Adolescent Dreams, Adult Nightmares

Rosa del Duca’s Memoir Traces a Path Through and Out of the Military

“He was one of the hottest guys I’d ever seen—walking into our American Government class with catlike precision, his shoulders filling out his pressed uniform.” 

Cover of Breaking Cadence

That sentence could have been  taken from a romance novel, the kind with lots of sex scenes. Instead it’s from a different kind of romance, a memoir by Rosa del Duca called Breaking Cadence: One Woman’s War Against the War. The hunky “he” is a military recruiter, who starts del Duca on her journey into the U.S. Army. That journey, when it ends a decade later, includes both military honors and del Duca’s relief that the romance gone terribly wrong is over. We first thought to offer a few pages of Breaking Cadence in this anti-militarization issue of Democratic Left—but the memoir proved difficult to excerpt. Del Duca scatters the scenes that led her to leave the Army until they pile up to create a full picture. What follows is a series of excerpts with del Duca’s reflections to give them context. This “interview” was conducted via email. -Eds.

He had an angular jaw, bright blue eyes, and dark hair he fixed with some kind of gel. None of the Fromberg guys would dream of using gel. I was fascinated. 

“Good morning. I’m Sergeant Lamson.” He waited for our mumbled “morning” back. “Now, I know the Marines and Navy and full-time Army guys have already been through here. And they probably told you their branch is a great choice for college and you’ll get excellent job training and it’s fun and all that good stuff. Well,” he raised his eyebrows and leaned toward us, a hand by his mouth like he was telling us a secret. “They all wish they were in the National Guard.” 

We laughed. “I’m serious. The Guard is the best branch by far. We’re not asking you to go full-time military. This is a chance to be a citizen soldier. One weekend a month, two weeks during the summer. See, the Guard doesn’t make you put off college. It’s set up to help you succeed in college. It’s a win-win. You get 75 percent of your tuition paid for, and we get highly educated soldiers. […] “if you’re interested in hearing more, I’ll be in the counselor’s office upstairs,” he said, backing toward the door. “And one more thing. We’re offering $6,000 bonuses for signing up this year.” 

My brain clicked into overdrive. I heard my mother reminding me three times in the last six months that if I planned on going to college she couldn’t help with tuition or rent or books, as much as she wished she could. She’d had to declare bankruptcy because Wayne had bought a bunch of tools with their credit card and then filed for bankruptcy during the divorce, leaving her with bills she couldn’t pay. 

I saw myself escaping Fromberg and writing rent and tuition checks with that $6,000. I saw shopping carts full of food. I saw a car with a heater to defrost the windows and an engine that could handle trips longer than ten miles at a time, unlike the junker I’d bought off the neighbor.

* * *

Looking back, I think the recruiter was in his mid-twenties, almost a kid himself. That’s why I don’t think of him as the devil in hindsight. He was just doing his job, and doing it well. In the year 2000, it didn’t take much convincing for me to see the National Guard as a sweet part-time job that would pay for nearly all of my college education. I honestly do think he was well-meaning and a good person—that he really cared about us, didn’t see us merely as numbers. I also hilariously thought I’d be surrounded by hot guys in boot camp and back at my unit. The hypothetical world my teenage brain concocted was drastically different than the reality of military service.

* * *

I pictured a small, private plane. Probably one or two people on board. I wondered why the anchor had made it seem like such a big deal. It was sad, but there were far worse things going on in the world. Well, I thought, it was New York City. It wasn’t like a plane crash in a remote marsh. I parked, silenced the radio, forgot about the accident, and went to class. […] It wasn’t until nine o’clock Montana time that I started to piece together that something grave and terrible had happened. My second class was canceled “due to the tragedy in New York.” 

“What happened?” a guy in a beanie asked. The room fell silent. The professor, who had come in fifteen minutes late, made some feeble reply like, “It’s not for me to say,” and strode out… 

…[I w]as that oblivious. That young. 

