Thriving in a military environment requires a value system that is very different from that of the civilian world. It requires that you give up a part of yourself. The process of reclaiming the lost pieces when reintegrating after service is one of profound confusion, anger, and grief. How can you focus if your mind constantly runs through the procedure for correcting a malfunction in an M16 rifle? How do you respond to folks who gush about how fashionable military uniforms are? How do you connect with those around you when you’re overcome with guilt at leaving friends behind, friends that continue to spend every day in harm’s way? How do you cope with the realization that these questions have no clean, simple answers? Military Issue is an installation that exists as an artifact of my own exploration of these and many other questions. It seeks to capture the fragmented nature of this unpacking process. It demands a long attention span and a willingness to confront discomfort and confusion, just as the reintegration journey does. It begs users to consider that service doesn’t end when a person takes off the uniform for the last time.
The inclusion of the ACE (Ask Care Escort, the Army’s suicide intervention program) card was a decision made late in the project. While working on it, I found the cards among several other objects (a SPC rank pin, a battle buddy card, and a US Army tape) in a small, easy-to-miss pocket (truth: the military loves putting pockets anywhere and everywhere they can) within one of my duffel bags. I already had six objects, but thought the card was a good way to explore the very real issue of soldier/veteran suicide in my project. The ACE cards took the place of an Army Physical Fitness Training (PFT) Uniform shirt, which had explored how PT is a highly ritualized, tightly controlled experience. The shirt itself is very large compared to the other objects, and the audio, while interesting, does not necessarily fit with the focus on reintegration the project has taken on.
There is a culture that very much resists speaking up if an individual has mental health issues in the military. This is not new information, but it bears repeating. It will bear repeating until change happens. In order to illustrate this, I used two audio tracks layered on top of each other. The first is from a video released by WikiLeaks showing a US Apache Helicopter strike. The second is a soldier who responded to this scene discussing what he saw, how it affected him, and how his leadership responded when he asked to speak to a mental health professional (spoiler: it’s bad).
There’s an additional issue here that I was not able to include. We can not brief problems away, and this seems to be a prime way for the Army to address problems. Here, have a SHARP brief. Here, have a mental health brief. Oh, look, here’s a Friday safety brief! These things don’t do anything to solve the problems they claim to. They become the butt of jokes, and their effectiveness is heavily dependent upon the leadership giving them. Even the best leader can only do so much in that format.
Of all the objects, the name tape (and the field towels, to an extent) have had the largest changes in audio content from start to finish. Initially, I used the name tape as a stand-in for the entire uniform and the concept of gear. The audio clip I had selected discussed the gear soldiers are issued specifically for deployments, along with the weight of these items. As I continued to work on the project, however, I realized that the name tape is a really strong symbol of identity, and identity itself is a really strange thing in the military. Playing with that, I found a psychiatrist talking about the ways in which the military experience can very rapidly change a person (not in the final project, but can be found here).
I quickly realized I wasn’t terribly happy with this audio, however. The way I see “military identity” is less about losing who you are to assume new values and more about being attracted to these values which are at the same time incredibly artificial and absolutely real. As much as I would like to pretend otherwise, the idea of being a part of something larger than myself, of having each moment infused with purpose, honor, duty, and strength, was a large part of my own decision to enlist. These values really do color each and every action you take, even while you understand deep down that these values are quite hollow.
Working with these thoughts, I decided to use the Soldier’s Creed as the audio to represent questions of identity. Said at least a million times by anyone who has served in the Army, the words encapsulate all the qualities that make up a “perfect soldier.” At the same time, in the process of reciting something over and over, the meaning is lost. It becomes a rote process that continues as experience reveals the meaning behind the words to be a fraud in many ways.
Taking it one step further, I started to explore how the Soldier’s Creed has been used in other contexts. Recruiting commercials are finely tuned to play up the values in the Creed and emotionally resonate with viewers. I found this one, then realized that an even more abstracted representation of it could elicit the same emotions and, in the context of the project and other audio, start to evoke the tension between this artificial identity you so desperately want and the one that reality pounds you into. In the end, I used the Army theme song used in all recruiting commercials without any additional voiceover or sound effect. My hope is that the emotion in the song will resonate, even to those who don’t recognize it as an Army recruiting tool.
