Why I Left the Military to Walk Across America

The following is an excerpt from Rory Fanning's new book Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America (Haymarket Books, 2014). Reprinted here with permission.


CHICAGO O’HARE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

September 17, 2008

“What can I throw out?”
My new blue Deuter backpack was placed on a large stainless steel scale at the check-in counter at O’Hare Airport. The scale flashed: forty-nine pounds. I knew it would be close—if your bag weighs more than fifty pounds, they hit you for another fifty dollars. In addition to nearly every song Woody Guthrie ever recorded, it held my house, bed, clothes, and a few other necessities for the next nine months. I was leaving Chicago with as little as possible to walk across the country for Pat Tillman, a man with whom I’d had perhaps a dozen conversations. The whole thing felt strange, new, and exhilarating.

On the plane, time slipped away like a handful of ocean water. I’d quit my job at the bank the week before, less than a month before the stock-market crash that kicked off what came to be known as the Great Recession. The wheels bounced to the ground. My pack and I were in a hazy and humid Norfolk, Virginia.

Virginia

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA | Mile 0

Population 437,994 | Est. 1906

For exile hath more terror in his look, much more than death: do not say “banishment.”

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

A cab pulled to the curb of the terminal. I hopped in and said, “Take me to the ocean.”

“The ocean is a big place. Where specifically?” the driver replied.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m on a budget, so take the fastest route.”

He shrugged and started driving. I rolled down the window to let the late-summer wind erase my uneasy thoughts.

Mike Gooding, a reporter from Norfolk’s ABC affiliate, met me a few feet from the water on Virginia Beach to ask me about my walk and the Pat Tillman Foundation. The foundation thought my plan was interesting and worth supporting, but I sensed an apprehension in their endorsement. They were and are rightly protective of Pat Tillman’s name. I could understand why they didn’t want people co-opting Pat’s life for self-interested reasons, as so many others have done.

Gooding asked why I was walking across the country. I felt like a ventriloquist was forcing me to respond. “I want to raise $3.6 million for the Pat Tillman Foundation—the contract Pat Tillman, the former NFL star turned down to join the military. . . This country needs more people to make decisions like Pat’s . . .” I stumbled.

A more thorough answer would have gone something like this:

Four years before, I had been in purgatory with the US military—the Second Army Ranger Battalion. After two deployments to Afghanistan, I had become one of the first Rangers, if not the first Ranger, to formally reject my unit’s orders to Iraq and Afghanistan. I was a conscientious objector. For six months, while they figured out what to do with me, I painted curbs yellow, scrubbed grills, baked cake, cut grass, washed dishes, and absorbed the ridicule of my chain of command. I did my best to numb myself and saw the world as if looking out of binoculars through the wrong end—everything felt small and distant.

Occasionally I’d see a demeaning smirk or hear “Pussy!” in the chow hall as I served my former comrades. Sometimes I became lost in their ideas of what it meant to be a man: I would drop my eyes and they’d feel stronger. At quieter moments, I lay in the dark on a sheetless mattress with an old sweatshirt as my pillow and wondered which of them could do what I was doing.

Rejecting the mission of a Ranger was like rejecting your brother. Rangers stick together. They do not question authority. Those who do are outcasts. In the Rangers’ world, there are two types of men: Rangers and civilians. Rangers are courageous, honorable, strong, and determined. Civilians are cowardly, undisciplined, and weak. I now fell into the civilian category. This made it hard to trust my decision.

I hopped on a plane for Chicago and went AWOL after six months of punishment detail to force a hand on my case—and to see a woman I’d been talking to. I returned after five days and a heated phone conversation with the sergeant major. “Get your motherfucking ass back here—now!” he screamed. Forcing a confident tone, I said, from a busy street corner in Chicago, “You don’t get to tell me what to do anymore. If I come back it’s because I want to, not because of anything you say.” No one spoke to the sergeant major that way.

