Breakfast with recruits

by Tom Deighan

This is a recurring Veteran’s Day article that captures the moment that forever changed how I see our military men and women. During my time serving the children of Fort Sill Army Base, I had the distinct honor of joining recruits for breakfast during bootcamp. It gave me a tiny glimpse into the tremendous sacrifice they are willing to make. Please pray for our veterans and their families this second Sunday of the month, and please also pray for the safety of our schools. 

We were instructed to leave a seat between each of us in the empty mess hall for the recruits. Few of us in Leadership Oklahoma Class of XXVIII had military experience, so we were impressed with the food line which rivaled any breakfast buffet in town. Some of us quickly found a seat, but others lingered in the food lanes or at the juice dispensers. Then the recruits arrived.

They descended upon the serving lines with speed and efficiency. Always orderly and respectful, they moved past us mechanically as we tried to decide between yogurt or a bagel. They invariably grabbed both and walked in sharp angles to an empty seat. Dropping their trays between us as if pre-assigned, they returned for drinks. Each returned with two glasses that they cupped tightly in the center of their chests, elbows extended.

Although mindful of us civilians in the room, they had only ten minutes to eat, so they inhaled everything. Despite this, they patiently and respectfully responded to our questions. I watched with fascination as one young man folded everything on his tray into a pancake like a taco (for maximum eating efficiency he told me). The stubble on his freshly shorn head was likely the only he had ever experienced. He could just as easily have been a sophomore sitting in English class. 

At a nearby table sat several young women, just as precise and just as hungry. With no makeup and their hair pulled helmet-tight, nothing could hide their youth. But just about then, one of the Leadership Oklahoma members at my table asked them why they carried their drinks that way, cupped tightly in the center of their chests, elbows extended. “Because that is how they train us to handle a grenade, sir.”

I was awestruck. Respect and gratitude replaced sentimentality as I saw these recruits with fresh clarity. In fact, I saw every soldier I had ever known differently. Because in that moment, the United States Army marched right into my heart:  The bagpipe players on the polo field who learned to play in forty-five days. The drill sergeants who spent their weekend with these recruits instead of their families. The solemnity of the retreat ceremony. The big guns firing on the range. But mostly, I saw young men and women who carry their breakfast drinks like grenades because their lives literally depend upon it. I have never been more enlightened or more humbled.  

How foolish of me to look at these recruits as anything but the men and women who keep America free. Just four weeks into their basic training that forges them into soldiers, they already mastered discipline and precision beyond my imagination. This was reflected in each soldier I met on Fort Sill over my years there.  And while I learned to recognize the ranks from their symbols, I could never distinguish rank based on behavior, demeanor, or professionalism – from private to general, I saw only Army Strong.

Both of my parents served in the Navy. I have worked alongside countless other veterans, not to mention former students who went on to serve, and in my time at Fort Sill, I came to appreciate the military like never before. But not until that morning in the mess hall did I ever carry the heart of a recruit – cupped tightly in the center of my chest, elbows extended.

Tom Deighan is currently the superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. You may email him at deighantom@gmail.com and read past articles at  www.mostlyeducational.com



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