Dog tags were the first objects I considered when first formulating what I wanted to do as a final project this semester. They are one of a few objects you carry with you everywhere, and always sit directly touching your skin. While they have come to be infused with many of the values discussed above, their purpose as a casualty identification tool allows them to confront users with the grimmer realities of military service. The audio I have had connected to them has always tried to do this.
The first clip I used was of Chris Hedges, a war correspondent, talking about some of the things he’s seen over the course of his career and how those images were never portrayed by the media realistically. Over time, I grew a bit annoyed by his method of delivery, which sounds very preachy, and the fact that he was a correspondent rather than a soldier. Since my project looks at the reintegration process for those in the military after service, I wanted the audio to reflect that more directly.
My next step was to make an audio clip that consisted of several sounds of combat layered on top of each other and to connect it to the dog tags. It didn’t work at all. It was so over-the-top violent that it made the entire project seem to be incredibly violent, and was a clumsy cut of sounds I had no personal frame of reference for understanding. I was also not comfortably putting something so obviously triggering in my project. This isn’t to say that the audio I selected can’t be in many ways more triggering for other reasons, but I couldn’t justify this in the five minute clip of mortar and machine gun fire.
Finally, I decided upon a story collected as part of StoryCorp’s Military Voices Initiative. It captures not only the ways in which death infuses military service, but also the guilt that comes with survival, and the ways in which those left behind often wish for death themselves. This clip, more than any of the others, requires listeners to linger on difficult topics that are openly acknowledged but rarely engaged with.
As with the name tape, I struggled to make sense of why I decided to include the field towels and what audio worked best with them. The obvious answer is that life is dirty and lacks luxury in the military, but that was never what I was interested in exploring with the towels.
The first audio clip I used was an interview conducted by Make the Connection with a woman who described how difficult it can be to connect with civilians after service. My intention was to use the towels in a very abstract way, to capture this futile effort of wiping yourself clean of a military bearing and outlook that has been drilled into you. Unfortunately, users unacquainted with the intensity and durability of this process were confused by the choice of this audio for the towels.
From there, I moved the clip of Chris Hedges that had been connected to dog tags to the wipes. It was a more literal connection to the towels to have someone talking about media sanitation of war, but it didn’t resonate with me as much as the older clip had.
The desire to reenlist is something I’ve been trying to process for some time. In talking to others I know and listening to the stories of those I have never met, I’ve realized this desire isn’t uncommon – even for those who experienced incredible trauma while serving. Putting it into words is nearly impossible, and even when this is attempted I’m not entirely sure this urge could ever make sense to someone who has never been in the military. It’s connected to the concept of brotherhood and camaraderie; not only do you miss the bonds that caused you to care more about others than yourself (if my battle buddy were to die, it would only be over my own dead body), but you miss the difficult experiences that caused these bonds to cement themselves so strongly in the first place. There is nothing comparable in the civilian world. Nothing. The moment when you realize you’ve lost this is one of intense grief. I found a very short portion of a piece by CBS where someone vocalized this concept incredibly well, and decided to use that in the final iteration of my project. The connection to the pack of towels may still be confusing, but it has to do with the dirty and difficult places you’ve been with your battle buddies and how you long for that in ways that aren’t entirely rational.
The enlistment contract is an interesting part of military service. I worked for more than a year from first visiting a recruiter to signing my final contract. It was a moment of intense happiness for me, yet the contract itself made me property of the government in a much deeper way than other employment contracts. I wanted to play with this tension by contrasting the contract itself with the sounds of basic training. It is at the moment you leave the bus during your first full day of training that the implications of your choice to enlist begin to be made clear. I wanted to confront users who have never been through training or looked at the contract before with this moment. It seemed fairly successful from the beginning, so I never changed the audio connected to the contract.
As with the contract, the audio I had connected with the boot were never changed throughout the course of the project. It has always been “Down By the River,” a cadence I remember marching to many times. It’s extreme violence is overshadowed for me by its catchiness and the nostalgia and longing to return it evokes in me, which is pretty terrifying to contemplate. Even without a personal history to evoke nostalgia, the hope is that users will be struck by the tension between its catchiness and its violence.