Back in 2010, joining the Virginia Army National Guard didn’t sound like such a bad idea. I had just been rejected from Virginia Commonwealth University and needed to set up a way to pay for college…when I eventually got in. Plus at the time I thought the National Guard wasn’t the real Army, so I had nothing to lose.
After enlisting and sweating at a couple training camps, I was assigned to a truck platoon out in the country. I’d report there one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, during which time I would just exist for a couple days. The tasks were menial and my only real duty was to turn a wrench, refuel some trucks, and pass my physical fitness test. It helped me get started in art school. It was a good deal — before I started feeling restless.
Without warning, I started falling behind in nearly every aspect of my life. It was like I ran out of gas without a warning light. Everything at the Guard got more difficult, and at school I started failing courses too. Why did I suddenly lose the strength to continue?
I thought seeking recourse for my newly discovered depression would help.
At a routine health assessment I tried unpacking the malaise I’d been feeling through the past year to a case manager. I explained how the pressure to succeed (and consequences of failing) as a student and a soldier was eroding my mental health, affecting my performance in either career. I came into the office looking for justification that what I was going through was grounds for a discharge based on my mental condition. Turns out if you’re not suicidal, then you can suck it up and drive on. The case manager told me that everything I was going through was situational, and that it would pass.
But what happens if the situation doesn’t change? What happens when you can’t hold out another two years before you finish college and your contract is up?
In hindsight, I should have considered a non-Army affiliated doctor.
I had joined the Guard to pay for art school because I had no scholarships coming in or familial support — and everybody there knew that. I was one of the few college students enlisted who hadn’t gone to Officer Candidate School, and I could feel my superiors hanging that over my head. It felt like every minor failure or shortcoming I had as a soldier would sabotage my future. My sergeants helped me believe that it would be a catastrophe to get kicked out.
And that was the most agonizing part. Between my superiors and case managers telling me that my experiences were no big deal and to suck it up, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I’d grown to abhor a culture that made me feel like I was crazy.
As the stress intensified, I started waking up in cold sweats and eating my anxiety. It fueled a cycle of decreasing self-worth. I stopped believing that I could be a good person, in addition to being a good soldier. However, I could only take so much. The deeper into my depression I sank, the more sure I became that surviving without the uniform couldn’t be much worse than this.
I stopped showing up last June.
I was scared as hell. My commander, at his discretion, could choose to send state troopers to my place to collect me for duty. That would mean going out of his way himself for a whole duty day to find me, so I don’t think he thought I was worth the effort.
After that weekend passed, I turned in all my gear and threw out everything they let me keep. I didn’t want anything to do with this job anymore. I made great memories and some lasting friends at the start, but I left with a bad taste in my mouth. The last line in the Warrior Ethos says “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” I wonder how many of my sergeants remembered that.
Since I left last summer, I’ve been a full-time illustrator and cartoonist. I’ve gotten the chance to travel and meet others during opportunities that fell on the weekends when I would have been away for duty. Although sometimes I feel like a quitter for not finishing my obligation, I am sure that I wouldn’t be as satisfied with life as I am now.
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Chris Kindred is a cartoonist living in Richmond, Virginia. His body of work delves into themes of personal discovery, wonder, and sacrifice. His work can be found at chriskind.red. His thoughts can be found on Twitter @chrskndrd.