My blue and gold helmet was placed in the locker. The team's equipment manager walked by saying what a great season it was after we defeated Carson Newman in the NCAA Division II Football Championship game. The equipment manager's eyes appeared saddened however knowing at least one player wouldn't return the following year.
"You're not coming back after Christmas break, are you?" he asked.
"I'm failing every class," I said. "And truthfully, I never came to school to get a degree. I came here to pay football and I have finally realize that I'm wasting my time."
"What are you going to do?"
"Join the military," I said and then handed him my jersey. "Need some time to mature. You know, grow up."
I will never forget this conversation. Certainly, I am not the only one who ever had similar conversations with a school official or a coach. Many who join the service do so for similar reasons -- they just need some time to mature. There is no better place to do such a thing then through serving in the Armed Forces.
Others join the Armed Forces simply because they have no alternative. The environment in which they grow up isn't all that conducive so they use the Armed Forces as an escape route. Others join simply out of pure love for the nation.
No matter one's reason for joining the Armed Forces, I know of no veteran or active service member who didn't think of the benefits that came with serving in uniform prior to signing on that dotted line. Not so long ago, the benefits that came through serving were exceptional -- one of a kind training, opportunities to travel the globe, free medical, free tuition assistance, a great GI Bill, etc.
As I said, the benefits at one point were some of the best a young adult could find. Those days are long gone. In fact, some could argue there is absolutely no true benefit for serving in today's Armed Forces beyond pure love of country -- but even that reason is getting hard to accept considering how corrupt this nation has become over the past 20, 30, or even 50 years.
Troops with families are seeing skyrocketing price increases in the military's medical insurance program known as Tricare. In fact, Tricare has become so controversial, many service members and their families have optioned for privately ran medical insurance in order to save money.
Late last week, it was reported through Military.com, the Army Times, and the Marine Corp Times that another benefit was being disavowed -- tuition assistance. This was a free service for active duty personnel seeking to advance their careers through college education while wearing the uniform.
Admittedly, I received two Associates degrees and a Bachelor's degree while on active duty status without paying a dime out of pocket thanks to tuition assistance. The GI Bill allowed me to earn my Masters. I wouldn't be where I am today without such a benefit.
Beyond just increases in Tricare and the depletion of military tuition assistance, some other benefits have been declining rapidly. Maybe "declining" is improperly used here however "quality" may be more accurate.
The military took pride in its quality of "on the job training." While many units still train these days, a question has been asked over and over again -- "Do we still train like we fight?" This is incredibly subjective and I feel it would be inappropriate to comment about the quality of today's military training considering I am a former combat skills instructor.
There is a point behind all this commentary though. Our military historically comprised as an "all-volunteer force." Those who volunteered knew the rewards were incredibly high due to the outstanding benefits that came with serving in uniform. Unfortunately, those benefits are rapidly being taken away from service members. Beyond just love of country, will military benefits remain strong enough to maintain the numbers needed for our "all-volunteer force?"
In national security, quantity is equally as important as quality. Threats continue to grow around the globe and our nation depends on a high-speed, low-drag, fighting force. Now is not the time to shrink our tactical operators who serve in the Armed Forces. Unfortunately, if benefits continue to diminish, that's exactly what will happen.
Today, I wonder, how many kids will be willing to hang up that football helmet as I had simply to sign their life away and fight our nation's incredibly controversial wars? Is the price any longer worth the reward? It's a question needing serious consideration these days.
As torn and confused as I am when it comes to the crippling of benefits for our war fighters, I know I would do it all over again if I could. But that is just me. I don't speak for anyone else and in fact, I could actually understand why fewer and fewer existed the passion to serve within our Armed Forces.
Kerry Patton, a combat disabled veteran, is author of Contracted: America's Secret Warriors.