Just about every veteran who served during the past twenty years has heard about the infamous stress cards. For those that are unaware of this progressive construct, let me enlighten you. These cards were supposedly handed out in basic training so that when the drill sergeant made the newly inducted private feel too stressed they could hold up this card and get a twenty-minute time out. I say supposedly because during my career I never could find a firsthand account of any soldier who was actually issued one. I was, however, a firsthand witness to a stress card being handed out to an officer trainee.
I was a prior enlisted, non-commissioned officer who had applied for and received a ROTC scholarship. As a ROTC cadet, I was required to attend Advance Camp between my junior and senior year in college. Back in 2000, advance camp was a combination of Basic Training and Romper Room. The cadets were housed in the typical World War II era barracks where everyone sleeps in a long open bay, on bunk beds, separated by wall lockers. Within a couple days we had more or less separated ourselves into two distinct groups: prior service and civilian college students. Those of us who were prior service were well versed in the expectations and regimen of camp. Get up in the morning, shave, conduct physical training, shower, then a quick GI party where we would spot mop / buff the barracks floor. There was a fairly constant battle between the two cliques for things that the prior service guys thought were common sense; such as not walking through the barracks in boots and messing up the buffed floor.
I was aware that there would be a learning curve for the non-prior service cadets to figure out how to “play army” but I was completely ill prepared for what happened about halfway through camp. Our current leadership decided they wanted all the cadets in our company to hang their towels on the side of the bunks in a pseudo uniform fashion (pseudo because each person had a different size / color towel). However, one of the cadets there did not seem to have a towel to hang; which begs the question of how was he drying himself off after the shower? The rest of the company headed outside to get into formation while he sat in barracks for several minutes perseverating about how to correct this conundrum. At this point, not only does he not have a towel hanging, but he was also late for formation. He finally bursts from the barracks shouting into the air how he couldn’t handle the stress and he was done with camp and its stupid rules. Interwoven into this was the standard myriad of expletives that one would expect from such an outburst. As a former noncommissioned officer watching this all occur, there was no doubt that this young man would be sent home immediately. How could he lead soldiers; he couldn’t even handle the stress from not having a towel?
To my great distress, he was back in training within hours. He had been issued, by our cadre, a half sheet of paper which stated that if he felt too anxious he could walk away and have a “safe place” to reframe his thoughts and collect himself. At the end of the month he graduated from the course with the rest of us. Worse than that however, was when I saw him several years later as a military intelligence officer while at the National Training Center in California, he had been promoted to captain and had troops under his direction.
This, to me, signified a changing of the culture in our military; the advent of the progressive socialization of our armed forces. I do not hold anything against this young man personally. He simply lacked that hard edge required to truly survive the culture of the military. It is a culture forged from generations of blood spilled from friend and foe alike. From having to learn to live with your first kill, write your first letter home to a next of kin or watch as a friend, who was supposed to wish his daughter a happy birthday after patrol that day, gets killed in front of you. It is a culture for those imbued with the warrior spirit, and that is not something found in everyone. Is it somewhat harsh for me to judge him lacking or not wanting to give him a second chance at proving himself? No, not at all. Not when one considers his lack of mental and emotional toughness could be solely and directly responsible for the deaths of numerous of our military men and women.
As I pondered this memory, I couldn’t help but draw the correlation to safe spaces popping up throughout the supposed institutions of higher learning.