A Soldier’s Thoughts on Retirement

1 December 2006

On 11 February 1976, I was a young, optimistic 18 year old when I raised my right hand, joined the United States Army, and swore to protect my country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Thinking back, I’m amazed at the things I’ve been through and that I’ve made it this far. I’ve wanted to be a Soldier since I was a kid. Many of my relatives including my Grandfather, Father, several uncles, cousins and 1 aunt all served from WWII through Vietnam. If I were to dig further into my ancestry, I’d probably find many more dating back to the Revolutionary War, and beyond. My Grandfather officially retired from the Army Reserve the year I enlisted. It was a symbolic changing of the guard. I was raised to believe that if you appreciate freedom and democracy, you better damned well be willing and prepared to fight for it.

As a youngster, I was instilled with a love of country that few modern teenagers understand. There was no shame in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or singing ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’. There was no ACLU breathing down our necks telling us we couldn’t do that because we might “offend” someone. Now, the simplest acts of patriotism are labeled ‘jingoistic’. “Diversity” means accommodating everyone except those with strong American principles and those who raise Old Glory on their front lawns every morning.

At Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, the majority of Drill Sergeants were Vietnam Veterans. One in particular, SSG Juan Rivera, was an Infantry Soldier in ‘Nam, and he was absolutely fucking crazy. He was pretty rough on us recruits and told us in no uncertain terms that the training we got had two main purposes: kill the enemy and survive. A typical Drill Sergeant was tough, committed, hard core, loud, obscene, and had unique “names” for Army recruits. Political correctness and ‘touchy-feely’ methods took a back seat to mental stress and combat training. They had 9 weeks to mold, shape, and kick our asses into Soldiers. A lot of them suffered from what is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, before the medical community gave it a label. The silhouettes on the rifle range bore a Red Star to represent the Soviet enemy. We marched, did pushups, side-straddle hops, squat-thrusts, and low crawled. We went through the obstacle course, drilled, and shouted risque “Jody” cadence until we were hoarse. Our Drill Sergeants did have a “sense of humor”; we got the requisite “suicide speech” about not trying to hang ourselves with the buffer cord because if you put the cord around your neck and threw the buffer out the 3rd story window, the buffer would hit the ground before the cord ran out, and were told that our M16A1 was made by Mattel. When I graduated in June, 1976, I was bursting with pride and Esprit d’ Corps. I was a young, gung-ho Soldier ready to “kill commies for Christ”.

My Army has changed and transformed a lot since I was a young Soldier; some for the better, some not. The trouble with modern Army recruiting is the way it’s advertised. I remember when we were part of a team, not a ridiculous little “Army of One”. They sell college money but don’t talk about the fact that those 18 year old youngsters have to pick up an M4 when the shit hits the fan. I would love to be in charge of making a commercial about the Army.  Show them what it’s like to be roused out of the rack at 0400 by a Drill Sergeant with a boot up your ass. Show them the rigors of basic training: the push ups, obstacle courses, ruck marches, drilling, marching, and the “terms of endearment”.

I liked the jungle fatigues I was issued in Basic Training. They were lightweight, durable, and looked great if you wanted to “break starch”. Over the last three decades we’ve had to put up with E-Ring Christian Dior’s who believe that a uniform change every 10 years will somehow make us more fashionable. Added to the ensemble is a black beret; a ridiculous concept pushed through by a General who thought that it would be good for his “legacy”.

Make sure that basic training remains tough and demanding. Stop preventing the Drills from molding these young raw civilians into Soldiers. They need to be able to do that job. The Army isn’t easy or glamorous. Many days are spent in austere environments in dirt, mud, and sand, ranging from blistering heat to sub-zero wind-chill factor weather. Perimeter guard, hasty fighting positions, and sectors of fire are part of field duty as well as war. We subsisted on C-Rations and MRE’s, dug personal latrines with an e-tool and washed out of a ‘steel pot’ or canteen cup.

My first assignment was being stationed in Germany as part of the Fulda Gap defense against a Soviet army that outnumbered us 3 to 1. At that time I was in the 1st Armored Division in the Signal Corps. In the 1970’s the Army- in fact all of the military-was in a state of decline. Morale was at an all-time low. The service was rife with racial problems and sexual harassment. The Non-Commissioned Officer Corps had been eviscerated beyond recognition, and too much responsibility was being given to shave-tail Lieutenants. The military as a whole had lost a lot of discipline thanks to the politicians who fought Vietnam from their desks instead of letting the warrior fight it on the battlefield. When you send your warriors to fight, you let them do it the right way and let them finish the job.

The obstacles for me were things like sexism and yes, racism. If you think racism is a one-way street, think again. Most of the epithets directed toward me during my first tour of duty were from black male Soldiers. The sexism usually involved hostility in the form of resentment when a female proved she could do the same job with just as much ability and dedication. Back then, “Equal Opportunity” meant being treated badly by all males regardless of ethnicity. It was a rite of passage to which females were subject.

