I named him Ralph. My rifle, that is. The guys in my squad chose sexy girls’ names like Ashley or Carmen, with hopes of spicing up our spartanic, celibate lifestyles. But I was content with regular Ralph. Ralph slept with me, ate with me, ran with me, and followed orders with me. He was my lethal shadow. I would sometimes wake up at night lying in the prone position on top of my perfectly made bed sheets, with Ralph at the ready should my sergeant announce a surprise tactical ambush. This may seem odd to some, but as an 18-year-old girl who had never fired a weapon before basic training at the U.S. Military Academy, that rifle STRESSED. ME. OUT.
Going to the academy, I had my fears about whether or not I could actually ever kill someone, but I rationalized that as a woman, I wouldn’t be on the front lines and therefore would never have to. I also rationalized that they would teach me to compartmentalize my fears of guilt and be okay with killing as a form of defense. So the first time I laid belly-down on the firing line with 100 of my peers, I figured my acute desire to vomit was just the result of some nerves masquerading as butterflies in my adrenal glands. Of course I was nervous — I was surrounded by a bunch of recent high school graduates carrying loaded weapons, all the while getting pelted in the face with hot brass. I told myself I would be less nervous the next time. I wasn’t.
Every time I fell into place on the firing line, I was hit with a panicky feeling in my chest that reminded me of drinking too much coffee before the calculus exams I had failed in high school. But making an error on the firing range is much more severe than messing up an integral equation on a test. I had terrifying images of accidents on the range involving people tripping over themselves and misfiring, or rounds ricocheting off of rocks and spitting back towards the row of my peers. No matter how many rounds I fired following the 1) same 2) exact 3) procedure, I could not shake the discomfort I felt using such a powerful and violent machine.
When it came time for shooting proficiency testing, I nearly peed in my cargo pants. By this time, I had achieved a decent shot despite the inevitable rush of panicky adrenaline I still felt every time I pulled the trigger. But the testing range was different from the other ranges, and it threw me for a trip. These human-shaped targets popped up and fell down like real people. They were dressed in T-shirts and scarves to distinguish allies from enemies. I wear T-shirts and scarves. As I heard my name called and stepped up to the line, the dread of having to at shoot these pseudo-people sunk in through my Kevlar helmet and seeped down into my combat boots. These represented REAL people. I failed my first test, but passed the second as a qualified marksmen. Was that really a title I wanted attached to my name?
As trips to the range grew less frequent, I pushed my discomfort with weapons aside in favor of focusing on aspects of West Point I really liked, like physical training and my studies. My penchant for pleasing people, plus a pretty powerful proclivity for perfectionism made me an exemplary plebe (freshman). Of course there were things that irked me about the chain-of-command system and the general social attitude of the institution, but overall I was content with my restricted role as a first-year cadet, mechanically completing task after task, hungry for additional assignments to feed my over-achieving ego. But one rainy day, during a routine tactical training exercise on the range, reality stabbed me right in the gut and I remembered why I was so uneasy before.
I’m not writing to rehash the afternoon, but a general understanding of what transpired during this exercise is necessary to comprehend my subsequent reactions. My shooting partner and I committed a careless error in weapons safety before leaving the range. No accident or injury resulted from the error, but the POTENTIAL for such a consequence was certainly high. A freezing wave of realization hit me that afternoon — weapons serve no other purpose than to injure or kill. When a weapon has been used correctly, someone is bleeding somewhere.
When my commanding officer came into my barracks room later that night to talk to me about the mistake, I was so upset with myself and so shaken from the conclusion I had drawn, I couldn’t even speak to him. I just nodded and stared wide-eyed at the wall behind his head. When he told me he would make sure I didn’t get in trouble for anything, I finally looked him in the eye and gaped. “Sir, I deserve punishment,” I let out in a strangled yelp, my throat betraying my composed mask. He told me my record was impeccable and the mental anguish he could already see I was putting myself through was punishment enough. I nodded mutely and stood in respect upon his departure.
I robotically walked to the bathroom, ignoring my roommates’ Charlie-Brown teacher voices as I left the room, stripped in the locker room and stepped under one of four steaming spouts of the women’s communal shower. Turning my back to three other shower patrons, I cried for the first time in the four months since I had left home. The realization that I could have killed someone that afternoon leaked itself from my brain in silent streaks of salt water down my cheeks. I tried to rationalize this, saying that car drivers also almost kill people every day, only to discredit my own argument with the assertion that cars serve more purpose than to kill. A weapon’s main function is to wound its target. There are very few other outcomes when one pulls a trigger. I crawled under the blanket atop my crisply made bed-sheets and dwelled on these thoughts for the remainder of the weekend. I came to the conclusion that I refuse to be responsible for EVER intentionally ending the life of another human being.
This resolution did not immediately manifest itself as my decision to leave West Point — like I said before: there are plenty of positions available that are removed from the front lines of battle. But after months of brooding over the implications of remaining part of an institution that encourages such violence as a means of “winning hearts and minds” — the reason I had desired a military career in the first place — I decided I would find another route to help bring stability to areas where human rights are being violated widespread. I don’t have a concrete plan for how to do this and I’m not even really sure I know where I want to be in five years. But one thing I do know is I don’t want to kill.