In July 2001, when I first walked through the gate of the US Military Academy at West Point at the ripe young age of 17, the "combat patch" on one's right shoulder - evidence of a deployment with a specific unit - had more resonance than colorful medals like Ranger badges reflecting specific skills. Back then, before the 9/11 attacks ushered in a series of revenge wars "on terror," the vast majority of officers stationed at West Point didn't boast a right shoulder patch. Those who did were mostly veterans of modest combat in the first Gulf War of 1990–91. Nonetheless, even those officers were regarded by the likes of me as gods. After all, they'd seen "the elephant."
We young cadets arrived then with far different expectations about Army life and our futures, ones that would prove incompatible with the realities of military service in a post-9/11 world. When my mother—as was mandatory for a 17-year-old—put her signature on my future Army career, I imagined a life of fancy uniforms; tough masculine training; and maybe, at worst, some photo opportunities during a safe, "peace-keeping" deployment in a place like Kosovo.