Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Find Your Cheese

*Retold with permission

Becoming a Soldier wasn’t an event for me, but a lengthy process. From the time I dreamed of being in the military to being here today took years. Many of them weren’t very fun, either. But looking back, the hardship, the challenges, they were all worth it. They made me who I am and put me where I wanted to be, so it’s been good. It all toughened me up.

My parents split when I was 16, and after that I really didn’t have much interest in living with either of them. Young as I was, I found a place to live, found two jobs to help meet rent and other bills, and moved out. Whenever I wasn’t at work, I was in school or studying. I’ve always lived by the philosophy that in order to get something, you have to work hard, so I didn’t complain about it. Actually, I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t want them to know I was 16 and living on my own.

I’d work long hours at one job or another, then rush over to school and struggle to stay awake during classes. I nodded off enough that people started to notice, but I always told them I was fine - I’d just been out late the night before. I’d study on breaks at work, or copy the answers of my buddy’s homework next to me – even though knew he wasn’t a star student. Something on paper was better than nothing. I did alright, though, and eventually I graduated.

Growing up in southern California, you’re inundated with Marines. Between Camp Pendleton, Miramar, 29 Palms, and so on, they were everywhere, and I always idolized them. I remember remarking a few times, “hey, look at that dude. They look tough!” My buddies were surprised by this.

“You wanna work for the man?”

Hell yeah I did. The military was something to be proud of. And in my community, guys did one of two things: they either became the neighborhood badass that the other kids looked up to, or you got out there and made something of yourself. I didn’t like the neighborhood badass route; I wanted to do something good with my life.

I went the Marine recruiter to see if they’d let me join, but when they found out that I had tattoos, they wouldn’t take me. At the time, the standards on tattoos were so tight that if you had more than a couple, they’d immediately disqualify you, no matter how smart or promising you may have been. Dejectedly, I gave up. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.

But on a whim, I tried the Army, too. “Tattoos? We don’t care, son. We’ll take you. What job do you want to do?”

I told them rifleman. That’s what infantry was in the Marines, and that’s all I wanted to do in the Army , too.

“Oh, you mean 11 X-ray. That’s infantry stuff. Well, you got it.” So, they shipped me off to take the ASVAB. To my complete disappointment, I failed. I really gave up at that point.

About the time I’d graduated from school, one of my employers elected to shut down their operations and move to another city. For the pay I received, it wasn’t worth the effort to move with them. Besides, this was home, and this was where my family was. If I moved away, I’d hardly ever see them again. I stuck with my other job for a time, but they eventually fired me over some stupid stuff. Out of work entirely, I went to the “workability” office and asked for their help.

Luckily, they placed me with an auto parts store, and after the two week agreement had ended, they made arrangements to keep me indefinitely. I’d worked on cars most of my life, so it wasn’t hard at all, and it paid decently, too. Before long, I was their parts specialist. Besides, it was work, which was enough.

But I still wanted to join the military. Even though I’d been turned away because of my ASVAB score, I figured I’d try it one more time. I went to the Army recruiter and arranged a re-test. I failed that, too. I scored superbly on the general skills, but the math kept giving me trouble. Yet rather than give up this time, I dug in. This was something I wanted, so I was going to make it happen. “No” wasn’t going to be a satisfactory answer for me. I went out, bought an ASVAB study guide, and started getting ready to take it again in six months. I’d be ready this time.

Even though I’d studied hard, I still failed it. Once again, it was the math. I started to sincerely believe that I wasn’t cut out for the military, even though I’d wanted to do it for years. If I couldn’t pass the ASVAB, I’d never get in. Because I didn’t know what else to do, I shelved the idea for the time being and settled into a job at Walmart.

Sometime later, I ran into an Army recruiter in the store who offered to work with me to bring up my ASVAB score and get me in. He asked if I could stop by his office the next day to work things out. I couldn’t, I explained, because I didn’t have a car. I’d recently sold that to help pay my rent. He agreed to pick me up. I was so excited that I ran back to the layaway section of the store where they had the payphone and called my buddy. He, too, wanted to sign up. Yes, he said, he’d go with me and we’d do the “Battle Buddy” program.

When we sat down with the recruiter, I told him I wanted to do infantry.

“Infantry huh. You know, you’d get a $3,000 bonus if you went in as a tanker, and there’re some other jobs where you’ll get a $16,000 bonus. There’s no bonus for joining the infantry, you know.”

It didn’t matter to me. I wanted to be a grunt. I took the practice test in the office, and this time, it looked like I’d pass without any difficulty. My buddy and I studied together, and this time I made it. I was in, and I was going to be infantry!

Two weeks before I shipped off, I quit work so I could relax a little and spend some time with my family. I hadn’t even told them yet. They were surprised, but they were supportive. They knew how much it meant to me. They could see how excited I was.

Right before I left, my buddy bailed out on me. He told me he didn’t want to go to Iraq, which puzzled me. That was one of primary reasons I was going in – to do my part for my country, not hide from it. No, he said. He didn’t want to deploy. So, without a battle buddy, I headed off for boot camp.

Training is training, and there’s little need to explain it. You do a lot of pushups, you’re tired a lot, you run a lot, and there’s always somebody yelling at you. I knew it was going to be tough, so I wasn’t terribly surprised or upset about it. I was still so excited to actually be in the military that it didn’t matter.

After all the training, I was stationed in New York, which wasn’t very fun. I loved being a Soldier, but I didn’t love freezing to death on operations throughout the winter. It’s a different world for a guy from southern California. I remember we were doing a winter training patrol through waist deep snow once. I was on point, slugging through the snow, when suddenly I heard a strange creaking.

“They’re coming for us, Specialist!”

“Shut up and walk, Private!” he spat back. I kept going, but I heard it again.

