I Almost Joined the Reserves for the Money, But That Wasn’t Enough

by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I had been up since 3 a.m. I had been yelled at by large men in fatigues. I had been forced to take off all of my clothes except my bra and underwear and to waddle like a duck. And just a few hours earlier, an octogenarian doctor gently, but most assuredly, checked my butthole for hemorrhoids.

So basically, yeah, it was the worst day of my life.

I was joining the military reserves.

It was September of 2001. Yes, that September 2001. I had just started college. I had just committed to an astronomical student loan bill that would start requiring payback in 2005. Sometimes, I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about it, compounding the years of interest in my head. So when I was walking home one night and I saw a sign that said, “Get $20,000 for student loans,” it made perfect sense for me to turn into the building and ask.

That’s all I was doing. I was just asking.

When I walked into the room, I saw four men in army fatigues typing on their computers. They all looked up at me. One of them, let’s call him Bob, stood up and asked me how he could help. I told him I just wanted to inquire about the sign on the front of the building.

Bob explained it. If I joined the Army Reserves for six years, I would get $20,000 for loans. I would go to boot camp that summer when school was out and I had turned 18. After that, all I had to do was show up for duty one weekend a month, two weeks a year. I would never be sent to fight overseas. I would never leave the base. I would never be in danger. One weekend a month, two weeks a year. One weekend a month, two weeks a year. You keep saying it over and over and it doesn’t sound so bad.

I told Bob I would think about it. But Bob called me the next day. He told me he looked into my test scores from when my high school made us take the ASVAB, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery aptitude test. He told me they were “shockingly” high. He told me with my scores, I could be placed in the JAG division.

I’d never scored “shockingly” high on anything, so this appealed to my still-teenaged ego. Really, I only knew what the JAG division was because of that TV show, JAG. But suddenly, the army seemed intriguing. I could be a military lawyer! I told him I’d think about it.

But Bob called me the next day. He said he signed me up for the physical test next week because spots were filling up and there wouldn’t be another one for a while. He then offered me two tickets to see the Harlem Globetrotters that night. I had to admit, I did love the Harlem Globetrotters.

So that’s how I ended up at a Holiday Inn, three towns away from my Boston-based college on a Friday night. Bob gave me a ride himself. And then he was there, waking me up at 3 a.m.

Bob ushered me into my exam and then, poof, he was gone. I was on my own. And it wasn’t long before I realized I was in over my head. I was told, bright and early at 4 a.m. that I would be sworn in that afternoon if I passed.

Sworn in? That was news to me. I thought I was just finding out if I was eligible. And yet, I was being sent from room to room, from person to person, checking all my faculties, invading my butthole privacy, as if joining the military was a foregone conclusion. Panic raced through me, clouding my thoughts, burning in my chest. I was going to have to swear in for service with the United States Army.

I waddled like a duck in my underwear and wondered whether I should ask the man checking the gait of my waddle if I was in the wrong place. A man gave me an eye test and I considered asking him if there was a back door I could use to sneak out. But I didn’t. I didn’t ask any of them. I was too scared. I was scared of a lot of things at that moment, but mostly, I was terrified that if I asked someone if I could leave, they would say “No.” I kept reminding myself that I wasn’t in danger. I was going to be in the JAG division.

So I went where they told me. I did what they told me. And after a number of hours, I found myself seated in front of the man responsible for helping me choose my division. It was the last step. The one I had been waiting for. The one that meant that I wasn’t going to be sent to fight a war, which felt, and was, inevitable in September of 2001.

“My recruiter told me that I qualify for the JAG division, so I want to go into that,” I said, with all of the naiveté that you’d expect from a 17-year-old liberal arts major from the cozy suburbs of Central Massachusetts.

The man said, “Yes, you do. But there are rarely any openings in the JAG division for reserves.”

I asked him what was available and he said that, given my timing, the availability, my aptitude, and location, I was looking at Chemical Weapons.

When I asked him to please repeat himself, he had me watch a video that I can’t entirely recall except for a shot of a landmine. The video ended and I looked at him. “That’s all? Just Chemical Weapons?” I said. There was a lump in my throat that would not go down, no matter how hard I swallowed.

He shook his head. Maybe it was his kind face, or his genuine smile, but I finally made myself ask the question that had been burning inside me.

“Do I have to decide all of this right now?” I asked him.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “You can leave whenever you want.”

“I don’t have to swear in today?”

“Nope, you just tell your recruiter you’re leaving and you can go.”

And that’s just what I intended to do. I asked where Bob was and I found him. I told him I wasn’t sure this was right for me. This was all moving too fast. I’d just meant to peak my head into his office last week. I told him the news about the JAG division. I said it as if it was news to him, too. Because at the time, I really thought it might have been.

And Bob said to me, “That’s fine. Just go upstairs, sign up for something, swear in, and then you can cancel.”

And this is where I finally grew up and realized that no one was going to look out for me but me. I couldn’t trust a complete stranger to tell me what to do with my life just because he was wearing a uniform. I had to be an adult and tell this adult he had lost his mind.

“That doesn’t seem right,” I said. “Cancelling on the government.”

“People do it all the time,” he said.

That was it for me. I knew I would find another way to pay my student loans. I had four years to come up with a plan. This wasn’t the way to do it.

I walked upstairs, I found the nice man who told me I’d have to be in the Chemical Weapons division, and I told him the truth.

“My recruiter told me to lie to you and say I was joining today, take the oath, and then cancel.”

He looked at me. “That’s inappropriate and not how things work here. Who is your recruiter?”

I told him Bob’s full name and then the man shook my hand and pointed down the hall. “You’re free to go right through the door,” he said.

And that’s exactly what I did.

It’s 11 years later and I’m in the thick of paying off my student loans. Some months have been harder than others. I’ve filed for forbearance and deferment when I needed to. I’ll be paying them off until my own children go to college — but you know what? It’s fine. It really is fine. It’s nothing like what I thought it would be, staring up at the drop ceiling of my dorm back in 2001.

And it’s better that we have people in our military that want to be there. People who are there for the right reasons. People who are willing to fight for their country. I realized then that I’m not one of them, but ever since I left that building that day, I have a greater appreciation for what they do.

Every one of the men and women who fight for our freedom, waddle like a duck in their underpants for us. They let a doctor check their butthole. And when they find out that they are going to be working with chemical weapons, or in another equally terrifying division, they don’t walk out the door. They swear in.

They are the ones who should have their student loans paid reimbursed. I’m better off to chipping away at mine one month at a time.

Taylor Jenkins Reid is an author and essayist. She’s never received a piece of fan mail, but don’t let that stop you from considering it.