HuffPo: What a Weekend with the ROTC Taught Me About the Military

The following article was originally posted on Huffington Post College on Dec. 6, 2012.

“They’re just average guys,” said Lt. Col. David Meyer.

It was early in the afternoon on Saturday, Oct. 13, at a mock Middle-Eastern village that was set up on the outskirts of Camp Dawson, W. Va.

As Meyer spoke, paint splattered across the metal buildings.

The Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps was participating in a field-training exercise learning tactical maneuvers via a paintball match.

But beneath the Gore-Tex camouflage jackets and paintball masks existed exactly what Meyer said: average people.

I traveled with IUP’s ROTC to Camp Dawson to act as a journalist embedded into a military unit. Four of my staff members and I ate with the cadets, slept in the same barracks as the cadets and, in some cases, attempted to participate in the same activities.

Until that weekend, military personnel were obedient, robotic, trained, unchanging enigmas to me. But, by living with them for a weekend, I discovered that despite being trained and obedient, they are indeed average people.

They’re just like me.

They make jokes, they laugh, they have fun, they complain when it’s cold, they sweat when it’s hot and perhaps, most importantly, they feel. I’ve always felt like the military was almost a different class of people, but when it all comes down to it, they’re no different from me, except they can be trusted with a gun. If anything, they’re better. They’re more respectful and more polite; they call you sir until you tell them otherwise.

Among the many activities that I participated with the ROTC in was a paintball match between two squads within a company. I, along with three other journalists, was given a paintball gun and a mask and told to participate in defending this mock village. Although no journalist would ever wield a weapon in combat, it was interesting to get a first-hand view of this training exercise. It was amazing to feel the adrenaline rush through me as the first shots rang out or when I saw the first sight of the enemy. But what scared me most about it was how quickly the “fight or flight” response kicked in.

As soon as I saw the first splatter of paint on the wall behind me, my finger was on the trigger and clicking. I didn’t even think about the fact that I was aiming a weapon at someone; I just knew that that someone was aiming a weapon at me. It was just instinct. I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing; I just knew I had to do it. Now, it all sounds a little silly in the context of a paintball match, but think of it in terms of what a real soldier’s life is like. There’s no time to think about whether you really want to fire a gun at another human. When that first shot flies by you, you just know you have to fire back.

Fight or flight.

When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with war. It’s the ultimate feeling of selfishness, selfishness that I’m not sure a human can naturally defeat.

“It’s about shooting the bad guys and keeping the good guys alive,” Meyer said. “That’s all.”

That fight or flight response doesn’t just come in a paintball war. It comes every single day. We all have to decide daily whether or not we’re going to deal with the problems that we face, or whether it’s best to run away from them. And when it all comes down to it, you’re normally not alone in that response. For instance, if you choose flight, there’s normally someone to back you up and convince you not to flee. When I was in that room, with the sound of paintball guns being fired ringing in my ears, two soldiers had my back.

They fought against my flight.