By Sgt. Von Marie Donato
U.S. Army Central
As a child, I was so proud my father was a Soldier. I knew one day I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to shine those boots and wear that uniform. I was attracted to the discipline and strength it took to do his job -- from early morning runs to month’s away training in the wet jungles of Central America. I remember his stories of being at the Jungle Operations Training Center at Ft. Sherman, Panama, surviving the intense conditions of the impenetrable tropical forest. He used to say the view from the chopper during his air-to-ground assaults reminded him of broccoli heads. He described the night as so dark you couldn’t even see your own hand an inch from your face. Whether in Berlin, Germany, or Fort Riley, Kansas, I was amazed at how many miles he could run in the snow. With time, I learned he was a man of selfless service, courage and honor.
Growing up in a military family, I had the fortune of starting school in Europe, learning the foundation of three languages by the time I was 5. I witnessed the heights of the Eiffel tower, experienced German culture, enjoyed weekends at Disneyland Paris, and was part of history when my family and I watched the strict communist rule of the German Democratic Republic topple with the Berlin Wall. I was too young to understand what this meant when it happened, but today, my personal piece of the graffiti-painted rock reminds me of the importance of democracy. These experiences and memories that shaped who I am today could not have been possible without the U.S. Army.
It’s remarkable that just a few decades later, the Army would send me on official military orders to share my story with others in the very town where I graduated high school in Orlando, Florida.
But my joining the military would not happen for some time to come. I was only a high school freshman when my father and supportive mother faced the uncertainty that came with the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Now a country at war, my parents quickly said no when I expressed my desire to join the U.S. Army Junior Reserves Officers’ Training Corps. After all, how many parents would knowingly endorse their young daughter volunteering for war? Not many, I suppose.
If I was advising parents today, I would tell them to take the time to think instead about what their child could gain, not lose, from serving in the U.S. military. We live in a world full of opportunities, but only one percent of our nation has lived and felt the true privilege that comes from serving our country. Partaking in history, leaving legacies, and serving in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, words can’t begin to express the pride and courage that have grown within me. Not to mention the endless list of educational investments, benefits and cost-saving programs offered to those who volunteer.
Unwilling to go against my parents’ wishes, I decided not to consider the military. I moved forward, graduated from Full Sail University with a bachelor’s degree in Film and TV Production, and fulfilled my dream of becoming a full-time stage actress at a professional production theatre. Years later, my desire to serve my country still lingered.
After my parents waved their flag of truce, I finally joined the Army as a public affairs specialist – a specialty that would still allow me the opportunity to use my creativity. I shipped off to Army Basic Combat Training the day after my 28th birthday. My first assignment at Fort Bliss, Texas, led to a deployment to Iraq and my promotion to the NCO ranks. Just a few months after my return from Iraq, the Army moved me to Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., for my current assignment with U.S. Army Central, which traces its lineage back 100 years to “Patton’s Own” Third Army. Soon after my arrival here, I was selected to fulfill a mission for the United States Recruiting Command as part of the Special Recruiter Assistance Program. I was thrilled. SRAP allowed select Soldiers to return to their hometown recruiting office for 30 days to promote Army awareness in their community and support the “Every Soldier is a Recruiter” initiative.
Participating in this mission, only months after my return from Iraq, was perfect timing. Not only was I able to see my husband, family and friends for a month, I was also able to tell my “war stories” just like the Soldiers of my dad’s generation did when I was a kid.
I served in the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command headquarters in Iraq with Soldiers from over 20 countries. I studied a new language and went on life-changing missions. I was the photographer and social media manager for the commanding general and the joint headquarters, plus I managed all digital imagery and articles produced in Iraq. I led workshops to teach the principles of military photography and media operations to Iraqi security forces and local media, and my photographs at Iraq’s Ministry of Interior Police Female Training Institute recognized the sacrifices and challenges of the women policing Iraq.
