In October 2012, I was an international college student facing deportation for failing two classes. I was 22 years old, living in my parents’ loft, aimless in academics, and frustrated in competitive Brazilian-Jiu jitsu. When the U.S. Army advertised through the Los Angeles Times that they needed Filipinos who spoke the Tagalog language, I felt like Uncle Sam was calling me personally. I had watched HBO’s “Band of Brothers” and testimonies of military valor, and the unifying theme was that soldiers had heard “the call.” I was convinced that now, I was hearing mine, though I didn’t know if I had it in me to answer. To find out, I went down to the Army recruiting station in Tarzana, California. Three weeks later, I signed on.
I first shared the news with my father. He had not been a part of my life when I was growing up in the Philippines. He had left our household when I was five years old to work in the Arab Emirates. He only visited my mother and me twice a year, for two weeks at a time, and it was usually when I was in school, so I didn’t see him much. His visits would always begin with a little celebration that was inevitably followed by days of strict discipline. If, for example, he told me to come home from playing outside by six o’clock, and I came in 15 minutes late, or if I was tinkering with my phone and didn’t stop when he asked me to, because I was absorbed, he would yell, and then hit me with a belt. We grew distant, and as I got older and learned to talk and physically fight back, he would get emotional, to make me get emotional. He’d call attention to how much he had sacrificed for the well-being of the family, to coerce me to stand down. Needless to say, I was excited to tell him I was enlisting. I would be freed from all the drama.
The news made my mother nervous and agitated. She and I had started the pursuit of the American dream together. We had moved to Florida when I was 14. It was a harsh and dreadful experience. We lived with two other families, and my mother became a high-school teacher. The students mocked her accent, put her down, and made her feel like an outsider. I, on the other hand, was hanging out with my new friends, smoking pot, and acting like an American. So, in the beginning, we didn’t start as good partners, but we eventually got it to work. However, when my father permanently joined us in the United States, I became the third wheel in a volatile immigrant household, and my position as the reliable man in the family mattered less. The partnership that my mother and I cultivated to survive America for eight years had come to its end.
The night before the plane ride to basic training in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, I and the other recruits stayed in a Sheraton Hotel, where we were fed a feast of steak and pasta. As I ate, I observed the joyous faces of the other recruits, and I saw their grinning parents, who seemed so proud of their children’s decision to join an all-volunteer military. I was happy, too, not because I had made a noble decision, but because I could create myself. The Army would be my eraser. If I worked hard enough, I would be able to scrub off my identity as an immigrant, and with it, my failures and frustrations. Then, I could write myself anew.
Gio Caballero was a U.S. Army Sergeant from 2013-2017. He is graduating from UCSB with a major in biology.
This Voice was originally submitted in 2019, and the link was re-posted in 2021.