Mike Leist, class of 2010, provides a glimpse of military life

by Derek Offitzer
At a time when many high school students are touring college campuses, some are considering a different type of tour. Mike Leist ‘10, enlisted in the U.S. Army following his graduation, and has served on the front line in Afghanistan where he is currently stationed.
Leist gives an inside look at what life is truly like in the Army, and a description of the hardships and satisfactions that come along with the decision to enlist.
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When did you know you wanted to join the military?
I knew around the end of my junior year when everyone else was starting to apply to colleges and stuff.
What inspired you to join?
I wanted to do something different and something not a lot of people get to say they’ve done in their life. The Army is pretty much that thing. I also wanted to make my family proud, especially my grandparents who were all in the service. I was kind of looking for excitement and a rush from combat because I heard there was nothing like it. And trust me, it is insane and the biggest rush of my life. The last reason was because college just didn’t appeal to me at the time. I didn’t want to waste my parents’ time and money, so I joined the Army. And I’m making all my own money now and I pay for everything and I’m living on my own, and it’s great. It’s a great way to get started and it will pay for school if I ever decide to go.
What branch of the Military are you in?
I am in the Army infantry, specifically a light infantryman. Infantry is only one percent of the Army as it is very dangerous and the most physically demanding next to Special Forces. It’s a tough job but it’s fun and teaches you a lot.
Where did you train and where have you been stationed?
I went to basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in October of 2010, and graduated in February, 2011. After that I was stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas, with the First Infantry Division. I was put into one of the two infantry battalions there and trained with them from February, 2011, to April, 2012. We deployed to Afghanistan in May, 2012, and should be returning in February or March.
Is the military life what you expected it to be?
The army has been both what I expected and at the same time completely different. In the movies the Army is mostly depicted through action, heroism and brotherhood and all that sappy stuff to make people worship and praise the military, or even sometimes hate us. So when I joined I expected everything to be like that. In the movies, basic training and boot camp seem bad, but in reality it is much worse. For guys in the infantry, it’s a living nightmare. And, go figure, I was put into the hardest basic training in the Army!
Something else they don’t show is all the stuff soldiers do when we aren’t out training in the woods and deserts or in real combat overseas. They never show when soldiers are just chilling at work, doing a lot of paperwork and pointless  stuff. But all the dumb stuff usually pays off in time off  work or getting to do some training and kicking bad guys’ butts.
  Now that you’re deployed, are you ever concerned for your safety?
Yeah, there are times when I don’t feel safe, but I can’t spend time worrying about that over here because I know I’m in a warzone and anything could happen to me. I accepted that a long time ago. Some guys are always on edge and scared of what could happen to them, but those are the guys who never should have joined or who joined for the wrong reasons. To be in the Army, especially the infantry or any one of the combat MOSs (Military Operational Skill), you have to understand anything could happen to you at any time and it can be dangerous. Even just training back home there is a risk of getting hurt or possibly killed. You never know, but you have to control your nerves. Personally, I get more nervous before I go out on a date than I do when I’m getting shot at by Taliban. It’s all about your mindset.
Have you had any encounters with the enemy to this point?
Yes, my company has come into contact with the enemy numerous times… some bad, some not so bad. My platoon’s encounter was pretty intense. The hard part about this war is you could be driving or walking through a village and the enemy could be one of the men watching you and your platoon, but you have no idea and you can’t engage anyone until they engage you. It’s very complicated because you’re not fighting a real army, just a bunch of guerilla forces that would rather hide than come out and fight.
How did your family feel about you joining?
My parents were very unhappy. but once I finished basic training they began to warm up to it, as it became a part of their lives. They really wanted me to go to college, but like I said, I wasn’t interested at the time.
What are some advantages or disadvantages to joining?
There are unfortunately many disadvantages to joining. The ones that seem to bother me the most are these: I have a very limited social life outside of the Army. When I come home it’s normally only for four days, and two of those days are for travel to and from the base. After deployment we can take 30 days of leave if we have the days saved up.
It’s very rare that I get to see many of my friends when I’m home because most of them are at college and I have to make time for family, friends I used to work with, dating and stuff like that. So 30 days flies by very fast.
Back on post we get weekends off unless we’re training, and then we’re right back to work, which can be very tiring. Trust me, it’s not like going to school for five days a week. It’s a very physical day from start to finish.
Don’t get me wrong, you make some great friends in the Army, but people come and go all the time. It is very unusual to stay in the same place for your whole career; most soldiers will have two to eight different duty stations. So you make some friends and then you or them leave and you’re starting from scratch again. It’s very strange. Another disadvantage is you’re far from your family a lot and have to keep in touch only by phone and email.
It’s even worse overseas when you can’t leave unless you get hurt or have a very, very bad emergency back home. Since I’ve been in Afghanistan, there was the hurricane in which both my parents were injured, my little sister was diagnosed with diabetes, my cousin, Taylor Ruane Patrick Delepine, was killed in a car accident, and another cousin got married–and I’ve missed all of it. It’s very hard to hear news like that when you’re thousands of miles away and can’t be there for people or help them, and all you can say is “hang in there.” It’s very tough and I hate it, but it’s part of being in the military and I accepted that things like this were going to happen and I was going to miss out. It’s the path I chose.
How is the dating situation?
In the military it is almost impossible to hold down a relationship unless you are married and even then it may not work out. Some people manage to make it work, but the bottom line is that deploying and all the time we spend at work makes it very hard. The only times I ever take a girl out is when I go home because I know I’ll have a few days to be with her. But after that…then it’s just nothing because I have to go back to base and the “affair” is over, kind of.
How long is your commitment to the Army? Do you have plans for afterwards?
I enlisted in the Army for three years, so I can choose to leave in February of 2014. But right now a few other guys in my unit and I are considering going into Special Forces and staying in for another five years, which is the minimum commitment. If I do that I will probably stay in for a while, possibly even do the whole 20 years so I can retire afterwards. But if I decide to get out I will probably work on becoming a writer while working as a firefighter as well, and maybe get a job at a gym, too.
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