When I read YA novels, like many of us, I harken back to my high school years and all of the struggles and tribulations that that period of my life entailed. Figuring out dating, working my first job, and trying to define me as a person. It’s a critical period in many people’s lives. One of the biggest decisions I made during that period was deciding to enlist in the Reserves for the United States Marines. The anxiety and pressures that led me to this decision are things that other writers have touched on with their characters, but the military option is rarely addressed. On average, 150,000 people enlist each year with 18-21 being the main age range. The option of enlistment is one many people take but the story is rarely told in YA. If you google a YA story about enlistment, the first book to come up is Soldier’s Heart, a novel about a 15-year-old leaving for the civil war. Like many military-based books, the wide-eyed protagonist is excited to join, but the period before enlistment is rushed through and the action of service starts. These books make the military seem like the only option or ambition for these characters. In my experience, this is not the case.
One of the biggest motivating factors for my decision was the financial incentives that the military provided for college. College is expensive, and countless books, shows, and movies have dealt with people doing wild things to get scholarships or money to pay for the experience. While these options were there, they didn’t seem that realistic to me. I got good grades but never exceptional ones to the point where I thought I would stand out. I had some club and sports experience, but I felt like I was just average, maybe a little above at best. This mindset made me feel like the cost of requesting transcripts and application fees for colleges would be a waste of money. High school also didn’t have a lot of positive memories for me. The thought of moving on with the same group of people into a community college or my local state school wasn’t appealing. So, the military seemed like an attractive option at the time. I feel like these sentiments are not unique to me as a person. I know they weren’t because through military function in the DEP (Delayed Entry Program), I met guys and girls who felt the same and enlisted for similar reasons.
Enlisting gave me unique experiences that deviated my story from the traditional YA narrative of high school then college. When I wasn’t in sports every Wednesday, I was working out with the recruiters, and the second Saturday of every month, they had us taking physical fitness tests to make sure we were in shape for Recruit Training. When everyone else was filling out college applications, I was filling up a backpack and going hiking. As the semester got closer, I missed class to go to MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station). I remember these conflicting feelings of dread and excitement whirling through me, knowing I was about to embark on this journey. This was an endeavor that defined my high school experience.
As my enlistment date got closer, I started doing everything I could to feel the freedom I was about to lose. I did night hikes so I could watch the sunrise on a mountain, learned how to pole dance for exercise, and went Salsa dancing in offbeat second story studios. I felt this imminent pressure to get everything done. Everyone has their own opinion of the military; mine is riddled with both positive and negative experiences. The financial pressure in YA is traditionally solved with a scholarship or with some kind of found money. Even if the military isn’t the solution, there is such a focus on college or nothing, which is not the reality. I had friends in similar positions go to a trade school or stay in retail and foodservice jobs and work their way up. I hope that these stories get told because they are the reality for many kids in America today.
PRR Writer, Jon Kresal