Watching the Army Evolve Over 15 Years

Sergeant First Class Patricia Robert talks about how an “impulse decision” to enlist in her mid-20s has, unexpectedly, served her well.

Patricia Robert  (Rebecca Clarke )

The military has at times been criticized for being resistant to social change. In the last few years, though, its Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, policy, which prohibited LGBT Americans from serving openly, was repealed; the military allowed women to serve in all roles, including frontline combat positions; and, most recently, the Department of Defense lifted a ban on openly transgender service members.

Sergeant First Class Patricia Robert has served in the Army for 15 years and has witnessed the impacts of some of the military’s most progressive changes. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Robert about how her identity aligns with the Army, why she feels the Army is a microcosm of society, and why she’s uncomfortable when people say “Thank you for your service.” The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: What made you decide to enlist in the Army?

Sgt. 1st Class Robert in Afghanistan
(5th Armored Brigade, First Army)

Patricia Robert: It was definitely an impulse decision. Very similar to the kids of today, I was struggling in college. I was in my mid-20’s, and the jobs that I was able to get with a high-school diploma weren't enough to get me launched as an adult. So I looked into the military in late 2000 as a way to have a guaranteed job and a paycheck, even if it was fairly small. I thought maybe I could save up and actually become an adult without incurring massive debt. I found out fairly quickly that I really enjoyed the structure. I picked the right job accidentally, and I really enjoy my work.

Green: What is your rank and your job within the Army?

Robert: I'm a sergeant first class, and I work in the intelligence field. There are nine enlisted ranks, and I'm at seven, which is a senior non-commissioned officer. Intelligence is the job I do a lot of, especially given deployments, but we also do whatever else needs doing. I've done everything from maintaining vehicles to administrative work to intelligence.

Green: What is the schedule and time commitment of being a full-time service member?

Robert: Part of our job is to remain physically fit, so most units have physical-fitness training first thing in the morning at 6 a.m. They do an hour of training, and then clean up and report to the office and continue with work until about 4 or 5 p.m. If you have more responsibilities, sometimes it ends up being 7 or 8 p.m. If we're not preparing to go to the field or not in the field, it's almost a nine-to-five job, but field time or mission prep require more time. I've been at work as early as 3 a.m., stayed until midnight, and worked weekends and holidays. You just do what you have to to get the mission done, whatever that mission may be. It may be training or it may be operational.

Robert: You don't get a choice in who you have to work with, and sometimes you don't get the option to quit or talk your way into another position. I have to make disparate personalities work together and sometimes that is a huge challenge. I can't just quit and find another job. You can terminate your contract, but that's a big step.

I think having the ability to see the bigger picture, and I know that everything I do contributes, no matter how insignificant it seems, is rewarding. Currently my unit, we do final train-ups for reserve units who have been mobilized to deploy. A part of our job is to make sure that these guys are trained up and ready to go and will stay safe. That means we don't get the chance to deploy, but we're prepping others to do so. There's a part in it for all of us.

Green: Military members are often revered and respected for their sacrifices. At times, though, the institution is critiqued for some of its choices and policies. Are you affected at all by people’s perception of the military?

I expected the military to be a stopgap where I assessed myself and got started on adult life, but I found out that I enjoyed it a lot. It's not a bad place to be: the sense of security, a steady paycheck, health care. It's an option that a lot of people dismiss—I know that my mom didn't like the idea. She had a stereotype in her head and it wasn't until she saw me thriving that she started to embrace it.

I spent six months in Africa on a project. I spent time in Germany. I could go to Korea, and that's another great opportunity to explore culture. Life is an adventure, and if you're going on an adventure and it's paid for, that's even better. It's not for everybody but for those who are suited to it, it's a great life. I've been very lucky to stumble into jobs I enjoy, assignments I enjoy. Some assignments are pretty soul-sucking, but this is a great job and I would be doing it if we were in a time of conflict or not. When people act like I'm making a sacrifice, I don't see it that way.

As far as the negativity, it's not my place to comment upon the decisions to send us into a certain country. I just execute my orders. They told me to go, I went, I performed my job, I kept my peers safe, and that's what matters to me. When people speak negatively of the military, they don't know what I do. It doesn't really affect me because I know what I do.

Green: The Army has undergone a lot of changes since you enlisted 15 years ago. What changes have you noticed about what it's like to be in the military?

Robert: Obviously when I joined, we were not in conflict. September 11th was a huge shock, but it was also a very early lesson on believing rumors. After September 11th, there were massive rumors about deployments, that everybody was going to war, and none of it happened. The Army is too big a monolith to move that quickly. It was an early lesson in taking a grain of salt.

