Benefits of a Military Past in an Archaeological Career?

For almost eight years, my life belonged to Uncle Sam. I was an infantryman—an indirect fire infantryman to be exact. The thrill of my life was to sit behind a 120mm mortar as the first round slid down the tube; the smell of burning nitroglycerin, the feel of the blast, the taste of my own blood in my nose from the initial impact—all of these are grand memories for me.

In 2005, I was deployed to Iraq but taken away from my beloved mortar and attached to a reconnaissance platoon where I had to learn a whole new trade (nothing like playing with mortars). I deployed to the Anbar Province at a time when the province was rated "critical"; no other provinces held this high rating. Outside the wire, we were fierce, leading out troops into combat on quite a few combat patrols, taking fire, IEDs, indirect fire from mortars, and simply living stressful lives. I really enjoyed my time in the Army, and actually I kind of miss it.

How it all works out: Geography

How does this play into a new career as an archaeologist? Actually, in quite a few ways. First, my training in the military taught me about geography. Reading topographical maps, using a GPS, navigating rough terrain, using a compass—these are skills that are basic to the infantryman but something of an advanced skill for the archaeological student. Shooting an azimuth from a datum point to an in situ artifact seems like a normal practice for a military veteran...these are things we did all the time!

How it all works out: Health

My training also taught me about health and wellbeing. It is very easy to become a heat causality in the summer heat, and as I found out last year having a friend get hit by a car in a foreign country isn't that fun. Luckily, every combat infantryman is trained in first response—what we call combat life saver skills. Besides basic health and first aid, the combat infantryman is trained to start IV fluids and needle/chest decompression. Obviously, these aren't things that one would need on a dig, but honestly...isn't it comforting to know that there is someone there that can do it without passing out?

How it all works out: Discipline

Another way that a military past plays into an archaeological future is simply discipline. Let's face it, an archaeological excavation can be quite taxing. We live in poor environments, deal with annoying people, work with a lack of food and sometimes lack of water in the hot sun. Oh, and we deal with annoying people (did I say that already?). Sometimes in the field, morale can drop quite low and motivation fails; students begin to complain and grumble, and professors can become irritated. How does one cope? Perhaps I can answer that with a few questions. Have you ever lived in a tent with one hundred men in the middle of the Iraqi desert for months on end with combat missions every other day where someone is trying to take your life? Have you ever jumped out of a humvee right before midnight and spent the next fifteen hours walking with an assault pack on your back trying not to get caught as you recon a small town and still smile at the end of the day? Military discipline becomes embedded in one's life to the point of sometimes not seeing what others are seeing—i.e., not truly seeing the hardship.

How it all works out: Hard Work

Besides the training and tools and the military discipline, perhaps the most obvious benefit of a military past to an archaeological future is hard work. Swinging a pick axe is actually an enjoyment for me—sometimes too much—but control keeps me from burying the tip more than ten centimeters at a time! After having dug fighting positions, a slow archaeological excavation can actually be quite easy. Working in the hot sun, bending and lifting, being on ones knees cleaning a mosaic floor...these are items of "work" that really can be very rewarding for someone with a past like mine.

How it all works out: Leadership

Finally, the one great benefit of a past military life to a future archaeological career is leadership. Every infantryman is trained to do the job of the man above him so that if that man falls the mission can continue. I was a team leader, which meant that my job was to lead a small team into the fight, but the man above me had the role of a squad leader...leading two different teams at the same time. This past summer, I had the great privilege of working as a field director at one site and as an assistant field director at another. Running (or assisting) multiple squares, completing paperwork, ensuring that my team had the tools they needed comes natural to one who has led before.

This past summer, I was able to put my skills into action for a two-month tour (which included rappelling into three seven meter deep rock cut chambers while being attacked by pigeons!). I was able to complete the task, and I will be ready to do it again next summer. Yes, being a combat infantryman has its sore spots, but for the most part it is a life that plays into this new role quite nicely.

If you are a military veteran and have an interest in history/anthropology, let me know. I'd love to have you join my team next summer. Who knows...maybe you'll find a new career as well.

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© 2013  Justin Singleton 

No undergrads were harmed in the making of this site.

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