Smile Politely

A story of quitting the U.S. Army

In 2002, Wilson F. Lowery — the penname of a Champaign-Urbana-based writer — enlisted in the U.S. Army. Soon after, he realized he had made a mistake and tried everything from disobedience to faking a suicide to get out. Lowery, who uses a penname to protect his identity, has recently published a memoir on Bastei Lübbe AG press about his experiences.

We spoke with him about his time in the Army, how he got out, and what it was like to write about this part of his life.


Smile Politely: Your memoir is about what it was like to get out of Army service. Why did you decide to enlist in the first place?

William Lowery: Enlisting was a complicated decision. This was in 2002, and I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. As a senior in college, I had seen the towers get whacked in 9/11. I had sense of frustration and anger about what had happened. And in college at the University of Illinois, I was partying too much. My life was out of focus. My father was a Vietnam veteran, so the military was always in the back of my mind, and after college I started thinking about it more seriously. I was vaguely interested in kind of intelligence work. It wasn’t until I went in and spoke with a recruiter in Champaign that I started thinking about the Special Forces. He told me that a career in the Special Forces could lead to a career in the FBI or the CIA. Plus, there was an incredible financial incentive.

They push you to make the decision to enlist right away. They don’t want you to think about it too much or talk it over with family and friends. Basically, they got me to enlist immediately. I thought it was a way to get my life on track. But looking back on it, that’s not a reason to join.

SP: Can you say more about what it was like to be recruited at that time in Champaign-Urbana?

Lowery: There were always some recruiters on campus, especially that year, because they were ramping up for a war. It hadn’t been determined yet where we were going. Everyone was envisioning Afghanistan, not Iraq. In college, I had thought about doing ROTC. They had a large presence on campus; you would see them quite a bit. I was back and forth between Champaign and Chicago at the time. I would see ads on TV about sign-on bonuses. But on campus, I don’t remember a huge presence of recruiters.

SP: What was the first thing that made you regret your decision to enlist?

Lowery: When I was in Indianapolis at the processing station, I learned I was going to Fort Benning near Atlanta. Someone made the comment that I was going to be front-line infantry. I started worrying then. And when I arrived, it hit me that I was going to be locked in. There is a waiting period, which is kind of like indoctrination. You get your hair shaved off and all kinds of shots. You have no idea what to expect next. You have time to think, and that’s when I started to wonder if I had made the wrong decision.

After waiting five or six days, we got started with “hell week,” the most intense part of basic training. That first day there was so much physical exhaustion, pain, and suffering. I started getting scared, so I refused to keep training. All day, dozens of drill sergeants had been yelling and cussing at us, saying everything you can imagine. There were tons of push-ups, sit-ups, and other random exercises that were painful and exhausting. Finally, towards the start of the evening, they had us open up our bags to inventory our gear. I refused to open my bag. Since I had refused, I had to sit and wait while everyone else continued to do exercises. They got to go dinner; I didn’t. Around 8 p.m., the captain got my parents on the phone, and after talking to them, I decided I needed to give training another shot.

SP: What was the phone call like?

Lowery: I think the captain called my parents before he got me in the room. I was outside the room getting harassed and threatened by drill sergeants. My mom was on the phone, and she said that my dad refused to talk to me. She said, “If you quit and are court martialed, we won’t let you in the house. You are dead to us.” I don’t know if that was scripted or not. But I was 22 years old, so that had a big impact on me. I decided to give training another shot. The captain said we could put the whole thing behind us and I could keep training.

I trained as hard as I could for the next five weeks. A friend and I would put extra weights in our backpack and run when we didn’t need to run. But when we started focusing on marksmanship and rifle training, I started thinking about how I might have to take a human life. I started thinking, “could I do that?” It didn’t set in that I didn’t want to kill someone until I started practicing shooting targets. I thought, “What if I’m in Afghanistan and shoot someone and he has pictures of his family in his wallet?” That’s when I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to be in a position where I kill another human being.

After that training session, I told an officer that I refused to train because I refuse to kill anyone. His exact words were, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Get out of my fucking office right now.” I went back to my bunk and sat there waiting.

SP: What happened next?

Lowery: It was pretty horrible. The captain told me I would be kept in limbo as long as possible at Fort Benning. I was threatened with court martial. I was told that even if I wasn’t going to train, I was going to work to earn my pay. I was called all kinds of names. He was yelling at me for a long time. The only thing that saved me was that as he was yelling at me, I noticed he had these three long nose-hairs hanging off his nose. I looked at them and laughed on the inside.

SP: What was the work like during the time you were “in limbo”?