When I returned to the battalion on the morning of April 21, I was immediately arrested. Getting arrested for wanting to quit your job felt like a joke—a joke that scared the shit out of me. I walked into my squad’s common area, where on many nights we participated in after-action reports and talked about how best to engage the enemy. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The walls were cinder-block. Green military bags and equipment were crammed into corners. The arresting sergeant was my squad leader. He stood before me along with a few other sergeants, all of them dressed in full fatigues. They read me my military rights: “You have a right to an attorney . . . anything you say can be used against you. . . You are now confined to the room until further notice.” Then they left me alone for about six hours. A Groucho Marx quote ran through my head: “Military justice is to justice as military music is to music.” I expected the worst.

The sun set and the room became dark. A young sergeant eventually came back. “What the hell are you sitting in the dark for?” He flipped on the fluorescent lights. He was told to tell me that I could go back to my room but couldn’t leave the building. I would soon be sent to jail or the “big army” shortly.

The “big army” is a term used for any infantry military assignment outside of the Special Forces—of which the Rangers are part. If you were a member of the big army you were more expendable because you had less training and could be readily replaced. You were what the Rangers would call a “bullet stopper.” To the high-ranking brass, soldiers are no different than Humvees, infrared goggles, or any other piece of expensive military equipment—but the more training you receive, the more money you’re worth, and no one wants to be accountable for the loss of an expensive piece of equipment.

So the big army seemed like a death sentence—but in some ways death felt comparable to jail.

They said my true story would leave me forever banished from the good graces of future employers. They said I’d be banished in a country I had once adored. They said I’d be shunned by my family and friends.

The next morning, I was called to a formation. “Pat Tillman was killed last night in an enemy ambush in southwest Afghanistan,” said the sergeant in charge of the “rear detachment”—those who were injured, on their way out of the military, or in trouble. “He died a hero, doing what he was trained to do.” My stomach dropped and tears welled in my eyes. Pat was larger than life. It made no sense. A dark cloud settled over the battalion. I sat in my room, staring out the window, wanting to talk to others about the terrible and surreal news. I was ostracized, so I couldn’t.

Six days later, on my birthday, my discharge papers were signed. It would have happened three days sooner, but I pushed back against the chain of command’s attempt to issue a dishonorable discharge. There are three discharge statuses in the military: honorable, general, and dishonorable. I told the commanding officer, “I’ll stay and fight a dishonorable discharge. I’ve already spoken to the Inspector General’s office. They know protocol was not followed in the handling of my case.” They gave in after only a little harassment. It was clear they just wanted to get rid of me. There would be no big army, no jail, no punishment, no big discussion— save the humiliation I would endure the rest of my life for abandoning my Ranger buddies, at least according to the parting comments of my company commander from West Point. They made me sign a paper saying that the Ranger Battalion had followed protocol in the handling of my case.

But I didn’t say any of that to Mike Gooding. I didn’t know yet why I had to walk—not really.

I left the ocean at 2:30 in the afternoon. It didn’t feel like I had permission to be doing what I was doing—who from, I don’t know. The bank? The military? My family? The expansive view from the plane was etched in my brain—I was on an Earth-sized hamster wheel. Highway 4, leading west away from the ocean, cut through a dense pine forest. It was with a detached energy that I took those first steps, the weight of my pack dragging on me. I was not in my body, or so it seemed.

The only thing I can remember thinking about while walking that day was my girlfriend Kate. We had been living together. I was sure she would leave me. Who would stick with someone who said he had to walk across the country before getting married? My walk would take only a little less time than my first tour to Afghanistan: nine months. I pretended it wouldn’t take that long. The Google Maps walking directions said three months.

It took me a few years to tell Kate about my time in the military. Despite that, when the military came up, she had a graceful touch. She always knew when to change the topic or ask the next right question.

I asked her how she felt about the walk. She said, “I can wait three months.”

She let me keep my things in the apartment. I told her I would call her every day.

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