The American Fighting Man

Army Infantryman
Army Infantryman wearing full kit pauses to catch his breath in the high altitude steppes of Afghanistan

Although the “American Fighting Man” certainly has many different faces and wears many different uniforms, the Army Infantryman is (arguably) the “typical” Soldier that comes to the minds of most Americans.  But who is this guy?  After nearly 40 years of military service (almost 20 of that in the Infantry) I have a pretty good idea.  Of course they’re all different, but they’re all Infantrymen.

As an Infantryman, he’s not the most numerous Soldier… each Infantryman is supported by about 10 other Soldiers – cooks, mechanics, radar operators, medics, aviators, tankers, artillerymen, military police, etc – but he’s the one that holds the line, seizes enemy territory, and pries the bad guys from their fighting positions with his rifle and some grenades.  He’s the guy that does the job no one else really wants to do – closing with and killing the enemy.

Typically he’s 20 years old, about 5’10” and about 180 pounds.  He’s been in the Army for three or four years and has attained the rank of Specialist.  The Non-Commissioned Officers he works for are starting to have a bit of trust in his abilities and have appointed him to the position of Team Leader.  His charges are three or four other 18- to 20-year-old men, and he often has difficulty telling the difference between being their boss and their buddy.

As a Team Leader, he’s doing the job of a Sergeant… because there’s a shortage of Sergeants, who are all doing Staff Sergeant work as Squad Leaders… because there is a shortage of Staff Sergeants who have all either had enough of the Army and the constant deployments, or are doing the work of Sergeants First Class… because there is a shortage of Sergeants First Class because many are too physically broken to continue as Infantry Platoon Sergeants.

Our Specialist doesn’t get paid very much.  He doesn’t get housing allowance or separate rations because he’s not married and he lives in the barracks.  As of the latest pay raise in January of 2016, he makes a little less than $28,000 a year.  Figuring that he deploys somewhere, for training, about 9 or 10 times a year for about 10 days each time (figure 90 days), during which time he is on duty 24 hours a day, and otherwise (the other 9 months) works a 5-day work week, 11 hours a day (0530 PT formation to 1630 release formation), he works about 4,140 hours a year, which makes his hourly wage about $6.70 an hour.

Let’s take a good look at the way this man lives, and then ask yourself how much someone would have to pay you to live that same lifestyle.

He has to put up with living in about 160 square feet in a 10′ x 16′ barracks room and shares a “common area” – kitchenette and latrine – with a platoon mate.  He sleeps on a bunk with a steel-tube frame and a 10-year-old mattress, and keeps everything he owns in a 3′ x 3′ x 7′ wall locker.

His privacy is practically non-existent, and he is subject to unannounced “Health & Welfare” inspections at the crack of dawn, during which Military Police and drug-sniffing dogs are brought in to make sure he doesn’t have any marijuana in his room, while he’s trotted down the hall in his skivvies to provide a urine sample… just to be sure.

He must maintain his weight within strict limits – typically not a problem for him because his age and metabolism keep him skinny as a rail – and keep up with a physical training program that would shame most high school football teams.

His workday begins about 0530.  He dresses quickly and ‘beats feet’ to PT (Physical Training) formation.  After an hour of bone-breaking physical training, with absolutely no regard for weather conditions, he returns to his barracks to frantically scramble for a shower before all the hot water is gone.  Then there’s an hour or so of scrubbing the building clean for the morning walk-through inspection by his Platoon Sergeant, a quick scramble into his uniform, morning chow, and a race to the 0900 work formation.

Strangely, his day is often not as busy as yours, because, as an Infantryman, if he’s not “in the field”, he often has little to do, except to clean his weapon (over, and over, and over), attend mandatory classes on subjects like Suicide Prevention and Sexual Harassment… subjects which seem meaningless to him… and, of course, there’s always “Police Call” picking up your trash along the nearby highway.  Boring, but still better than being “in the field.”

Breakfast, lunch and dinner mean standing in long lines outside of the mess hall, but the food is good enough.  Hungry between meals?  Tough shit.

Discipline is harsh and swift in his Rifle Platoon, imposed by Squad Leaders only a few years older than he, but hardened by years of seeing, first hand, the price of a lack of discipline in dark corners of the world where our enemies hide.

Minor infractions include things like not cleaning his room thoroughly enough, or being perceived as being “insubordinate” to any of his superiors, or showing up a minute late to just about anything.

Although the days are gone when his superiors might actually physically strike him, he is subject to endless push-ups and other on-the-spot PT sessions.  If he screws up too frequently or too seriously, he’ll be in for an “Article 15” – an administrative punishment process which can lead to loss of pay, evenings of “shit details”, and loss of the “privileges” of being allowed to wear his civilian clothing or to leave his immediate company area.

