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Why I Serve

May 02, 2011 | Major James Christman

  Serving in the United States Army is an honor and privilege I have enjoyed for the past 26 years. I do not come from a family that actively served the country. Throughout the course, of history my ancestors have served the country; however none have gone on to pursue careers of service. My mother’s father was an Army medic in Korea and his son was a Marine Shore Patrolman during Vietnam. My father’s uncle was also in the service during Korea though I’m not sure with which branch he served. None made a career of their service; all served their enlistments and got out of the service once complete. In fact, other than my grandfather and uncle, you would have to trace our family tree back to the Revolutionary War to discover confirmed Christman family ancestors that served the country. I mention the previous as a backdrop for my service, and to point out that it is a point of pride that I honor my heritage by serving the country. I not only take pride in my service, and thoroughly enjoy serving. I also feel it is every citizen’s duty to serve the country, if not in the armed forces, in some form of civil service. And perhaps most importantly I perceive that the values and mores of civil society are diverging from what I hold dear, and have in common with other members of the armed forces.
My first association with the Army was in the fall of 1983. A freshman at Michigan State University, I walked past the Army ROTC drill hall on my way to classes daily. Seeing cadets on the parade ground the first week of school piqued my interest. However it wasn’t until the second quarter that I gathered the courage to walk in and inquire about the program. I subsequently enrolled in the program and shortly thereafter was awarded a three and one half year scholarship in the Army ROTC program. I thoroughly enjoyed the ROTC experience during the first couple quarters and my enjoyment culminated upon my acceptance into the MSU ROTC Pershing Rifles during my sophomore year.
It was during my sophomore year, however that I really began to become disenchanted with college in general, and ROTC in particular. My class schedule was fairly rigidly dictated as my ROTC scholarship was awarded based on my declared major of study in Electrical Engineering. I however was leaning more toward a liberal arts curriculum and contemplated changing majors. My ROTC advisor told me that I would most likely lose the scholarship if I changed majors. In his words, “The Army needs Engineers, not artists.” Also, during this period, while on a trip to Fort Benjamin Harrison for a regional ROTC sports tournament, I received my first taste of the “real Army.” I started to question what ROTC was teaching me about the Army. I started to have doubts, and to some degree, began to get very impatient. My general disenchantment with my education combined with my disenchantment with ROTC are really the spark of what has become a long and thoroughly rewarding experience serving in the U.S. Army.
At the end of my sophomore year, with serious doubts about the direction of my educational future and Army ROTC future I approached an Army recruiter in my hometown Romeo, Michigan. I posed the question, “If I enlist in the Army will I have to pay back my scholarship?” He replied emphatically, “No.” At this point, I was already contemplating leaving MSU. With the limited knowledge of the Army the ROTC program gave me during seven quarters, enlisting in the Army seemed to be my logical next step. I enjoyed Army ROTC, but wanted the immersive Army experience, and that’s just what I got in April 1985.
O dark thirty, April 5, 1985 I stepped off the bus at the Fort Benning reception station, and for the next sixteen weeks got the immersive experience I wished for. The Drill Sergeants were incredibly professional, and throughout my time at Harmony Church, Fort Benning, Georgia, I reflected on what I’d been taught in ROTC and contrasted that with what was taught at Basic Training. I came to the conclusion that there isn’t any difference in the material. The real difference is in the delivery. ROTC was more of a mentoring environment, while Basic Training was directive. Looking back twenty six years later that conclusion seems obvious, but to a fresh twenty year old recruit it certainly wasn’t that obvious. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at one station unit training, and looked forward to my first assignment.
My first assignment, with the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado, really set the tone for my career though I didn’t realize it at the time. The Army was in the midst of remaking itself from the hollow force of the seventies and early eighties. Officers and Non-commissioned Officers were becoming increasingly more professional and the Army was adapting to the new all-volunteer force. It was here that I also got my first taste of leadership. I was promoted to Specialist in 1985 and shortly thereafter sent to the Primary Leadership Development Course. The course taught me what I needed to know about squad and platoon leadership and really whet my appetite for promotion, and increasing levels of responsibility. Shortly after attending the course I asked for and received reassignment instructions to Germany.
Assigned to the 8th Infantry Division in Mainz, I was promoted to Sergeant. It was during this juncture that I began to contemplate a career in the service. The all-volunteer force was becoming increasingly more professional and reaffirmed in my mind that a career would be an honorable and viable option to pursue. The only drawback, I didn’t have my degree. In 1989, I made the difficult choice and separated from the active service to pursue my college education.
I maintained my association with the Army as a member of the Reserves while I attended college at Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Michigan. I also worked as an intern during my brief time at the university, first for a local Chamber of Commerce and later the Oakland County Economic Development Department. During these internships I continually compared my experiences in the Army with experiences in the civilian workforce and began to note striking contrasts: complete lack of camaraderie, a lack of urgency, and a selfishness on the part of the workers. I also began to question my decision to leave the service.
I graduated in 1992 with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and accepted a job offer as a Business Development Officer with the Shasta County Economic Development Corporation in Redding, California. I only lasted four months. The qualities and values of the civilian workforce noticed during my internships continued to eat away at me until the spring of 1993 when I reenlisted in the Army and moved with my new wife to Fort Campbell, Kentucky to join the 101st Airborne Division.
Rank and increased responsibility returned quickly and in 1995 I applied and was accepted to attend Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Signal Corps in 1996. I served in the Signal Corps until 2006, when I career field designated FA49, Operations Research/Systems Analyst. The decision to career field designate was another good choice as my time spent in the field, and educational opportunities afforded me have been personally and professionally rewarding. It is an incredible experience to know that my research and analysis is, in many cases, informing decisions made by senior Army and Department of Defense leaders. And to think, twenty six years ago, PFC Christman was just worried about the weekend and my next promotion. I never, in my wildest dreams envisioned myself where I am today.
The past 26 years in the Army have been an emotionally, psychologically, physically and professionally rewarding experience. I have had and continue to have the opportunity to serve my country everyday with fellow men and women that have similar values, drives and desires. And I am able to impart these values and mores on my children, and if only tangentially to some degree close relatives, so that they at least understand the degree to which society is diverging from what I hold dear, and have in common with other members of the armed forces.


1 Comment

  • James Christman
    5/3/2011 7:23 PM
    I must apologize to my Uncle John, retired Air Force. He too made a career out of service to our country. I've no idea why his service completely slipped my mind.

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