I was elated when Ronald Reagan was elected President. The transformation he helped bring to the military was dramatic and long overdue. Pay was substantially increased for the first time in decades. He openly praised the military and was unashamed in his patriotism and love for this country. I can say unequivocally that President Reagan not only helped America believe in itself again, but brought pride in the military back into fashion.

In Desert Storm, I served once again in the 1st Armored Division, this time as an Intelligence Analyst. I was very proud of the job we did. For battlefield prep, we tracked and templated the enemy positions, doctrine, and tactics of four Iraqi Infantry Divisions and three Republican Guards Divisions. Every unit we engaged, we decimated. We did the Army and our country proud. However, we did not go far enough. The very last entry in my Desert Storm Journal was “I still believe that the mission should have continued until we reached Baghdad and destroyed what was left of the Iraqi army. I think this tactical oversight will cause the U.S. Army to return to Southwest Asia in order to finish the job.”

I also served in Bosnia; Clinton’s diversionary tactic, designed to draw attention away from his assorted felonies. Eagle Base in Tuzla Bosnia was a joint NATO and “SFOR” (Stabilization Force) operation. Some of the SFOR components are “allies” in name only and the standing joke was, if you wanted to let the Serbs know what we were doing, just tell the French or the Russians. The environment was a walking national security nightmare, but I was an absolute hardass when it came to safeguarding classified information in G2 Operations. Bubba Clinton’s “peacekeeping” venture continues to this day. It’s a waste of resources and troops, which could be better utilized on the field of battle against terrorism. “Peacekeeping” missions are absurd. I was a Soldier, not a diplomat.

Operation Iraqi Freedom: Deja Vu. The first entry in my OIF journal picked up where the last one left off, as did the battle, so to speak. It took the slaughter of 3000 people on American soil to shake us out of our complacent slumber. Iraq and Afghanistan were just two of the countries responsible for breeding terrorism, but they were a good place to start retaliation. Once again, we made minced meat of the Iraqi army, but our military and civilian leadership failed to understand and plan for the possibility of terrorist subversion from homegrown Saddam loyalists and those infiltrating from Syria and Iran. When the Fedayeen and al Qud extremists started pilfering weapons left behind by fleeing Iraqi forces, that was our first omen. The war against Islamofascism will not be easy; but the wars against despots like Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito weren’t cakewalks. I met some very brave Iraqi people who had been tortured, imprisoned, and had their family and friends murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime. They told incredible stories of suffering and brutality. We found hundreds of mass graves and there are still voices of the innocent calling from those yet uncovered. Hussein’s days of bloodbath, supporting terrorists, and producing WMDs, are over. The Taliban is in ruins and the Al Qadea are disjointed rag-tag cells reduced to planting IEDs and attacking soft targets.
We are finally hitting the Muslim fanatics where they spawn. The Islamofascists started this war, we will finish it.

The biggest challenge is to constantly maintain the best level of tactical and technical proficiency. I believe that life is a constant process of learning. No matter how long you work at a particular job, there are always new changes and better ways to do it. As a consequence, I have experienced personal and professional growth that could never have been achieved as a civilian.

There were times when my family suffered immensely. I chose an occupation that required me to be out of the United States for most of the time, and often in harms way. I was not there for them as much as I could have been because the needs of the Army came first. This is something I accepted when I enlisted and my family grew to understand. Each of us has been so exhausted at some point that we felt couldn’t go on. To find the strength to do that, you have to have faith and confidence in yourself and your fellow Soldiers. Courage is putting fear aside and getting the job done.

While the visceral, leftwing miscreants work their whole lives to bring this country to its knees, Soldiers will do what we always have; preserve, protect, and defend the United States, and make the enemy die for their country.

If I could leave one piece of advice for President Bush and his successors, it would be to remember that the war against the West and freedom was declared decades ago, but no one paid attention. Whether it’s Islamic butchers or an as yet unseen foe, Armageddon is here. They want to kill us and if you’re not fully prepared to do what is necessary in the battle for civilization, it will be lost. Victory is not attained through idiotic opinion polls, fatuous politically correct debate over Rules of Engagement or treatment of terrorist cut throats held at GITMO. It’s won by annihilating the enemy. They attack us, we destroy them. Simple. It takes a leader with the intestinal fortitude to do what’s best for the country in spite of itself and its detractors.

For 30 years I have been part of the world’s noblest profession. It’s time to pass the Guidon to the next generation, but I can’t help wishing I had another 30 years to give. As I toss my combat boots into the short-timer’s tree, I do so with pride and certainty that what I and my fellow Soldiers did for our country and on the foreign fields of battle, helped make the world a better place.


Duty, Honor, Country

Cheryl McElroy
Sergeant First Class
United States Army (RET)

2 thoughts on “A Soldier’s Thoughts on Retirement”

  1. Bryan Hilferty

    SFC McElroy,

    Just wanted to let you know I enjoyed your post. Thanks for 30 years of service!

    Bryan Hilferty
    LTC, INF

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