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An Interview With Leonard Anderson
Sergeant First Class
Veteran | served 20 years in the U.S. Army
What did you do in the service?
Like most military people, I did several different jobs, but my actual job title was signals analyst. In addition to that, I was a trainer in the S3, which is our staff training position. I was a recruiter for three years, and one other job I had was an instructor. I taught the new military and some civilian folks how to do their job. They would have some different branches within my office, and each section did something different. Depending on where they went, I would tell them the train to whatever section. The last job I did was actually kind of a humbling additional duty as a casualty notification officer. It’s like what you see in the movies where someone passes away and they have the military folks knock on the door of the next of kin. That was one of my last official duties in the Army.
Was the last job something you chose to do or were assigned to?
I was assigned. It’s a senior N.C.O. additional duty, so they had five or six of us that went to the training and about a week later, I got a phone call to have my uniform ready to go out to someone’s house. It was a service member who was injured by an I.E.D. in Iraq, and he was in San Antonio at the burn unit, but unfortunately, he died as a result of his injuries later on. The family already knew he had passed, so I didn’t have to do the actual notification, which would be hard. As it turns out, I didn’t know the service member, but we were in the same place simultaneously when some of my training started in Pensacola, Florida. When I went for his service at his reserve unit, I saw many people I was previously stationed with in Germany and wondered what I was doing there. I told them I was a casualty notification officer, and then they told me more about him. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the same clique, so I didn’t know him personally but we were in Pensacola together; he was in the class ahead of me.
It was definitely a very humbling experience. Since I didn’t have to do the notification, I escorted his next of kin, his daughter. She was about eight or nine years old and was from a previous marriage, so he had a new wife and family but each of his people was assigned a casualty notification officer. Then we went through the paperwork to process for the death benefit and then I escorted the family to the funeral ceremony at Arlington along with a motorcycle escort. I believe it was the Americas Guardians Motorcycle Club that escorted us from the reserve unit in Maryland to Arlington Cemetery in Virginia and got there in record time. So in all, it is a job that no one ever wants to do but it needs to be done. I was glad to do it once I learned he was someone I was in training with around the same time.
What was the biggest reason that led you to join the military?
I’m originally from Philadelphia and I was a mediocre student, so I knew that I wouldn’t make it to college, and I knew my mom couldn’t afford it. I already decided before graduating high school that I would join the military. Still, I had not decided which branch but eventually narrowed it down to the Air Force or Army. Like some people, I like to watch Marine Corps movies, and Full Metal Jacket was out before joining the military, but after seeing that, I figured the Marines was not for me. Then I decided that I didn’t want to join the Navy because I couldn’t swim, narrowing down to the Army or Air Force. I assumed the Air Force is usually the smarter branch and Army because my family was primarily Army, so I considered that and talked to both recruiters. The Army told me that I could take whatever job I wanted as long as I was qualified and appealed to me. I asked the same question to the Air Force, and they told me you don’t get to pick your job. Then I asked myself, “Why would I want to join a branch of service if I don’t have any choice in what job I wanted?” So, I chose the Army. But the biggest reason why I joined the Army was to travel.
What was the biggest lesson you learned in the Army?
I used to do things independently, but I learned you could accomplish more as a team than you can as an individual. We did many things in the Army based on teamwork; from basic training through my time as a senior N.C.O., it was always teamwork. If you have trouble with something, ask for help, whether it’s with work, financial planning, or whatever it was, you weren’t alone in this world. Help was always available.
Do you feel like the military made you a better person?
I would absolutely agree with that. Before I joined the Army, a guy in the neighborhood was a drug dealer and I got beat up by him because I looked at him the wrong way. As far as I knew, I did nothing to him other than look at him the wrong way, and I told myself that’s the first and last time that’s ever going to happen. The first couple days in the Army or any branch of service is a culture shock because you’re being yelled at, but what they’re doing is breaking you down and building you back up. At first, I was afraid of heights, but you do certain things in basic training to overcome your fears and it sticks with you. I’m still afraid of heights but not nearly as bad as I was when I joined the Army. It does build your confidence. I’m a different person from the Army than I would have been if I didn’t join.
What is your perspective on patriotism as a black person who was in the military?
That’s a very good question and I will relate that to a story. When I was on recruiting duty, that was the only time I had ever been asked what my ethnicity was. They do that because they pair recruiters based on ethnicity in the recruiting areas, so I was pretty much in a black recruiting station. I was in West Baltimore and we would go to schools and in the neighborhood in our assigned area. Because they want the best representation for the specialty, they usually pull the folks in the top percentage of their career field to recruit, and I was one of them. One day in around 2005, about five or six of us talked to a young black man and asked him, “How do you feel about the military?” He said, “Well, my mom and dad tell me the Army ain’t no place for a black man.” I told him I understood that many people still feel that way and a lot of that was because of how veterans were treated when they came home after World War I, II, and then Vietnam. I said we are successful young black senior N.C.O.s who own homes and drove nice vehicles, but it’s not for everybody. If you have the right attitude, the military can help you become a better version of yourself. I mean that if you have a bad attitude and don’t want anybody to tell you what to do, the Army is not going to be a place for you. Unless you own your own business, someone will always be telling you what to do.