…“Have you been following what’s going on?” Alura asked over the phone, a full thirty-six hours after the attack. 

“A little bit. I read the article in the Kaimin today. And I caught some of it on NPR.” 

“That’s right. You don’t have a TV. Do you want to come over and watch the news?” 

Half an hour later I was on her couch, legs drawn up in front of me, eyes wide, drinking in the barrage. I saw the planes shearing through the towers, the buildings collapsing, streets full of people with pinched and determined and terrified faces.[…] For a moment I wondered if my Guard unit would be called up to help clear the rubble and[…] do whatever else needed to be done. This wasn’t a natural disaster, but it was definitely a disaster. And then I thought, “No, that’s what the New York National Guard is for.”

* * *

When news of the planes hitting the towers in New York broke, I was driving to school and heard the story on NPR, but dismissed it as something small and went about my day. It was a full two days before I saw the horrifying news footage at my sister’s house and started to understand the scope.

While a lot of young people walked into recruitment offices in the days after 9/11, no one in boot camp or in AIT (Advanced Individual Training) talked about why and how they joined. Training was too intense, and there was such a patriotic backdrop to everything we were doing I think it was assumed that whether we joined before or after, we were all patriots now, devoted to enacting revenge for those attacks and making sure it never happened again. Recently, I learned from a longtime G.I. Rights Hotline counselor that in the buildup to the Iraq War, the hotline was flooded by service members who felt what I did, that “this is not what I signed up for.” Yet at the time, it felt like I was the only one having doubts.

* * *

A familiar heaviness had settled back onto my shoulders—the weight of troops in Afghanistan, the anxiety that my Missoula unit would be headed there soon, the incomprehensibility of how the world had changed so quickly. I wasn’t ready to be an adult in the way the Army wanted me to be.

* * *

When I got the call that I’d been activated, I felt like was like plunging down a mine shaft.  I had all this excitement and optimism about earning my journalism degree and working at the local news talk station and being a DJ and even having a new boyfriend. I didn’t want to give that all up to fight in a war doing so much harm and that none of my peers seemed to even notice was going on. I felt like a victim and like I was horribly selfish at the same time. I was heartbroken.

[Still intent on honoring her contract, del Duca seized on the opportunity to do so as an officer if she joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps. She could therefore finish her degree in journalism while leading younger Reserve enlistees—but she had to sign a new contract with a longer-term commitment. -Eds.]

* * *

After the physical, the medic gave me a questionnaire to fill out. What vaccinations I’d had. What medications I was taking. And then there it was. The secret. A little box that asked, “Are you a conscientious objector?” Thinking it must be some typo, a mistake, I reread the words three times. Are you a conscientious objector? The term described exactly what I’d come to feel, but also exactly what I thought the Army didn’t tolerate. I thought the term was for Vietnam-era guys who’d burned their draft cards. No one had ever told me I could voice my objection. I’d joined voluntarily after all. But there the words were. Are you a conscientious objector? 

My pen hovered over the box. If I didn’t check it, I would be lying to myself. But if I did check it, the Army would surely assume I was lying to them. I could hear the suspicion and contempt: “Sure, get called up and suddenly you’re a conscientious objector.” I glanced at the medic. 

“Do you have a question?” she asked, the lids of her eyes drooping.

“No questions,” I said, leaving the box blank.

* * *

[But her doubts persisted, and del Duca began to explore conscientious objection, both online and with a call to the GI Rights Hotline.]

I’d learned that there were two groups of conscientious objectors. The first opposed anything directly related to combat, but were fine working in support roles like supply, paperwork, and food. The other group was opposed to any and all involvement in any and all wars. If you could prove that your beliefs were honest and steadfast, and that they’d developed after you joined the military, then you could be granted a discharge. 

