It is what it is: A young soldier’s reflection about the Army life

The military, for some, is the commercials they watched when they were kids. Crazy imagery that depicts a soldier dropping into the battlefield ready to do the nation’s duty. For me, it was when I had to take a shower with other naked dudes for the first time.

Growing up, I was never an athlete by any standard. I joined the football team in ninth grade and broke my arm the next week while training for the season, effectively flushing any hope of being a star football player down the drain. Not to mention, my height (5’6″) was already holding me down.

One day in 11th grade, I was heading to work part-time at Starbucks. After arguing with my dad about who knows what, I found myself sitting in an office surrounded by those heroes I saw on TV.

Star-struck is the best word to describe my feelings when I sat down for an “interview” with one of the recruiters.

As soon as I sat down, they started asking their questions. They asked me the “golden question” every potential recruit must answer before being considered for a position in the most elite military.

“Why do you want to join the Army?”

I thought for two seconds before responding, letting my brain catch up to the question and firmly planting my brain.

“I want to serve and protect my country.”

One might say it was a simple answer to a simple question, but it had depth in the mind of this 17-year-old at the time.

Two weeks passed, and I was standing, taking the oath to serve my country at the young age of 17.

Add two more months to the mixture, and this kid will now be training with full-grown adults in basic combat training in the summer of 2016.

Young Andres Rivera. (Photo by Andres Rivera)

Looking back, I see a kid who did not know what service meant or was. The only service this kid knew then was to the video games that he so desperately played for hours a day.

Now, he was training to be a “warden of freedom” in the United States Army.

And for a time, this kid ran with it for a while.

A yes man by any degree, always planting his foot forward for whatever the sergeant needed.

If they needed me to pull night guard duty?

I was there.

If they needed me to drive and park the combat carriers?

I was there.

If they needed me to carry multiple weapons for accountability?

I was there.

Until my first significant hurdle hit at 19.

I was out of high school, attending college and working a part-time job with the city as a park counselor while juggling my responsibilities as an Army Reservist. My plate was full and overflowing.

I had a girlfriend at the time for whom I was head over heels.

I later found out in a two-week summer training session with Reserves that she had been seeing someone else behind my back and waited to break the news to me while I was out in the woods.

This was the “kid’s” first mental break, or in better words, the first I don’t give a shit moment, and I want to go home.

The wounds took time to heal and meld, but it all returned to step one. There was still pep in this soldier’s step; he knew he had to let go and move on.

Moving on to the year 2020, this soldier got the call-up to the big leagues.

He was being promoted to sergeant. No longer a kid, he was ready to lead a team.

A kid who joined at 17, now 21, was asked the biggest question in his life up to that point.

“If you want to be promoted, we need you to deploy.”

He thought it over for about 15 minutes and talked to himself about what that would mean.

He would have to put his college on hold, his family and his girlfriend of one year to the side for a whole year while he heads over the pond to territory unknown.

The crazy thing is he had a chance to deny the opportunity and stay comfortable with what was going on in his life up to that point.

“Let’s do it.”

He chose the deployment because that kid in him still wanted to be a hero. This was his moment to legitimize all the blood, sweat, tears and training. This is what it’s all about.

Andres Rivera in his U.S. Army uniform (Photo by Andres Rivera)

The year 2021 came around fast, and after dodging multiple close encounters with COVID-19, he finally found himself in the Middle East at 22.

This was not easy.

Being an army engineer is equivalent to being Bob the Builder or, in simpler terms, an Army construction worker.

Now try doing that at the age of 22, and you’re a “leader” in the United States Army with dudes who are lower rank than you and are upwards of 35 listening to someone younger than them.

Yeah, I wouldn’t either.

During that deployment, I was silent, A shadow to some.

I only came out of my man cave (tent) when needed. Other than that, I had very few “friends” that I would consider going to when the times were rough.

I realized about five months in that I was secluding myself not because I was scared to talk with anyone, but for the first time in my life, I had anxiety about the whole situation.

I was also very depressed.

I was sad because the thoughts returned, telling me how much I wanted to go home and be with my family and girlfriend.

I want to finish school.

I didn’t want to be a “hero” dictated by this contract anymore. I wanted to be an average person with everyday things to do rather than be out here in this 120-degree Fahrenheit weather slapping cement on cement daily.

It occurred to me that I was never able to appreciate my younger adult life up until this point because so many rules and regulations bound me.

I never let myself live an everyday life because I wanted to be successful; this was the only way I knew how to do that for so long.

I had a panic attack on the final days of deployment during our pack-up because of how much I’ve missed being a regular guy.

The “hero” I wanted to be is now more than just a commercial or showering with naked dudes for the first time. It was a true-to-life struggle to be this person. I have back pain, anxiety, and a profound realization that I could never be a kid again because this kid wanted to grow up too fast for his own good.

After returning from my deployment, I signed up for two more years with a different question about why I wanted to serve. It became about educating young people to join the military and how it will not always be easy.

I did this for a time and put up the hat in February 2024. I didn’t want to be a hero anymore. I want to graduate from university and follow my dreams wherever they lead me.

I’ve come to terms with who I was.

Who I wanted to be and who I am now.

Now, if you ask me:

“What was the military like?”

I’ll give you the short and sweet answer: “It is what it is.”

Then you ask me, “Would you do it over again?”

Hell yes.

Andres Rivera is a senior and veteran FIU student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Digital Journalism with a minor in political science attached. Before FIU, he obtained an associate degree in Psychology from Miami Dade College. He served as a sergeant in the United States Army for seven years, with a deployment to the middle east that broadened his knowledge of culture and foreign affairs. He is also an FIU Panther Now staff writer and photographer with experience in keeping up with quotas and media content creation. After graduation, he plans to become a reporter on foreign politics outside of the united states.