WASHINGTON — The military can be a lot of things to people looking to enlist. It can be a demonstration of patriotism, a college payment plan, or just a way to get out of town and start adulthood.
For Ryan Berkshire, it was all three.
In January 2003, one semester before graduating from high school and two months prior to the start of the war in Iraq, Berkshire signed up with the Montana Army National Guard. The Guard gave him the long-term opportunity to pay for college, where he could study music, and the short-term opportunity to leave his hometown of Billings, Mont., for a while.
“The entire time you’re in high school in Billings, you talk about getting out,” Berkshire said. The National Guard and the Montgomery GI Bill, added, were the best options he had. “It was really more my need for money for college, and I kind of felt like I needed to earn my right to live in this country,” he said. “There are so many people that say they’re going to do big things, and I just wanted to be one who could say it and back it up.”
Shortly after receiving his high school diploma, Berkshire shipped off to boot camp and advanced training. He would end up serving the in the Guard for six years, followed by two years in the inactive ready reserve. He’ll finish his service completely in January as a sergeant.
By November 2003, Berkshire was leaving for Iraq as a cook with the 639th Quartermaster Company, a petroleum and basic supply company made up of soldiers from different Montana National Guard units who soon would become some of his closest friends.
“For as much as you have to put up with, there are a lot of good times in the Guard, too,” he said.
Talil Air Base, near Nasiriyah, was his home and his work for the next 12 months in Iraq. He worked in a cycle of eight 12-hour days followed by a day off, supervising kitchen contractors brought in from India, Pakistan and Nepal, ensuring they were following military sanitation and food preparation standards.
“Alongside my duties in the dining facility, I did some guard duty,” he said. “I had to escort kitchen employees to the nearby Korean hospital for medical checkups and a lot of escorting food from the gate to the dining facility and back.”
It was during the trips to the nearby civilian hospital, operated by South Korean forces for local Iraqis and contracted civilians on base, that gave Berkshire increased pride about the American mission in Iraq, he said. He spoke with local families who were appreciative of the U.S. and coalition military presence, he recalled, and they were getting medical services and humanitarian aid they hadn’t received in years under Saddam Hussein.
“To see these kids and their parents who were so appreciative of us being there, that was it for me. It really meant a lot,” he said. “It gave me purpose for the rest of the time I was there.”
Berkshire said he felt frustrated for a long time by a widening gap between public opinion and his own experience in Iraq. Though he “wasn’t in the worst situation” –- his base was mortared only a few times a week and received direct missile fire only a handful of times during his tour -– he heard conflicting reports of conditions in the country when he turned on the news.
“It wasn’t like Baghdad, where there was constant fire,” he said. “I had a pretty easy time compared to other servicemembers who had more high-intensity [jobs]. I consider myself pretty lucky.”
Berkshire experienced difficulty when he returned to the United States and attended college, he said, where he was surrounded by opinionated people, for and against the war, who never would have dreamed of experiencing the war first-hand.
“There are a lot of people in America that hear things, but unless you actually experience it, you don’t really have anything to say,” he said. “I’m one of the few people who saw how it actually is over there.”
Berkshire said both sides of the argument were right and wrong about certain things. It was a difficult time, he acknowledged, but he added that he felt the military did a lot to mitigate the stresses of combat. The morale, welfare and recreation facilities on base, he said, helped the troops “keep their heads on their shoulders.”
“They had a Burger King trailer and a Pizza Hut trailer, they had welfare centers where we could watch movies and play video games,” he said. “They had a lot set up so it didn’t have to be such a difficult or dark place.”
Berkshire said it took a while after he returned from Iraq to come to terms with the fact that most people around him hadn’t served, and would never serve. He said he felt as if he was part of a minority because he believed he needed to give something back to his country.
“When I came back from Iraq, I had the same problem trying to figure out who I was,” he said. “For a while, I felt like I had a superiority complex, because I was one of only a handful of individuals that actually went out and did something for this country. I really feel like I’m an American citizen, because I served.”
In the end, Berkshire said, he served in the military because he wanted to. Soldiering isn’t a job that’s performed for the glory, he said, and it doesn’t make you a better or worse person whether you’d served in the military or not.
“I’ve had people buy me food, buy dinners and drinks, because I’m a veteran,” he said. “I don’t want praise for it. That’s not what I’m looking for. I just want to be able to say I did my part at the end of the day. It’s the small things that matter to me.”
(“Veterans’ Reflections” is a collection of stories of men and women who served their country in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day conflicts. They will be posted throughout November in honor of Veterans Day.)
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)