Neither of the options seemed to fit me. Fueling was considered a support role—a job unrelated to combat. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed the very foundation of war. The military couldn’t do anything without fuel. Then there were all those people who said this entire war was about oil. On the other hand, I didn’t know if every single war was wrong. It hadn’t been wrong to enter World War II. And what if, say, North Korea attacked us? How could I categorically label any and all wars as wrong? And proof? I could explain my morals, but I didn’t know how to prove them. And so I fell back into the deep trance of denial. “I think I’ll be okay as long as ROTC becomes official, I told the woman on the other end of the hotline. 

“Are you sure?” she asked. “Getting into ROTC isn’t going to make what you’re feeling go away. It will only put it off for a while.” 

I would prove her wrong. ROTC had swooped in and saved the day. Now I needed to buck up, grow up, and honor my new contract.

* * *

[At the local news talk radio station, announcing her decision]:

“Do you plan to honor your contract? Are you going to ship out the next time you’re asked? No more training or going on to get a master’s or something like that?” 

The air in the room had grown hot and stale. I could smell my own breath. I felt like a talking statue, straining to convince the invisible audience I was flesh and blood. “Yes, I plan to honor my contract. I mean, I don’t want to go to war. No one does. I really hope the wars are over soon, but I understand the importance of keeping my word.” I set the pen I’d been fidgeting with down and sat still. I felt like I was swearing an oath, renewing my vows. In a way that’s exactly what I was doing. This was not an act. “I know I have to own my responsibilities. And I’m not special. I’m not better than anyone. The Army gives you this card at boot camp with all the Army values. Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, personal courage. I believe in those values. Those are my values.” 

Bate was nodding his head. Dave was looking at the clock. The board operator was absently chewing his nails. In the next room, Madsen watched me with his watery eyes, hands clasped on the desk in front of him, a smile on his face. The hundreds, if not thousands of people listening to the radio breathed in and out, their brains transforming the sound of my voice into ideas, images, promises. They all bore witness. The weight felt like a lead flak jacket.

* * *

[Months later, del Duca realized she was too conflicted about the war to honor those contracts. She decided to file for a discharge as a conscientious objector. Despite her plans to file for CO, del Duca still fulfilled her commitment as team leader in the ROTC Leader Development and Assessment Course.]

Through it all, Sergeant Densey was there to give us tiny signals he was proud when we did well, and to accuse us of eating dumbass toast for breakfast when we screwed up. And through it all, I rode a seesaw of guilt, trepidation, disgust, and empathy. There were moments I looked at the platoon and wondered how I could possibly abandon them when I got home. There were moments I wanted to shake them. There were times I wondered what they would look like in five years. Would they have all of their limbs? Would they be remotely as happy and well-adjusted? I noticed how rarely they talked about the war they would soon be fighting, and how they took even the most glaring of warning signs in stride. 

“Are you religious?” Nissenger asked Sergeant Densey one day. We were cleaning our rifles outside the barracks. It was Sunday, and a few cadets had gone to church. 

Densey looked like he was holding something sour in his mouth, wondering if he should spit it out or swallow. “Not anymore.” 

“What were you, Catholic?” 

Densey crossed his arms and raised his eyebrows at Nissenger, an unspoken reprimand for prying. But then he said, “When you’ve seen what I’ve seen, it’s pretty clear God doesn’t exist. Last time I stepped foot in a church was in Baghdad. Never been back since.” 

We stopped scrubbing at our rifles. “What happened?” Nis asked. 

He shrugged. “Lost my faith. And not just in God. The whole shebang. All of it.” 

We waited for him to go on. He was about to tell us a war story. “Now how about you quit your yackin’ and clean your weapon. You got the attention span of a bunch of preschool kids.” 

* * *

I never talked to Densey about his loss of faith, or much of anything for that matter. He was part of our cadre. I was a lowly cadet, and one planning to go home and out myself as a traitor, a conscientious objector, once training was done. But I’ll never forget that guy. You could tell he carried around a lot of both wisdom and baggage. I always got the sense there was a lot he wasn’t saying. He often had this ironic smile on his face, watching our antics. After that day, I felt bad for him. I saw him as trapped in his contract too, forced to serve this organization that had taken so much away from him, and for what?

* * *

[In the month-long training session del Duca became a mentor to her assigned battle buddy, which only intensified her conviction.]

 “I mean it. You’re really good at cutting hair. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” 

 It was a brief respite from our usual skirmishes, which weren’t only caused by Ayma’s incompetence and my impatience with her. We operated on different wavelengths. Summer camp was teaching Ayma to be a gear in the machine at the same time I was becoming a wrench. And because it was clear Ayma couldn’t pass LDAC without a lot of help, I sometimes felt a unique guilt around her, like I was feeding her to the Army in some kind of sacrifice, a body to replace my body. Neither of us belonged in uniform.

* * *

[A month or so later, as del Duca began the years-long CO process (which sometimes necessitates numerous appeals to the military’s highest court.]

I rediscovered the bolt cam pin I’d accidentally taken home from Boot Camp #2 after coming home from LDAC, after starting my CO application. It was sitting where I’d left it, in the bottom of a small, blue, heart-shaped plastic jewelry box, surrounded by silver chains and forgotten earrings and rings with bands that were more oval than circular, thanks to all my fiddling. Rolling the bolt between my thumb and forefinger, I decided to finally return it. I didn’t want part of an M16 in my apartment. It wasn’t a cool souvenir anymore, but another reminder of what I was trying to escape. I plunked the piece of metal into an envelope and thought about where to send it. The address to my old Company back at Ft. Jackson was probably somewhere on the internet. Or I could mail it to Camp Roberts, anonymously. Or I could even bring it there in person, next drill. 

But then there would be questions. What are you doing with this? Why didn’t you return it earlier? And once they found out about my CO application, they’d probably assume I stole it— which, in a way, I had. I tipped the envelope, feeling the lump slide from one end to the other, weighing my little moral quandary. 

Was I a thief? A petty criminal? Or did I have an obligation to keep the bolt? I was a conscientious objector. I needed to determine the most moral course of action and follow it. What would Aristotle do? Or Kant? Return property to its rightful owner? Even if that owner’s actions were deeply compromised? Here was an opportunity to keep a deadly weapon out of an Unjust War, at least symbolically. I’d like to think that both Aristotle and Kant would tell me to throw the pin into the ocean.

* * *

Today, I’m still a journalist. I write and produce newscasts at a major market news station in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s a part-time gig so I have time for creative writing, music, and, most rewarding, taking care of my young kids.

I actively avoided veterans until very recently. Last summer I joined a group called About Face: Veterans Against the War. I was kind of shocked to find all these former military folks who shared my views about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, I didn’t feel worthy of the group. I didn’t see myself as a veteran because I refused to deploy. I worried I would be seen as an imposter, or a wanna-be. But members have been very welcoming and supportive and really respect my decision to become a conscientious objector. 

I hope readers learn that young people who join the military are not so different from them. A lot are victims of the so-called “economic draft.” I hope they recognize that all Americans fight our wars, either by proxy, or in person. To dismiss or ignore what the military is doing is as irresponsible as not voting, perhaps more. Most important, I hope young people learn that there are more reasons not to join the military than to sign that contract. You’re not guaranteed the job you want. While the military can change your contract in a variety of ways, you don’t have that right. You don’t get a say in what kind of conflicts you engage in, what wars you fight, what borders you are ordered to “protect” from people seeking asylum. Many units have a toxic culture of racism and sexism that goes unchecked because of the chain of command and how the military has its own justice system. I could go on and on. But it boils down to the system taking advantage of teens who are in a heightened state of evolution, just coming into their own as adults, their brains off-kilter in terms of risk and reward. I hope teens considering joining today wait a year or two before they make that decision, and talk to some skeptical veterans before they swallow what the recruiter has to say, hook, line, and sinker.