Veterans’ Reflections: Joining Up to Do His Part

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) 

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