By Robert Guttersohn
Look at me. Less than a week in the Army, and already I’ve got down the hardened-yet-young look. Stone-faced. Ready for war. Never mind that my cap is cricked, that my body is sloping to the right for some reason or that the flag behind me looks as if it is falling to the ground. I look born ready for battle. Fearless.
The truth, though, is I was scared shitless.
This photo was taken back in August 2002. The Afghan war had started and so had rumors of an Iraq invasion, but neither was an immediate concern to me. I had something more urgent to cope with: 30th Adjutant General, the Army infantryman’s purgatory.
I come from a long line of military men. My mother’s maiden name is Custer. Since George Armstrong Custer’s rise to fame during the Civil War, nearly every American war had a Custer, and they all served with distinction. George, for example, is the youngest to be promoted to general. He did so at 23. Tom Custer, his brother, won two Medals of Honor. My grandfather, George Armstrong Custer III, served in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He earned the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“Less than a week in the Army, and already I’ve got down the hardened-yet-young look. Stone-faced. Ready for war. Never mind that my cap is cricked, that my body is sloping to the right for some reason or that the flag behind me looks as if it is falling to the ground.”
Whenever I think of my grandfather, I have a hard time recalling what he looked like as I knew him. I didn’t see him all that often growing up. He and my grandma lived out in California, and he died when I was 7. Instead, I see a photo of my grandfather in Vietnam. He’s middle aged, a colonel in his fatigues, pistol holstered at his side. He’s facing the camera but looking beyond it like he’s in the midst of strategizing. War and the military in general seemed a natural fit for him and all other Custers. When I arrived at 30th Adjutant General I guessed those genes hadn’t made it down to me. I was having a hard time making it through the first week.
For context, I had lived up to that point an extraordinarily sheltered life. I was 18. Raised in Canton, Michigan. At that time, it was a half-rural, half-sprawling suburb about an hour’s drive from Detroit. To add another layer of cushion, my life was structured around church and the school affiliated with it.
Not so different from most teens, my biggest concern was my relationship status, whether driving around an early ‘90s Ford Aerostar harmed that status and — probably not like most others — what Jesus thought of me worrying so much about girls.
Then, the September 11th attacks happened my senior year, and suddenly I felt the tug of patriotism and ancestral duty.
I graduated high school in May 2002. By August, my bus was pulling up in front of 30th Adjutant General in Fort Benning, Georgia. It was where all future infantry soldiers hoping to fight Al Qaeda, Hussein and whomever else we decided to declare war on were sent for uniforms, immunizations and all the supplies you’d need to make it through 14 weeks of infantry training.
There was nothing physically hard about the place. In fact, you weren’t allowed to do anything physical at all because the life insurance paperwork hadn’t been finalized. The tough part was instead the overwhelming boredom I imagine a prisoner must feel that got to me.
At 30th AG, your civility is stripped away. They buzz off your hair and replace your civilian clothing with ash gray t-shirts and black running shorts. We all looked like mole rats ready for exercise. Privacy was gone. Everything from where you sleep, eat and shower was communal.
Talking was not allowed. Neither was reading unless you wanted to read your field manual, and let’s be honest, no one ever wanted to do that. Instead, we’d stare at vanilla-colored walls thinking about this poor life decision we had made and how badly we all stunk. (They took away our deodorant.)
“My first call home was a Saturday. My mom answered. I told her everything: how boredom was torturing me and how everything felt perversely alien. I told her I’d made a mistake and that I felt selfish for leaving. Like the prodigal son, I had learned my lesson.”
When we’d march, we’d sing cadences about killing. There’s one about opening up a machine gun on a crowd of people. There’s another about laughing as you watch a guy whom you’ve just thrown into a river drown.
“Kill yourself now” and other similar suggestions were scratched permanently into the metal frames of the bunks, presumably by trainees who came before us. Apparently a handful had tried suicide and failed, or at least mentioned wanting to try it. To keep an eye on them (or just to humiliate them), the Army had them walk around 30th AG with blue reflector vests and shoes without laces.
My first call home was a Saturday. My mom answered. I told her everything: how boredom was torturing me and how everything felt perversely alien. I told her I’d made a mistake and that I felt selfish for leaving. Like the prodigal son, I had learned my lesson. Unlike the prodigal son, it’d be four years before I was allowed to return home.
The first time I can recall seeing this photo of me was well over a year after it was taken. It was hung on a corkboard in the hallway of my old church with the words “Pray For Our Military Men and Women.” I spotted it when I was home after my first year in Iraq. By then, the military felt normal to me. I was comfortable with the short haircuts and the cadences calling for murder. Even Iraq felt more like home than home did.
The photo surprised me. I didn’t see the miserable, homesick individual that I actually was when it was taken. Instead, I saw a façade, like I was playing the role of soldier.
Maybe despite my miserable state, stepping in front of that camera made me think of all the photos of all those Custers. Maybe I thought that if I ever have grandkids or great grandkids, they’d find this photo of me after I’m gone. Maybe I wanted them believing I was another fearless one among the many appearing in their family tree — truth be damned.
Robert Guttersohn is a writer and photographer living in Ferndale, Michigan. He served in the U.S. Army from 2002–2006 and has written essays and articles on the Iraq War. He is currently the spokesman and multimedia coordinator for the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan.