Army veteran — and Vancouver City Council member — gives advice to new enlistees

Sarah Fox’s speech, published here in full, was a highlight of the Our Community Salutes event

Sarah Fox, a member of the Vancouver City Council, is a veteran of the U.S. Army. She gave a speech Wednesday night to high school seniors who have enlisted in the military, giving them advice on how to make the most of their time in the service.
Sarah Fox, a member of the Vancouver City Council, is a veteran of the U.S. Army. She gave a speech Wednesday night to high school seniors who have enlisted in the military, giving them advice on how to make the most of their time in the service.

Retired officers, the mayor of Vancouver, and the superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools were among the guest speakers Wednesday night who saluted dozens of high school seniors from the region who have enlisted in the U.S. military.

Clark County Today reporter Paul Valencia, also an Army veteran, covered the event, “Our Community Salutes,” which was put on by the Community Military Appreciation Committee. (For more on the event, see his story:  ‘Our Community Salutes’ event honors new enlistees to U.S. military)

One speech in particular stood out to Valencia. 

Sarah Fox, a Vancouver City Council member, served six years in the U.S. Army. The featured speaker of the evening, Fox gave the enlistees advice on how to become the best that they can be in the military.

Valencia said he wished he had heard that advice back in 1989 when he enlisted.

With Fox’s blessing, here is the full transcript of her speech:

Advice from an Enlisted Army Veteran
By Sarah Fox

In January 1991, I was a 17-year-old at Hudson’s Bay High School when the Gulf War began and I enlisted in the US Army. My journey started at Fort Jackson, South Carolina for Basic Training, then to the Defense Language Institute, Monterey, CA, then to Fort Huachuca, AZ, then all over Europe, and ended with a final tour in a war zone in Bosnia. As a linguist-interrogator, I had the privilege of serving with NATO and UN Peacekeepers, along with so many talented people.

I stand before you with a few lessons that I learned as an enlisted soldier. Allow me to offer some advice.

  1. Find a mentor
  2. Trust the enlisted
  3. Small steps will save you

1) Maybe up to this point in life, you were lucky to have good mentors that were manifested in your parents, teachers or coaches. Maybe you have not been fortunate. Either way, you are starting a fresh chapter in your life and it is a perfect time to focus on what you want your future as an adult to look like.

When I enlisted and left for basic training, I mistakenly thought that my life as a “student” ended. I equated “student” with child. I was a soldier now. I was an adult now.

I was surprised to find that, in the military, you will always be a student. I fought this for a while, as I truly couldn’t believe how much training was part of my job. I went from months in basic training to a year at advanced training to training every few months throughout my entire enlistment. So I am sharing this tip with you early. Accept it. Embrace it. Decide whether you will be a student or a protégé. In that way you will own your military and adult journey.

A protégé is different than being a student. A student shows up for a class and is led like a pony through lessons. A protégé sets goals, is humble, and most importantly is accountable to themselves and their own life development. Let’s leave your life as a student here at high school. Begin your life as a protégé in the military.

Now that we have established the difference between student and protégé, I recommend that you choose your mentors carefully. A good mentor is a person that is supportive, motivates you to aim high, and has the lived experience to provide effective guidance. 

To clarify, the jokester next to you in formation should never be your mentor. There will also be those who do the bare minimum every day and try to make you feel like an idiot for doing more than what is asked. If you follow those people, you will have fun, you will be paid the same, but you will also be on your way to being booted out, and ultimately disappointing yourself. There were women in my unit that left every week in Basic Training. Most of the time, none of us had any clue why they left. I can tell you why I stayed. I found a mentor, several of them who encouraged me to do my best.

One of my mentors was a sergeant, or non-commissioned officer (NCO), who I met at my first duty station. She encouraged me to take college classes in the evenings (it was no cost to me), to volunteer for extra training and certifications, and volunteer for the shifts that no one else wanted, so that I could bargain for time off later on. This sergeant became one of my best friends.

I decided early on that I wanted to transform myself in the Army and leave the child that I was…back in Vancouver, and become an independent adult. You get to define your journey as an adult.

Next, let’s talk about trust. In this context, I am using the word “trust” to mean knowing when and with whom you can relax, share jokes, and rant about life — free from any judgments. Learning who belongs in that circle of trust can be tricky. 

Military life includes a new social structure that includes the enlisted rank and officers. This structure is unlike anything in the civilian world.

Pay close attention to rank and to those who outrank you, such as drill sergeants and commissioned officers. Be confident in yourself when you interact with people above your rank, but be brief and respectful. Remember your place in the rank structure, do your job well — remember what I said about transforming yourself — and you will be on your way to being respected as a professional.

Who can be part of your circle of trust? Look left and right. They are your family now. You are surrounded by the enlisted rank and file. They will be your friends for the rest of your life. They will share the misery of a mission and celebrate the successes.

There is an instant bond that you will find with veterans when you leave active service. Here in Vancouver, there are not as many veterans as in other parts of our country, but you will still find them. I find veterans at every job I’ve ever had. I joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) to make sure that I make time in my civilian life to be around my military family. It keeps me balanced, and grounded. You will find that your family has become very large, and you will be welcome at any VFW or American Legion for the rest of your life.

My last bit of advice is to take small steps when things are really tough. It is the secret ingredient for making it through basic training, and later, deployments.

Your first days as a soldier will include a lot of new information and you will be treated more like an enemy than a person who volunteered to serve your country. No one will say “thank you for your service” like they do at Starbucks. You will learn a new form of English, and it will not be suitable for all audiences.

My experience of basic training included 20 hours a day of drill sergeants screaming at me, pop quizzing me, and enforcing the lessons of the day with hundreds of push-ups. Sleep was a luxury. Meals were rushed. Up side? I lost ten pounds. Take comfort that every single person in your basic training class is feeling overwhelmed.

You will consider quitting. You will likely do the math on how much you are paid versus how little rest you are given. You will doubt your decision to join the military. 

Tell yourself: “I will not quit.”

 Say it with me. Everyone. “I will not quit.”

You will not quit, and I will tell you why.

One day in Basic training, after the 500th push up that morning, I was unable to lift my body off the ground, my arms were so tired. And above me, I could hear a barrage of insults hurled at me. It was always so loud. What do you think I did next? I didn’t cry. I smiled. Next to me, my friend started to giggle, and I started to giggle. I don’t know why, other than we were just exhausted. Ironically, I couldn’t lift my body off the ground, but I felt strong in that moment, not weak.

Also, I will point out to all of you that the drill sergeant couldn’t see me smile or figure out who was giggling with our faces pressed to the ground.

Take my advice: When it is really hard … smile. It is a small, but strong step, to smile into the dirt. Lick the ground while you are there.

Smiling. … Probably sounds a bit crazy. It’s really not. What it is, though, is a super power. It saved me, and it will save you.

And when you get beyond that tough moment, you will have made it through that day and closer to the next. Focus on one day at a time. Widening your focus to ponder your entire enlistment period is completely counterproductive. Focusing on a small step, like smiling, will carry you through each of the tough moments ahead.

In Basic training, time moves like molasses, but after that it will fly.

Soon, you will put on a uniform that distinguishes you as a member of our Armed Forces and no longer a civilian. Last time I checked the statistics, only 9 percent of the entire US population knows what that feels like. Nine percent..

I hope that the advice that I share with you today strengthens you as you navigate your first few years. Remember:

  1. Find your mentor and be a protégé
  2. Trust the enlisted
  3. Small steps will save you

I will end with a truth that my 17-year-old self would have benefitted from hearing:

Your choice to join the military was the best decision of your life.

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