Getting In The Game

I logged online from a computer in the grand lobby of the Seman Hotel in Kashgar, China, to read about the whipping my football team, the Washington Redskins, had been dealt two nights prior during its season opener on Sept. 9, 2001.

The week before, I’d linked up with a high school friend, Paul, who’d been in China since June. After months of traveling solo, he and I were spending a few weeks in the same location, enjoying each other’s company over long chess games and endless glasses of sweet tea. Located in China’s far west, nearer to Baghdad than Beijing, Kashgar has stood for 2,000 years and once served as an important stop along the Silk Road. I was about four months into what I’d planned as a year-long, post-college-graduation trek through Asia when I went online that night to read about my team’s shellacking.

I scrolled through ESPN.com and checked my email. The first words of a friend’s note read: “We’re under attack.” The subject line of another email echoed the same idea. I went to The New York Times website, and after an impatient minute waiting for the dial-up connection to load the page, an image of both towers in flames appeared.

Courtesy of Ross Cohen

Courtesy of Ross Cohen

Over the next few days, Paul and I wandered through Kashgar, dazed. Save for an anti-American German and her American boyfriend, who blamed the U.S. for the attacks, our fellow backpackers treated us gingerly. A group of Israelis, fresh from military service, bought us several rounds of drinks. A Kashgari woman whom Paul had befriended invited us to her parents’ home for a traditional meal of nuts, naan bread, and goat. Only his friend spoke English and Uighur, the language of the region, so conversation didn’t stray much beyond where we’d each traveled, what we thought of Kashgar, and what we thought of the food. (“It’s very good!” we assured them repeatedly.) I’m a Jew. Paul’s Christian. So along with our Muslim hosts, our group represented a diversity of the Abrahamic faiths and gave me a little hope that everything would be OK.

I spent hours online every day. On the 16th, I read that Paul Wolfowitz, the hawkish deputy defense secretary, had told PBS NewsHour that this new war would “take, as the president has said and Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld has said, a broad and sustained campaign against the terrorist networks and the states that support those terrorist networks.” Wolfowitz chose his language carefully. “A broad and sustained campaign against states,” plural, meant more than just a quick war in Afghanistan requiring only a few thousand troops and a few clandestine operations targeting al Qaeda cells in their rat holes throughout the globe. Wolfowitz, I knew, meant Iraq, which for neoconservative hawks, as I was then, was the whole ballgame. Toppling Saddam and installing a friendly, democratic, Western-facing regime would bring peace and freedom to the Middle East, I was sure. I imagined the happy faces of Iraq’s oppressed people as American forces liberated city after city from tyranny.

On the evening of Sept. 18, my mind raced and I couldn’t sleep. Around 2 a.m., I tiptoed out of bed, picked up my Walkman, and left the small hostel room I was sharing with Paul and a stranger, both of whom were sleeping. Pacing up and down the hallway of the hostel, one thought kept repeating itself: I have to get in the game. Listening to the Tokens’ “A Lion Sleeps Tonight”—a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh—inspiration struck: I’m going to join up.

Courtesy of Ross Cohen

Courtesy of Ross Cohen

Over the following days, I browsed Army and Marine recruiting websites for hours, finally deciding to serve on active duty, rather than with a reserve component. My knowledge of the military, though, was based almost exclusively on World War II and Vietnam War movies. Should I follow Tom Hanks and the Saving Private Ryan crew into the Army, or the recruits from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket into the Marine Corps?

My Chinese visa was set to expire on Sept. 24, so on the 23rd, I crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan via the Torugart Pass, 85 miles north of Kashgar. I’d intended to wander through the ’Stans of Central Asia for the next few months, but spent only a few days in the region, cutting the trip short to fly home to Paris on Sept. 27. I had big news, I’d told my mom and dad, but that I wanted to tell them in person.

They picked me up from Charles de Gaulle Airport and drove us to an elegant, dimly lit restaurant. Seeking maximum dramatic impact, I kept quiet about my decision until we had sat down and I’d launched into the basket of warm bread. My parents looked expectantly at me. “I’m going to join the military.” I was 22. About to turn 23. My mom’s face, tense before I had spoken, relaxed. Her sense of humor took over: “Oh, thank God. I was worried you’d met a girl in China and wanted to marry her and stay there.”

They left town for a couple of days in early October, leaving me their condo, which was a short walk from the Eiffel Tower. With their permission, I hosted a “Party in Defense of Western Decadence” for my friends from International Herald Tribune, where I’d worked for two summers. Lingerie and furs were preferred. If I was going to fight for freedom, I wanted first to enjoy freedom’s benefits.

Courtesy of Ross Cohen

Courtesy of Ross Cohen

On Oct. 20, I watched the Army Rangers jump into Afghanistan and seize a desert landing strip near Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital. These were the first American boots on the ground in the global war on terror, as far as the world knew. Army it was.

I connected by phone with Sergeant First Class Joseph Esgro, an Army recruiter in Kaiserslautern, Germany, the depot nearest to Paris. I told him I wanted to do what the Rangers had done and asked if I shouldn’t consider going officer, a route that felt more appropriate for someone of my socioeconomic standing. I tried to camouflage my elitism by emphasizing that I had a college degree, lacking an understanding of how different the lives of enlisted soldiers are from their officers. But I wanted to be in the thick of the action, and when Esgro pushed the Ranger route, I deferred to his expertise.

A few weeks later, my parents drove me and our cocker spaniels, Pattycakes and Zooey, the five hours to Kaiserslautern, where, over two mid-November days, I underwent a barrage of academic and physical tests.

I told my recruiter I was colorblind and had been exposed to tuberculosis; he encouraged me to keep those facts to myself. An enlisted medic at Ramstein Air Base administered the colorblindness test. The recruiter stood behind him in the small testing room, holding up his fingers so that I could correctly identify the number found within the patterns of colored dots. “Four.” Got it. On our way out, the medic asked my recruiter, “You sure you want this guy jumping out of airplanes?”

On Nov. 14, 2001, I signed a Ranger contract, committing me to active-duty service for a term of three years, and hoped I had the right stuff to make the cut. Then I flew back to the U.S. for one last domestic trip, a two-month blue-city tour of America, including Boston, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area. My mostly liberal friends thought I was crazy for enlisting but supported the decision; patriotism was in.

In the earliest hours of Jan. 11, 2002, I arrived in Fort Benning, Georgia, and jumped off the bus. Adorned by their iconic round brown hats, a group of drill sergeants stood beneath a banner that read, “Welcome to the Army.” As we hustled off the bus, they screamed at me to “Move! Move!”