SINN: The true story of students and soldiers

The war in Afghanistan is ending a year from now. What will remain?
Feb 26, 2013


A U.S. Marine and I stepped out of the theater into a foggy February night. We had just witnessed the exhilarating tale of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Katherine Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated film, "Zero Dark Thirty."

The film has come under scrutiny from government officials for its muddling of facts and for sending the misleading impression that enhanced interrogation techniques were the key factor in discovering bin Laden’s hideout — a fortress located in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

I, however, gained from the film the impression that there is, in fact, an elaborate network of espionage, terror and counter-terror interwoven across the globe, and that I am blissfully not a part of it.

That being said, many of my friends’ lives are directly impacted by these often covert, chaotic events, when they do hit headlines. U.S. soldiers are part of a world that most Americans only get an artistically rendered glimpse of from Hollywood.

In the 2012 election season, we heard little debate over strategy in regards to the war in Afghanistan. Fortunately, that recycled superficiality has subsided — for now. The plan President Obama has put forth includes the continued, gradual withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan through 2013-14 until its decisive endpoint in February 2014.

There are currently 66,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and 34,000 are scheduled to return home in the next year. This is good news for families, and largely supported by Americans.

A poll by The Washington Post showed 80 percent of registered voters are in support of Obama’s policy to end the war.

Afghani forces are now leading nearly 90 percent of operations in Afghanistan (according to CNN). But in spite of the transition of power and responsibility in the continued fight against the Taliban, there will remain a strong U.S. presence in the country after the war is technically ended.

The United States has boots on the ground all over the world, particularly in the Middle East. There is no telling the time or location of the next crisis that will lead to massive U.S. deployment. As frightening as that is, a devoted class of hard-working citizens — many of them full-time students, parents and professionals — are ready to take on any threat, whether the public sees it coming or not, whenever it rises.

Although a war is ending, a military system remains which has no dependency on politics or other current factors.

I was offered a second-hand glimpse into the grueling process undergone by those who enter into the U.S. military’s most prestigious fighting force — the Marine Corps. 

A friend of mine, a full-time student at Grand Valley State University, enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating high school. His journey began in the fall of 2011 — paralleling my own collegiate adventure, but in a much more rigorous, structured and committed way; in other words, no skipping classes and no sleeping in, and no backing out.

He initially met with a recruiter and was later evaluated in a screening process, then tested for qualification — mentally and physically. He took an exam called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, a test which he told me was comparable to the ACT, designed to gauge candidates for job placement.

Once accepted, he was given a ship date and a plane ticket across the country to San Diego, Calif. That's where he began his training.

I was glad to hear he and his fellow recruits were instructed in suicide prevention, which I reported on in July 2012. At the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, he described a lengthy and elaborate process which he compared to the 1987 Stanley Kubrick film "Full Metal Jacket" — the iconic opening scene showing recruits getting haircuts. They got their uniforms and gear, and what I interpret to be a Marine Corps Bible — denoting the culture, philosophy and spirit of the Corps. He described to me the ultimate personal test: drill instructors in his face, obstacles and long runs, and the clichéd but accurate blood, sweat and tears.

Eventually, the recruits reached the final chapter of the process — the Crucible. The candidates climbed a hill called the Reaper, and only after the climb did they become Marines.

Graduation was a week later, and then home.

Next step in the journey: combat training. I asked him what the most exciting aspects of this training were. He told me about firing a machine gun, and handling TNT and C4. In essence, he learned how to kill.

As a writer, I have thankfully never been asked to be a killer. But one of my good friends has, in the Marine Corps part of his life, become just that. And in the reserves, he is a college student like me.

In the United States, soldiers and students can coalesce at this level, until foreign dramas draw our friends and families across the sea, possibly into combat. "Zero Dark Thirty" reminds me of the U.S.’s ongoing effort to neutralize terrorism, now being enacted largely through the use of drones.

The same fight may call my friends away, even the college students, to conflicts beyond the struggle in Afghanistan. I feel a strong responsibility to at least tell the story of my friends whose obligation is to go boldly, at a moment’s notice, into the fray as if nothing else matters.

— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist




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