about a 1 percent pay raise – perhaps I wanted to avoid that obligation. Perhaps I didn’t want to be in charge of more people, the spotlight of answerability that much brighter. Perhaps I had realized that the rank I held as a specialist allowed me to repair helicopters and being promoted meant less of that work and more bureaucratic work. Perhaps I was realizing that although the Army had been an interesting experience for me, I really didn’t like being in the military and I certainly didn’t like war.
So, when my platoon sergeant came to me one day in my helicopter repair shop while we were in Iraq and told me my promotion paperwork had come through, I was apprehensive and told him I didn’t want it. He laughed, as he knew me very well by then, turned, and as he was heading out the door still laughing he said, “Too bad. You’re getting your stripes.”
It was a surreal experience to say the least. As a matter of custom, my unit typically held promotion ceremonies at our morning accountability formations. I was the only one being promoted that day and as I was called to the front of the company to be “pinned” by my commanding officer I remember my knees being slightly wobbly, a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. Upon saluting him, he told me he was proud of me, that my new rank suited me, and gave me the traditional shove with his hand to make sure the small spikes of the new rank sank fully home through my uniform and into my skin.
Throughout the day, I was congratulated many times, people calling me “Sarge,” many chuckling and asking me how it felt to be a glorified private.
As expected, I was inundated with more responsibility and I found there was a tremendous amount to learn if I was to adequately perform my new duties and discharge my new obligations. Slowly but surely I worked through that crash course and it proved to be the ultimate in “on the job training.”
After a time, I began to realize that what had begun as childhood vanity and fantasy on my part to have those stripes on my collar was remade into an adult embracing the burden that higher rank entails and as a consequence growing into a leader and better person because of it.
I came to absorb being a sergeant, to love being a sergeant far beyond how good it felt to have the stripes.
I came to realize it as one of the greatest personal achievements of my life and I still feel a sense of pride because, as I’ve heard said many times, the sergeant is the backbone of the working end of the military. I was proud to be a part of that.