A good example of what I mean by discipline being harsh and swift would be the Soldier who gets caught drinking a beer if he is under 21 years of age.  Army-wide that violation means a mandatory battalion-level “Article 15”, which carries a minimum punishment of 45 days of “extra duty” (read “shit details”), 45 days of restriction to his immediate company area, reduction in rank by one stripe, and the loss of 30 days of pay!  Think about that next time you find out your teenaged son or daughter has ripped off one of your beers!  Many battalion commanders have policies that mandate a battalion-level “Article 15” for writing a bad check.

Multiple offenses related to alcohol are typically linked together.  Most units have a “3-strikes-you’re-out” policy, and will terminate a Soldier’s career on the third offense.  Other “career-busters” are any instance of driving under the influence of alcohol or any drug abuse.

Earlier I mentioned that unless this Soldier is “in the field” his days are really pretty boring.  When he is “in the field” things change pretty drastically!  Days in the field are quite unlike his garrison days.  They are filled with planning and rehearsing the coming evening’s actions, “improving” the hole in the ground in he lives in, and maintaining the vehicle that will carry him into action… if he’s fortunate enough to travel that way – many Infantrymen simply walk everywhere they go.  There is no “down time”.

An Infantryman carries his home on his back.  His rucksack, weapon, ammunition, night-vision goggles, squad radio, body armor, and other equipment weight in at over 100 pounds (about 60% of his body weight), and he purchases some of it out of his own pocket, not only because the government provides him with substandard equipment (they frequently do), but because he knows that what he really needs is above-average equipment – the best equipment… and that his life depends on that equipment.

Typically, a day in the field starts well before dawn, after 4 or 5 hours of sleep huddled under a poncho liner (in that hole in the ground I mentioned earlier), with “stand to”… a practice dating back hundreds of years, where everyone wakes up, rolls over (no need to get dressed, because he never got undressed) and watches his section of the perimeter for a couple of cold, boring, hours… “because that’s when the French and Indians attack”.

His “evening” starts well before the sun sets, with the initial movement to that night’s objective; the platoon will move all night, cautiously approaching their “target” – typically the position of another company in the same unit – moving into position by the early morning hours, to attack just before dawn… just like the French and Indians – and it starts all over again, for days on end.

When he and his buddies finally get back home, they don’t actually go “home”… they begin a non-stop, tightly choreographed sequence of events called the “refit to fight”, which can take up to 48 hours, depending on the unit’s mission and equipment.  They clean weapons, account for and turn in all of their equipment, make sure vehicles are repaired and properly parked in the motor pool, unpack and clean their field gear, and stand by for inspection.  In the end, his Platoon Leader, a young Second Lieutenant (probably an Airborne Ranger, and hard as nails) will come through to find that elusive speck of sand on a weapon or at the bottom of a canteen cover… there’ll be hell to pay for that, perhaps a further delay and a re-inspection.

During a combat deployment – and our Specialist has probably been on at least one by the time he has finished his fourth year of service – well that’s a whole different story.  War is hell.  If you don’t believe that just ask anybody that’s been there.

Back in garrison he spends his free time eating pizza, drinking too much beer, and trying to get laid.  He spends his money as fast as he earns it, and rarely pays his bills on time.  He drives his ‘super-bike’ too fast, but he’s the guy that stops to help an old lady fix a flat tire on the side of the freeway in the pouring rain.

Once a week, he and his buddies visit one of the local steak houses, where they are too loud and too vulgar for most of the public… but they tip big to compensate – or maybe in a vain attempt to get a phone number from their waitress.

Often he doesn’t have enough money to actually go home on leave for the holidays, so he and his buddies sit around the barracks and watch DVDs and play video games… and drink too much beer.

By the time his 20 years are up – assuming he makes it that far – he’s that broken Sergeant First Class I mentioned earlier.  It’s his back, or his knees, or his ankles, but he’s broken.  He’s also lost some of his hearing, and probably a wife.  His liver is shot from taking 800 mg Motrin capsules daily two at a time to dull the pain, and chasing them down with beer.  He’s got a short temper and few friends, and maybe a dose of post-traumatic stress disorder.  He probably doesn’t have any sort of savings, and now only has his retirement check and visits to the VA hospital.

So that’s pretty much how Army Infantrymen live, Marines too.  Rangers, Airborne Infantry, Force Recon, SEALS, Green Berets and the rest of our ‘hard-core’ special Operations units live even harder and faster, deploy more often, carry heavier loads, risk more injury and burn out quicker.  For that they make a few dollars more each month, and get to sew a few more “hooah badges” on their uniforms, but that’s about it.  In the end, they’re basically all Infantrymen… even the Navy SEALs.

Over the years I’ve seen just about every kind of guy enlist in the Infantry.  It’s the one’s that re-enlist that always surprise me.  They’re never the one’s you’d expect.  They’re rarely the “jocks”, or the obviously hard-core types.  They’re just the kind of guys that perversely enjoy the work and comradery, and understand that you can just about always put one foot in front of the other.  They’re Infantrymen – America’s Fighting Men.  They’re the ones that have been paying for your freedom for the past 300 years or so.

So… does that sound like a job you’d do for $6.70 an hour?  Think about that the next time someone tells you that a high school dropout should be paid $15.00 an hour for flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

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