However, in other ways, we have grown as a community in some very significant ways. In 2011, Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed, and that was a great thing. In my community especially, it wasn't at all a big deal and I haven't seen outrage. [LGBT service members] can do the job. We're going to protect each other with our lives.

Also, there is much greater emphasis now on preventing sexual harassment. It does happen but it happens in the civilian world as well. We’ve also gotten a great emphasis on [mental] health and the effects of PTSD. These are all lessons learned from a long time of being in a period of conflict and stressful deployment cycles. There's been some very positive changes and, to be honest, the military has always been in the forefront of social change.

Robert: I witness that in the younger generation a lot. I'm a Gen Xer who was raised by an early Boomer and a member of the Greatest Generation, so conformity was definitely something that I encountered a lot as a child. It was not a big stretch to walk into a very structured environment, and I thrived in that. There's a measure of conformity that is required of the Army’s members that isn't required in society: We all dress alike, and have appearance and behavioral standards that are very plainly laid out. There is quite a bit of, "Well, why do we do it that way? Because that's the way we've always done it."

I'm allowed to exercise my initiative within the scope of my job. That's encouraged. However, the younger generation has a lot more trouble with needing to be told “why.” I can understand that. People like to know why they're doing what they're doing, but there are so many layers that you don't get to see from a junior perspective. I know my personal understanding expanded as I got more senior and got to see the greater layers of how things actually worked.The military changes, but change is slow and so is change in the greater community.

Change is a constant in the military life. We move around a lot. We do different jobs, so you never know what you're going to be doing at your next duty station, but some things will remain constant.

Green: Moving frequently is a staple of Army life. How do you deal with that instability?

Robert: You have to look at it as an adventure; it's a very safe way of encountering change. Regardless of where we go or what we do, we have a job. We're being paid to move, so there's not the uncertainty of going out into the unknown. You don't have to worry, like, "Will I get a job? Will it pay the bills?" It will. So really, moving and doing new jobs, that's actually a positive.

Green: What about deployment? Does moving out of the country change how you feel about balancing your personal life and your work?

Robert: My deployments are not typical. I've been a number of places but my deployments were generally to the big bases where, to be honest, I wasn't doing the dangerous jobs. I was safer there than during my daily commute in the States. It was always exciting to go and do the job I was trained for and I think a lot of service members feel that way. Yes, in the States you're constantly training to do your job, but it’s to go out there and actually do it. One of the main drivers was to do my job the best I could to protect my brothers who were out there.

Green: Your husband is also an active member of the military. How do you both balance your family and civic responsibilities?

Robert: We've been married for 10 years, and between schools, deployments, and business trips, we've been separated on and off for approximately three of those 10 years. This led me, as a military female, to have to make a decision about children. At the 10-year mark women are retained at a 30 percent lower rate than men because, just like in the civilian world, women have to make that decision about children versus career. It's doable, but extremely difficult. We decided against children because we were older when we got married to start with. So it's just the two of us. We always know that the other one is there to come home to. I don't want to say there are constant reunions, but they're frequent enough that they're always welcome.

Green: Women make up a significantly lower percentage of enlisted military members than men. What has been your experience dealing with the challenges of being a woman in the Army?

Robert: One of the nice things is there is no pay gap. Everyone is paid the same according to ranking grade. Women are a minority: 15 percent of the Army is female, and that dwindles as we rise in rank. What that means is that I'm immediately recognizable when I move to a new location but, especially in [the intelligence] field, it's not about gender. It's not about who can run the fastest or who can carry the heaviest weight. It's about who knows the most, and you're judged mostly on ability, and that's fantastic. Of course, I also don't have the burden of looking after kids on sick days, and I definitely have an advantage over a lot of other women.

Green: Protection, service, and sacrifice are important to the Army’s identity. How does your personal identity align with the Army and its values?

Robert: The Army has a code of conduct and a standard of ethics that mesh very firmly with my personal ethics. I'm very comfortable with how the military standards apply to my life. My identity is that I'm in the Army. That's who I am. That's what I do. But it's a very distinct part of my life. It's not the be-all end-all, and when I retire I will walk away and I will probably not work with the military. My personal life is quite separate. Sometimes my personal life gets put on hold, and it’s been 15 years. That's the majority of my adult life. We're working on being a better society. The Army really is a microcosm of society as a whole. We have our issues, but we all work together to overcome them.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, a veteran’s assistance therapist, and a NASA engineer.