“That’s probably a good idea,” the judge said to me when I handed him the letter from the Army recruiter asking for leniency so that I could enlist. “Your enlistment in the military would benefit the community,” he continued. At the time, I thought that was a really cool thing to hear in a courtroom. A few months later, when I thought more deeply about his words, I realized what the judge had meant. My hometown of Santa Cruz, California, would benefit from my leaving, wherever I might be sent. It was clear that I was out of harmony with my community and that I needed a timeout of sorts. It was January 2010, and I had graduated from high school six months earlier. Though I never fancied myself a criminal, I was cultivating a very respectable rap sheet for someone who had just legally become an adult. Already I’d been in court four times since I’d graduated.
The word “potential” had been floating around me since I was a child, but its meaning had changed throughout the years, from “he has a bright future” to “what went wrong?” When I began flirting with the idea of joining the military, I was living at home and playing baseball at the local junior college, having recently lost a scholarship to the University of Oregon. Late one night, I decided to check out the Marine Corps website. “The Few, the Proud” mantra seemed pretty badass, and I liked the idea of an anchor and globe tattoo on my forearm. I figured that if I couldn’t play D-1 baseball, being a warrior was the next best thing. After I filled out some basic information on the website, a recruiter called me the next day, eager to get me to come in to see him. I went in, heard what he had to say, and walked out of his office with some pamphlets, feeling unimpressed by his presentation and giving little thought to enlisting. Later that night, I totaled my car and spent the night in jail.
A couple of days later I went back to the same recruiter and told him the good news — I was ready to join. After explaining what happened, he looked at me as if I were a sewer rat and advised that maybe the Army would still be interested. “Damn,” I thought. “Not even the Marine Corps wants me.” I was devastated that even my backup plan had fallen through. I walked across the hall to the Army recruiting station, figuring they would be willing to pick up the Marine Corps’ scraps, and saw some guy looking at me like he was expecting me and I was right on time. I told him about my most recent arrest, and he assured me that it wasn’t an issue, that the Marine Corps was stuck up and their uniforms were the only thing cool about them. I’d do the same stuff in the Army but with better equipment. When I called my dad later that day to tell him that I had gotten arrested again, but that it was all good, because I was joining the Army, in a worn-out, emotionless voice he said, “That’s probably a good idea.”
Kyle Shipe is a former U.S. Army field artilleryman. He is currently majoring in history at UC Santa Barbara.