While I don’t wrap myself in an American flag and run around yelling, “America, America!” I did feel it was my duty to serve my country. Now granted, people say, “Well, how can you love a country that doesn’t love you?” But this is the country I live in. I’ve done very well for myself, my family I provided for, and have not been treated badly. As far as patriotism, I love this country because this is the country I live in, this is where I was born, and again I’ve done things throughout my life to make sure that I’m able to provide for my family and in this case, the military was what helped provide me with that edge. I won’t say that it’s always been perfect, but what I learned in the Army helped transition the way I think about things as a civilian now.
What was your experience transitioning from active duty to civilian life?
That’s a very good question. Each branch of service tries to help military members transition. They all have a transition assistance program where they will do things like help you build your resume, review your resume, do mock job interviews, job fairs, and more. So that in that sense, the military helps you prepare, but it also depends on the individual. My experience was slightly different because I didn’t plan on getting out when I did. I would stay a bit longer, but the Army had plans to send me to Korea for what would have been my last tour. I didn’t want to go to Korea because I’ve been to Korea eight times for short trips. It’s a nice place to visit, but I didn’t particularly want to be stationed in Korea and at that time. I just had my daughter who was about six months old and I said I don’t want to live in Korea with a young baby. I put in my retirement packet and suddenly needed surgery. Because they needed senior N.C.O.s so badly, they called me again while I was at the hospital and said, “We have medical specialists that you need in Korea, so you’re going.” I said, “No, I’m not. I’m having emergency surgery.” That following week my package made it to D.C., got approved, came back, and I had three weeks left in the Army. So my experience is not the norm; I had three weeks after surgery to find a job and figure stuff out. As my luck had it, I submitted my resume through many websites and the person I worked with a long time ago saw my resume. He told me, “I know you’re looking for a job, so if you’re interested the job is yours. You’re overqualified but I need people to work.” I thought it’s not ideal but you know what, I’ll take it. So I actually was lucky enough to have a job lined up with three weeks left in the Army, but normally you’ll start about six months or longer out and then you’ll have a gradual transition usually but mine was a little different.
What are the things that people should consider before they decide to serve their country?
I would say decide why you’d want to join the military and what branch you want to be in. Some people have an obligation to serve; many joined right after September 11th because they felt they had a duty to serve. In a particular job market like now, where things aren’t looking up, people are looking towards the military. Some people think the military will take them when no one else is hiring, which is not necessarily the case, but it is an option. People want to have their college paid for and see that the military is an option for that. I’ll give another example, which is not the norm. We have people who were applying for permanent residency but had a green card. So if you serve X number years in the military, it helped you get the accelerated citizenship, which at least two people in the Army did; one guy was from Africa. He just graduated from law school at the University of Baltimore. I posted a flyer at the school one day and he called and said he wanted to talk about joining the Army. We talked and he mentioned he had loans that needed to be paid off because he had just finished law school, and he wanted to be a Jag officer. So I explained that he couldn’t join the Army as a Jag officer because he must pass the bar and be a U.S. citizen. Then I told him the plan: join the Army, pick a job, pay off his loans, get his citizenship, pass the bar, apply for Jag, and then they’ll transition him from Enlisted to the commission officer, which is exactly what happened. He joined as a chemical operations specialist, got his loans paid off, and went from specialist to Sergeant Captain and I think he said he did all of that within a year. So people do join the military for that reason, to become U.S. citizens.
Again, I would say decide why you want to join and pick your reason. In the Army we call it your dominant bind, meaning what is the reason you want to do this? For me, it was travel. It’s a steady job for some people, and for others, it’s to pay off loans. For the folks who mentioned that the Army is no place for a black person, I say use the military for whatever you’re trying to achieve and make sure you’re better off when you leave than when you joined. Meaning, I wanted to travel, so I’m going to check the boxes: I’ve been to Germany, Rota Spain, Thailand, Korea, and other places. Many folks may want to get an education, so they would earn their bachelor’s and master’s degrees while on active duty, then they would check their box. So make sure you’re better off when you’re done with the military than when you started. On the flip side, I’ve had people who had negative attitudes and joined for the right reason but got sent home. One person got sent home like the day before they graduated basic training. Other folks who didn’t even make it through basic training, maybe halfway through, got sent home because they had the wrong attitude. So have the right attitude, decide what you want to get out of the military and keep your eye on the prize.
What is one thing that you’re most proud of from your time in serving?
So I would say this will sound corny, but I want to be honest. If I didn’t join the Army, I would say that I wouldn’t have met my wife and wouldn’t have had our daughter. So out of all the titles I’ve had, my proudest achievement is being a husband and daddy. Both of those things I got while I was in the Army.