By DAVID GREEN
Who knows what Major Graham’s classmates were up to last summer. They were engaged in a variety of jobs, if they were fortunate to land one, or they just took a welcome break from the classroom routine.
Back home, kids were bagging groceries, baby-sitting, baling hay and working in factories.
Down at Fort Benning, Ga., Graham was lobbing hand grenades and firing an M-16 rifle. Marching, doing pushups, studying weaponry—in all, learning to be a soldier.
His summer vacation followed his decision to enlist in the National Guard’s Split-Option program. Complete basic training in the summer between the junior and senior year of high school, then head back home to finish the final year of school.
After graduation next spring, he’ll be back in uniform to fulfill an eight-year commitment. In Graham’s mind, eight years is just the beginning. He’ll become a career man in the U.S. Army.
“Ever since I was in elementary school I wanted to be in the military,” Graham said. “I went back and forth between the Army and the Marines and finally decided to go with the Army.”
His interest in the military stems from his father’s career.
“I’m doing this for myself and for my dad,” he said.
His father, Morris Graham, was a sergeant first class with a 25-year military career. He died in a traffic accident when Graham was two years old.
Many recruits dread the long weeks of basic training. For Graham, it was more like a dream come true.
Don’t let anyone tell you that basics through the National Guard is somehow easier than in the Army, Graham says.
“It’s the real Army,” he said, with actual Army drill sergeants.
Many days were spent wearing the full “battle rattle”: the digital camouflage uniform with chest plate, a rucksack with about 60 pounds of gear, helmet and automatic weapon.
The temperature and humidity of Fort Benning proved a challenge—step outside, he says and it slaps you in the face—but Graham came through with the best physical fitness test score in his platoon—just one point short of a perfect 300.
His 81 pushups in two minutes were good, as were the 78 sit-ups. It was his 13:02 time in the two-mile run where he fell a little short.
Graham is pleased that he was chosen the honor graduate from his platoon, but he isn’t about to rest on those laurels.
“Now that I know I can do that well,” he said, “I know I can do even better.”
Looking back at the nearly three-month program, it’s easy for Graham to name his favorite part: Firing Week.
He handled the M240 Bravo machine gun, the M203 and Mark 19 grenade launchers, a 50 cal. machine gun and the AT4 anti-tank rocket launcher. He also threw a couple of grenades.
“That was a little crazy,” he said.
Several new soldiers around him were throwing grenades, with each depending on the others to carry through the exercise safely.
First aid training included practice giving an IV.
“Some weren’t doing it right and blood would shoot out like in a horror movie,” he said.
Graham says it’s a little tough being back in Morenci and back in the classroom. He misses the action and camaraderie of the base.
When high school is over, he’ll report for Advanced Individual Training (AIT) for infantry work. After that, he would like to attend airborne school and go active with the Army. After he completes a couple of tours overseas, he might try for Ranger school.
“I’m going to go as far as I can go, so why not aim for that?” Graham said. “I plan to stay in as long as I can and make a career out of it.”
Graham will receive half of his $20,000 signing bonus after AIT and the remainder after three years. He says that was an incentive to join the Guard, but he was also impressed with the variety of career options.
Graham has the full support of his mother, and his sister, Annie, is already a specialist in the Guard.
“It’s just something in our family,” he said. “We’re good at it.”
Graham says he’s glad he made the choice to sign up. Anyone who’s thinking of doing the same shouldn’t hesitate.
Classmates ask if he’s sure he wants to end up in Iraq or Afghanistan. Isn’t he afraid of getting blown up?
“A soldier is what I want to be,” he answers. “If I die doing it, at least I’m doing what I love.”