Monday, August 16, 2010

Lessons from a militarized childhood:
It can all vanish in an instant

(In this entry, I assume you are aware of my goal of raising a lot of money to help child soldiers by donating all of my earnings from sales of the hardback of Children No More to Falling Whistles. If you're not, you can go to the Children No More site and learn more there. I'll be here when you return.)

What I experienced in my three years in a militaristic youth group is nothing compared to what true child soldiers undergo. I believe, however, that they and I, as well as many abused children, emerge from our experiences having learned many of the same lessons. To help folks without these backgrounds understand some of the challenges facing these kids--and those who seek to help rehabilitate and reintegrate them--I'm going to talk about some of the lessons I learned--and that I believe they did, too.

Before I do, though, I want to make clear that I know how unhealthy these lessons are, I don't live my life by them, and so on.

They are, though, what such kids learn, and they are what I learned at that age.

Also, beware that there's going to be rough language and generally harsh stuff in all of these lessons. That's the nature of them.

Enough disclaimers. Let's get on with today's lesson:

It can all vanish in an instant

You're going to school, doing the work, trying to fit in, failing but trying, and then the man you've come to see as your father dies. He's gone in an instant, and you have no clue why--not that it matters much, because you can't even remember his face anymore.

You're standing in line that first day, soaked with sweat and squinting in the bright Florida sun, the sergeant is screaming at you, your mother drives off, and now something else is gone, too, though you won't realize it for years.

You're in the chow line, your metal plate poised to receive whatever they're going to feed you, your stomach grinding against itself, your muscles aching, and just as the food plops onto your plate a corporal lifts it out of your hands. You won't need it, he says, because you'll be on ant patrol around the mess area. You want to protest, but you've been around long enough now to know better, so you snap to attention, salute him and the order, grab your rifle, and start marching.

You're sprinting for the finish line, winning for the first time, your boots pounding the dirt, and the sergeant steps from behind a tree and shoves you so fast you don't figure out what happened until you complete the roll--God help you if you screw up the roll--and you scramble to your feet, ready to fight, your lips peeled back, your head throbbing with anger. Stay alert, he says, then tilts his head until you force yourself to attention and croak out the best "Sergeant, yes, Sergeant!" you can manage. He nods and moves on.

You're on your first night practice, way before ant duty, way way before the sprint, and you and your partner are doing your best to approach the target silently. You pause against a tree, note the moonlight is making his face gleam like a clean plate, and before you can tell him, someone slams into his side. They hit you a second later, two of them, one taking out your legs and the other riding you down. The air explodes out of you. You can't breathe. A flashlight's beam hits your face. Sloppy, they say, and sloppy gets you killed. Again. They get off. You stand, salute, and head back to the beginning.

You learn, over and over and over again, that nothing is safe, nothing is yours, nothing is permanent, anything and everything can vanish faster than your heart can beat. You keep your distance even as you stockpile, never let yourself get too attached even as you grab all you can, and you know it's all temporary, all at risk all the time. As are you.

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