Lowery: I did all kinds of things. Some of the tasks were pointless, like moving equipment into the kitchen and back out again, until 11 or 12 at night. I was woken up at 3 or 4 in the morning and told to stand in the rain. This was around Christmas time. It doesn’t get super cold in Atlanta, but it was still miserable. I was barely getting any sleep. I thought about going AWOL to get away.

SP: But instead you decided to fake a suicide attempt. How did you decide to do that?

Lowery: A kid I made friends with could tell how sleep deprived I was. I was looking out at the train tacks and thinking about making a run for it. He told me that if I wanted to get out, I should take a bunch of pills on purpose to give the impression that I wanted to commit suicide. He had done that before; he had been discharged medically and had to wait three years to reenlist. He had been scared. He hadn’t wanted to be full-time military. When he reenlisted, he signed up for the National Guard because didn’t think he’d have to serve overseas. Little did he know what was about to happen.

They can’t keep you if you’re medically discharged for psychiatric reasons. So I got some aspirin from someone and took 20 or so pills. I told people I was thinking about killing myself. Someone told the drill sergeant, and he hade me taken to an emergency room.

I didn’t know how much damage it was going to do to my stomach. They had to pump my stomach, and all the while Army rangers were telling me how much of a fuck-up I was. I thought I’d get to stay in the hospital, but at 3 in the morning, they took me back to the barracks. When I got there, everyone was awake and looking at me. The sergeant threw my mattress in the middle of the floor and assigned five people on suicide watch. Before he left, he said that I was responsible for them being on suicide watch. He implied that they could do whatever they want to me. But fortunately I was protected.

When I saw the psychiatrist, I think she knew I was bullshitting. I still had to go to all the drills, but people treated me with respect; no one gave me a hard time. Some people thought I was really troubled. Later, I found out that I probably would have gone to Iraq if I had stayed in training.

A few weeks Christmas, they told me to inventory your gear, and then I was sent to a processing station to get processed out. There were all kinds of normal things like pizza and movies, and also a ton of paperwork. I got a general discharge. It says I was in the military, but I don’t have veteran status.

SP: Why do you think they decided to discharge you?

Lowery: I think they realized it was a waste of money. It was taking a lot of resources to keep me there. And they had used me as an example for long enough. After we got back from Christmas break, tons of people were going AWOL. Some had done drugs while they were home to get dishonorably discharged. People were getting arrested left and right. So lots of us were getting processed out.

SP: Do you think any part of your suicide attempt was real?

Lowery: I was definitely intentionally faking the attempt, but at the same time I realized that if nothing else worked, suicide might be another way out. I knew one kid who was so miserable that he ran his head into a wall. I was completely miserable. So I don’t know.

I don’t want to portray myself as a victim. I took an oath, signed a contract, and I didn’t follow through. The consequences that I faced were because of a bad decision. The fact is that I didn’t follow through when lots of other people followed through. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. Looking back on it, I should have never made the decision to join the Army.

SP: What do you think now about the military?

Lowery: I think there are some people who know they want to do it. They often have a military background in their families. But then there are kids who are lost; they get approached by recruiters and convinced that this is what they should do, and they are promised a lot of money. Some kids get convinced to make this decision to have this job, and it’s one where you might have to blow someone’s head off.

The crappy thing about this world is that we think war is necessary. And people in positions of extreme power send people who are poor and uneducated off to fight those wars. Especially looking back on Iraq, I think, “What did we get out of that?”

SP: What was it like to be back?

Lowery: When I got back, I got into coke and drank heavily. I went to rehab; after I was sober for over a year, I decided I needed to write about my experiences.

And my relationship with my parents changed, my dad especially. When I first got out, I didn’t have a good relationship with him. When I was growing up, I remember him being a person with PTSD who drank heavily and took his frustration out on us, physically and verbally. When I got out, years went by, and I didn’t know if I was going to have a relationship with him ever again. But one Christmas, when he was living alone and divorced from my mom, he had a breakdown and said how sorry he was. It was a devastating but amazing conversation. After that, we became friends. Once, when we were at Memorial Stadium and heard the national anthem, I told him I’m sorry for what I did. He said he loved me and that he was glad I didn’t have to go over there. I would replay that moment a thousand times over if I could.

SP: What was it like to write a memoir about your experiences?

Lowery: It was a way of finding closure about that experience. But I do want to write more. I would like to continue writing other narrative nonfiction. I would love to get to the point where I feel confident as a writer. This memoir is litmus test to see if I should continue doing it.

You can find Wilson F. Lowery’s book, Far from a Soldier: How I Signed up for the U.S. Army to Save My Life and It Almost Killed Me, on Amazon.

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