Next thing I know, I’m waist deep in water, can’t breathe from the shock, and the other Soldiers are rushing to get me out of there fast. When they did, they raced me back to one of the warming tents and stripped me down. “Breathe, Private!”

As I warmed up, it wasn’t too bad, until they told me to change my uniform. I’d be going back out.

“Put your polar bear suit back on. Hurry up!”

“What? It’s soaking wet!”


“Roger, Sergeant.” Training was tough, but I’d asked for it. It was the Army, and I was proud to be serving. I was young and mouthy, too, so I sort of asked for trouble a number of times. I once told my team leader that I wanted his job so I could carry his machine gun.

“Start pushing, Private.” So, I pushed.

“I’m going to name her Irene, too!” I couldn’t resist. I really did want it.

“Keep pushing.”

After a little while, he asked me again. “You still want my machine gun now?”

“I sure do, Specialist.”

“Then keep pushing.”

I was going to get it, too. I had no problems telling people that I wanted their job. I didn’t join the Army to slime; I joined to make something of myself. A little work wasn’t going to kill me. I’ve always worked hard. Besides, I was getting smoked because I was ambitious, not because I was screwing up all the time. I’ve had a lot of machine guns named Irene since then, too.

So, four years after enlisting and a good eight years since I first tried to join, I’m out here on my second tour. I like it here, and I like the guys I serve with. They sometimes get bogged down with all the stupid stuff, so I try to lift their spirits. I’ll tell jokes, motivate them, encourage them. We’re brothers out here. And at any rate, you wade through all the crap and find yourself a place where they can’t get to you.

You can choose to be angry about things, or you can choose to make the best of it. It’s entirely up to you. They can make you push or yell at you, or create work that doesn’t need to be done, but that’s all outward stuff. They can’t touch your mind, and they certainly can’t touch your heart – unless you let them.

I tell them the story from the book “Who Moved My Cheese,” where two mice and two little humans (the size of mice) are in a maze. For awhile, the cheese is always in one place, so they always come there to get their fill. But in time, the cheese is gone, moved somewhere else. The mice and the little humans are left with a choice: either stay there and fret that the cheese is gone, or go look for it. The mice go searching, as does one of the humans. Another just sits there and pouts. I tell these guys all the time – find your cheese. Nobody’s going to do it for you; you have to do it yourself. I’m doing what I love, so there’s no way this is going to get to me. It only bothers you if you let it. Find your cheese.

I have three years left on this contract, and I haven’t decided if I’m going to stay in or get out. At one time I would have said I’ll stay in for life, but some things have happened to make me slow down and consider that decision.

I was dating a girl very seriously for a time, and I had high hopes it’d really amount to something. In the end, it didn’t, but we’re still friends, and we still talk. Not too long ago, she told me that I never should have reenlisted. “You don’t ever get treated right,” she said. “You deserve more than they’re giving you.”

Her words have made me question my choices somewhat, but I have to be careful. I didn’t join because I felt entitled to rank or accolades. I joined because this is what I dreamed of doing for years. I made it, and I’m immensely proud of that. Not everybody is cut out for this, but I enjoy it. But there’s more, too. We do this for our own reasons, and people aren’t really going to understand unless they’ve done it too.

During my last tour, we were doing a foot patrol along the street when mortar rounds started landing around us. When one round hit only a matter of feet from me, I remember watching my team leader get blown halfway across the street. I was knocked down, too, but he was just laying there. Meanwhile, our squad leader ran away, leaving us both there unprotected.

I heaved myself up and staggered over to my team leader, who was still laying unmoved on the ground, and grabbed him by his harness. Tucking my rifle under my arm, I dragged him as quickly as I could to the humvees, and we got the hell out of there. Rounds were still dropping all around us.

When the medic checked my team leader, he quickly concluded he had a concussion and needed to get evacuated. I’d been standing there watching, but then I leaned against the wall and just slid down.

“You alright there buddy?”

“I’m fine Doc. I’ll be okay.”

“No, you’re not fine. You’ve got a concussion, too. We need to get both you guys out of here.”

They put me in for a bronze star for that, but our company commander at the time shot it down. Next, they put me in for an ArCom [Army Commendation Medal], but the CO shot that down, too. In the end, they gave me an AM [Army Achievement Medal]. People were pretty incensed on my behalf, but it didn’t matter too much to me. I didn’t do it for a medal, I did it so my team leader could go home. He’d just gotten married, and his wife needed him. I didn’t want to leave a widow.

Medals serve no purpose but make your Class A’s look shiny. That’s about it. I know what I’ve done out here, and more important than that, my team leader is alive and well, still married, and now has three beautiful little daughters. That’s all the reward I need.

He still keeps up with me too, sending me notes every now and then, seeing how I’m doing and updating me on his growing family. He always starts his letters with “thanks.” I smile every time. I don’t need a medal; I’ve been given far more: a friend. None of us do this for awards. We do it because we care about each other.

So, whenever I start questioning whether or not I’ve received everything I deserve, I think about my team leader. I think about how he’s alive and in good health, a husband, and a father. That’s something nobody can award you; it’s something you just have, and you carry it with you indefinitely. No, the Army hasn’t been easy. Heck, getting IN wasn’t easy, either. But I’m stronger now. I don’t have to worry about rent anymore, or finding a job. I have the only job I wanted, and all the pride that comes with it. For now, I’ve found my “cheese,” and no amount of hardship will take that from me.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. I served with this guy. His name is Paco Marrero-Perez and he won the Silver Star in Korea. I can relate to this guy. He is real.

  2. We really do need this guy in the Army. I have read this several times. This guy has "found his cheese." We should do what we can to get this guy to stay in. It is not for everyone, but I see this guy as a First Sgt. in fifteen years, telling people how to find their cheese.