01/25/2014 04:32 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2014

What It's Like to Have a Friend in the Military

This is a follow-up story to a piece I wrote last year, in which you met my friend Dakota, who, at the time, was still in Basic Training. He has since moved on to his Air Medic training and education. Due to an overwhelming response of support, I have gone more into detail with this article.

I met Dakota at our 4-H State Leadership Conference in 2012. I was leading a workshop on Social Media and was running a half hour early. I was sitting on the table wondering why I had skipped out early on breakfast if no one was going to show up for at least another 45 minutes anyway. Then, both a seagull and a tall blonde guy came through the open door.

I like to think I charmed him into being my friend with my quick wit and bubbly personality, but I'm pretty sure he was just impressed with the force with which I yelled at the seagull trying to get it to leave. (It didn't.) It wasn't until after the workshop that I found out he was an incoming State Ambassador. If you met the guy, it'd make perfect sense. If you asked him why he became an Ambassador, his answer would run something along the lines of, "I wanted the suit." It'd be easy to write him off until you saw him in action. Giving speeches, he charms crowds with an ease that would have made JFK jealous. He's just that one guy we all know that everyone loves. He could go anywhere with his talents, even straight to the White House. When I found out he was joining the military after graduation, I was a bit confused. All that talent, marched into a line?

In that respect, I think my view on it was a bit limited. The family members I have who are involved in the military are all adults. I had friends who had talked about it, but it was always more of a hazy, "I'm thinking about joining the military" thing, rather than a concrete I'm-shipping-out-see-y'all-in-a-year... maybe. All I envisioned was endless camo, yelling officers and bad food. Plus, he was only 17! We were putting teenagers in the military? (Not even processing that my own father joined when he was 17.) But that's not the way he sees it. He says, "I joined because I wanted to earn respect, learn paramedic skills and put some military-style discipline in my life. Turns out, I'm really good at it." That he is. The rigorous schedule, intense physical demands and sheer mental strength it takes have become second nature.


Our typical day starts at about 4:00 a.m., then we do physical training until 6:30 a.m.. Showering, getting gear on, all the stuff takes place until 7:00 a.m., which is when we leave for breakfast. After, we march to school, where we learn our medic skills. Some days we go out to the field to practice, others we stay in the classroom. We have a lunch break somewhere in there, then finish around 5:30 p.m.. We're then released to get our mail, and somewhat relax. At 8:00 p.m. we stand outside our doors for bed check, then it's time to sleep.

But if you think his 4-H days left him untouched, you'd be wrong. "My 4-H skills have definitely helped with my confidence and ability to speak to large groups." He has led a platoon of 95 soldiers for 3 months now, unanimously voted leader. That's what our organization does, by the way. We talk, and write speeches, and raise animals. (More on that another time.)

He's not the only one learning. Having a friend in the military changes a lot of things. You get really good at writing letters, a dying art. You get a little more patriotic. This, your friend, training to defend your country. You find yourself paying more attention to the news, having a minor panic session every time some little issue is reported. Any attack on a soldier or the army itself could be your soldier, even if you know they're on the other side of the world, even if they have a desk job, even if they're at home. You hope it never will be your soldier. You find yourself learning about ranks and orders and how gear fits together. It's military by osmosis.