I was just as honored to photograph Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, during her visit with British soldiers. I witnessed and photographed a wreath laying ceremony at Iraq’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I shook hands with actor Gary Sinise and U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley during a United Service Organization entertainment tour to promote morale, and I was even invited to join a small group of Soldiers for dinner with Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey as he engaged in genuine conversations about leader development initiatives and any topics the Soldiers wanted to discuss.
While all of this may sound boastful, I’m actually in awe of the experiences the Army has afforded me. On top of all this, I also left Iraq with the realization I walked on, lived in and breathed the air of the historical region of Mesopotamia that I had studied my whole life. An area where the world’s earliest civilizations were developed. I departed Iraq with newfound wisdom, exposure to a different culture and an experience I couldn’t have attained anywhere else. That experience could not be bought. It had to be willingly and selflessly served and is reserved for a select few.
So there I was, anxiously awaiting to arrive to my new place of duty for 30 days. I promptly reported to the Kissimmee Recruiting Office in Florida which operates under the Tampa Recruiting Battalion, 2nd Recruiting Brigade for USAREC. This is the same office I was recruited out of just four and a half years ago. It was surreal to realize how much my life had changed since then and how many missions were now part of my history book, but this mission was the cherry on top.
Participating in SRAP afforded me the opportunity to talk to dozens of young people about my Army story, the impact it’s had on my life and how they too can be part of the “hero’s club.” I was able to visit community colleges, radio stations, local businesses and community events to reach as many young citizens as I could. I was even able to use my skills as a public affairs Soldier to help the recruiting office develop additional tools for their social media pages to help inform potential recruits of the opportunities awaiting them in the Army.
During this mission, I also attended a family convention and expo that brought together thousands of families from across the nation. The U.S. Army booth was full of military giveaways and a fitness competition that kept the crowd fully engaged. Our booth was overflowing with young adults eager to hear about the Army opportunity. I couldn’t have felt more fulfilled sharing something with them that I knew could not only change their lives forever but could also impact our nation and future generations to come.
I would definitely encourage other Soldiers to participate in SRAP. It brings you back to the beginning of your military journey, provides the opportunity to return the favor and help others who are in the same position you were once in, anxious to learn more about our volunteer force. It also gives you a real and raw look into the recruiting mission and the life of being a military recruiter. If you ask me, they have one of the coolest jobs in the Army, aside from public affairs of course.
SRAP also educated me on all the ways you can join the service that completely cater to your personal career goals. Whether you are interested in becoming a lawyer, doctor, nurse, dentist or chaplain, there are several different avenues in which you can join the service. What’s better than fulfilling your professional goals and serving your country at the same time? It’s a win-win.
On the other hand, if you are not sure what career specialty you desire, you can simply see a recruiter and enlist in the Army and climb the ladder through the ranks of the non-commissioned officer corps. But if getting a degree first is more important and you have desires to work in upper-level management earlier in your military career, you can commission as an officer through joining the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the university you attend. Once you graduate with your four-year degree you can commission as an officer and your military career begins. Then, even after you have joined the Army, if you have had a change of heart there are programs to transfer from an NCO to a commissioned officer. We even have a warrant officer corps that is available to transfer into once you have gained proficiency in a specialty.
No matter which option you choose you will receive assistance with your educational aspirations as well. And if commitment is the concern, know that you can join the Army for as little as three years or decide to make it career and stay the course. The options are endless.
The SRAP program reinforces the U.S. Army’s commitment to excellence by executing recruiting efforts through new and modern approaches, allowing young Soldiers to get away from their everyday day training cycles to share with others how their lives have changed for the better and their journeys of the road less traveled. Most importantly, this program helps secure the future of the Army in growing its biggest resource – the people who serve.
I would encourage any motivated citizen who has interests in joining the service to meet with their local recruiter. Get your questions answered and start living the life you were created to live.
U.S. ARMY RESERVE
DEPT. OF DEFENSE
U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND
DEPT. OF HOMELAND SECURITY
BEST WARRIOR COMPETITION